Hi! I'm Katherine.
I'm the founder & director of House of Wandering Silk (HOWS for short) - it's my passion & my ever-evolving, all-consuming labour of love.
I was born in Australia but consider myself really more of a global citizen. I currently share my time between Berlin, where I live with my partner, & Delhi, where HOWS & the rest of our team manage all our operations. When I'm not deep into HOWS work, I'm likely to be off traveling somewhere - or daydreaming about distant lands.
Despite building a fashion brand, I have to admit that fashion has only ever really been on the periphery of my interests. In High School back in Aus, I shortly dreamt of becoming a fashion designer (as one does). I took a few illustration courses & did my work experience at a well known Aussie fashion brand.
But life took an unexpected turn when I moved to Japan at age 18. I lived in Osaka & just outside Tokyo for over five years, completing an undergrad degree in International Relations. This time, spent with international students from around the world & solo traveling all over Asia during holidays, was a real eye opener for me.
I left Japan in 2004 with a strong desire to work in International Development. I interviewed, unsuccessfully, with Safia Minney; fair trade pioneer & founder of the incredible organisation, People Tree. That meeting was the kernel that lodged somewhere in my brain, slowly growing over the following years into what would become a compulsion to build my own fair trade company.
I moved to London and interned with a range of organisations like Human Rights Watch, Oxfam & UK Charities Trust, trying to get my foot in the door. I was thrilled when, six months later, I got an offer to work with an International NGO in Afghanistan. I gave up my tiny, shared-apartment in grey & wet Clapham South for sun-soaked, chaotic, and (for me) utterly incomprehensible Mazar-e-Sharif.
That was the beginning of almost a decade working in the Humanitarian Sector, spending months or years living in Pakistan, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Myanmar, Vietnam & Kyrgyzstan, chasing conflict, floods, typhoons & earthquakes.
Textiles & travel are inexorably linked for me. Throughout my travels, I was constantly fascinated by the varied costumes I came across & the people, in particular the women, who kept alive their sartorial traditions.
Throughout all my travel - some 70 countries to date - I always, always have one keen & roving eye out for hand crafted, authentic textiles & the artisans creating them; textiles that tell a little of the story of the place & people I meet - pieces of great beauty showcasing ancient skills & dedicated labour.
Textiles were one of the few things (along with my photographs!) that I could easily squeeze into my backpack & carry with me from place to place. Plus their versatility made them functional as well as beautiful. It's no wonder they were used as a currency in the days of the ancient Silk Road.
Whenever I imagined my future fair trade company, there was no question in my mind that the focus would be hand made, traditional textiles.
Visit our journal to deep dive into some of our textile & travel stories.
Oh!Magnolia: My Failed Brand
It was in 2007, while I was living in Pakistan that I met a fellow Aussie, Cath Braid. Cath lived in Islamabad, having set up her own social business, Polly & Me. Working with women embroiderers in remote Chitral Valley, Polly & Me created stunning, high-end fashion accessories, full of character, story & beauty.
Looking back, I can see that access to Cath's world opened up my mind to what was possible for a fair trade company & what steps I might be able to take to build my own. That kernel, planted in my brain years before, began to take root.
Working with local NGO partners, I had exposure to livelihoods projects targeting the empowerment of women; inevitably this meant training women in handicrafts & opening marketing channels. Well-intentioned but vastly wasteful & investment-heavy, such projects would more often than not fall by the wayside upon the completion of the project & ending of external funding.
I grew increasingly frustrated; millions were being pumped into so-called "sustainable" programmes. But at the end of it, after the donors and NGOs had moved on, the "beneficiary communities" as we called them, were left with not much at all, despite the vast resources spent in their names.
I failed to see anything sustainable about this system.
Over time, I became convinced that sustainability could only be achieved when all parties had a vested self-interest in a shared outcome; a self-interest that would fuel progress, encourage commitment & ensure sustainability. Tools like micro-finance & fair trade spoke to this belief.
I launched a premature brand at that point. I called it "Oh!Magnolia" and for the life of me I can't remember where this rather random name came from.
Collaborating with a women's group who I had connected with through work, they created some beautiful phulkari embroidered pieces for me, while I fiddled around with branding, logos & catalogues. The exercise came to a close soon after, however, as I left Pakistan and took six months off to travel.
In a happy turn of fate, I would later bump into my Pakistani partners many years later in Delhi; our partnership was re-ignited & HOWS now works with them on the same beautiful embroidery.
Birthing HOWS in India
Over the years, my dream of building a fair trade business grew into a compulsion. Acting on this compulsion, I moved to India in 2010.
Basing myself in Delhi was an obvious choice. Not only was I familiar with the city, knowing it would be a sensible logistics base for a business, but I had fallen in deep fascination with India. The richness of her textile heritage & skill of her artisans is unparalleled. But at the same time, the poverty & social injustice - particularly acute amongst women - struck at the heart of why I wanted to build an organisation.
During the next three years, I worked part time in my day job, while taking baby steps in the evening & on weekends to build HOWS. In 2013, I registered HOWS in India and left my job of almost ten years. The dream had now taken form & shape!
I ran the business from my home in Delhi until 2015 (an unused bathtub came in great use for storing sari scraps), then, with my new colleague, Maria, we shifted into a friend's basement. Working without natural light for a year was a challenge! At the end of 2017 we happily moved across the road into our own Bungalow where our small team works and our textiles live very happily.
Following six years of living in Delhi, I now split my time between my home in Berlin, our studio in Delhi & traveling the world seeking out beautiful textile stories.
What's in a Name?
I'm often asked how the name for our brand, House of Wandering Silk, came about. It was during an epic solo journey along the ancient Silk Road from Pakistan to Tibet in 2007 (read my travelogue here!) that I seriously began to plan my own textile fair-trade business.
Meanwhile and a little randomly, my aunt back in the Czech Republic visited a fortune teller who told her that I had the "feet of a wandering calf". I spent the next few years mulling over dozens of names and variations, but somehow the Silk Road + Wandering Calf associations stuck with me.
It was a challenge to come up with a name that appealed to me and that I hoped would also appeal to others; that adequately represented the concept and values of the brand and at the same time sounded unique and interesting!
It was important that it be a name with meaning behind it, and while the meaning may not be immediately obvious to anyone else, these were the ideas that led from that Silk Road journey and the fortune teller's description to "House of Wandering Silk":
House: (1) the concept of a fashion house; (2) the idea of a physical location where our women artisans work, where they are safe, comfortable and happy; (3) most of the work by our artisans is done in their own homes.
Wandering: (1) representing the journey made by the textiles we work with which are sourced from all over India, across Asia and beyond, worked on by artisans from far and wide and then sent to our customers across the world; (2) the idea that much of the inspiration for our work comes from my personal travels.
Silk: (1) reflecting the fact that HOWS works exclusively with textiles; (2) silk in particular was chosen as it is especially luxurious and vibrant, and most of the textiles we work with are silk; (3) and of course there is the connection with The Silk Road, when textiles were highly valued and deeply representative of the culture from where it came.