Tools of the Trade: The Adventures of Flo

By Brianna Read Meet Florence, or Flo as she is affectionately known, the hard working heart of Frankie & Swiss a Melbourne based boutique textile company.

Frankie & Swiss, the brain child of sisters Michelle Francis and Jacqui Swies, came to possess Florence after two years of research and self-education on the topic of digital fabric printing. This research journey began after Michelle found herself creating an apron of her own design but no matter where she looked, she was simply unable to find the right fabric. This in turn led to experimenting with using a home inkjet printer to make her own design prints, which of course led to the inevitable ‘but I needed something bigger’ conundrum! Enter Florence…as printers go they don’t get much bigger than Flo.

Florence is essentially an enormous inkjet printer. Her particular specialty is printing using water-based pigment inks onto natural fibres. Florence is situated in a wonderful studio space in South Yarra and both Michelle and Jacqui bring their young children to work with them, so having healthy and safe working materials was of paramount concern for the sisters. The choice of equipment and materials for Frankie & Swiss is navigated by exceptional standards of practicality, ethics and style.

Though her sheer size implies she may be able to do it all, Florence certainly doesn’t work alone. The support systems behind Florence are also what make these beautiful designs possible. Artwork comes to Florence in digital format, the team make any tweaks or changes necessary in Photoshop and the artwork is imported into Florence’s own software where the final formatting and repeat systems are set up. From here the focus shifts to monitoring the fabrics Florence creates. Working with natural fibres means regular evaluation or ‘fabric profiling’ is needed throughout the printing process to ensure the highest quality print is achieved.

After Florence finishes printing the fabric lengths, they are then fed back through the machine to be heat set. From here the fabric is ready for use. The absence of pre and post-treatments of the fabric was another choice made to avoid unnecessary waste and chemical intervention. These fabrics are a wonderful union of old fashioned values and cutting edge technology. Frankie & Swiss (and Florence) have worked with some extraordinary talent: Penny Durston of Cottage Industries, Shelly Panton and NancyBird to name a few, helping them produce fine fabrics to specification. This collaborative approach to business shines again in the soon to be launched Leaf Series, working with artists Kelly SmithDawn TanKat Chadwick and Rowena Martinich amongst others to create some seriously lust-worthy prints.

When I ask Michelle why they chose to name their machine Florence she explains the name is a nod to another creative woman: Florence Broadhurst, while also being a quirky pun on what Florence actually does: a reference to the 'flow' of ink from machine to fabric. She continues on to explain that after leaving a corporate career in favour of the creative adventure that is Frankie & Swiss she wanted to keep the fun in business – Florence may look serious, but with these sisters at the helm the fabric she produces are certainly all about fun.

Brianna Read is a designer-maker based in Melbourne. Her knitwear label Jack of Diamonds Knits employs hand-made techniques in combination with machine knit technologies. Brianna’s multi-faceted creative practice encompasses design, production, works for exhibition and machine knitting workshops.