Shibori, from the verb root “shiboru” meaning to wring, squeeze or press, is an ancient Japanese dying technique used to produce different patterns on fabric. While many in the Western world refer to it as Tie-dye, that term does not fully describe the diversity of techniques or the degree of skill and knowledge required to execute them.

This is something that Old Bradfieldian Gi Armstrong, nee Hawes, (K 99-01) knows well and, much like the name of her fashion label, the founder of ShiboriLondon has wrung, squeezed and pressed every bit of skill and knowledge from a wealth of international experiences on the path to setting up her own business.

“I’ve always been inspired by Asian textiles”, says Gi as she reflects on the origins of ShiboriLondon, now in its seventh year of business. “I love the craftsmanship and the way their techniques take time to produce beautiful fabrics. A whole pattern can take years.”

That gave me a real boost to keep on developing my skills, to keep going with the subject and hopefully it could lead to something.

Speaking to The Bradfieldian at the end of the summer Gi is looking back on taking the plunge to set up her fashion label. It is something which was also years in the making as we discuss her journey from joining Bradfield in the Sixth Form to developing skills in the London fashion industry and making the most of experiences around the world.

Printing is something Gi had been passionate about ever. since she tried screen printing in GCSE Textiles.

“There is something about the graphic nature of pattern and the pattern making process that just appealed to me and made me want to visit these places to learn some of the crafts.”

That passion for printing is something that swung a young Gi’s decision to come to Bradfield in the first place.

“I really liked the Art Department when I came to look around. I loved the way it was near the river and it seemed like such a creative space. They had an old litho printer there which really got me excited as by that point I was already passionate about printing.”

That printer, combined with Bradfield’s openness to allowing its pupils to study a range of topics and interests within Art itself, made Gi’s decision an easy one.

She got stuck into Bradfield life, joining the lacrosse, tennis and swimming teams as well as broadening her artistic studies by taking Art and History of Art at A Level.

Two years at Bradfield can fly by pretty quickly but it was enough time for Gi to develop her interest and showcase her talents in Art culminating with being awarded the Senior Academic Art Prize at Commemoration by her teachers Mr Nairne and Mr Fairbairn.

“That gave me a real boost to keep on developing my skills, to keep going with the subject and hopefully it could lead to something.”

Four months of travelling around Asia followed before she embarked on an Art Foundation course and then a combined Fashion, Textiles and Business Studies degree at the University of Brighton where she specialized in printed textiles. The chance to combine her passions with an entirely different set of practical skills in the business world proved a shrewd move as Gi began to plot her future career. However, it wasn’t just the lure of the South Coast or the new skills which she would be learning that proved to be the biggest selling point.

“They were offering a placement year and I ended up working for various print departments within the fashion and homewares sectors which culminated in three unforgettable months of work in India.”

Gi worked within design and production for a small homewares manufacturer in Jaipur and her time out there cemented an interest in traditional block printing techniques and was full of experiences which became the foundation of her online business.

“My boss had sent me loads of design work to do before I arrived which I then got to see being carved into wood by the block printers. We went to a trade fair in Delhi where they were selling to people internationally and I also visited other factories to experiment with different colourways and blocks. I was beginning to get a sense of what it could be like to have my own business.”

After graduating, Gi set about immersing herself in the fashion world, starting with a job in the Buying Department at Liberty of London. She adored working in such a creative space which she describes as “a treasure trove of amazing fabrics and materials”

Wringing every bit of experience out of Liberty, Gi moved around in homewares and haberdashery until she felt she could no longer progress. It was time to explore a different avenue – the world of online startups.

“It was really fast-paced and I got so much insight into the evolving online fashion world. I was networking and negotiating with different brands to feature in articles and sell their products through a daily mailing list. By that point I knew I wanted to set up my own business and I was keen to explore different experiences in different areas. I would say to anyone looking to set up their own business that is a beneficial way of gaining experience, not staying in one place but exploring different opportunities and getting the most out of them.”

Then, with seven years’ experience under her belt, Gi plucked up the courage and founded ShiboriLondon. Starting off with a collection of her own fabrics which she designed and digitally printed before making them into bespoke silk kimono jackets which she would sell through an online catalogue, Gi was aiming to take naturally dyed clothes into mainstream fashion.

“People don’t think about naturally dyed clothes or if they do, they tend to think the clothes are a bit drab and not that fun or cool. I want to make people realise that actually the technique can produce something really beautiful. You can get really vibrant colours, really interesting patterns.”

Her company has grown to become truly internationally-minded. The label now stocks block printed shirts, kaftans and children’s wear from Jaipur, handwoven nehru waistcoats and shawls from the Himalayas, hand-embroidered bags from Rajasthan and accessories made from recycled Afghani kurtas on the fringes of the Great Thaar Desert.

Going back to India with her then fiancé (he proposed on that trip) gave Gi the chance to reconnect with her old boss in Jaipur and other contacts in the printing firm who were still working there.

“That whole trip I networked everywhere I went, meeting so many skilled crafts-people who I have ended up working with for my future collections. I am keen to keep traditional techniques like wood block printing and embroidery alive for future generations because I highly value craftsmanship and design.”

The global pandemic has affected everyone in different ways and Gi is keen to help those in need in her supplier communities. She has been making facemasks from old Liberty fabrics and leftover Indian fabrics while donating a percentage of the sales to Feeding Hands, a food charity based in Jaipur. Each donation pays for five meals, ten bread loaves, a pair of shoes or two toiletry kits.

The future looks bright for ShiboriLondon and Gi is now in the process of making a new collection of women’s clothing made from natural dyes and organic cotton. There are also some new kimonos and more children’s clothing in the pipeline.

Any Bradfieldian who is thinking about following their passion and turning it into a career should take a leaf out of Gi’s book and wring, squeeze and press everything they can out of the opportunities that present themselves.

To find out more visit:
Follow @shiborilondon

I am keen to keep traditional techniques like wood block printing and embroidery alive for future generations because I highly value craftsmanship and design.