Art / Fashion
Linda Nurk grows her own silkworms to produce biodegradable ”Couture Vivante”
”For every new phase you see them develop and change and along with that comes the next stage and the next challenge,” the Swedish/Estonian designer tells.
2 Jul 2021

Linda Nurk can’t take a single day off.

After spending a decade in Paris where she took her fashion degree and went on to work in McQueen and Lagerfeld’s studios at Givenchy and Chanel respectively, she moved back to Stockholm and opened her own studio.

— I learned a lot from the Masters (Lagerfeld and McQueen, Ed’s note), and these days, I do my own thing, combining art and design with raw elements of nature — a method I’ve come to call ”Couture Vivante”, she tells.

Tell us about your work.

— After working for half my life in a fashion industry where ethical issues play second fiddle to constant production I was keen to go back to first principles and try to find methods through which I could nurture the supply chain rather than outsourcing to factories and farms whose business practices were opaque at best. By focusing on the origins of all the materials at my disposal and attempting to put together a complete picture of my discipline — you know: ”Where does it all come from and where does it all end up?” — was an existential question really, Nurk says. She continues:

— It started off as a kind of ”aspirational research”. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do anything at scale but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to understand each stage of the process and really take a magnifying glass to all the ”norms” we take for granted. Eventually I began to attempt a proof-of-concept incorporating natural elements in order to attempt and explore what the language of couture might be in the context of home-grown biodegradable textiles. 

After two and a half years of what can best be describes as ”urban micro-farming”, Nurk’s found a path towards a ”wild” mix of biodegradable methods in body-sculpted fashion.

— As said, this is still at experimental scale to a certain extent but the ambition is to dismantle the norms of mass manufacturing. The Flat-spun Silk Intarsia method I’ve developed has taken the approach of the gardener in relation to my work. By studying and following the lifecycle of the silkworm I am able to cultivate ornate and organic textiles through a slow process of observing, intervening and guiding. When working with silk one forms relationships and the silkworms become your closest collaborators. There’s almost a two-way nurturing process where all these different ways of integrating what would normally be bi-products or even waste products present themselves as part of the cycle of creation-decay-renewal.

— So the work happens at a kind of fulcrum between organic growth and controlled production and really sublimates the idea of what self-sustaining biodegradable design and material-growth should look like, a kind of idea-picture naturally forms where one is deep in a psycho-emotional eco-system where production and waste lives in symbiosis with the wearer. 

— In this ”post-growth mode” I am naturally disposed to developing poetic and abstract imagery where the form — of human bodies, silk, and vegetation — fixes into 3-dimensional surfaces and transforms into landscapes of capturing life and rebirth.

— The whole process is completely manual, there are no machines involved anywhere. I physically pick up and place individual silkworms so that they move in criss-cross under and over one another across sculpted body forms.

In this process, producing garments and objects made of your own silk, what’s the most challenging part? And the most rewarding?

— Working with ”living and growing” materials is like nurturing your own babies. At the beginning of every new cycle, the life of the tiny silkworms is completely dependent on how well I care for them. I can’t take a single day off. As they grow the silkworms do become more acclimatised but still, I can’t just slack off — otherwise, it will all go bananas. I mean, I’ll end up losing a ”crop” of course but more than that, when you raise such helpless organisms you’re really thinking of their health rather than your production resources, says Nurk, continuing,

— I think it’s these small steps of growth that are also the most rewarding moments in the end. For every new phase you see them develop and change and along with that comes the next stage and the next challenge. So in all, I think the most vital parts are also the most challenging and rewarding, basically ensuring the living organisms thrive and grow well all the time.

— But, if you think of it in the grand scheme of things, the challenge is not really any different than the conventional clothing or textile production, I mean, even if we produce man-made fibers or let’s say leather, there is always a living person, animal or organisms in the environment that are part of the production. And if the industry could ethically take care of all living parts involved, then it is basically what I do just on a smaller one-person production scale. I know that it is doable on a much grander scale — with a much grander price tag to match — but most importantly for me is to be part of the living production cycle and getting that real-time bio feedback. It’s a production method where I really feel the rewards of my effort.

Photography: Sara MacKey

While Nurk’s couture pieces are more for show — we’ll get to that later — she just launched a line of scarves which will be the first products available to buy.

—From my bio-organic home-grown textile process, she tells, I have transformed some of the actual patterns into digital bio-prints. I’ve used the most delicate woven ”peace” silk and the production — although not my own — is completely ethically balanced to all living organisms, environment, and even soil. I wanted to make my slow-craft approach and ”Couture Vivante” methods into accessible pre-order products. 

— A living wardrobe may not yet be a reality but it likely will be in the future — it may even be essential — and I’m always looking at the latest research and keeping an eye on innovations in bio-textiles. So I took an opportunity to partner with London-based transdisciplinary design research studio Post Carbon Lab in London who has been developing a CO2-absorbing micro bacteria textile coating. The coating itself takes about 6 weeks to grow and is derived from algae and Cyanobacteria. A selection of the prints in this silk scarves collection has the photosynthesis coating grown directly upon it so as a buyer or wearer of this product you are taking part in a pretty cutting-edge pilot project.

— So it’s a combination of ethically sourced silk, cutting edge bio-research and the aesthetics of the serenity and serendipty of my urban farming. It’s kind of poetic and whimsical but also functionally filtering CO2 from the atmosphere and recycling it into oxygen.

The scarf series

This summer, Linda Nurk’s piece Collected Tears is on display at Sofiero castle as part of the exhibition Eternal fashion — an exhibition about our times.

— The piece consists of a female body that I cast and a silk lace piece that was sculpted onto it by my little silkworm pals. The body is suspended in space and time and in addition to all the mentioned Couture Vivante methodology, it represents another layer of the life-death cycle, namely where each of us as individuals come from, she tells, continuing,

— Collected Tears is really a signifier of each of us being at a point in a journey that extends from us in all directions into the past and future. You and I and everyone we have ever met and everyone we will never meet are all the result of the experiences of our ancestors, their journeys and conflicts, actions and inactions, joys and sorrows. It’s all collected into both this little vessel that makes us who we are but also into all that has shaped our environment into what it is. In turn our triumphs and our grief will drip down into the soil and have deep consequences far into the future. 

— The installation is a valuable moment in which to contemplate such things, Nurk concludes.

Collected Tears at Sofiero castle