The New Silk Road

Marion Hera Gorr is a New Zealander who lives and operates her textile business in Australia .She enjoys textiles and garments as an art form, and expresses her feelings for nature and beauty using these wonderful silk fabrics and colour dyes. She has been making her own clothing from about 10 years of age and also working to provide her school book money and so on. Her mother had a tailoring business and so Marion Hera Gorr earned a love of textiles early on.  Textiles kept coming to her, and despite many business ventures not really taking off, her textile trading has been a good sustainable business. Marion Hera Gorr trade textiles in Australia mostly Asian origin textiles, India and China being her main supply line.  Currently she serves her customers mainly online and in her spare time she does a small farming hobby, growing South American fruits and organic vegetables.

How did you start your brand- Beautiful Silks? What inspired the vision behind your brand?

I have a very good friend and mentor in New Zealand Susan Holmes who is a wonderful artist, she suggested I start selling silk at some textile events she was attending, and silk was not being offered at these events.  Her advice is always worth listening to so I decided to try it.  I took along a suitcase full of silk pieces that I had and people appreciated this, and bought the silks.  When people spotted me at my little stand they would exclaim, ah Beautiful Silks. Therefore the name Beautiful Silks was gifted by my very first customers.  Of course I diversified to all natural textiles now, so it is known as Beautiful Silks and Naturals.

I did not have any money at the time but after a year or so Peter Lucena, who had been trading silks in New Zealand for many years and had supplied me when I was a dress designer in that country, invested in my business in Australia and so I bought stock with his guidance and that really gave me a good start.  Not long after that, I had been away trading silk and another textile trader suggested that I attend an auction being held that day.  I happened to have money in my pocket from trading and managed to buy a lot of smoke damaged silks at the auction for very little money. I then dyed and printed those silks and sold those at a profit and this really did give me a boost.  Having the skills of dyeing printing and making has always stood me in good stead as I can develop products myself without huge investment of money to do so.  Plus I can advise my customers and help them, as they have technical difficulties etc.  So for anyone going to start a business, it is a great help to like what you trade with and also to know a bit about it.  Also my husband is a lawyer and his guidance with government compliance and insurance, tax etc has been invaluable. Without his help, I would have had to outlay money with lawyers accountants and other expensive professionals to set up.

What’s it like to work with silk as a material? What is it about silk that appeals to you personally?

Silk is a material that has been used by humanity for at least 6000 years.  It is warm yet it can breathe and adjust the body temperature according to the weather, so that on a hot day, after an initial warming, the body and the material adjust accordingly.  Also the silk worm cannot have pesticides close to it so it is protecting the environment for us as well.  We do have to kill the pupated silk worm to obtain the silk in industrially produced silk, however in India you produce ahimsa silk and this is available for people who cannot abide by any violence to any creature.  All parts of the silk are used, and the pupa is very high in protein and other enzymes, often there is nil waste and no pollution from the silk.  It is very light on the earth. Having said that however some silk worms of course get through to reproduce and silk husbandry is a huge science.  The silk worms have co-operated with humans now for millennia and in doing so some of them get to reproduce so cleverly they have decided to go along with us in giving their all to us.  Also their DNA structure means that most other moths, silverfish and other pests do not find silk palatable so silk will last, as long as it is not kept in strong sunlight and away from rats and mice it will last for many hundreds of years.  Some silk has been found in caves and is said to be over 2000 years old.  The history of silk is immense romantic and the textiles are alive and wonderful to match all this history.

Where are Beautiful  Silks products dyed and made? Can you describe the process?

About 75% of my products originate in China and 25% from India. Most of the products I import to Australia are undyed.  This is because of the objection I have to dirty dyeing practices that have ruined water around the globe for many people.  For instance the cheap clothing being made for the Australian market in Bali has contaminated water and I have heard this has happened here in India as well. A lot of my customers are natural dyers and come to me for good textiles to do their dyeing on.  Some of my customers use synthetic dyes as indeed I do myself on occasions but if it is done carefully with no runoff minimum pollution occurs.  In fact if silk floss is used as a filter at the end of the process you capture any salts etc in that filter. The discovery about silk filter was made by professor Zhang at Zhejian University in China which is one of the main silk growing areas near Shanghai.  Beautiful Silks also has a small production unit where we and I personally get behind the sewing machine design and make garments in house.  These are always limited edition and we do them when we have time, for example in the winter when it is too cold or wet to work on our dye plant gardens, or on the too hot summer days. I also hire designers and sewing people to come in from time to time to do small productions for us, a picture of that unit is attached.

What would you describe as the most significant development in your work as a fabric collector over the years?

The interest of textile artists and workers to understand the process of production and to care about the people making the textiles, and the move toward natural dyeing as mainstream practice, this has dictated to me what to focus on, and has been a symbiotic transfer, as knowledge became available through for example the very important book by India Flint, called Eco Colour, we were shown the way to a cleaner way of practicing our craft and our art.  Also with the revolution in information we now hear about bad practice and the impact it is having on our environment, the animals and human lives, we want to avoid harmful actions. I agree with these principals and therefore have driven the business along this path steering away from negatively impacting all others.

India is the only country that produces all the four commercial varieties of silk. However we have not yet been capable of making any significant impact in the global silk market. Your thoughts?

Price is the core value. Firstly, Indian silk is quite different from Chinese silk in that it is not organized through one organization.  In the days of Chairman Mao silk was via one arm of the government, and any person buying silk in those days had to get a permit to visit the production houses. This of course has changed now but with the opening up of China many of those units have co-operative and privatized with high tech weaving equipment, also silk husbandry is efficient whilst silk is still grown at the commune level, the eggs are delivered to the farms, cocoon are grown in small units, then taken back to central processing.  Processing is centralized and highly efficient. Roads and transport are highly organized - Costs are low and shipping costs from China are also very competitive.

One of the reasons I have got onto a flight and come to India during my usual holiday time is to meet my suppliers so that we can communicate on a one to one basis and sort out difficulties.

My main difficulty with my Indian supplies is keeping up the consistency.  Quality can vary from shipment to shipment - often vastly.  A global market has to be able to rely on the consistency of dealings with people. Business people all look for reliability in our trades.  We understand that a natural product varies a little, but weight size etc is something we can adhere to. To capture the global market Indian silk must be marketed for what it is - an artisanal product handmade and grown at the village level. It is friendly to the environment and absolutely something to own and to treasure.

Silk is a sustainable artisanal textile with durable healthy properties.  There have been too many cheap and nasty silks on the market for too long, silks that are frail. Businesses making a quick buck with frail silks made into garments that fall to pieces in 5 minutes. These types of production damage the image of a fine product; there is no brand of Indian Silks that the market recognizes.  So people don’t understand the wonderful qualities of for example hand loomed Indian tussar and they won’t until they are told about it.  I think if India wants to capture more of the global market, resources have to be put into the right areas to make people aware of what Indian silk actually is.  A lot of people are very ignorant in terms of textiles and do not understand the health benefits of wearing clean and naturally dyed textiles, this must be publicized.

Films of people harvesting, reeling, spinning and weaving, of the real people in the silk story, need to be made and this story needs to be promoted on social media and in documentary form so that globally people are educated about this resource. Health benefits need to be explained. Dermatologists have to be interviewed about skin diseases and why people wearing plastic textiles suffer fungal skin diseases for example. Making silk cheaper than China is not going to happen; the Chinese are too advanced in their efficiencies. India is a different place with different products those products need to be promoted. India needs to focus on what it does well, it makes wonderful films, it makes textured marvelous silk textiles, it has amazing cultures and people, this story needs to be told to the global audience, and resources have to be put toward it.  For too long the textile workers have been down trodden and taken for granted.  Until Indian itself sees what it has got, it will not appeal to the global market either.

What advice would you give to upcoming textile designers that want to start their own brand?

Start small start local. You will learn more about yourself this way. 

Listen to what your customers ask you and always keep your promises about deliver on time, appointments you must be reliable. 

Keep out of debt as much as possible. This gives you power over your destiny even though going into debt is promoted as something you have to do, it is not true, it takes your power away.

Be creative with labeling packaging and so on.  For example newspaper looks wonderful when it is used creatively, I have seen designers do block print on newspaper and use it as wrapping. Cheap brown paper looks amazing with a simple print put on by you.

Save money on all expenditure eg- hand make swing tags and look at your waste stream - textile scraps see what you can reuse for labels etc.  This will display your authenticity, and in today’s world, the customer is looking for that.

Spend money on good equipment and keeping up the quality of your work. Good equipment can be second hand, and inexpensive if you persevere and look for it.

People like to see creative work.  If you need people to help make sure they can do the work to your standard.

Don’t expect miracles overnight it is a lot of hard work and setbacks will always come it are common to have challenges.

Look for wealthy customers who might help and support you.  Ask them to give you an order and always get paid up front, this is especially true when dealing with wealthy people. Some people use the power of wealth to belittle others; do not let people do this to you.

It is very important to teach yourself how to ask for money and be strict about that.  If people don’t have money to pay you today they are less likely to have it next month.

Produce a line of items that are lower in cost, eg so called ‘bread and butter’ items that people can buy as gifts and so on. It could be a small bag or a scarf made from recycled saris, for example.  Friends can then buy those from you and be able to help you.

Finally enjoy being a creative artist in your field that is the true success in all business, if you can enjoy what you do, and love your work, it will show and you will find a good life.  If you have money to invest use it wisely, we all have luck and chances happen from time to time, make the most of what comes along to you.

What are your future plans for Beautiful Silks?

Beautiful Silks is a lean well run organization, after the retail sector slowed down in Australia I built my own warehouse on land I had bought many years before, and spent money on our current website. That means my overheads have dropped significantly and I can reduce the mark up margin on items.  Mail order is sent out daily and we have over 8000 customers, 10% of these are offshore from Australia.

We are developing a range of products for babies with sensitive skin, some we are making in house some we are importing, from wool silk and hopefully Indian Organic cotton.

We are also looking for ethical producers to work with as we change and grow and meet our customers’ needs.  Unlike other businesses we sell product we hope will last, some of our linen sheets etc are designed to last 30 years plus of hard ware and washing.  So when we sell we are looking to provide earth and human produced items that not only are reasonable price but don’t cost the earth.  Already I am visiting my Chinese supplier’s factories regularly, work conditions etc need to be of good standard and in fact they are higher in many cases than factories I have seen in USA.  Wages are also of a good standard.  I would like to develop those sorts of relationships in India and it takes time. India has its old culture hierarchies I don’t understand and so I have to be aware that I am not imposing my own standards on systems that work well for people on the local ground. Hopefully a younger generation will take on the Beautiful Silks business and develop these ideas.


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