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Spools of ocean blue yarn rest on dowels, ready to be wound. A huge, rustic industrial loom takes over one entire corner, a stack of boxed orders ready to be shipped covers a worktable. Around the room, dressmakers’ dummies model soft shawls, striped scarves and loosely knits tops. On every available surface, different weaves of rich reds, oranges, purples are draped, and rolled swatches of every colour of the rainbow are stacked to the ceiling and hanging from the loft above.
Although Armstrong Fox Textiles is housed in a concrete and windowless space, it’s a testament to the talents of partners Lesley Armstrong and Anke Fox that, by simply displaying their wares, they’ve turned their space into a sensory display of touch and colour.
After just a year in business together, longtime friends Armstrong and Fox are making a name for themselves in the exporting business as craftspeople. Since September 2004, their textile company has sold the contemporary scarves, shawls and accessories they design and weave in the United States and on their website (armstrongfox.ca). Armstrong and Fox are now poised to break into the Canadian fashion market. They sat down recently to discuss their beginnings, the challenges and triumphs of their first year as Armstrong Fox and, of course, the future.
EK: How did you reach the decision to start Armstrong Fox?
Anke Fox: I’d shied away from it for so long, I didn’t believe you could make a living at it. But then Lesley started talking about power looms and how much faster you could work with one.
Lesley Armstrong: I was trained on a power loom in Philadelphia, so it was always in the back of my mind — I just kept yammering on about it! Then I met a weaver in Ireland who agreed to sell me one of his looms. It was once used to weave Harris Tweed in Scotland.
AF: At the same time, I heard a lecture about exporting to the US at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD University, where both Fox and Armstrong graduated, and where Armstrong continues to teach textiles part-time). It just clicked. And we work so well together as a team. We have similar values.
LA: We’re both workaholics!EK: What made you choose to work with textiles?
LA: It’s definitely more challenging economically. I think I just love the idea of making something from the beginning. We don’t just add things to fabric or make things from fabric, we make the fabric. In the beginning, all we have is thread. It’s pretty holistic, really.
AF: Textiles have a really rich, often neglected, history that has a lot to do with women. Throughout history, it was mostly women involved in textiles — women were the makers. It’s a shared history.
EK: Wouldn’t it have made better business sense to base yourselves in Toronto or Montreal than in Halifax, where there is a more limited market?
LA: There is a quite a lively arts community here. The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) is quite progressive, and has a strong textile program. People who visit here often say that they’re surprised to see so many people working in the arts in such a small place.
AF: We both wanted to live by the ocean. The quality of life is better, we think, and the Halifax Airport is only 30 minutes away. We’re able to travel quite a bit.
EK: What inspires your designs?
LA: Sometimes it’s the yarn, sometimes the fabrics inspire us, like the merino wool. The colour, the drape, the texture — all the elements of the finished project.
AF: The Nova Scotia landscape is an inspiration for our work. It’s very rugged, a lot of texture.
LA: We grow up surrounded by textiles, like your favourite sweatshirt or your mom’s old sweater. We want to create things that you will want to touch.
EK: Where can we find your products?
LA: We’re mostly in the US right now, in Arizona, Washington, Vermont, Boston and other places. We sell wholesale, mostly to craft stores, but we’re trying to explore the fashion side more. We also do custom orders through our website (armstrongfox.ca), if people can’t get to a store nearby.
AF: We’d love to be in more Canadian stores. We’re talking to Holt Renfrew about selling our things. This fall, we’ll be in Toronto for the One-of-a-Kind show and at the Salon des Métiers tradeshow in Montreal.
EK: What does the future hold for Armstrong Fox Textiles?
AF: Our immediate plans are trade shows in New York and LA, and getting into the stores in Canada. We’ve also got an eye on Europe (Fox is originally from Germany).
LA: We’re working on prototypes for garments with Kate Delmage, who works in wardrobe for the film industry. We’re creating simple designs so the fabric does the talking. It’s a new direction for us — knitting.
AF: We’re concentrating on the wholesale end, but we do also do one of a kind pieces.
LA: We’re biting off, as usual, more than we can chew. But we’re having fun doing it!