I recently had the pleasure of interviewing licensed fabric designer, Laurie Wisbrun. Laurie has been with Spoonflower since practically our very beginning, and we've been thrilled bystanders as she has evolved from life on the "corporate hamster wheel" to success as a popular fabric designer. In the two years since she released her first Tufted Tweets collection with Robert Kaufman, Laurie's brightly colored novelty fabrics have been snapped up by quilters and crafters. Laurie has also just put out her first book, Mastering the Art of Fabric Printing and Design, in which she shares the expertise she herself gained from having starting from scratch designing and printing fabrics.
At the end of today's post, we'll also give three winners a chance to win some fat quarter bundles of Laurie's fabrics courtesy of Robert Kaufman, as well as a copy of Mastering the Art of Fabric Printing and Design sent to us by Chronicle Books. Last week's giveaway winner, by the way — who takes home a copy of Classic and Modern Fabrics: The Complete Illustrated Sourcebook – is one of our favorite designers, Samantha Cotterill (Mummysam) of New York. Read on for the inspiring details of Laurie's career change!
So, what is your design background, and how did you get started designing fabrics?
I worked in marketing and advertising for close to 20 years but during that time, design wasn’t part of my professional life at all (except for presenting other people’s designs to my clients). Then about three years ago, while working at a big Manhattan ad agency, I felt absolutely ready for a major change and wanted to do something that I could be really passionate about. I had no idea what that might be, so I just started experimenting and trying out a bunch of different things.
I’ve always had a penchant for handmade things and artisan goods, so I gave cheese-making a go. For a few cheese-filled weeks I seriously considered moving to Vermont to be an artisan cheese maker, but it turns out I have no cheese-making talent at all. It’s still my all-time favorite food, though!
During my creative exploration I happened upon Spoonflower and soon afterward, I took a night class at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) on marketing your own line. Part of my refuge from a high-stress work life has always been sewing and quilting, and I’ve always had a mild obsession with patterns. After falling in love with Spoonflower and designing my first pattern for fabric (the Birdies and Chairs print from my Tufted Tweets collection), I felt like I had finally found my calling. A few months later I decided to make the leap and focus on building my own business based on my designs. So I quit my job and moved back to Austin, which is where I'd gone to college. It was a perfect move at the perfect time. The creative community here is tremendous and I have such a wonderful network and so much support here.
Once I decided that textile and surface design was what I wanted to do, I set my sights on getting a licensing deal with a major fabric manufacturer. I was beyond thrilled to sign with Kaufman and they continue to be supremely wonderful to work with. And without Spoonflower, I never would have discovered this new path. This interview is such a full circle moment for me, and I’m so thankful to everyone who has provided so much support and encouragement along the way! In my wildest dreams I never could have envisioned how everything was going to grow and take shape and how much fun I would be having.
What prompted you to write a book about fabric design and printing?
I was featured on Print and Pattern some time ago and through that exposure, my publisher discovered my blog. After reading my work for a bit and exploring my design sensibilities, she reached out to me about the possibility of writing a book on fabric design and printing. Having just spent the last few years learning about design and printing through my own trial and error, I was so excited about the prospect of writing the book I'd really wanted as my own reference. I was able to use so many of the notes I had compiled for myself while I was learning, and I expanded on them to create a resource that I’m really excited about.
I was surprised to find such an extensive section on printing by hand and screenprinting in your book. I didn’t know you did this sort of designing and printing, too! How do these printing methods compare for you to the process of designing and printing fabrics digitally and via mass production methods?
Growing up in a creative family, it seems like we were always making something. So although I absolutely adore designing digitally, I also love working with something where I’ve got glue on my hands, paint under my nails, or dye mixed up in a bath. Usually that means ending up with a really special selection of fabric at the end of a project, making it all the better!
I love the somewhat unpredictable nature of printing by hand and the natural variances that come from those techniques. I have a pretty wide selection of hand carved stamps and screens that I’ve made or collected over the years, and it’s always fun to get to use them.
Although I’ve dabbled in a bunch of different types of printing and embellishing, I really wanted to make sure to include expert advice from people who bring a modern and unique sensibility to more traditional printing approaches. I was so fortunate to be able to work with some really talented designers, so the book includes tutorials from Malka Dubrawsky (on dyeing), Jesse Breytenbach (on stamping) and Ink and Spindle (on screenprinting).
Do you always have an end use in mind when designing fabrics?
I don’t always have an end use in mind when I’m designing fabric. I do, however, always have an end user in mind. I spend a lot of time chatting with people through my blog, through Flickr, and via email, and I try to stay in touch with what I think would resonate with that group of people.
When I sit down to sketch or design something, my creative juices can get flowing in some pretty random directions some days, and I’m sometimes surprised at what pops out of my head. But I tend to just trust the process, follow along, and see what I end up with. Once I finish a design, I step away from the finished piece for a bit and then circle back to see if I think it will speak to people in the way that I intended it to. (Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t!)
Where do you find inspiration for your fabric designs?
Inspiration can really come from anywhere for me. I love spending time in museums and reading books and magazines. I’m always jotting notes or ideas down; you never know where inspiration might strike.
I recently finished some llama designs which were inspired by my neighborhood here in Austin. I live in an area that used to be rural, which means there are some lots in my neighborhood that used to be ranch land and are grandfathered into the zoning restrictions. There's a horse that I see nearly every day across the street from my grocery store, and there's a plot of land nearby that has two llamas on it. You should have heard me the first time I spied those llamas! All alone in the car, I screamed, "LOOK! Llamas!"
And now, every single time I drive down that street, I gleefully shout, 'LOOK! Llamas!" Don't care if I'm alone or with company, I say hello to the llamas. They are ridiculously cute and make me happy every time I see them. So I was of course compelled to whip up a few patterns inspired by my new llama friends. Then the ‘look’ turned into glasses, which then led to a little flapdoodle hat…. For me, it’s all about letting my creativity run amok and seeing what comes out.
It seems like you often debut new fabric designs in your Etsy shop before they get licensed by Robert Kaufman where they sometimes undergo color and scale changes. I’d love to hear more about the evolution of your designs from digital printing to large-scale printing.
Working with Robert Kaufman is such a fun and collaborative experience and I’ve learned so much from working with them. Many of my designs start out in my Etsy shop and then they end up being licensed and mass produced. But there are also designs which go straight to the team at Robert Kaufman and bypass my store all together. It just depends on the design and the timing.
I worked with one of the stylists at RK to outline the highlights below of the process of working together. Hopefully, this will provide some insight into how a design can evolve. I’m fairly prolific with my designs and try to send new work for RK to review as frequently as possible. If a collection is selected to be licensed, we start the process of adjusting scale and color and making any tweaks to composition that might be needed.
With regard to pattern scale, a variety of scales are needed for a collection to work as a quilt group. Generally, one focal design is selected along with some mid-sized and small-scale patterns. Since most of my collections are more novelty-based, though, scale is somewhat more relaxed than a more traditional collection and there’s more flexibility with the scale range. To test scale, the designs are printed out at various repeats. For instance, if it was designed to be close to a 6-inch repeat, it’s looked at as an 8-inch or 12-inch repeat (and vice versa). We use 24-inch repeats and repeats that are fractions of 24 inches. The most often used are probably 6-, 8-,and 12-inches, but repeats can be as small as 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, or 4.8-inches. Once everything is printed out, the pieces are reviewed together as a collection to see what fits together best.
As for color, Robert Kaufman spends a great deal of time analyzing sales of past collections of similar groups, and watching color trends in fashion, home decor, stationery and scrapbooking. So although I submit color recommendations based on my own preferences and the trends I’m personally watching, the process of defining colors is quite collaborative, and I really enjoy it. The design and marketing teams at RK will tweak colors and will also sometimes take the colors in a brand-new direction. Being new to design and to textiles, I really love the input and welcome any enhancements that are offered.
Once the designs are finalized, the design team takes over and works through preparing the art for flat bed printing. Flat bed printing is very similar to the screenprinting process where one screen is “cut” or “engraved” for each color. Each color is then applied through the screens and stacked to create the design. If we're printing in Korea, we can have up to 18 screens but if we're printing in Japan, we can only have 15. This makes very shaded designs more difficult than flat colored ones. Rotary printing is still used, but is less popular due to the very small number of screens that can be used. Other design elements may also have to be altered for printability. For example, very fine lines or details may have to be enlarged so that they won't end up looking like blobs when they're printed. We also have to consider placement of colors. Complementary colors such as red and green can't touch each other or they'll create a not-so-pretty brown color on their edges.
Can you give us any hints about new projects or fabric lines you might have in the works?
In terms of fabric, 2012 is going to be chock full of new collections. Modern Whimsy and Jack and Jenny (the donkeys in rainboots) are shipping now, and I’m having so much fun seeing people’s creations start to pop up in my Flickr group and on Pinterest.
Then in April, there’s a small collection called Next Stop London which I recently just posted a sneak peak of on my blog. Brrr! (the little polar bears) starts shipping in June, and Perfectly Perched (the follow up to Tufted Tweets) will start shipping in July. Then I'll be coming out with three more collections before the end of the year!
I’m also still working on limited release fabrics that I print with Spoonflower. I’m tinkering around now with some new pillow panels that I hope to roll out within the next month and have a new swan themed collection that should be ready for my Etsy store sometime this spring. In the next few months, I also have plans to roll out some new types of products in my store, like patterned packing tape and more journals. I’m working feverishly on some other new products as well and hope I can launch them before summer.
I’ve licensed a handful of my designs for use on stationery and gifts so those will roll out in 2013, and I’m now working on my second book about fabric embellishing. It’s being published by Interweave and should ship before the end of 2012 or early in 2013. I’m definitely juggling a bunch of balls and projects but I'm loving every minute!
Thanks, Laurie! And now for the giveaways! If you'd like to win a fat quarter bundle of ten prints from Laurie's Jack and Jenny collection (as pictured) AND a copy of Mastering the Art of Fabric Printing and Design, just comment on this blog post or on the corresponding Facebook post. I'm delighted to say that due to the the generosity of the folks at both Robert Kaufman and Chronicle Books, we'll be able to choose three winners this week. Don't forget to include your Spoonflower screen name in your comment so that we can track you down. Entries close next Tuesday, 3/20 at 7 pm EST. Good luck, everyone! This giveaway is now closed and we'll be announcing a winner shortly.