Karina (Left, wearing the Madlen Print Dress) and Sam Seljak (Right, wearing our Isa Dress) embrace a 'Close the Loop' philosophy, which has seen them collect offcuts from Tasmania's oldest Wool Mill to be woven into the most luxurious and cosy blankets that will stay in your life forever. A philosophy built on sustainability, that is at the very heart of the brand.
Offcuts combined with returned Seljak Brand blankets (that have lived long and adventurous lives) are shredded, washed and then spun into new yarns for future blankets. Crafted from 70% recycled wool and a 30% blend of other fibres and poly for strength, the recycled blankets are milled and dried then finished with whipstitching or fringing.
Read more as Sam Seljak takes us through the Seljak Brand journey, their plans for the future and how they are embracing 'the new normal'.
How did Seljak come about?
Karina and I had long known we wanted to collaborate. So when she moved home after 3 years in New York working in small-batch local food production, we were ready to start something of our own.
Meanwhile, I’d developed several community projects in Brisbane and worked for Gilimbaa, a profit-for-purpose Indigenous creative agency.
With my social entrepreneurship, and Karina’s production experience and textiles training (she is trained in fashion design; myself in sustainability leadership), we put our heads together to develop what became the Seljak Brand. It took us on a three month trip to India to visit multiple social enterprises and understand the global textiles industry – as well as spending weeks hiking in the Himalayas ideating about what we did and didn’t want to bring into the world.
We knew we wanted to work with waste as a resource, and the more research we did, we realised that the circular economy was a promising sustainability method for goods and services that wouldn’t cost the planet. So we poured our time into understanding closed-loop methodologies. We also had a strong affinity for using local resources and production. When we discovered that Australia’s oldest wool mill retained their waste offcuts we were delighted. Using their recycled yarn, we commissioned the mill to make recycled blankets that became our signature product.
Your grandparents were refugees from Slovenia, you've mentioned a quote they loved to use- tell us about how this philosophy has influenced your business?
“Make do and mend” is the quintessential low-impact life mantra that overproduction and overconsumption have stifled.
Our Slovenian grandfather used to re-use teabags three or four times, he saved every paper napkin from any cafe or restaurant he went to, and he wore clothes until they were threadbare. After a life in a refugee camp where a meal a day was considered lucky, perspectives on resources must change forever.
By the time we knew our grandparents, they were thriving in their new country. But their story and those values were ingrained in us, so we’ve always been thrifty and resourceful. Our Mum also instilled the quality over quantity ethos, which equally influenced our business. Our blankets are made at a mill that produces blankets that have been known to outlive their owners. Now that is longevity! So we really want people to treat our products like the investment that they are, and in turn, we make products that are worth caring for and worth repairing.
How does your closed-loop system work?
We use recycled materials to make our blankets, which reduces landfill and the extraction of virgin resources. We then take it a step further by having an end-of-life system where we collect blankets that people no longer want and remanufacture them into more blankets. This means that we take responsibility for the whole life cycle of the blanket and no Seljak Brand blanket ends up in landfill.
We also use renewable energy where possible to power this system. This production approach is what we refer to as closing the loop.
Tell us where you are at with your closed-loop research today?
Well, after numerous businesses approached us with their textile waste, we wanted to use waste from the Australian fashion industry, like cotton, bamboo and linen offcuts to make a blanket suitable for summertime (since launching many customers have requested lighter weight blankets). So we spent over two years in research and development, with some successes and failures of turning pre-consumer textiles waste into lightweight blankets in Australia. The nature of using waste is that you’re working with various fibre types of varying volumes which means finding a production method is tricky.
We definitely learned that the innovation journey is a long game. While we couldn’t develop the product we wanted to make in Australia, the project lead us to a Lithuanian mill, where we were able to produce a lightweight recycled blanket from the waste of sixteen wool mills around Europe. We’re still exploring the capabilities in Australia for converting varied waste into new fabrics by partnering with existing manufacturers.
In the meantime, we’re continuing to work on turning pre- and post-consumer textiles waste from around Australia into beautiful, useful objects for everyday living.
In fact, we’ve just launched our first furniture design – the Floor Lounger – a collaboration with Sarah K of Supercyclers. It’s made from shredding and compressing textile waste from the Australian mattress recycling industry. It can also be recycled at the end of its useful life meaning it’s a closed-loop furniture product and will never end up in landfill.
It’s still in its embryonic phase, but the prototype is one of five finalists in the 2020 Australian Furniture Design Award.
We wanted to work with this waste stream because the mattress recycling industry can recapture timber, steel and foam from old mattresses, but they are yet to find a solution for the textile waste, which ends up being about 5kg per mattress.
Seljak has taken you around the world - tell us about the new designs you are working on in Lithuania?
When I went to Sweden to study a Masters in Sustainability Leadership, my proximity to European manufacturing meant we were able to set up a global supply chain. From where some of our yarn is spun out of old woollen sweaters in a small Italian textiles region, to where our blankets are woven in a 93-year-old mill in Lithuania, being based in Sweden meant I could visit these regions, build relationships and understand the local context in person. The mill in Lithuania has Jacquard looms, which enables us to do intricate and abstract patterns (the mill we work within Australia has Dobby looms, which allow for designs like stripes and cheques). So now we weave Karina’s artwork onto the blankets, which has thus far been inspired by the sand dunes of the central desert and the delicate but lively Great Barrier Reef.
It was a learning curve and meant studying a new weaving construction and exploring how colours and designs translate on the loom. It’s been really fun to nerd out about the technical side of weaving and it gives us an opportunity to express our inspiration; the strength and fragility of our natural environment. But our design philosophy reaches beyond aesthetics as we consider all aspects of a product’s life cycle, which is why we take product development slowly.
Here at ELK we admire the work you are doing with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre - donating a blanket to the centre for every ten that are sold. You have spoken previously about plans for the future and how you would like to employ asylum seekers in your workplace. Where are you at with this at the moment and what are your plans for the future?
Expanding the social impact arm of the business is definitely in the pipeline but we’re not quite large enough to employ people. One day when our operations are scaled and more centralised, we envisage hiring people seeking asylum and refugees to support our production and/or logistics, which is where we need the most help. The catering and cleaning businesses born from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre are so inspiring!
What is brightening up your days at home at the moment?
I’ve been reading a lot! Currently on rotation is Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola (re-reading it!), and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
I’ve also been cooking a bunch (huge props to Brissie locals Loop Growers and Food Connect for supplying the goods). Karina has been dancing, meditating and drawing.
We’re just really embracing all the things that we wish we had more time for and taking this time to really slow down and think consciously about what we’d like the “new normal” to be and how we can contribute to that. System change is in the air!
Click here to Shop Karina and Sam Seljak's look from the shoot.
Click here to Shop our Limited Range of beautiful Recycled Wool Seljak Blankets.
Click here to Visit the Seljak Brand Website.