An Interview with Rita Summers of Gone Rustic (Part One)

Tell us about yourself – familial/personal story, education, and prior work.

I am happily married to Ian, and have 2 adult children and 1 grandchild. I was born in Canada to Dutch parents, but have lived in Tasmania Australia since I was in highschool. It’s a great place to live and work!  I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, with an Art Major.  In later years I also gained a Diploma in Art Craft Design.  I own and operate a gallery and studio in the northeast country town of St Marys, which I opened in 2003.  I rented a building to begin with, and the following year my husband and I purchased and renovated the current premises. I have worked in education at various levels as a teacher; I have also worked in management in community organisations.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

When I was young, I was always drawing and designing clothes. I made clothes for my dolls and my sisters’ dolls, and later for myself and then my children. There were no opportunities in Tasmania to follow fashion as a career, so my life took a different path for many years. I have always been interested in fabric and sewing, and since opening my gallery have established myself as a textile artist, focusing on both hand and machine techniques.  In the process I have been fortunate to win a number of awards and have my work exhibited widely.

I have been eco dyeing fabrics for my textile art since 2008, but after learning from fellow textile artist Aukje Boonstra that vintage nylon could be dyed naturally my imagination took off and I was able to indulge in my first love – fashion! I often use upcycled materials in my textile art, so it was only a small step to upcycle clothing.  I now also have a new Blue Label range which includes clothing I’ve made myself, using found and eco dyed fabrics. I still continue to expand my upcycled clothing range with eco dyeing as well.

Eco dyed Gone Rustic top by Rita Summers

Eco dyed Gone Rustic top by Rita Summers

How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?

Many people have a narrow view of what art is.  My fine arts background has given me the confidence and knowledge to push the boundaries of this perception.  Art can be made with any medium – artists of the past have shown us that! I bring the principles of fine art to my work, but reinvent it and make it my own. I don’t only enter textile art exhibitions; I also enter mainstream art exhibitions, and have been juried into them a number of times.  I also won a national art award which was very affirming! Hopefully there will be more …

It has also been extremely useful to work in management and in community organisations.  I believe we need to invest in the communities we live in, especially rural areas, and this has been my focus in opening my business. The result has been that my arts practice has also benefited in unexpected ways!

Gone Rustic at The Stables Handmade Market, Tasmania.

Gone Rustic at The Stables Handmade Market, Tasmania.

What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

I believe it is extremely important! People in this industry often work in substandard and dangerous conditions, and some have lost their lives because of this.  The industry is also very wasteful, and in our consumer society we throw out so many clothes after wearing them only a few times.  This leads to land fill problems.  What also concerns me is that the processes used to manufacture and dye commercial fabrics are often detrimental to the environment and to workers’ health.  I am only one person with a very small business, but it is important to me to do things in the right way, and to give cast off garments a new life and prevent them from being wasted.  In this way I feel that I am honouring the work of some anonymous textile worker by giving a garment a new life by reinventing it. I also hope I am making a difference to perceptions about fashion, and try to lead by personal example.

When I use new fabrics, I mostly use remnants, i.e. the leftovers from other people’s sewing, or the ‘end of roll’ bargains in stores and online.  Again, I am salvaging something that is deemed to have little or no value, and giving it a new purpose, I also do not import natural dyes.  I use what is available around me, so that I don’t add to my carbon footprint.  This includes plants and leaves from our own property, from the roadside, other people’s gardens (with permission) and even onion skins from our local supermarket which would normally be thrown out!

Who is a personal hero or heroine within the ethical and sustainable fashion world for you?

There are many people I admire, most of whom are not famous or even hugely successful. I follow them on Instagram, go to their workshops when I can and network with them online and face to face whenever possible.  Recently I attended a Sustainable Living Festival in Hobart, and had a stall there in company with other Tasmanian ethical and sustainable fashion designers and makers.  We also featured our clothing in a Fashion Parade during the event. It was an inspiring time, and these grass roots artists are the people I truly admire.

Having said that, I have a collection of books by authors who I greatly respect and from whom I’ve learned so much in relation to eco dyeing but also other processes.  Two that come to mind are Alice Fox and India Flint.  I have also attended workshops by Tasmanian tutor Aukje Boonstra (mentioned above), whose practices, art and garments are exceptional.

Eco dying by Gone Rustic- Two tops, a scarf and a tunic eco dyed with native cherry + copper; wrapped around iron springs or bars. Layered with 2 kinds of eucalyptus leaves.

Eco dying by Gone Rustic- Two tops, a scarf and a tunic eco dyed with native cherry + copper; wrapped around iron springs or bars. Layered with 2 kinds of eucalyptus leaves.

What is Gone Rustic?

Gone Rustic is my studio and gallery, based in a renovated building in the main street of our town. This is where I create and display my art and fashion.  Until recently, I have also hosted regular exhibitions of other artists, particularly local and regional, to encourage them and bring their work into the public eye. After 13 years, I feel it is time for a change of direction, so the building is on the market.  I will keep the business, but will operate it in a different way.  I have had an online presence for a number of years and want to build on that, as well as hosting workshops and retreats on some land we have purchased and are building on.  My other aim is to participate more in events and markets, which I can only do occasionally now because of my business commitments.  I am looking forward to being more flexible, but I will miss the studio and gallery!


What are some of its feature products?

My sign says it all! The jewellery and skin care products are sold on consignment from local makers, but everything else is my work.

What is your customer base – the demographics?

It is mainly women, but the men sometimes come in and buy things for their wives, or attend exhibitions that I host.  I sell to the local population, the tourists who visit our area and increasingly online.  These days, I am not limited by my geographic isolation.

There have been large tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires (2012). What are the importance of human rights and worker rights in this new movement, and to the garment industry?

I think these rights are important across the board, not just in the garment industry.  Everyone deserves respect, fair treatment and fair pay.  We all need to be appreciated for our skills, and what we earn and how and where we have to work must reflect this.  I also believe there are financial benefits to employers and society in general – workers who are paid and treated well will often work harder and show more commitment to their jobs. They will tend to stay longer in the same job, and remain in their local communities.  By treating them fairly, workers can invest financially and emotionally in their places of residence.  The health benefits are also potentially immense, with less job dissatisfaction or fear of the future.  This would improve physical and mental health I’m sure.  Call me an idealist, but we underestimate the value of happiness and contentment in our work.

Women and children are the majority of the exploited and violated work forces. What is the importance of the status of women’s and children’s rights in the ethical and sustainable fashion world too?

As a woman, and a mother and grandmother, I believe the rights of women and children are vital.  We have still not come far enough in treating people of all ages and gender in an equitable and fair manner.  This includes western society, but especially those living and working in third world countries.

Continued in part two…

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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