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Behind The Stitches: Gina Röckenwagner

“I went from working a fitting room at Anthropologie to designing for Anthropologie in one step”


Sam: Where are you from and where are you currently based?
Gina: I am from Venice California and I am based a mile from there right now. I moved back to where I’m from a year ago.
Sam: How did you learn to knit and what was your first WIP?
Gina: I learned how to knit in elementary school. We did all of these projects where we were learning about the pilgrims. We churned butter, we learned their dances and songs, and we also learned how to do embroidery. My teacher saw that I was interested in it and she said: "I know how to knit". I went and got some needles and yarn... well, my grandmother got me some needles and yarn. I brought them to school and she taught me how to knit.


Sam: Do you remember the first thing you made?
Gina: I think the first thing I made was a scarf or a hat. Then the first real thing I made was a sweater. But I made a bunch of hats before I made the sweater.
Sam: Is your go-to project a knitting project or a quilting project?
Gina: It's probably a knitting project. But I usually work on both in the same day. Knitting is more on the go and in front of the TV. I usually sew during the daytime and I’ll just set aside blocks of time when I can do that in between my other work.
Sam: One of the many things we have in common is that we both went to SAIC. What made you decide to go there over any other design program?


Gina: I initially thought I would go to a liberal arts school. I really wanted to go to school in New York and I had just been on a tour of all of the schools in New York. I applied to Barnard and NYU. Then I decided I would apply to FIT because we went to the Museum at FIT and I really liked it. I applied to FIT early decision. It ended up being my first choice and then I got rejected. That was the only art school that I had applied to. When I got rejected, I realized that I really did want to go to an art school.
My mom is from Chicago and she still has family in Chicago. So I had been there a bunch of times and gone to the Art Institute. I saw that they had a day when you could go and show your portfolio. They give you a tour of the school and then they give you a decision that day. They were still taking people, so I went there with my dad on a last-minute trip and I got in! I thought I was going to go to school in New York and go to a liberal arts college and then I thought I was going to go to FIT and that didn’t work out. Life’s funny.


Sam: So you were always thinking about going there for fashion design?
Gina: Yeah.


Sam: What was your biggest take away from your time there?
Gina: I think that the school taught me to think conceptually. To explore every idea to the fullest and to really see how far you can take every project. They force you to think a lot more than the other art schools do. I think that’s the strong suit of the Art Institute. It gets you to think about where your work fits in with other artists and the history of the medium that you’re working in. Once I started working in the industry I realized that I did get a very good technical education as well. I think that a good project for the Art Institute students to try is that you have to design something and then another student has to make it.
Sam: We had that! They must’ve added that after you left.
Gina: You did! Oh, that’s cool.
Sam: Yeah, that was a project that I had during my sophomore year. So they’re getting there.
Gina: Oh, that’s really funny.


Sam: Did you launch Poppy and Pima right after you graduated?
Gina: No. I worked in the industry for about five years before I went out on my own. I started out working at Anthropologie in the store. I worked mainly in the fitting room and the cash register. That was really informative. After I worked there I worked at Purl Soho for almost a year. Then when I was working at Purl Soho someone came into the store. She was working on a project and she asked me to help her. After I completed the project she hired me full-time.
Sam: No way!
Gina: Yeah, she basically walked in and gave me a job. It was kind of crazy.
Sam: That’s amazing! Were you helping her to produce her collection?
Gina: She was one of the designers for Anthropologie. It was just really funny that I went from working a fitting room at Anthropologie to designing for Anthropologie in one step. She did a lot of knitwear for Anthropologie. I think she still does. But it was all private label. She was doing a project with Women For Women International. It was a hand knitting project in Bosnia. The people there are still really affected by the war. They have a lot of women that need jobs and they’re great knitters. What Women For Women International does is that they go into these disenfranchised places and they try to find work and build industries that can support women in those areas. They determined that the women in Bosnia were great knitters so they try to connect them with designers who need those skills. At the time they were doing a project with Anthropologie. The designer hired me to make all of the samples and then make the patterns so that the women in Bosnia could reproduce them. It was such a cool project.
"I don’t want to participate in an industry that’s polluting and harming people's lives. I want to participate in an industry that is making things better for our world and that’s what I see in Peru and why I continue to work with them"



Sam: What was behind the switch from Poppy and Pima to Soft Haus.
Gina: Well, when I moved to LA, I thought it was just a natural opportunity to make a pivot in my business and my career. In the first couple of years of doing my business, I didn’t have everything figured out. I felt like I needed to start on a new page using everything that I had gained up until this point.
Sam: What is the difference and the common thread between Poppy and Pima and Soft Haus?
Gina: I feel that I haven’t made a huge change in the aesthetic. It’s more about marketing and how I’m doing things. Now that I live in a place that doesn’t have seasons I’m focusing more on clothing that can be worn year-round and not doing a big seasonal drop. Instead, I’m just offering new things throughout the year when it feels right. I’m making it more focused on the products that our customers want.

Sam: When was your first trip to Peru? How did that trip change the way you approach your work?


Gina: My first trip to Peru was in the summer of 2013. It changed my approach hugely. I got to see a place where they have full-service sweater making capabilities. It was amazing to see these communities of women making things. Their standard of work is just so high. The facilities that they are working in are old school. It’s not a sweatshop. A lot of them do it while they are taking care of their children and they can take their work home. I saw this burgeoning industry.
There are all of these women that want work. They are coming out of a rough period in their history in Peru. I feel like a lot of people in the US don’t understand what that’s like. At the same time that they were having all of this turbulence, we were so focused on Bosnia because it’s so close to Europe. I don’t think that we were focused on all of the terrorism and war that was going on in Peru. A lot of families were being destroyed, a lot of people's livelihoods were taken from them, kidnappings, murders, rapes. Terrible things happened in Peru. Now they have a young population that’s really eager. They want to build their industry, their country, and they want to do business with the US. It’s great. They pay a lot of attention to being ecologically friendly and not harming the environment, which I love. They just have a standard of craftsmanship, quality, and environmental awareness that is built-in and that I appreciate and identify with. The first time I went to Peru was the first time I said to myself "this is how I want to make things". I don’t want to participate in an industry that’s polluting and harming people's lives. I want to participate in an industry that is making things better for our world and that’s what I see in Peru and why I continue to work with them.
Sam: How often do you travel to Peru now?
Gina: At least once a year. Sometimes twice it just depends. Right now I’m working on a quilting project with a Peruvian company so that will probably take me there more often.
"I find unfinished objects really depressing and uninspiring"



Sam: Can you walk us through your design process? What comes first for you?
Gina: Materials usually come first for me. Every time I go to Peru I buy a ton of yarn to play with and I’ll make things based on that. Usually, the inspirations start with something that I want to make for myself. If it’s a successful exercise then I’ll decide if it’ll become a part of the line or not. But I usually start by making a swatch and a sketch. Then I’ll plan out my pattern from there. I’ll make it, fit it and if it needs revisions I make the revisions once we bring it to the factory rather than making another one. It depends on how complicated it needs to get. But that’s basically it.
Sam: What does your yarn stash look like?
Gina: Oh my God! It looks like a yarn store. I got married last month and since then it’s just been a disaster zone. I have so much yarn just shelves and shelves of it. And now I’m getting into dying. So that means even more yarn is in my stash. It’s set up with warehouse shelves. Just tons of cones in bins and bags of stuff.

Photo by @sylviethecamera



Sam: Do you organize your yarn by color or by weight or by texture?
Gina: Right now I have all of the hand-dyed stuff is together and all of the solids are together. I like to organize by warm, cool, and neutral. But then sometimes that system breaks down because you have so many different ways the yarn is wound up. You have cones, balls, and skeins. It doesn’t make sense for me to have the cones with the skeins. So I have cones together and I have bags of stuff together. Then for all of the little balls of yarn I have them broken down into warm, cool, neutral and that system seems to work pretty well. But the hand-painted stuff I like to keep together because they all look so pretty.
Sam: Are you a finished object or process crafter?
Gina: Probably finished object. The process is just so hard for me and often just so uninspiring. I find unfinished objects really depressing and uninspiring. I just want to go in and fix it.


Sam: Do you finish one object at a time or do you have multiple that are in progress and jump around?
Gina: Hmmm, I would like to think that I focus on one thing at a time but I don’t. Since I went to SAIC I try to persevere and finish everything. But sometimes I just lose interest and I have to put something aside. I always have at least one quilting project and one knitting project. I also have a crochet project going right now and I have a couple of unfinished sweaters… it’s bad. I would like to not have so many WIPs but that’s just how it is. Especially when things are so time-based. I’m doing a lot of dying now. A lot of that has to sit and soak so I’ll get something started and then I’ll sew a little bit, do some emails, change the bath to the next thing. But by nightfall, I’m usually knitting. I try to keep my knitting to a nighttime activity unless I am on a deadline, making a pattern, or I have to finish a sample.
"When I go into a clothing store I don’t just see the clothes. I see all of the people that made the clothes, all of the hands that touched it, and the people who made the fabric"
Sam: What is the most meaningful crafted object that you own? It doesn’t have to of been made by yourself.
Gina: Wow, that’s hard to say. I just made a quilt for our wedding that I really like. It has a lot of meaning. Also for the wedding, I made my husband a sweater and it’s really meaningful to me. I also have things that I bought in Guatemala that are so incredible. I feel like I see meaning in all of these objects. When I go into a clothing store I don’t just see the clothes. I see all of the people that made the clothes, all of the hands that touched it, and the people who made the fabric. It’s kind of hard for me, being such a materialist, to just divorce every object from meaning. That’s kind of one of the hard things about being an artist and being a maker. You just know too much. Is it even possible to have just a chill experience with something because you know too much? I think that’s why I like food and cooking. It’s just a true vacation for me. If I go into a clothing store and I see a mistake on something I can’t stop thinking about how "they probably didn’t realize they had to order this thread at the same time as their bulk materials". You know?


Sam: I think about that all the time. Whenever I’m with someone in a store and they’re like “oh that’s so expensive” I go into this whole rant where I’m just like “Well, actually when you break it down…”
Gina: "No it should cost more!" Exactly, that’s what I’m always saying. Clothes should cost more. Clothes should not cost less.
Sam: If you could go back to the first day you had the idea to make your collection what advice would you give yourself? If anything.
Gina: I would say "stay true to yourself and your business vision and start small". I love doing a lot of things at once so my temptation is always to make things really big. But I think that in the beginning, I could’ve kept things smaller it would’ve been to my benefit to not have to figure out so many things all at once.


Sam: Most people who follow you already know a lot about this next question, but it's also the most important question I'm going to ask. Can you tell us about your cats?
Gina: My cats bring so much joy to my life! We started with Pawses who passed away right before our wedding. I didn’t want to get a cat. Alex was the one who insisted that we get a cat when I started going to Peru all the time. He said, "I’m alone so much I just want a buddy who’s here all the time. I want to get a cat". Since I was out making things happen with my career I thought Alex deserved to get this cat and we got her. I just Instantly fell in love with her. I think it was because when we went to the shelter to adopt her I was holding a kitten. I thought "oh let’s get a kitten they’re so cute I wanna hold them" and Alex was really resistant to getting a kitten because they smell bad and they’re just so much work. Alex was holding her and I was holding the kitten when all of a sudden the kitten jumped into Pawses's cage and I thought "oh no, she’s going to fight the kitten". But instead she jumped down and she started cleaning the kitten. She just wanted to take care of it. I thought "she’s such a good little mom. She’ll take care of us too" and that’s what she did. She had had a hard life. She had been on the streets for at least five years at that point. I think she was about six when we got her but they told us she was two or three. She had had litters by the time we got her. She was just so happy to be inside and to be with someone who cared about her. She was just happy to sit on the couch and watch us. When I would be on deadline and I would have all of these knitting projects to do she would just sit there, watch me, and keep me company. She was the sweetest thing ever. Such a blessing.


Then a year later we got Paloma she’s just a little goofball and so cute. Paloma is now entering her role as the grown-up cat. We have a kitten now and she’s super playful. It’s really weird to see Paloma not being the playful one. But they’re playing and setting boundaries. It’s super cute to watch. They were butt-to-butt on the couch last night which I feel is a big milestone.
I was super anti-cat. My roommate in college wanted to get a cat and I said "absolutely not. I will leave or I will kick you out if you get a cat". It’s funny to see how I am now. I can’t go back to not being a cat lady. It’s just a forever thing.
I’m at an age where I feel like I could go live in Peru for a year and try it. Why not? But then I’m like "how will the cats fit in with that?". We can’t bring them on a 12-hour flight. But recently we went away and my mom took care of the cats. She likes them. So I don’t know maybe they would go live with her for a year we’ll see. But I love them and I miss them so much when we’re away it’s crazy.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get this deep into the yarn making process"

Photo by @sylviethecamera

Sam: Do you have any exciting new projects coming out that you can tell us about?
Gina: Right now I’m working on a new batch of our Penmar Coats, the patchwork jacket with snaps. They’re going to be made in LA and they’re all cotton. It’s basically a quilt you can wear and you can wash it in the machine. I’m excited about that. They’re so easy to take care of. We’re doing them with new colors this time and I think they are going to be really cool. We’re doing a cream one we’re doing a black one that’s going to be all different shades of black.
I’m also working on this project with Peru called Knomad. It’s a new line of their yarn specifically for dyers. It’s going to be a line of great new bases. There are so many interesting options they have an organic yarn and they have a recycled yarn.

Knomad

Sam: Gina! That’s genius!
Gina: I know! It’s so great because I’m sure as you know all of the hand-dyed yarns are using the same bases over and over again. Which is great because then you can mix-and-match from different lines. But I want more interesting options. They have one that has hemp in it so when you dye it you get little flecks of hemp because they don’t pick up the dye. Then they have two chunky qualities that are really great. The worsted weight is my favorite. It’s 100% organic wool. It’s so nice!

Knomad

They took me to their alpaca farm where they’re doing breeding programs to work on the genetics of the alpaca and it’s so incredible! People have been doing this kind of work with other cattle for centuries. They’ve been working on cows for thousands of years but alpacas have only been worked on since as long as I’ve been alive. It’s really cool what they’ve been doing. They are breeding alpaca to get the finest quality hair possible. They’re also breeding alpaca to get a black fiber that’s natural and doesn’t have to be dyed! It was so incredible to get to see it all. We got to see when they inseminated the females. We got to see the little embryo on the ultrasound. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get this deep into the yarn making process!

Photo by @sylviethecamera

Sam: That’s definitely something that has been lacking in the industry. Their timing is perfect.

Gina: Yeah! I’m so happy to be working for them. We'll probably be at Rhinebeck next year... we’ll see.

Sam: Since this is Bobble Club House I always have to end with this question. What do you like to binge-watch or listen to while you craft?

Gina: I love Call Your Girlfriend the podcast. I just think that they are the smartest ladies. I love the guests that they bring on and the ideas they talk about are just... the BEST! Right now I’m in a Vanderpump Rules phase. I’m watching it from the beginning to the end. Right now I’m at the part where Katie and Tom are planning their wedding. It’s just so engrossing.



Sam: You’re almost caught up then.
Gina: Yeah. But I grew up in a restaurant so to watch it is just so funny! It’s hilarious. I love that show. And I love the bachelor and bachelorette. I love trash. I go so hard for trashy TV I want to get into Love Island.
Sam: Me too! I’ve heard such good things.
Gina: I know right!
Sam: It’s just such a commitment. That’s why I haven’t done it.
Gina: British shows that air every single night… bless them!
Sam: One day I will tackle Love Island it’s the last thing.
Gina: Yes, the final frontier!
..........

If you want to see more of Gina's work you can follow her on Instagram @Soft_Haus & @ginarockenwagner, shop the Soft Haus website, and check out her website. You can also read more about her new project with Knomad Yarns here.
Who should I talk to next? Leave your suggestions in the comments section along with any thoughts you have about Gina's interview. I’m always on the hunt for inspiring crafters. Also, don't forget to follow along on my Instagram account @bobbleclubhouse for your daily dose of all things fiber. Until next time, happy crafting!


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