July 04, 2024

PENELOPE DURSTON | Cottage Industry Store | Meet Pen

PENELOPE DURSTON | Cottage Industry Store | Meet Pen

If you’ve ever visited the iconic shopping strip of Gertrude Street Fitzroy in Melbourne, you would’ve stumbled upon the very charming Cottage Industry Store. If you wandered in, you would've met Pen!

A true Gertrude St local, Penelope Durston is a stalwart of business - a textile connoisseur. With her talent, skills and knowledge, she crafts clothing and homely goods with a distinctive flair - not to mention the most incredible range of gloves, socks and beanies using 3D-knitting technology that she also hand-dyes in her studio.

We’re so honoured to present Pen's range of accessories as part of Mrs Woo 20th Anniversary Showcase.



MRS WOO: Ahhh, you know Pen... your name and store are interchangeable to us - we refer to your work as either! When did you launch Penelope Durston the label? Or was Cottage Industry first? What sparked your business?

PEN: The 'Penelope Durston' label came before Cottage Industry. Years ago I had a business called 'Textilia' and then in the early 2000s I started working under my name. An old and dear friend of mine suggested it was a good name to use as a brand! When I decided I needed to open a shop in 2008, I didn't want to trade under my name but needed a name that would cover everything we would be doing and decided on Cottage Industry.

For me it was a little tongue in cheek, less about 'cottagecore' (which came a lot later as a style) and more about the historical nature of work. Cottage industries were family businesses run from peoples' homes and often at the mercy of work contractors and middlemen, and then finally ruined by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of factories. 

If I hadn't gone on to study for a BA in Textile Design as a youngster, the dream job would have been as an archeologist.... so I keep that passion alive a little with the traditions and history of textiles, and a deep love of techniques and making. 

Short story long, that's kind of why I opened the shop. I realised that the shops I wholesaled to didn't talk about the context and background of what they sold. There was no storytelling, no explaining why things were designed and made the way they were, and I wanted my own space were we could talk to the customer about the products we made and carried. I believe this is fundamental to running a good and sustainable business. I make things I would like to wear and use, and we stock overseas brands that have been in business for generations, are creating amazing hand-loomed fabrics or producing thoughtful and interesting products.


MRS WOO: It resonates so much with us! And the thing with traditional cottage industries too, often the things that were made were essentials. You're producing gloves, socks, beanies from your own cottage. But the yarn, the materials…! Your colour palette… there is so much love and play in how you've made these. What inspires your creativity and drives your making?

PEN: There are a lot of products we make but our knitted accessories are our seasonal bread-and-butter. While we now knit all year round on our Shima Seiki computerised knitting machine, the hand-dyeing and finishing is restricted to the cooler months. It's not fun stirring big, steamy dye vats on a 35ºC days!

We've been working with the same New Zealand yarn manufacturer for 20 years and they produce our special angora/lambswool yarn for us that we can dye, and is machine washable. We're just waiting on our batch of 200kg to be delivered as we speak!

I wanted to create a product that had longevity. We knit with an amazing Japanese Lycra yarn that gives stretch and return and makes for products that hold their shape. We rarely use synthetic fibres in our products but in cases like this, we do use nylon as it gives strength and durability, and this is very important to us. We don't use it from a cost perspective but rather to make our products better.

By hand-dyeing in small batches we never end up with a colour that doesn't sell, and we can keep up with demand quickly even if it is exhausting and sometimes annoying. If we were to dye the yarn than piece-dye, we would probably only do 4 to 6 colours a season (with the possibility of getting the colours wrong!) But working this way within the season, we can do up to 50 colours/shades from April to August when I finally turn off the dye vats. And really all the colours are just based on what I feel like dyeing, it's all a bit intuitive.


MRS WOO: The way that you’re working with technology and the unique yarns you’re sourcing is responsible and thoughtful. Can you tell us about the sustainability practices involved in producing your range?

PEN: I've always been interested in the idea of getting a product 'right' and then continuing to produce it over many years. To me this is the highest form of sustainability.

When I first started doing fingerless gloves I was knitting them on a domestic machine, this was the first iteration of our 'slove' style fingerless glove. I then found a couple who had a business up-country who could knit fingerless gloves on original chain-driven Shima Seiki glove machines. They produced for me for many years until one year I got the call in the middle of the winter season to say they were stopping contract knitting. So I thought to learn it myself. I got lucky enough to be able to purchase a brand new mini 'wholegarment' knitting machine and this opened up a whole new world. I was able to design and knit multiple styles, branch out into beanies and scarves, and improve the quality of the product. 

While delegating manufacturing suits some businesses making in-house is a great way to work. For us, it's perfect. 

We produce regularly throughout the year, in smaller quantities so we have less waste and we can oversee quality. The studio is 2-minutes from our shop in Fitzroy so production could not be more local and the stock is usually trolleyed up the street much to the amusement of our neighbours.

While we would love our yarn to be produced in Australia, sadly, there are no facilities left here that can produce this type of yarn. The company we work with in New Zealand can do special orders in low quantities which is a boon for a small business like ours. This also applies to our Japanese Lycra yarn - the quality is exceptional so we prefer to use it over cheaper versions.

I think sustainability can take many forms but the chief one to me is producing a quality product that can last over many years. We test everything we make and I assure you, I do some dreadful things to our products to see how well they stand up to abuse. Form and function tick the boxes for sustainability - with a dash of pleasing colours!


MRS WOO: You produce all of your accessories range in-house, with a lot of care and detail - AND wholesale, retail, design markets and everything else. You’re a one-woman show! What do you love about your work that keeps you going, that most people would not know or realise?

PEN: That perhaps I am a little crazy and have no life?!

I've been making things all my life, from a very young age. And I think for those of us that use our minds and hands to create, it's something that invades your whole life. Making is who we are and we turn feral if we don't get time to be creative.

The something about me that most people wouldn't know is that I am actually incredibly lazy.... and I procrastinate endlessly over cleaning!

PENELOPE DURSTON incredible accessories range is now available in High Tea with Mrs Woo's NEWCASTLE and SYDNEY stores.
Posted in creativesmallbusiness meetthemaker mrswooanniversaryshowcase