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October 01, 2020 10 min read

The Seljak sisters. Making eco-friendly blankets out of recycled wool on Makers' Mrkt , Makers Market Melbourne, Meet the Maker

Seljak is a brand we have a serious crush on. Their recycled blankets are made from factory floor off cuts and crafted into beautiful, durable, forever pieces. At the end of each blanket’s life, the brand collects this free of charge using a carbon neutral courier service, returns it to the mill, then shreds and spins it into new yarn for future blankets. For every 10 blankets sold, the label donates one to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne. All of this positivity occurs before we have even had the chance to talk about the blankets themselves! And they are gorgeous! Think, one of a kind art pieces to add colour, warmth and goodness to your space.

Not only is Seljak a much loved Maker here at Makers’ Mrkt, sisters Karina and Sam Seljak are paving the way for a more eco-conscious Australia. We were lucky enough to chat with Karina Seljak and were left feeling inspired, optimistic and excited for picnic season.

Tully Walter in conversation with Karina Seljak
Tully: So first things first, our series is called ‘Meet the Maker.’ Tell us more about what you make and what you do.
Karina: We work with a woollen mill in Tasmania to make recycled woollen blankets out of factory floor offcuts. So essentially the offcuts from luxurious new wool blankets are collected from the factory floor. Then they are ragged into small and consistent fibre lengths to then be re-spun into a recycled yarn. Then that yarn is to be woven into our recycled wool blankets.

The Seljak Dune Blanket. Making eco-friendly blankets out of recycled wool on Makers' Mrkt , Makers Market Melbourne, Meet the Maker
The Seljak Dune Blanket, made from 75% recycled lambswool, available here

Tully: Could you please tell us about your journey to Seljak. Did you study? And what drew you into the art of making blankets?
Karina: I studied fashion design at Queensland University of Technology, in a Business/Advertising double degree. My sister Sam (business partner and co founder of Seljak) did journalism and economics. We went off on our own pathways doing different things. I was working in the local handcrafted food space in New York City for a few years and Sam was in Brisbane working with social enterprise and starting her own small business projects. With that, we always knew we wanted to collaborate. We have really different skill sets but a shared values set, so we decided to come together on finding better ways of making things - things that actually provide benefit and less harm to the environment and people.
So we simultaneously started to look at what resources we have in Australia - kind of that localism movement. We were looking at some of the resources here that are under utilised or under celebrated and we got into wool which historically did a lot for Australia's economic growth and potentially in our generation is less celebrated then it used to be. It's also an incredible fibre that's very hard to replicate as a synthetic. So we were looking at wool as a local resource and then we were also looking at alternative models for making things and doing things. We were looking at everything, from permaculture practices and at biomimicry in design, which is trying to replicate natural systems and other natural phenomena. We came across the circular economy model which is the application of those things to industrial systems. So we were thinking about how we can move from a linear model of ‘Take, Make, Waste,’ which is essentially extraction, manufacture, consumption and landfill, into a more circular one where our waste products actually become our input - meaning that we don't need to extract as much. We embarked on this journey of researching materials and processes and business models and on that research journey we came across this mill in Tasmania. The mill that we now work with, who are able to retain their production off cuts and their ability to turn those off cuts into new blankets was the story that we wanted to tell the Australian public - a story that there are better models for making things.

An image from an Italian mill that recycles fabric for Seljak Brand. Makers' Mrkt Meet the Maker blog. Makers Market Melbourne
A fabric recycling mill in Italy.
Tully: All of those touch points from circular design through to localism are just so pertinent and valuable, not only in the work that you’re modelling but to the broader conversation around sustainability. In terms of the blankets themselves, they are equal parts sustainable but also so beautiful. Could you please tell us a bit about the dynamic between the design and the production process?
Karina: Good design is absolutely essential to delivering a sustainable product that people actually want to have in their lives. To make it beautiful, it's paramount to making an impact. Our design principles definitely transcend aesthetic design. For us, the product needs to last for a long time, be versatile, so be able to be used in different contexts and to be able to deliver the user the most value possible. With a recycled product you’re working with a morelimited range because of the recycled materials. An example of limited range might be that the canvas that you're designing on isn't a blank canvas. It's not white. We are over-dying on a grey. Or we need polyester to bind the small ragged wool fibres, but Polyester doesn’t take the dye as well as the wool dye. So all of these things you need to experiment with and at some point make peace with when you’re refining your design. In very tangible terms it's working with colour and recycled materials that create ranges of opportunity and limitation.
To launch Seljak Brand we actually decided to launch with what we called a ‘Seljak Original’ which is actually the un-dyed blanket. That was the way to really tell the story visually of using waste as a resource because the grey base kind of has its own beauty in its range of colour and the flecks. And of course that bass colour changes too, as the waste materials and inputs vary and that's been a real strength. Having Seljak original is such a way to exemplify what we're doing and that there is beauty in recycling itself but it's also something to manage because you don't have the same level of control over recycled materials as you do with others so you have to manage customer expectations around that.

The Seljak Original un-dyed woollen blanket on Makers' Mrkt. Makers Market online store Melbourne
The Seljak Original blanket, available online here
Tully: Not only are you making incredible sustainable product and providing an amazing case study on great practice but you also consult and educate on sustainability. What advice would you give the Makers’ Mrkt community on living and working more sustainably in every day life.
Karina: I think that the most important thing is that people think about what they're most passionate about and mostinterested in. If they are going to embark on a sustainability journey there’s so much that we cando it can be kind of tiring to keep up with everything. If you're really going to understand how to make good change it's good to be informed so, I would say to start from that place of: “What do I really care about?” and “What am I really passionate about?” If say, that was “I really love fashion” and then “I really love shoes,” it's kind of like, alright cool then that’s your space to really own! Find out where the clothes that you like to wear are made and what issues there are in in those spaces. Whether they be supply chain issues, or exploitation of workers for instance and then decide what you can do to help mitigate or shift the dial on those things. So it might be deciding to opt out of fast fashion entirely. Or you might decide you’re not going to buy anything from fast fashion retailers and instead, take that budget and apply it to buying less but from a local designer or something that's handcrafted or something that has been made responsibly somehow. For some people it might be important that things are not made from animal products or for other people it could be other values that they want to be aligning with.
Leading by example is one of the most powerful things that you can do because other people will see what you're doing and be inspired. It’s not just the behaviours that are making the impact but it's the resounding effect of that through your social and professional circles as well.
Tully: This question is a bit of a step change but it’s now been almost six months since Melbourne first locked down amidst this global pandemic. How have the lockdowns impacted the way you work?
In terms of operations, Sam and I have worked apart for most of the life of Seljak Brand. We've lived in various cities around the world and at different times and are very used to working online and remotely and in different time zones, so it's been a smooth trip for us operationally. Our blankets are majority sold online as well, so we haven't had any hiccups there, but like many others we’ve been managing product delivery and postal delays.
 It was really sad to have to pull out of a bunch of educational and innovation events that we were participating in. At Melbourne Design Week we had a fashion responsibility panel and we had a water presentation at GOMA in Brisbane. There was quite a range of things we were participating in from an education and innovation point of view and we really love doing those things so that was a massive shame. But we just got a carbon report done and for us one of the biggest impacts that Seljak Brand has on the environment is our air travel to such conferences. It was a wake up call for us that we should actually be trying to dial that kind of activity down or least change it. So instead of flying down to Melbourne for things, we should find other ways to deliver. So that's been kind of interesting.
Tully: That is a really interesting discovery amidst all the difficulties and heartbreaks and missed opportunities of this time, the fact that you can sort of make that informed and positive discovery for the business.
Karina: Yes absolutely and yeah it's an essential shift that we needed to make as a whole and it has been enforced. The other thing that has been quite interesting is that businesses have been impacted in a real variety of ways and a lot of small Australian businesses are really hurting, but then there are others that are actually providing a service that helps at a time like this and we’ve found that we are the latter. So in terms of providing blankets during Covid, that has actually been a really nice space to be in. We’ve found that our sales have actually increased rather than decreased, as people find that they want to create more comfortable, warm and beautiful home environments. So it’s transpired that blankets are something people want during this time.

Writer Kelly Bartholomeusz  realxing under a Seljak recycled wool Dune blanket on Makers' Mrkt, Makers market Melbourne
Writer Kelly Bartholomeusz relaxing under a Seljak Dune Blanket
Tully: That makes perfect sense and talks back to lots of the Makers’ Mrkt community favourites during this time - lots of candles and mood boosting things to create a more beautiful home experience! What are some of your favourite self-care practices and mood boosters to keep going during this time of lockdown?
Karina: I think the key one for me would be a meditation as a bit of a regulator. Then dancing at home, I find is really uplifting and then drawing. Both my sister and I have been doing drawing which has been really nice. It's really nice to have time without so many social obligations or ‘in person’ obligations, where a bit of time opens up for hobbies that can fall by the wayside. The definition of busyness has definitely changed.
Tully: Now that we are firmly into Q4 of 2020, I’m planning an upcoming piece on organisation. Sometimes being a creative isn’t always synonymous with being organised. How do you stay organised when running your own business?
Karina: I’m a massive list maker, in terms of what I have to do in a day or a week, it’s very clear what the priorities are and what my tasks are. I actually struggle myself though in particular to organise the creative side of Seljak Brand, to really capture range planning and design ideas and final designs. You’ve got everything from fabric samples, to colour swatches to your design influences and references. It’s physical and it’s digital where you need to capture everything. It’s a lot. So I look forward to reading that article!
Tully: What are some of your goals for Seljak Brand in 2021?
We are currently working with Social Impact Hub on a scaling program. So we are figuring out how we can scale our operations and our product range and our impact, ultimately. So I would say next year will be all about executing that strategy. And I would say that’s all a little bit open ended in terms of what we are going to do but I think it will look like product range expansion and we will hopefully introduce new different types of blankets. Also on the impact side we are going to work closely with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne, who we donate a blanket to with every 10 blankets sold. We are going to work closely with them to figure out how we can be of better service. I think that this year in particular for people seeking asylum and refugees, the loss of work and that sort of thing and the additional difficulties to access food due to shopping restrictions, has meant the ASRC have really had to pivot how they bring value to their members. And we can probably do more than donate blankets at this time. So we are figuring out to be more of use to the ASRC.

Seljak brand donating recycled wool blankets to the Asylum Seekers Refuge centre in Melbourne . Makers' Mrkt meet the maker
Donating blankets to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre 
Tully: Just a final question here and perhaps a bit more of a frivolous one but It’s Picnic Season! We can’t wait to get our Seljak blankets out and into the garden. Could you please describe to us your perfect picnic to compliment the situation?
Karina: Thats such a nice idea. I think my sister would be a really good person to answer this. She get’s weekly food boxes as part of a collective she is part of in Brisbane. She is so fantastic at taking what she gets and creating really delicious, home made bits and pieces. So awesome, home made hummus and honeycomb to pair with local cheeses. Fresh crusty bread for sure. You need a vehicle for all your other things.
Tully: Yes, A vehicle is imperative!
Karina: For me personally, it’s always bringing a really good non alcoholic option as well, I’ll always bring along Kombucha alongside a nice crispy white. I always have a really good folding knife. I love all the implements that come with outdoor picnicking!
You can shop Seljak blankets online here 

The Seljak Opal blanket made from recycled wool on Makers' Mrkt Makers Market Melbourne online store

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