Burke Residency 27: Seek Collective•
Posted on July 29 2023
EMMA: You founded Seek Collective in 2014 after taking a one-way trip to India for an artist residency - can you share a bit about your journey and how Seek Collective has changed and grown since then?
CAROL: That initial journey I took in 2012 changed the course of my life in a lot of different ways. I had thought the artist residency was going to be with other artists in a city but once I arrived I learned I was to live alone in a remote village for nearly a month where a neighboring farmer would come each day to bring me milk and do pujas to keep snakes away from the house I was in. It wasn’t always easy but I appreciated the quiet time of reflection it gave me. From there I traveled all over India alone and visited with handloom weavers, natural dyers, and block printers. Before the trip I had spent a few years learning how to dye and weave on a handloom because I knew I ultimately wanted to work with communities involved in these ancient crafts and it was important to me to come with some real understanding of the processes. I then officially launched Seek Collective in 2014 and for many years I spent a good deal of each year in India working on the ground with artisans and being present for sampling and production. While I no longer spend as much time there, even though I would like to because it’s my favorite part of the business, and I don’t work with the same people I met in 2012, I do partner with people who I’ve known up to eight years now and who I care about immensely. Seek was always rooted in highlighting the craft, people, communities, and skills involved in creating textiles and clothing while producing responsibly, both to all those involved but also to our shared planet. This guiding light and idealism I first set out with has remained constant for me and still serves as motivation.
E: Seek Collective has its name in part to recognize and celebrate the communal effort required to create a garment. How has that collective mindset changed or taken on different meaning in a post-quarantine world?
C: When I first began the company I would get asked all the time why “collective” when what many others saw was me working alone. I think that’s because it is the lead designer who receives all the credit and people fail to see or understand that it is never just one person responsible for the final product. I also was asked often why I did not name the brand after myself, as that is common. However, my desire to work with artisans and bring transparency to the processes involved was the main reason I started the brand and so it was never just about me or my vision alone. It has always been important to me to speak to how many skilled people are needed on the journey from yarn becoming fabric to then becoming colorful or printed to then becoming a product someone can wear and function in. The communal effort does not get enough attention. This mindset for me has not changed and if anything I feel even more passionate about it now then when I first started. Whether we are in quarantine or not, we are responsible for creating and caring for our relationships in all aspects of our lives and this in turn builds community.
E: Your commitment to transparency around ethical production and sustainability is much appreciated and inspiring. Your site reads: "We believe that sustainability is a process that should constantly be improved and that words mean very little so encourage all to investigate our processes: here. Transparency and education are key." Are there resources in addition to your blog, Seek Stories, that you recommend others look to so they can expand their own understanding of sustainability?
C: Thank you, sustainability really is never an end goal but a constant striving to do things better. Ten years ago being sustainable was not as valued however now that it is I fear greenwashing is around every turn, especially in the fashion industry. These days it is a complex supply chain so sometimes simplifying certain aspects of it results in misinformation. In the book The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel, we are reminded of how ancient and important making textiles was for the development of humankind all over the world yet now it seems most have no idea how their clothes are made. To start with I recommend these books to help:
Sustainable Fashion & Textiles by Kate Fletcher
Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile
Economy by Rebecca Burgess
Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment by Maxine Bedat
Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes by Dana Thomas
I’ve also just started a substack and while it is in its infancy right now my plan is to use it to help break down and explain the apparel and textile industry, supply chains, and the greenwashing that is so prevalent currently. https://wearemovingininfinitespace.substack.com/about
E: When Seek Collective began, all garments were made in India, and last year you introduced knitwear made from Climate Beneficial wool shorn in California, dyed in North Carolina, and knitted in California. Are there other materials, artisan techniques, or specific regions that you’d like Seek Collective to explore in coming seasons?
C: At the very start I had intentions of producing globally, making sure to work with artisan communities and environmentally responsible groups. This never happened I think mainly because I was designing, sourcing, and overseeing production all on my own without any investment so doing that in one country was a lot of work already. Since then it’s been hard for me to find people and places to produce that meet my high standards when it comes to environmental and social responsibility. I moved to the Bay Area at the start of 2019 after 18 years in New York City and was very excited to learn about Fibershed HQ being only an hour away. I was then able to source the Climate Beneficial Wool from a ranch that I’ve now visited twice and then visited with the knitting factory located outside of LA. It’s helped me realize that a huge part of passion lies in being able to be on the ground along the different supply chain steps, which also allows me to vet the work. I’m currently working on a project that involves more Fibershed Climate Beneficial Wool, though this time woven instead of knitted and I hope to launch it this autumn or winter.
E: Can you share a bit about the process for finding new ways to use scrap fabric in Seek Collective’s commitment to being zero waste? I imagine it can be fun to discover new ways to use scraps!
C: I have always been coming up with ways to use remaining fabric pieces and that has taken the form of bags, sleep sets, pillows, napkins and quilts for me. For a long time where I got stuck was the smallest pieces of fabric. I really want to credit my production partner in India, Shivangi, who was on board to save all the small scraps left over after production. Not many people are willing to take that on because it takes time and then it means bags of scrap fabric lying around. We then partnered with a wonderful group called Bluecat Paper in Karnataka who took those bags of small scraps and turned them into paper. That is how the Seek notebooks came to be. Something I think about a lot is to create things with leftover fabric that is just either just as valuable as the original product or else incredibly useful.
E: As you’ve witnessed these artisans work and learned about the processes, have you encountered any surprises or favorite details about the work? Are there artisan crafts that you think need more attention or are under-appreciated?
C: I’ve learned to be flexible as the process is hand done and sometimes affected by holidays or weather. I think all artisan crafts need more attention and not just the final outcome but also the people responsible for the work. Valuing the people and paying them fair wages is crucial. There are still a lot of artisans who do not get paid fairly or sometimes a middleman will pit different artisans against each other so that the one willing to do work for the lowest wage gets the job. I do not bargain down the price of work with the artisans I partner with because I find it important they get the compensation they deserve.
E: When you consider the future - the future of Seek Collective, the future of fashion, and the future in general - what gives you hope and makes you excited?
C: Bearing witness to how many people are starting to take interest and care more about sustainability in fashion gives me hope. I still think we have a very long way to go as fast fashion continues to grow. In the end it is about consuming less and making sure what we consume is created in less harmful ways. The idea of consuming less though will require a huge shift within society. Certifications are getting more popular but do not necessarily truly mean anything so those should not be taken as validation of good work. I encourage people to keep asking questions and get visual proof from brands when it comes to how things are made and where they come from. Stay curious.