Tweed, Tartan and Scottish Textiles: Meet Araminta Campbell Founder Araminta Birse-Stewart
Fast fashion is so last season. As we embrace life in the slow lane, the textiles designer and Founder of Araminta Campbell talks to us about breathing life into traditional craftsmanship, the struggles of a small, sustainable fashion business and how Scotland is her source of inspiration.
10 September, 2020
Specialising in unique handwoven shawls, wraps and throws, Araminta Campbell is a luxury textiles brand with craftsmanship at its core. With a focus on sourcing sustainable materials and weaving Scotland's heritage into each bespoke piece, founder Araminta Birse-Stewart is reviving Scottish artistry. Call it field-to-soft-furnishing, if you will.
After studying embroidery and design at Manchester Metropolitan University, Araminta interned with a major fashion house and quickly realised that fast fashion's mass-production hamster wheel wasn't for her. Instead, she turned her hands to an art that required time, skill and exemplary craftsmanship: weaving.
Using her Aberdeenshire heritage and Scotland's impressive landscape as inspiration, she set about reviving the Scottish textile scene. Carefully sourcing 100-per-cent British alpaca wool, hunting down two Victorian looms and calling upon small Scottish mills, she launched Araminta Campbell.
With its meticulously handwoven, one-of-a-kind shawls, soft Scottish throws that beg to be draped over a stately home's chaise longue and custom-designed tweeds and tartans - including those for Scotland's plushest hotel, The Fife Arms - Araminta Campbell is a celebration of Scotland's artisan heritage.
Here, Araminta Birse-Stewart, Founder and Creative Director of Araminta Campbell, shares with us her design process, the challenges she faces as a small, sustainable fashion business and why Scotland is her ultimate source of inspiration.
Where are you from and how has your background shaped you?
I grew up on a small Scottish estate just outside of Aberdeen, which instilled a love of nature from an early age. I'd spend hours drawing in the fields or taking photographs as I explored. A passionate supporter of the arts, my mother would take me on gallery visits and our home was always full of inspiring pieces. My father is a successful entrepreneur; after watching him it seemed like a natural step for me to found my own creative business.
Describe Araminta Campbell's aesthetic.
Elegant. Timeless. Uniquely Personal.
Tell us about your studio.
Our studio is based in the vibrant Edinburgh neighbourhood of Leith, renowned for its cuisine and creative energy. The weaving workshop, showroom and office overlook the harbour from a former shipping building - it has beautiful period features, with large paneled windows and high ceilings, making it the perfect space for our two handweaving looms.
Talk us through your design process.
It is hard to pinpoint when a design idea begins to form, as so much of my creative process happens subconsciously. A landscape or detail in nature might capture my attention and will brew in the back of my mind. Once I have that initial idea, I'll develop and refine it digitally before I prepare it for weaving. A huge element of the design process is understanding how a design will translate into a handwoven item or piece of cloth. There is so much thought put into each step, including selection of materials and how an item is woven, to ensure everything we design is of the highest quality.
Where did your passion for design and textiles come from?
I had a couple of key influences as a teenager. I saw an exhibition on Bill Gibb in the Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, and it was the first time I had seen someone take the things I loved in nature and translate them into textiles. Then two amazing textiles teachers at school showed me that textiles are an art form - they inspired me to study textiles at university.
How did you start your brand?
In the beginning, it was just me weaving in a disused school building by my parents' house in Aberdeenshire. As I began receiving more interest and commissions, I moved my studio to Edinburgh and began building a small team of people who share my passion for textiles. The brand has grown organically from there, which has meant that relationships have stayed at the heart of what we do. I want us to never lose that personal touch. Provenance is also vital; starting small allowed us to develop sustainable sources and remain deeply connected to every stage in the weaving process.
What inspires your designs?
Nature is my greatest source of inspiration. Scotland has such a varied landscape and it is constantly changing with the weather and the seasons. A design might spring from the trailing branches of a willow tree or the delicate structure of a feather. I describe my textiles as "woven paintings" - they are my way of capturing the world.
Tell us more about the weaving process…
Weaving is a magical process. I love the way you can take individual strands of yarn and transform them into something beautiful to be used and enjoyed. But weaving takes time, too. It requires lots of skill, patience and attention to detail. The preparation involved in producing a design often takes even longer than weaving it. From selecting the right quality raw material to assembling the warp and setting up the loom, there is so much to do before you can begin constructing a design. For our handwoven pieces, there is a lengthy hand-washing and finishing process that transforms the final piece as well.
What about your two looms? How did you acquire them?
Both our looms were made by a gentleman named George Wood. He was originally the engineer of a ship and then became a loom maker in Leicester in the mid-20th century. His looms are works of art. It's estimated he managed to make around 300 in his lifetime, and they're all individually numbered - we have 151 and 297. Both were previously owned by other female weavers who had been waiting many years to sell them on to someone they trusted. Looms are incredibly personal for a weaver, working on them every day, you know them inside out and get very attached.
What is the process behind creating bespoke, handwoven tartan?
I love the challenge of really understanding a person or brand, reading into their personality, style and story and translating that into a unique design that speaks of them. Sometimes a client wants to capture their life story or family history in a tartan design; for others, it might be a particular aesthetic or landscape.
Using this as a starting point, I'll come up with a series of digital designs, working with my client to reach a final outcome. Then I'll prepare the design for weaving; sourcing the correct yarns and translating the tartan into cloth, scarves, throws or shawls as requested.
We have the option of producing these with our partner mills around Scotland as well as weaving them by hand here in our Edinburgh studio. For a handwoven tartan, we source the British alpaca yarn ourselves and have it custom dyed in the Scottish Borders. The handweaving process takes patience (with a throw taking up to three weeks to make) but the results are truly exceptional.
Tweed, Tartan and Scottish Textiles: Meet Araminta Campbell Founder Araminta Birse-Stewart
What challenges have you faced in becoming a sustainable, luxury fashion brand and how have you overcome them?
Sustainability is an ongoing journey. Being small and nimble, where possible, we have been able to be transparent and pursue processes that have high ethical standards. For instance, the handwoven products in our Signature collection can be traced back to the field - we can sometimes name the alpaca a particular fleece came from. However, being small can be a challenge; we don't have the volume or influence to make all of the changes we would like.
Tell us about your collaboration with one of Scotland's best hotels, The Fife Arms.
Interior designer Russell Sage and the team working on The Fife Arms were looking for someone to create a custom tweed. They loved our design process for their custom tweed and subsequently asked me to design the tartan as well. From initially being a small element in the refurbishment, both the tartan and tweed have been used extensively throughout the hotel's interiors, uniforms, shop and even inside the Land Rovers.
Where are some of your favourite places to visit in Scotland?
Many of my childhood holidays were spent on the Isle of Mull. It's so beautiful and the pace of life really does slow down here. My husband proposed to me on Ardalanish Bay, so it's a place that's very special to me. I also love returning to my grandparents' house at Strathconon in the Highlands. It's so different in every season; it's amazing to see the colours of the hills and forests change. A complete retreat from city life.
And what about your favourite hotels?
Unsurprisingly, I love staying at The Fife Arms, though not just because I know the team so well. Every time I go, I discover a new favourite spot to relax in, and it feels so hospitable despite being full of such amazing works of art.
The Summer Isles Hotel north of Ullapool is also a firm favourite. It has a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and the location is so beautiful and remote.
Shop your own collection. What are three of your favourite pieces and why?
The Signature Handwoven Fallen Leaves Blanket Wrap - a statement piece that feels divine. Perfect for draping around you while travelling or dressing up for a special event, I never fail to feel elegant in one of these.
The Signature Handwoven Rose and Alpaca Birdwing Scarf - it has a beautiful silky quality thanks to the rose fibre. A lovely delicate design in soft natural colours, it finishes off a simple outfit perfectly.
The Minta Willow Throw always makes my bed look inviting. The alpaca wool is so soft to curl up with and adds a warm, stylish accent to the room.
What's next for Araminta Campbell?
Continuing to do what we have always done, but adapting for these exceptional times. Many of our clients are less able to travel, so we'll bring trunk shows and virtual shopping experiences to them, as well as maintaining personal connections online and, where safe, face-to-face. We'll also be unveiling a new handwoven collection next year as well as some exciting custom designs.
Finally, what would a SUITCASE tartan look like?
I'd want it to reflect SUITCASE's focus on thoughtful travel and a clean contemporary aesthetic. I love the soft gold and deep blue featured on your website and I'd combine this with timeless neutrals, a spacious feel with a light airy check and a dash of something surprising.