When I think of Bari J. Ackerman, my brain goes to layers and layers of loveliness. Her work is so intricate and her use of color so joyful that looking at her blog is often my reward after a day of stressful work (her logo alone calms and inspires me).
Her first book, Inspired to Sew, (Stash Books) came out earlier this year (do you have it yet? Why not?! Go order right now!). In addition to her line of patterns, she also designs fabric (her next line, Paris Apartment, will be available in July). What I particularly love about Bari J. is that she has this terrific eye for vintage that just feels right and feels real and usable (she talks about this in her Q&A—I love what she says about vintage purses). When I look at her stuff, I am reminded that color and texture and playfulness and nostalgia aren’t just concepts for Milan runways or boutique windows: they can be tenets of everyday life.
Bari J. is generously offering one of her gorgeous patterns (the winner can choose any one of her patterns, all listed here) and a stack of 8 fat quarters (it will be a random mix), which might look something like this . . .
So, enjoy the Q&A with her (it’s very insightful—especially for people who dream of designing fabric), and enter to win Bari's stuff, as well as a copy of Sew Retro, by leaving a comment between now and Thursday, June 16th, at noon EST. I won’t disqualify you if your comment is just “hey, cool,” but in the spirit of Bari J’s story (see question #1!), I’d love to know what goal (sewing-specific, business, design, personal—whatever) you still have for yourself, whether you’re 23 or 35 or 64 or 82.
Q: I’m always fascinated how people come to fabric and pattern design. What is your background, and what made you switch from just making bags to designing fabric and patterns?
Bari J.: Just out of college I worked as a copywriter and graphic designer in advertising. After I had kids and stopped working I started puttering around making jewelry and collage art from found objects, which I sold to local boutiques. Soon thereafter I found sewing and was immediately hooked. Once I had my website up and going I found I was doing a lot of graphic design again and that’s when the idea for surface design, and in particular fabric design, began. It was also pretty clear to me after I started my blog that although people loved my bags and accessory line, my readers were DIYers. I can’t even tell you how many times I was asked for a pattern. The next logical step really was sewing patterns.
Truth told, making the jump to fabric design was not easy. I’d done graphic design and I knew the computer software, but I had no idea where to start. I didn’t know how to make repeats and I didn’t trust my drawing skills. It’s funny because my mother painted my whole life. But having come from a large family, each sibling sort of takes their role and sticks with it. My brother and sister drew and painted a bit, so I was the actress/singer in the family. It’s interesting how family dynamics work. It never even occurred to me that I could draw until I finally tried at 35 years old. In order to design fabric, I had purchased a graphics tablet for the computer. Once I picked up the pen and got going, the ideas kept coming. I can’t even tell you the number of hours I practiced drawing or the number of designs I erased, but eventually I had a collection ... and I’d figured out the elusive pattern repeat.
Right about that time, Spoonflower, started its beta program. So I wrote them and asked to be a part of it. They digitally printed the first collection for me, I made a quilt and other items and off I went to quilt market with several appointments ahead of me with fabric companies. At the time it was still unheard of to have actual fabric samples (now it’s old hat, everyone is digitally printing), so it was a blast to show what you could actually do with the designs I’d done. Everyone wanted to know how I got the fabric printed. Things sure change fast, huh? That was October 2008.
Q: Paris Apartment is your next collection, correct? I love the previews I’ve seen! What inspired this collection, and when (and where) will it be available?
Bari J.: Thank you. I’m thrilled with this collection. It really came about just through doodling and daydreaming. I have always wanted to go to Paris, but I’ve never been. As I was drawing bits and pieces out, I realized it all was part of my elaborate fantasy. This collection is how I imagine I might live if I were to have my own Paris Apartment. It is printed by Lecien and will be available in stores in early July all over the world.
Q: I’m also fascinated with how people arrive at writing a craft book, especially since it’s usually a labor of love. Inspired to Sew is so beautiful. What’s the backstory?
Bari J.: Thank you again. When I arrived home from that very first quilt market, having just sold my first line, Full Bloom, for licensing, I received an email. I was riding pretty high on the success, so in all honesty I was waiting for the sky to fall. You know? That feeling of, it’s all so good, something bad is bound to happen any minute. (Is that just me?)
At any rate, I received an email from the acquisitions editor at C&T that she’d been reading my blog and it turns out I live nearby and would I like to meet for lunch and chat. I was so completely convinced that it was a joke, I nearly deleted the email. I went back to read it a couple days later, and responded, “sure, I’d love to meet and talk about it.” And with a laugh, I forgot all about it. In the end, obviously, I did end up taking that meeting. It turned out C&T was about to launch their Stash Books imprint and it was just the absolute perfect opportunity.
It was, in fact, a labor of love for me. I, again, had no idea how I’d proceed, or if I could even do it, but it all turned out just exactly as I’d imagined, and as an added benefit, it is what propelled me into producing my line of sewing patterns.
Q: I love your tagline: Vintage inspired design for your modern life. What does that mean for you—in both your day-to-day life (what I like to call “the slogging through”) and your creative life?
Bari J.: Throughout my life, I’ve had a love of old things. I think I arrived at it through my mother who also has that aesthetic. However, you just sometimes can’t live with old stuff. In fact, old handbags are most seriously one of those things that are hard to live with in. They can be smelly for starters, something that always bothered me. And for another, they just don’t have modern conveniences. So, the tagline came from the desire to make handbags that were vintage modern. Something with an old-world feel, but with modern conveniences such as added pockets, etc. And that of course easily translates across all of my design whether it be fabric or sewing patterns.
Q: I love your post about the Springtime in Paris clutch, and how many tries it took to get it right. Often times, people don’t see all the work that goes into getting something right (and the mistakes made!). What is your process for developing patterns? Do you see it all in your head, or get your best ideas in the shower, or sketch it out, or just start cutting fabrics, etc.?
Bari J.: I’d say all of the above although I have been know to cut straight into fabrics without a plan which is something I have to force myself not to do.
I do see what I want in my head but sometimes it just doesn’t make sense in reality, so for me, I try to always make a muslin version first after I sketch and work out the measurements, etc. A little restraint in diving right into the real fabrics tends to go a long way for me.
Q: Your work is so rich in color and layers. Does it get tempting to keep adding more, especially when you are working with fabric you love? How do you edit yourself?
Bari J.: Oh boy, I have a terrible time editing. I think it’s just an instinct as to when to stop. I hear my mom saying: “Don’t you think that’s a little bit ‘unga-patchkie’?” Which is Yiddish for over the top or over done.
I do think more is more though. I’ll always say that.
Q: I find that designers are super friendly and the crafting community is a warm one. Still, there is a lot of competition these days as more and more independent designers are producing lines of patterns and fabric. Does it ever feel overwhelming? How do you stay focused?
Bari J.: I’ll tell you what, it IS overwhelming, there IS a lot of competition, but it also is a very warm community and I do think we all try to support one another. There are people who are very giving who have helped me along the way, and I try to give that in return. I do also try to stay out of the blog-o-sphere when I get that overwhelmed “I’m never gonna make it feeling.” And I had a designer say to me once that she just tries to “stay in her lane.” I’ve adopted that attitude.
Q: Lastly, what’s next for you in the short-term and the long-term?
Bari J.: I’ll be working on a new fabric line in the coming weeks for next spring and also a book proposal. And I’ll be teaching at the Sister’s Outdoor Quilt Show’s, Quilter’s Affair next month and then I’ll be in Utah teaching at the Sewing Summit in October.
Long term, I intend to license my designs on other surfaces ... hopefully some home goods and paper. All fun stuff. I really love my job.
A few months ago, I did this little article for ElleDecor.com about Spoonflower. I’d never used Spoonflower before, but had heard the buzz about it and wanted to find out more (it’s pretty cool to have a job where you get paid to learn about various random things that interest you). I talked to co-founder Stephen Fraser about the North Carolina start-up, watched this short video and was very intrigued by this novel print-on-demand fabric venture that he and business partner Gart Davis started in 2008 (with much help from their wives, Kim and Anne).
Spoonflower founders Stephen Fraser and Gart Davis. Photo courtesy Spoonflower.
They went from cutting fabric at their kitchen table to a community of 100,000 users in under three years—entirely by word of mouth. After I wrote the ElleDecor.com piece, I realized that Stephen would be a great person to do a Q&A/giveaway with, and he very generously agreed.
The Spoonflower home page. Photo courtesy Spoonflower.
Photo courtesy Spoonflower.
So, in addition to a signed copy of Sew Retro, the winner of the giveaway will also get two yards (a 2-yard cut of one print, or two 1-yard cuts of two different prints) of Spoonflower fabric-- either your own design or someone else’s. This is your chance to try your hand at designing your own fabric, or to buy someone else’s custom-designed creation. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me!
To enter, leave a comment about Spoonflower—perhaps your favorite Spoonflower print or a suggestion for their next design contest—by Wednesday, February 23nd, 2011, at noon EST.
And now, here is the Q&A with Stephen Fraser, with a little help from his wife, Kim. Enjoy!
Q: So, you are up to 100,000 strong in the Spoonflower community, and the site is positively brimming with talent from all over the world. Could you ever have envisioned this three years ago? What were your original goals for Spoonflower?
Fraser: Spoonflower came about because of a conversation I had one night with my wife, Kim, who wondered why she couldn't get her own fabric design printed to make curtains. Being an Internet guy, I found it strange that there wasn't already service that allowed people to create their own textiles, so I approached a friend, Gart Davis, about the idea and we ended up launching the first version of the Spoonflower site around May of 2008.
The Spoonflower community has grown to well over a 100,000 people at this point, which is a huge thrill for us. We keep a map on the wall—printed on fabric of course—with pins in it showing all 114 countries to which we've shipped fabric so far. When we got started we were hopeful, of course, that the idea of custom printed fabric would catch on, but from a personal standpoint it's a bit dizzying to look at where we are now compared with where we started. Building a manufacturing business from scratch using our own limited funds has been a learning experience full of challenges at every turn.
The goal with which we started was relatively simple. We wanted to take digital textile printing technology—which made it possible to print fabric with no minimum—and to make it accessible to regular people. By "regular people" I mean crafters—people like my wife Kim—who have a passion for fabric and making things but who would never spend $50 a yard to use a specialty printing service for custom fabric. To make that possible we had to solve two central problems. The first was to figure out a way to produce digitally printed fabric quickly and relatively inexpensively. The second challenge was to develop a web-based process for creating and ordering fabric with your own design that was simple and easy to use. So that's what my business partner Gart Davis and I set out to do when we started. We had a head start on the second challenge because we'd both worked for an Internet business that offered print on demand products before (Lulu.com), but we really had a lot to learn about textiles and handling digital printers. But in terms of learning the trade, we had the good fortune to live in an area with a lot of expertise not only in textiles, but also in digitally printed textiles specifically. The NC State College of Textiles is nearby, and so is a not-for-profit organization called [TC]2, which serves the sewn goods industry. They were extremely helpful to us as we went about learning what we needed to know to develop Spoonflower.
Q: Where did the name Spoonflower come from? Fraser: Spoonflower is the common name of an endangered wildflower that is native to the Southeast and grows on the edges of swamps and bogs. Kim and I ran across the name several years ago when we were figuring out what kinds of plants we could use in the rain garden in our backyard. We thought it would be the perfect name for a business that was all about self-expression and individuality.
Q: The Spoonflower story sort of reminds me of the story of Butterick patterns. One night, Ebenezer Butterick’s wife mentioned that it would be great to have sewing patterns that were already graded (sized). Butterick, a tailor by trade, saw the light bulb and started Butterick patterns! How long was it from the time you had this conversation with Kim until Spoonflower launched, and what did you do to plant the seeds for your business?
Fraser: The conversation about Kim's curtains happened in the fall of 2007, when Kim was pregnant with our third daughter, who was born that December. I think Gart and I sat down for coffee in early January 2008 and decided to pursue the idea of a print on demand fabric business. We started by asking crafters what they thought of the idea and posting a short survey online, which was then picked up and linked by several crafting blogs, including Sew Mama Sew. Within a few days we had over 500 responses to the survey. What was clear to Gart and I immediately was that our wives were not the only ones excited about the idea of printing custom fabric—lots of people wanted us to create this service.
First we set up a blog to record our progress and then we went about the process of starting to build the software that would allow Spoonflower to exist. The buzz about Spoonflower spread from blog to blog through the spring and summer and by the time we opened up the site to one and all in October of 2008 we had thousands of people—not just signed up to use Spoonflower—but cheering us on.
Q: You mentioned that you had previously worked for Lulu.com, where you gained experience in print-on-demand. What was the learning curve like when you started working with printing fabric?
Fraser: Helping develop Lulu taught us a lot about giving people the power to publish their own creations online. We understood the landscape in the sense that we knew that our task was to provide tools that enable a creative community to accomplish various things associated with the central task of creating custom fabric. We knew that we always had to give people control over their own work, how to manage and nurture a community of people who want to share their creativity with one another, and how to encourage people to connect with others and discover new designs.
Having said that, the Spoonflower experience has been wildly different from Lulu in terms of the resources available to us. Lulu was a technology company that from the beginning had significant financial backing, whereas Spoonflower was a startup founded by two guys without a lot of money. Where Lulu had a team of software engineers, we had one (Gart). But the part we really had to learn from scratch was the fabric printing. The story of our efforts master digital textile printing would take a long time to relate, but suffice to say it has required a lot of persistence. What kept us going even though the dark days when we thought we'd go bankrupt before we had it figured out was the enthusiasm of the Spoonflower community—customers who were so passionate and excited to have the chance to create their own fabrics and who desperately wanted us to succeed. When we started out, Kim had to explain to me the difference between linen and cotton. I'm slightly more educated than that now.
Q: So, does being around all of this fabulous fabric all day make you want to sew?
Fraser: Yes! I am always imagining projects that would be perfect for digitally printed fabric, but am brought to an abrupt halt by my inability to sew. But that's probably for the best—my to-do list is pretty long and I stay behind as it is.
Q: A question for Kim: Stephen mentioned that you are part of a generation of women who has rediscovered domesticity and sewing (I think we’re the same generation—I’m 36, so I hope I’m not adding years on to you!). Can you talk about what this process of rediscovery has been like, and how technology has impacted it?
Kim Fraser: I'll be turning 40 this year so no offense taken! As far as rediscovering domesticity, I should say straight off that I've always been a huge homebody and have been interested in learning how to make the things that I need for as long as I can remember, from growing and canning my own food, cooking and baking, sewing my own clothes, and making items for my house. I only dabbled with sewing in college but got serious about it once I had children. I remember trying to shop for dresses for my very tall oldest daughter—age six at the time—and finding nothing in the stores that didn't just look cheap or much too old for her. I started sewing simple dresses for her out of fabric that I let her pick out. (A god-awful dress made from a large horse print springs to mind.) Then when I got pregnant with my second daughter, the nesting urge kicked in hard. That's when I started really sewing in earnest—quilts, baby bedding, stuffed toys, etc. I love making clothes for my girls, and I still get so much satisfaction out of feathering our "nest." It's much more gratifying than buying stuff off a shelf that has no soul and no personal meaning to us.
Technology I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it can be so inspiring to cruise around online looking at all the beautiful things that fellow sewists and crafters are making. I also have to admit that I've struggled with guilty feelings about my domestic bent and worried that such interests weren't terribly modern or enlightened. It's tremendously validating to know that there are literally thousands of other women out there who also share my interests. But on the other hand, the internet is a huge time suck! I often have to remind myself very sternly to shut the laptop and just make something already!
Q: Back to Stephen, where do you come up with all those wacky and wonderful contest themes?
Fraser: I usually come up with the contest themes late at night the evening before we send out our weekly contest email. We've now done well over a hundred contests, which means that I'm always looking for new ideas and often rely on suggestions from Spoonflower community members, Spoonflower staff, and Kim.
Q: What is the biggest challenge for Spoonflower right now?
Fraser: Our biggest challenge on any given day is typically managing the growth of our company using the limited resources we have. We have a small, very devoted and hard working team of people at Spoonflower who do an amazing amount to make our business run. And we're continuing to grow each month that goes by, which is very exciting—and never boring! We're looking forward to doing some new things this year, but the first task is always to make sure we can keep up with our core business, which is printing the fabric people order from us every day. Our next big announcement will involve a promotion we're doing with a major quilting fabric manufacturer, which I expect will generate a lot of excitement in the fabric-loving community.
First of all, I wish everyone could win! I truly loved reading all of your comments (I actually did read every one—I took frequent breaks from the other stuff I was working on to read 20 or 30 at a time). I’m obviously not alone in my love of Anna Maria. One of my favorite comments was from Tiffany; she said, “I think I may have an innocent crush on Anna Maria.” Ditto! Anna Maria just has that effect on people.
So Anna Maria, if you are looking for your next design inspiration, I hope we’ve provided you with some ideas! The most oft-mentioned suggestions: knit fabrics (I second that one!), more clothes for boys (near and dear to my own heart, too) as well as girls, outerwear/a cool jacket, vintage-looking dresses, clothes for the 40+ crowd, pieces to help decorate/ get organized in the kitchen, and bags. Readers also love when Anna Maria introduces them to a different kind of fabric (like velveteen or voile), and are excited to see that might be next. Someone even suggested she collaborate with Anthropologie, which sounds brilliant to me!
I think we’ve given Anna Maria a lot to think about, in case she is ever at a loss for creative inspiration!
Also, thanks to all who offered such lovely comments about my own blog, which is still such a work in progress (any guess whose blog I aspire to?).
I also want to offer one final thank you to Anna Maria for her time and generosity, and to Pierrette for coordinating.
But on with it. There can only be one winner. It’s so sad. But it’s a happy day for:
Autumn, I’ll be emailing you shortly to get your postal address and then I will ship all the goodies to you.
Thanks to everyone for participating. I promise more exciting Q&As with industry-leading designers and giveaways coming soon!
I first came across a copy of Anna Maria Horner’s Seams to Me when I was browsing the craft section at the bookstore. I had one of those instant physical reactions you get when you see something you love so much you can’t believe it’s in your hands at that very moment: sort of tingly, short of breath, and a little dizzy. This was my aesthetic: colorful, smart, playful, and funky.
The shortness of breath returned when I spotted her fabrics at Purl Patchwork in New York City (and blew my fabric spending budget). When I got back home, I started reading her blog and immediately loved the warmth and honesty of her voice. And few months later, when I was five months pregnant, I got a copy of her newest book, Handmade Beginnings. How nice that Anna Maria wrote a book just for me, I thought! I whipped up a handful of the projects in a frenzy, so excited to be able to make cute maternity clothes and an adorable baby doll and quilt to introduce my two-year-old to the idea of a new baby (he’s now become obsessed with the baby doll, as I’ve written about before, and I made another doll for his cousin for Christmas, along with a dress!). Just last week, I visited Sewn, a shop here in town that’s about to open and is going to carry Anna Maria, and got to see Innocent Crush up close and in person. I had to remind myself to breathe.
I was nervous when I approached her about doing a Q&A for my blog because, well, she’s awesome, and I’m still very much a humble newbie in this craftastic blogosphere of talent. But of course she said yes, because that’s the kind of person she is. She also generously agreed to partner with me in a giveaway of Sew Retro. And on that note: wait until you see what she’s giving away!
Here's a look at the goods!
An Innocent Crush Cotton Fat Quarter Bundle and a Fat Quarter Stack of the whole Pastry Line Collection, plus one yard of the Jewel Velveteen!
A closer look at that luscious velveteen!
The ENTIRE Anna Maria pattern collection!
Yes, you saw correctly! In addition to receiving a signed copy of my book, Sew Retro, the lucky winner will get the following: -- A fat quarter bundle of Innocent Crush (cottons) -- A fat quarter stack of the Pastry Line collection -- A one-yard cut of Jewel Velveteen -- The ENTIRE Anna Maria sewing pattern collection--that's 10 in all (Proper Attire Skirt, Ruthie Clutch, Sidewalk Satchel, Roundabout Dress & Slip, Gathering Flowers Quilt, Socialite Dress, Flower Patch Pillow, Evening Empire Dress, Study Hall Skirt, and Multi-Tasker Tote).
I think you'll agree, that's pretty flippin' amazing! So, to enter: read every single fabulous word Anna Maria says, and then leave a comment about what you would like to see Anna Maria design next. Me? I'd love to see her modern take on the jumper.
The giveaway ends Wednesday, January 26th, 2011 at 10:00 am EST. I'll pick a winner at random; I'll post the winner, and also email you, so make sure your email address shows up.
Thanks everyone for participating, the giveaway is now over. But stay tuned for more giveaways! And you can still enjoy this lovely Q&A with Anna Maria.
And now, the Q&A with Anna Maria . . .
Q: You have six kids, including a toddler. Do you sleep?! Anna Maria: YES!
Q: Seriously, how do you balance it all and manage to stay so on top of your game, creatively speaking? Anna Maria: Oh that’s a good question! I've learned to be patient with my family, but more importantly patient with myself. Everyone but Roman is school age now, so that definitely allows me some hours in the day during the school year to absorb myself in my work. But the fact of the matter is, I just take it when I can get it! Some days there is no way I am going to get focused work done in the studio so during those times, I just clean, organize. Or I might do some type of hand work in the kids' space, like the playroom or their rooms, which makes it seem like I'm not really working. I am lucky that my work includes various levels of processes—some that I have to do in seclusion, and others that I can do in a family atmosphere. So the trick is pairing the task with opportunity just right. Which I mess up. Often!
Q: Sew Retro is all about the history of sewing for the various generation of women. What is your personal sewing history? Who taught you and what role has sewing played in your life? Anna Maria: My mama taught me how to sew, but I learned mostly by observation and tinkering. She made so much for us—dresses, blouses, toys, doll cloths, décor for our rooms. I love reminiscing about the sweet little calico fabrics she chose for our school dresses. I especially cherish my fabric store memories when I was old enough to help pick out the fabrics for my clothes—what a dream that was. It was invigorating for me, even as a young girl—so much more fun than shopping the girls’ section of the department store! Both of my grandmothers did a beautiful job at any needlecraft that they picked up—crochet, knitting, and needlework. It was all very inspiring as a young girl. I ponder sometimes what life would have been like without those influences, and while I trust that I would have come to the arts one way another because of my nature, I am thankful that it was handed to me by my family.
Q: Does vintage (like retro fashion or vintage textiles) play a role in your creative process? What are some of your favorite sources for vintage inspiration? Anna Maria: Not too different than many designers, I love looking through old archives of furniture, clothing, and interior design. Sometimes it’s on websites or at libraries, but most often it’s at markets, antique stores, etc. The Library of Congress is a very inspiring place to look through images of days past and you don't even have to leave your house. But when given the opportunity I love to peruse old goods in person.
Q: Your blog is gorgeous, and I know that hundreds—actually probably thousands—of sewers and craft enthusiasts follow it. How do you balance the work of a blog with the pay-the-bills kind of work? (I ask this because I know a lot of bloggers struggle with this, myself included.) Anna Maria: Thank you! This is something that definitely enters my mind as my schedule gets packed with projects. I love writing my blog and I can't imagine not doing it. It serves so many purposes for me. But I do have to remind myself that in regards to the tutorials and projects that I share there, from a business perspective, this is free content. If you're earning a living for what you do, there can only be so much free content in your business structure. So when other projects or collaborations present themselves, as inspiring or as fun as they sound, if it’s not a source of income for the business, I have to weigh its value and whether or not I have room for it while still keeping this place humming, employing myself and a handful of people. Now this is partly because I don't use at my blog as a revenue generator by taking advertising, etc. I do get asked a lot about placing ads on my site, but there's an obligation then set in place to post very regularly, and then I might also feel the pressure of what those posts are suppose to be, etc. Whereas currently, my blog is probably the easiest, most fluid, no-stress thing that I do. All that said, I have been working on pay-the-bills kind of work for years longer than I have been writing a blog, so it’s mostly just been working the blog story into my work story. So far, so good. However, I am aware of how much my blog has enhanced the business. I think this is due in large part to the fact that a lot of the fabric that I design is how-to based. And I very often share how-I-do.
Q: Clothing design seems to be an area that you’re really focusing on. I don’t know about you, but now that I’m in my late-ish 30s, I’m starting to feel sort of old, like I can’t keep up with the trends in fashion! How do you keep up, and figure out which trends to let into your creative process and which ones to tell, “no thanks!” Anna Maria: Keeping up is made simple because I visit style.com almost daily and have for YEARS—pretty much as long as they've been in existence (which is around the same time I gave up my WWD subscription). I think the editing that takes place has to do with what kind of a fashion customer I am. I think if I've learned anything in my personal life of style (and five years as a clothing designer for my own label) it’s knowing what to say no to. I am also very lucky to have a daughter (19) who is really just one demographic age below me who provides fantastic input from her perspective. I am a 38-year-old woman and I employ women who are 24, 26, and 30. Their occasional input is really wonderful because I have the filter of various ages younger than me, each with their own perspective. This is also the same group of ages that I design for /sell to most often.
Q: I love your new line, Innocent Crush. It feels like, well, an innocent crush! What was your inspiration for the line? Anna Maria: It was really just a very simple idea. The smallest phrase or idea can inspire a narrative which fuels the colors, forms, and print arrangements in my mind as I work. I always have forms, colors swirling around up in my head; they are sort of a cast of characters, if that makes sense. Coming up with a collection title just gives them all a story to play a part in. I know it sounds a little vague, and obscure, but I am a story-based person. Narrative is important and inspiring to me. This has been true since the beginning creative endeavors . . . from my handmade dollhouses, to my charcoals in high school, to my paintings in art school, to my clothing line, to my fabric collections.
Q: So what can we expect to see from you in 2011? More patterns? More lines of fabric? Another book? Anna Maria: Yes to patterns, yes to fabric, and not really to a book. But a new collection of inspiration with a new collection of materials. Kind of under wraps for the time being, but I can't wait to share soon! I also am working on some product lines in the fashion arena . . . and can't wait to spill the beans on those too!
Oh, Amy Butler . . . where to begin? I have loved Amy Butler since I discovered her a few years ago when I was getting re-energized about sewing. I think it was on ReproDepot.com where I first laid eyes on her designs, and I was hooked. When I found out she lived in my very own state of Ohio, I was doubly excited. Not only does Amy design the most gorgeous fabric and super-clever patterns, she also makes me appreciate my life in the Midwest and the beauty and pace of life here. In fact, she makes me proud to be a Midwestern girl. I was absolutely giddy the day she agreed to do a Q&A with me for Sew Retro.
Courtesy Amy Butler
But no Q&A is complete without a giveaway! Not only am I giving away a signed copy of Sew Retro, the folks at Amy Butler have generously donated some lovely goodies, including: -- Five half-yard cuts, all from Amy’s Midwest Modern collection -- Five Amy Butler Midwest Modern sewing patterns: Cabo Halter, High Street Messenger Bag, Oval Patchy Pillow, Sweet Harmony Handbag& Tote, and Reversible Sunday Sling.
To enter, leave a comment about how Amy has inspired you by Tuesday, November 23rd at noon EST. I’ll randomly choose a winner then.
Now the Q&A, direct from the pages of Sew Retro . . .
Fabric designer and book author Amy Butler has an amazing line of fabric, patterns, and stationary full of hipster florals, modern paisleys, and vintage-inspired prints. I love her fabric because it’s affordably priced and is a great blend of country chic and mid-century modern. Here, she explains how she fell in love with fabric and where she gets her ideas.
Q: What made you become interested in fabric and pattern design? Have you always liked textiles? Butler: My passion for fabrics and sewing has been a common thread through the span of my life. I realized I wanted to become an artist when I was a young girl and learned what the word artist meant. I was always coloring and crafting and making homemade gifts for friends and family.
My grandmother, Velma Heymann, gave me my first fabric stash at age six. She’d let me play around on her “not so nice” vintage sewing machine, where I learned the basics. It was in her attic sewing room that I first fell in love with fabric; its colors and textures gave me limitless inspiration.
As a teen, I focused my energies and enrolled in art school. There I worked hard to hone my skills without losing that sense of intrigue and passion—exploring shapes, colors, textures, and style. Surface design and fashion became my obsession. I would draw enormously tall women with impossible necks, and on them I would create lavish, layered clothing. Within those layers, I would doodle in signature florals, patterns, stripes, and modern geometrics. I found that the passionate creation of the print outweighed my love of the clothing, so I focused my efforts on surface design.
In 1997 my husband and I started producing lifestyle stories for Country Living magazine alongside our studio work. The magazine was short on space, but we needed to get instructions to our readers so they could make up the projects. I designed my first two sewing patterns for Country Living, and this is how Amy Butler Sewing Patterns began.
Q: Do you come from a family of sewers and crafty people? Did you grow up watching women around you sew or be creative in other ways? Butler: My mom and grandmother, both self-taught artists, were huge influences on me. As a child of the seventies, I watched both of them dabble and often master every craft. They created watercolor paintings, hooked rugs, knitted, quilted, made groovy dioramas with found antique artifacts, and dried flowers—truly making our home a creative nest. My grandmother always kept me supplied with craft materials. I took my first fabric stash and glued together halter tops for my little friends in my neighborhood because I didn’t have a sewing machine at home. It was all about the fabric, and the giving. My friends tried to wear the outfits and assured me it was the thought that counted—a comment I still often get, since I love to experiment on my friends with new ideas.
Q: Where do you find your ideas for the beautiful designs you create? Butler: My influences and inspiration change constantly, but I do have a few core influences. Broadly, all decorative arts and textiles have greatly influenced my work; I love many different time periods and genres and often tie multiple influences together with the different color palettes I use. Growing up,our home was always filled with animals, and my mother taught me a great deal about wildflowers and birds. Natural influences are a constant in my work. My grandmother was also a prolific gardener, which has been a steady influence in all of my work, and today my garden is one of my most satisfying creative outlets. My home life and my surroundings play a big part in feeding my design inspiration. They are interconnected, and one feeds the other.
Q: What attracts you to vintage fabrics? Butler: I grew up learning about and loving all things old. My mom and grandma always dragged me to auctions and flea markets—which I grew to love—so I’ve always made my home and dressed with vintage textiles and garments. I love vintage fabrics because the prints are so soulful and unique and one of a kind. Over the years they have become a centerpiece for my visual vocabulary.
Q: Who are some of your influences, from an artistic standpoint? Butler: The top of my list is my husband, David. He is a massive talent. He’s a true renaissance man, as he’s a brilliant fine artist, writer, photographer, and graphic designer. His body of work is so impressive. He is true to himself and his art, and that’s what moves me the most. Kaffe Fasset has always been a great inspiration to me. I admire him because he is a fine artist who eloquently shares his vision for color and design through his work with great warmth and passion. I get lost in the color combinations in his fabrics! I am also a huge admirer of Harmony Susalla from Harmony Arts. Harmony is leading the way for organic printed fabrics. She is the real deal, an amazing artist, designer, and passionate supporter for the organic fabric movement. She is a visionary with an unwavering heart, and her fabrics are delicious! I’m constantly inspired by Tricia Guild’s philosophy and her spirited use of color and print. Her designs are sophisticated and approachable at the same time. I love her books, they are put together so beautifully . . . a total feast for the eyes!
Q: Why do you think sewing is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among younger women? Butler: The retail/design world is so sophisticated, and with the addition of the Internet, young women have a heightened sense of style. I think they’re coming into fabric stores and quilt shops where they can find new products, and are then introduced to the special experience of great education, service, and inspiration that’s been so successfully nurtured by these retailers. Once their creative fire has been sparked, they can’t help developing a desire for sewing! I think it’s an exciting time, with a huge influx of wonderful new designers and products hitting shops. I think we are seeing a new direction where fabric shops and quilt shops are becoming more multi-generational, appealing to their current customer base while also attracting a new, beginner seamstress.
Oh goodness, I knew that this was a pretty awesome giveaway, but I had no idea it would get this kind of response, as in 600+ comments! (My biggest worry was that I was going to go into labor over the weekend and not be able to pick a winner on Monday and leave all you Michael Miller fans dangling. But alas, still pregnant.) It just goes to show how fantastic Michael Miller prints are, and how fabulous all of the Michael Miller designers are! And on that note, let me thank Sandi Henderson, Paula Prass, and Patty Young for promoting the giveaway on your blogs. Thanks also to CraftGossip.com. And of course, thank you to all the fine folks at Michael Miller for partnering with me on this giveaway. Special thanks to Kathy Miller, for doing the Q&A to begin with, and then for being so lovely to work with.
So, on to the winner! I enjoyed reading the comments so much, and I wanted every single person to win! I stressed greatly about how to choose the winner. Let my 2-year-old randomly point to a comment? Hmm. Little hands near the laptop? Not so much. So I told my husband to pick a day and a time and then I found the comment in my email folder that corresponded most closely to it. And the winner is . . . Leslie L. (from the AlwaysAloha blog). I have your email and will be contacting you to get your address for mailing the book, and I’ll get you in touch with the Michael Miller folks so you can choose your fabric.
Thanks everyone for participating. I’m sorry only one person could win! But I will most certainly do other book giveaways. So stayed tuned!
Today, I bring you a special treat: a Q&A with Kathy Miller of Michael Miller Fabrics, along with a book and fabric giveaway! This is the same Q&A that ran in Sew Retro, and I thought it would be fun to give you a sneak peek if you haven’t seen the book (there are five other Q&As in the book, too).
Now for the juicy giveaway details: I’m giving away a signed copy of Sew Retro, along with some fabulous Michael Miller fabric, generously donated by the great folks at Michael Miller. This is no ordinary giveaway though! The lucky winner will get to pick which Michael Miller fabric they want! That’s right: you pick it--up to FIVE yards! You can pick five one-yard cuts, or a combination of one-, two-, or three-yard cuts. For a sampling of the fabric available, go to the Michael Miller Fabrics web site and click on New Product, or just follow this link. As giveaways go, this is a pretty darn cool one (I’m jealous that I can’t enter!).
A few thumbnails just to tease you . . .
If She Sews She Knows, from the Michael Miller Essentials 10th Anniversary Collection
Flower Shower, from Jewel Tones collection
Lil’ Plain Jane, from Plain Jane Aqua collection
Emmaline, from The Big E Group
Zelda, from Rouge Et Noir Group
Candy Stripe, from Playdate, by Patty Young
Here’s how to enter: leave a comment here by 10:00 a.m. EST on Monday, August 30th telling me what your favorite ever Michael Miller print is (personally, I’ll never stop loving Dumb Dot, in any color!). I’ll choose the winner at random and let you know Monday morning. Just make sure to leave your email address, so I can get in touch with you if you’re the winner.
And now, I bring you a Q&A with Kathy Miller!
Photo courtesy Kathy Miller; photographed by Kelly Beane
A few years ago, I started noticing all these fabulous retro-inspired cotton prints. The brand was almost always the same: Michael Miller. Who was this Michael Miller, I wondered? I did a little research and discovered Michael Miller is actually the brainchild of Michael Steiner and Kathy Miller. They started the company in 1999. Designer Kathy Miller, who is known for her great eye for color and fabulous design sense, talks about retro influences and how to start a business from a kitchen island.
Q: When did you become interested in sewing and fabric? Miller: I grew up surrounded by fabric, sewing, tons of creativity, and a “if you want it, make it happen” mentality. My mom was a home economics teacher specializing in design and tailoring. I started sewing at an early age, first making doll clothes, and then trying the same technique on my younger sister (I was ten and she was four). She was a willing model: I’d lay the fabric on the floor, and then she’d lay on top of it and I’d cut around her, hand-stitching my creation on her. Raw edges, big stitches—you get the picture! I can still remember the day our parents sat us down and said that as much as they admired my work, they didn’t think it was a good idea for her to be running around the neighborhood in these creations!
We were an Air Force family and moved to Guam when I was in high school in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It was a great time for wild prints—especially tropical prints. I loved to fabric shop, and then run home and make an outfit and wear it right away—luckily my sewing skills had improved by then!
Q: What made you want to design your own line of fabric, and how did the partnership with Michael Steiner come about? Miller: I’m a late bloomer. I didn’t start Michael Miller until I was forty-five. I had majored in Textile Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in 1976. After school, I worked as an artist, then assistant stylist, and finally as a stylist at many fabric companies. By then I could see the writing on the wall: different company, but more of the same thing. The money was good, but there was no real job security and I was bored. I truly loved what I did, and figured by then I knew as much as anybody else starting a fabric company. I also figured it was “now or never” since my oldest daughter was three years from starting college (her brother was right behind her). I had three years to get the business off the ground and be able to pay for college (Did I mention I work better with a deadline?).
Michael Steiner and I had worked together for seven years: he in sales, me in design. We knew we made a good team (and we still do). In the beginning, we worked out of his New York City apartment. Luckily his girlfriend (now wife), Camila, and roommate were okay with the kitchen doubling as my studio. I had a designated large drawer that I’d sweep all my supplies into every night. We moved to a real office before I took over the oven for storage! When I had a work table made for the new office, I based it on the kitchen island.
Q: Your fabrics are really eclectic, but most seem to have a retro vibe. Why are you drawn to these kinds of bold, playful prints?
Miller: I’ve always personally enjoyed retro prints. I collect a lot of vintage books and ephemera (all periods). But you’re right, the line is very eclectic. I compare being a fabric designer/stylist to being an actor: as an actor you don’t want to be type-cast. The same can be said for a designer or fabric company. Being known for one “look” or “style” can be very limiting. The joy in having your own company is being able to connect with other fabric lovers in a variety of niches (thus, a healthy business!).
Through years of styling prints for the women’s wear apparel market I learned that “color sells.” When you’re shopping for a blouse on a rack, the only thing you see is the sleeve. The print (and more importantly the color) is what draws you to pull it out from amongst the rest. That was also where I learned that vibrant, strong colors sell. They can survive terrible florescent store lighting.
Q: What is the inspiration for your retro-inspired prints? Where do you get your ideas, and how do you go about bringing them to life? Miller: As for ideas: At this point I’m hardwired for observing everything in relation to trends, color, and design. It’s second nature to me. I’m always on the prowl for good references, and I prefer books, paper, and original vintage artwork. The dealers that know me know that I’m a sucker for the quirky and the beautiful. If it’s well done, I’ll find a place for it. I think over time most designers and stylists develop what I call a “jaded eye,” and after awhile it takes something really different, beautiful, or just plain strange to get you excited.
As for the process of bringing the design to life: When I look at a piece of reference or artwork that I like, my first question is what draws me to it? It could be just one element of it. The design will evolve from there. The color and contrast is a whole other process. The coloration that is sent to the mill for engraving and strike-off (first small swatch to check for engraving and color matching) is really just a rough outline, in my experience. When I receive that strike-off is when I really know what I’m dealing with and where the process of bringing the design to life begins! It’s all in the tweaking and is very much a mental visualizing process (and don’t get me started on why it can’t be done on the computer!).
Q: Since you started Michael Miller ten years ago, sewing among young women has boomed! Has this changed how and what you design, and who you design for? Miller: I’m ecstatic about it! Since the beginning, our main customers have been fabric-aholics. I realized this at my first quilt market. We always figured that good design will find a home, whether it’s for quilting, clothing, or home dec. That’s the fun part about being a fabric company: we create it, put it out there, and then someone else creates something new with it.
We separated our customer service area a few years ago to cater to the new group of entrepreneurial sewers and crafters (I call them “mommy-preneurs”). It started on eBay and then moved to Etsy. It’s a predictable next step for new moms first sewing for their own families, and then as an income source that enables them to stay home with the kids.
Q: Do you still have time to sew? If so, what kinds of things do you like to make? Miller: Sadly I don’t have much time to sew anymore. It hasn’t stopped me from buying fabric though! Most of my sewing now is for quilt markets. We have a big booth and I usually make all the customized lampshades, along with some of the display stuff.