We paid a visit to Italian-born knitwear designer-maker and wool artisan Martina Gallina to find out how the idea of LaMartiz Handmade was born and what is her recipe for turning a house into a home. Mixing Scandi retro patterns with a modern contemporary look, and rustic elements infused with Eastern European folk colours, Martina creates beautiful and tactile handknits and home accessories that are all about intimacy, cosiness, warmth and comfort.
Engaged in a lively conversation about her Italian heritage and how it influenced her approach to crafts and home styling, we realised that Martina’s recipe for creating a world of comfort revolves around a simple yet fundamental element: people getting together. Staying true to her Italianness, Martina cooked a hearty polenta and meatballs dish and kindly invited us to have lunch together, chatting away about her interest in brutalist architecture, her trips to Russia and Poland and her love for all things handmade.
Can tell us about your childhood in Italy?
I am from a small town located between Venice and the Dolomites in Italy, very close to the valley where the famous Prosecco is produced. Yes, I am very lucky, because I was always torn between exploring the mountains, hiking with my dad on Sundays, or playing by the river or on the beach, not far from my home. I was always engaged with every subject in school, I don’t remember having a favourite subject, even if humanities seemed to be more interesting and fun to me. As a young girl I remember being quite “the little explorer”, I joined the girl guides which I really enjoyed but in all honesty I was a terrible hiker! I was always trying to look around and see everything around me. Being so lost in my thoughts, I never realised that all my friends were half a mile in front of me! But on the plus side, this is how I met my longest and most treasured friend.
Your grandmother seems to be a great inspiration for you. Is she the one who initiated you into the art of crochet? What drew you to the medium?
Well, all the women in my family make wonders with crochet hooks and knitting needles: my mother, her mother, my dad’s mother, my aunties and my cousins, they literally are even better than me! Traditionally, they would use delicate laces and take the time to make masterpieces, while patience has never been my forte and unfortunately, that fine art would be kept for them! My dad’s mother was the grandmother I used to spend my afternoons with. As far as I can remember, she was ALWAYS doing something, whether she was sewing, embroidering, knitting or, well, cooking (never forget my “Italian-ness”)! She was extremely elegant (a part of her DNA that I’m afraid I’ve missed!!), she used to make her own clothes and she was always looked very presentable.
The first stitches with a crochet hook were with her and with my mother. But the impatience of seeing the finished project and then the late rebellion of my twenties (the “I don’t do women’s stuff”) took me away from the medium. My eagerness to accomplish everything that I had in my mind, all the projects that I wanted to create, I wanted them to be done in a flash. The big turning point for me was the moment I met my husband.
Simone, who is a professional classical musician and music editor, has always been to me an example of commitment and discipline, and his approach to his practice inspired my own. The teaching that working hard just doesn’t mean that idea equals final product: it is my personal method in between these two elements that is really important. The thought process, the design, reshaping, allowing mistakes and learning from them are fundamental steps to my practice to date.
Can you remember your first knitted/crocheted project?
Yes of course! It was meant to be a blanket but I never finished it!
You have travelled and studied around Europe. What are some of the most memorable places and situations that you’ve experienced along the way?
Yes, I have: I studied Foreign languages, Literature and then later, International Politics in Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and University of Padua. I specialised in English and Russian and I also tried to learn some Armenian, if it wasn’t enough!
This took me to Russia where I took part in a Russian Art History course and my love of art was rekindled. I then travelled to the UK where I wrote my dissertation about Gothic Novels (the perfect place to be!). But if you ask me what I love about both countries, it is their urban landscape. The Russian industrial architecture, even if largely criticised, somehow attracts me. Same with the red bricks industrial architecture that you can find here in the UK. I visited Poland quite a few times, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone and I really like the people I have met and well… the food there was amazing! But I would say my favourite city to visit is Berlin. My best friend lives there and every now and then I go there to enjoy some good young continental vibe as well as her company! I shared with her this fantastic road trip, driving my old super tiny car from Cardiff to Brighton and then from Brighton to Innsbruck and then Innsbruck to Italy through the Alps: I was going to get married and my heavy wedding dress was in the back of the car! It has been quite an experience! I will never forget that!
I still have so many places I would love to go to. Europe will always be my favourite place, but I would like to go a bit further and visit Central Asian countries, China, South America. Finances are an issue but hopefully next year…
What was it about Scandinavian style that drew your attention initially? Do you have any specific makers/artisans/artists that you admire?
I love Scandinavian style because of the simplicity of its definition: democratic. It is accessible, welcoming and inclusive. Like a canvass, the main use of neutral elements allows you to add an accent of colour, to create your personal vision. It gives space to rustic details, it can be industrial, it can carry some notes of folk and primitivism.
But if you are really asking me who is my favourite Scandinavian artist: I love Kay Bojesen and his wooden monkeys! Together with wool, wood is my other favourite element and I love wooden toys! But these monkeys… they would be great next to my cushions! I will surely get one one day!
Oh, I will go off topic by saying that other Scandinavian artists that I admire a lot are ABBA.
What is your take on Hygge?
As an Italian, family and friends gathering is something I know very well and ever since I became familiar with the concept of hygge I realised that I have got a lot in common with it. For me it’s about being surrounded by the people I love: when they are in my home I want them to feel relaxed, to enjoy every moment, to feel the warmth of our friendship and enjoy some good food! The only thing that differentiates my experience from the hygge lifestyle is probably just the fact that I had the luck of living in a very sunny country and I didn’t need all these candles!
All the rest comes after, soft clothes, blankets, cushions: creating your own world of comfort, who wouldn’t like this?
What is it about home décor and interiors that fascinates you the most? What makes your house your home and how did your Italian heritage influence your approach to crafts and home style?
To be honest my love for home décor began when I moved here to the UK. Italy has a wonderful art and design heritage that we are lucky to export all over the world. But when it’s about a family home, tradition is everything. What I mean is that we might have furniture that is kept for generations: up-cycling doesn’t exist. The preservation of well-crafted items is instilled into us with no question of modernising in line with the trends. For example, my grandmother’s table for one, it is still intact, the same as (I suppose) the first day it was bought 60 years ago, in the same space where it was originally put, and will continue to be there for the years to come.
By contrast, what I love about the UK is the ability to evolve constantly through the home styles and trends that appear over time.
Although a taboo in Italy, what I have learned here is that up-cycling is actually possible (for example stripping a chair and making a new one like I did some time ago) and probably the fact that my parents are hundreds of miles away doesn’t make me feel as guilty as if I was repainting my grandmother’s table (sorry dad if you are reading this).
Back to the question, what makes a house a home to me is its power to generate memories. So I welcome picture frames, big tables, chairs in abundance, an unimaginable amount of food (that always goes down very well!), candles and big comfortable sofas! So, the concept of gathering is fundamental to me and my husband.
Tell us a bit about your work process.
My work process does not include a strict technique. In the beginning, what triggers me is creating the perfect colour palette, choosing the right materials, as well as imagining where or how my items will be placed or worn. All the rest comes later. I allow myself the freedom to design what I want in the way I picture it in my mind and I take a lot of time to make that a reality.
Once I am satisfied with this I then fix the technique and create a pattern, I suppose this is where counting the stitches comes in: can we call this organic crafting?
What was your life like before LaMartiz Handmade?
Ordinary. I suppose I didn’t have the right people around me who encouraged me to pursue something that is simply mine. Thankfully, I am quite a curious and practical person, so I started attending dressmaking courses even if LaMartiz Handmade wasn’t even an option to consider. I am a learner by nature, I want to know how to make everything. Interior design and then upholstery have been interests that in Italy I could have never pursued. Here in the UK I definitely found way more opportunities to express my need to create!
What do you love about living in Cardiff?
The weather is something I have never experienced before! I was used to having set seasons (hot-cold, July-December) whereas now my summer is arguing between wearing tights that are 80 denier or 60 denier! Apart from this, I love the location of this city being so closed to the sea and the mountains, which gives me a sense of familiarity.
The heart of the city has a vibrancy that I feel somehow connected to. Not to mention the people who have made me feel welcome since my arrival in Wales in 2014. I found that these relationships have helped me to not be saddened by my nostalgia, and have pushed me forward in a positive light.
What are some of your favourite places in Cardiff and why?
Well I will tell you now, in the Central Market there is a stall that sells my favourite Welsh cakes, something I have never tried before. I really enjoy eating them when walking around the other stalls and visiting the greengrocers. Roath Park in Autumn is exceptional, as well as the restaurants on City Road!
What do you think about the Art and Craft scene in Wales?
Being fairly new to the scene here in Cardiff, I see there is a positive network for designers/makers who all team up to support each other and share their skills. This may include notifying one another if there is space available for selling, offering help with marketing, organising independent little events, or simply getting together to see how everyone is. Above all, I find extremely comforting that the Cardiff and Valleys Etsy team have such a strong work comradeship and I am lucky to be part of the team!
What does a typical day in your life look like?
Social media is a big part of the job. It is a daily learning curve: taking pictures in the correct setting, under the perfect light, with the right blend of objects. You can’t imagine how much time it takes to get one decent picture! I love sitting at my desk with a freshly brewed coffee, and when I have to restock the online shop (this implies items I am used to making mechanically) I can choose that perfect old movie that I haven’t seen for a long time. That for me is the perfect day. In addition to all this, well I love cooking and experimenting so one is likely to find me in the kitchen!
You have recently moved into a new home/studio space. What is your favourite thing about this fresh setting thus far?
I finally moved back to the city centre (I used to live quite far out before) and I am enjoying being able to walk anywhere I want, when I want! Having my own studio space is fantastic, I can now justify all the expenses for creating my perfect workroom. I now have big storage shelves, a huge wooden table that allows me to work on my bigger projects, and now that I have the space I can hopefully look into organising workshops in my studio!
What can we find in your wardrobe? How do you define your personal style?
When I am at home I like to wear chequered shirts and jeans, it’s all about being comfortable! However, when I go out I like to dress up in a more vintage/hyper feminine type of way. Accessories like jewellery and belts are important for me. I am particularly drawn to big ethnic earrings. I would like to wear high heels but I am way too tall and inexperienced, Bambi on Ice comes to mind! Also, when the weather changes and it is particularly cold and windy I love to wear my huge chunky cowl on top of my grey duster coat. I didn’t realise they would be such a success if you think I invented them for myself as I am always cold!
You mentioned earlier that you are a member of CAVETSY. Can you tell us more about this? How did you become part of it and what do you like about it?
Under CAVETSY you can find some of the best makers from Cardiff, The Valleys and South Wales in general. It came to life a couple of years ago. Having an online shop on the Etsy platform made me eligible to become a member. We are so many! I think we are around 450 artists which is incredible and I am very proud to be a part of it. As I have previously said, the network of support is extremely comforting, because you can feel very isolated as an independent maker.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently in the process of creating some new patterns that will be published very soon.
What is the most stressful aspect of running your own business?
As I mentioned before, keeping up with social media requires an enormous amount of time. Updating my Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter account, taking new pictures and learning how to edit them. Developing my online communication skills is the hardest aspect for me as a non-English native speaker. In conjunction with these elements, I have to point out that self-motivation can sometimes be tiresome. However, with all the ideas that pop into my mind, it is easy for me to pull myself out of my procrastination.
Except for Etsy, in what other places can we find your creations? Do you attend any local markets?
I have taken part in local markets in Cardiff city centre and Penarth, which was a fantastic experience. I was able to engage with my customers, see them try on my cowls and cwtch up to the homeware, something I don’t get to see online. When it’s Christmas you are likely to find my creations in Pop Up Shops in Cardiff or Bristol, but for the coming year I am aiming to have my items on the shelves in some of your favourite shops!
Where can we find you when you are not working in your studio?
Well, I am not the pub crawling type of woman, but what I do enjoy is spending time with my friends and binge watching random things on Netflix. If you don’t find me on the sofa, I will most definitely be organising my next travelling bout to somewhere new. The next destination is going to be the Balkans in a couple of months.
Do you have a favourite dish?
I like cooking so I’d say I like my food which is very traditional and it’s mainly vegetarian. But sometimes I feel the need to pop in City Road and have some sushi or kebab! OMG I love City Road!
Your favourite season?
It used to be Summer but now I’m in love with the atmosphere of Autumn.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I have changed so much in the past ten years that I don’t ask myself anymore what I would like to be when I grow up. I would like to enrol to University again to study Art History. But not here in the UK. Thanks to Brexit probably I will return to the continent with my husband and kids! For sure I will never give up with my crochet hooks!
Can you recommend us:
A song: “Brain”, by BANKS.
A book: The Late Mattia Pascal, by Luigi Pirandello.
A film: Ten Winters, by Valerio Mieli; and also, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974) by Lina Wertmuller are my two best favourites!