Ravi Pankhania // Cloth Studio
In September I attended PechaKucha in Vancouver. There was a great lineup of artists, makers and creative thinkers from around the city. Typically when I go to events of any kind – festivals, galleries, conferences – there’s always one component that I’m particularly excited about. Ravi Pankhania of Cloth Studio was this that night.
I’d seen some of Cloth Studio’s upholstery work and heard about Ravi’s infatuation with linen. Knowing little about the details of linen or even how quality upholstery is made, I was curious to learn more. The team over at Birdman the Welder had wonderful things to say about Ravi and recommended I look him up. So I sat in the front row and looked up as he walked on stage.
As he started to speak, the silence in the audience quickly turned to laughter. He shared details about his work, his life and his love affair with linen (and scissors and trucks). His outfit was made entirely of linen. A skirt he’d made himself was held together with pins. “I hate thread,” he noted.
When I went to visit his studio, I realized that even the elements of his work that he “hates”, he pours his effort and attention into. The same seems to be true of his entire team. Wendy, another member of Cloth Studio, was also there that day. She spent hours cutting out linen samples and sewing the edges. Three layers of thread were added, and the colour of the thread was discussed multiple times. This wasn’t for a finished curtain or a sofa cover – this was just for the samples of linen that clients look at to decide on a fabric. To say that quality runs through and through in this studio may be an understatement.
What’s on your bench today?
Right now I’m working on a sofa. Basically, I’m wrapping up a foam cushion with a softer layer and then putting that entire piece inside a feather pouch. The fabric doesn’t actually touch the foam. This is not normal in the sofa industry – this is super-deluxe.
I started this process by designing the entire sofa in 3D with all of the components. Then I break out the components and distribute the work to each trade – the woodworker, the foam supplier, etc. They’re each really good at those specific things, and we’re really good at cutting and sewing all the covers. I used to do all of this myself, but now I prefer to bring the marriage of other people’s skills and mine together.
Once I’ve got everything wrapped up, I start making the covers. I make the covers after all the components are assembled because I want to make sure they are absolutely accurate.
This sofa in particular was designed to fit everyone in the family. It’s basically a big “L” and two ottomans. I’ve also made other components in the same client’s home – curtains, window coverings, and all of the systems the go into the curtains. There are even curtains that go around a staircase. This project has been ongoing for two years.
How did Cloth Studio start?
Originally I shared this company with my partner and we made all kinds of things out of textiles. About 4 years ago, I separated from my partner. I recognized that things in our industry were changing – there’s a shortage of manpower, quality/quantity of materials are hard to come by, and there’s always a pressure on price points. I started a kind of side project, taking a small piece of fabric from every single curtain that we made for two years and making it into a quilt and hung it up as a kind of visual tool. It allowed me to see what was popular and where the trends were going.
We quickly realized that 80% of people were buying linen and 80% of that linen was a similar colour. The split between sheer vs. heavy fabric was 60/40. If the lifecycle of a product is long, like linen, trends and fads shouldn’t drive the aesthetic. This tool allowed me to better focus my work, and tailor my business to what my clients were already buying.
How did the process of your business change from this?
Typically if you want a custom sofa, it would go something like this: you want a sofa, you go see a furniture builder, they pull books full of fabrics out, discuss the style of the sofa, then you order the fabric and they build you a sofa.
I changed things fundamentally by pre-selecting the fabrics I wanted my clients to buy, stocking those textiles and only building very similar styles of furniture that were driven by my aesthetic and what I wanted to make.
Now, it’s really starting to become a tight ship. We basically have a huge collection of various linens. If we’re doing an entire home in linen, I can pull it from our own stock instead of waiting for the textiles to come in, we can also control the quality better.
Flax (what linen is made from) is a very interesting plant. Linen is very complex and I just find it fascinating. It’s completely sustainable. It can be soft, lustrous, and coarse all in one fiber. It’s also easy to care for and allergen free. I have experience working with many kinds of textiles, but my specialty is linen.
Are there different qualities of linen?
Absolutely. The quality starts from the beginning. It depends how it’s grown, processed and woven. Depending on where it comes from, it’s even a different colour.
We deal in the simplest form of linen, which is the highest quality. We start with the best quality flax. Then it goes through the best weaving process in ideal humidity conditions. Then we use the best quality dyes. Through and through, it’s like the world’s greatest fruitcake.
When you get to our final products, the story continues. The structure of the sofa we’re working on is birch ply and is 16 or 18 ply per inch, which is ridiculous. This means that it’s super strong and rigid. It’s expensive, but it’s easy to work with. It’s also very heavy. The foam is also top quality. The thread is custom to match the colour of the fabric. Even the tapes at the top of our curtains are custom colours to match the colour of the fabric. No one even sees that but its one of those custom touches that help me sleep better at night. They look nice, even from the outside.
Pricewise, there’s linen at every price point. It’s just a matter of what people are comfortable spending, but our work and textiles are definitely on the higher end of the spectrum.
How do you care for linen?
Linen can be washed by hand or in the washing machine. But it does depend on the quality, weight, construction etc.
Yeah, definitely. Somewhere along the line, people were like, “Don’t wash linen!” I don’t know where that came from. Linen is a lot nicer than cotton and it washes better, lasts longer…but you’ve got to use good linen.
Do any of your customers come to you without knowing anything about linen?
Yeah, most people that come to me don’t know anything about linen. They usually end up wanting to put linen everywhere. People are always surprised at how versatile linen is, but also how simple and clean it is. They think of linen as this wrinkled old rag, but as you can see it’s actually quite a sophisticated and timeless textile.
Where wouldn’t you use linen?
Commercial and hospitality applications, unless it’s blended with something else.
I see a lot of curtains hanging. Is this part of the process?
We typically like to hang them for a couple of weeks before they get installed. We sew them together first, hang hem and then we hem them after they have had a chance to drop. The weight of the textile effects how it hangs – linen is super heavy. It also fluctuates depending on the humidity. We hem them using a laser to mark from the ceiling where they’re going to hang. They are typically 3/8” off the floor.
Is your family from Vancouver?
My family is from Kenya. We moved to Canada when I was 12 partly because my father was very sick. My mother’s family were already living here. Shortly after we moved, my father passed away. We’ve been here ever since.
I’m very grateful in many ways. My grandmother was a dressmaker. The rest of my family is made up of business people. I’ve been sewing since I was 15 and I’ve always loved it. I’m pretty sure if I was still living in Kenya I would not be working with linen now.
Have you been back to visit?
Yeah, but not recently. I’m not much of a traveler. I am a real homebody, I’m not one of those people that has a burning desire to see the world and have these massive Instagram-fueled experiences. I’ve created a pretty exciting life for myself here. I do travel a bit for work, to lecture and teach other people how to work with linen, and I always make that fun.
What’s your design philosophy?
It’s not just about the aesthetics – how it looks and the colours you use. It’s also about the comfort. That’s always a big consideration. The house that this sofa is going into, for example, has a lot of acoustic elements incorporated into it to make it more comfortable.
I always choose textiles that feel approachable. I choose styles that are straightforward – simple things that are done well.
What are you spending your time on now?
I basically manage the business. I also do all the installs, which is fun. For some reason I have a knack for curtain install. It also gives me an opportunity to interact with my clients, which is great.
Some people are more hands-off. I like being one of the “workers” – I want to be in tune with my team. I’ll come in here to glue things together and take out the trash. This is what I want to be doing. I want us all to share in running this business. You can have more skill and more experience than the next person, but as a person in here you are equal.
I also do a lot of “paying it forward”. I lecture and teach people how to make curtains, run their businesses and create profitability. People think I’m crazy for giving away all of my “tricks”, but the how is only half of it. You have to go through what I’ve gone through and learn my level of skill for yourself. You have to be me to be successful at what I do. You can’t have what I have, but you can work towards your own thing and that is something I really believe in.
What advice would you give to other people starting out?
- You should love the bad things. The bad things help you grow. This business is not about what we do well, it’s about what we do poorly. If I don’t see where the improvements need to be, it’ll be the same thing that I made 30 years ago. Our mandate is that every curtain needs to be better than the last. It doesn’t always happen, but we strive for that. Fixing the unhappiness creates more of the content-ness and joy.
- You have to be dynamic in your thinking. You have to be left and right brained, but you have to be able to make those things interact in a way that brings you some kind of reward. A lot of people are really creative and their reward is creativity...until they can’t afford to be creative anymore. I have to make money and want to make it in a creative way, so I have to develop these skills of being creative and being good at managing a business.
- Start at the bottom. Fuck up a lot. Eventually, you’ll make it. There are no shortcuts.
What’s your favourite part of this job?
I get a lot of joy from other people. I love interacting with other people and sharing stories. Since I’ve changed the business over to just linen, I have met the most incredible people. It’s been a great opportunity for me to meet people that I feel like I probably would not have met otherwise. That’s another way this business has been so good to me. The business becomes more valuable when it also results in wonderful relationships.
What are your goals for the future?
As a business, there’s a pathway that we’re creating as we go along, but it’s hard to say what the long-term defined goals are. As the business continues to grow, it’s also changing. I’m becoming this “Linen Escobar”. Once I brought all of these beautiful textiles in, I saw an opportunity to sell it to other makers and designers. That side of my business is slowly eclipsing the furniture/curtain portion of our business. Ultimately, we’re becoming linen dealers. We also offer our customers a lot of support – what colour or quality linen they need to use, which techniques they should use. I’ve looked at my industry, figured out the challenges of it, and am building a business that continues to solve those challenges.
From a creative perspective, we are interested in doing this collaboration where we give linen to other makers that don’t normally use linen. Maybe next year we’ll do a black event – we’ll just pick a handful of makers, offer them black linen and then showcase what they have made with it. I think it would be a fun and engaging event.
Will we see any more Ravi skirts or maybe even a line of clothing?
We would like to do a line of clothing. We have the supply of material and the skills to do it. That might be in the future.
Personally, what are you striving for?
I aspire to be the best version of my Self – and to know myself better. That is my definition of success.
To learn more about Cloth Studio, or to get in touch with Ravi, go to www.clothstudio.ca.