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16 February, 2024

Wooly Whales: A sparkling review of Joe’s Toes Slipper Kit

2024-02-16T17:57:34-06:00Embroidery, Weaving, Felting & FIbers|2 Comments

Sometimes the random things that pop up in your Instagram feed turn out to be something awesome. I spotted this slipper kit from Joe’s Toes while I was randomly scrolling a few evenings ago. I had been looking for a new pair of slippers after some sheepskin ones I ordered last fall turned out to be really uncomfortable. A kit sounded like fun!

I picked out the turquoise and teal kit and the description said I could customize it, so I requested the dark teal color for the uppers and green thread instead of rainbow. I knew I wanted to embroider or add something to the tops of them, but I didn’t have a plan when I picked out the kit.

The kit comes with pre-punched wool felt pieces for the upper, three layers for the soles, and the thread for stitching them together. You can choose from several options for the bottom layer or outsole. I picked the felt with latex, which is great on my hardwood floors and so far it’s not slippery at all.

I decided that I needed to stitch something fun on the uppers and after a little brainstorm my mom suggested humpback whales, which sounded really fun! So I dug through my stash of wool/rayon felt scraps and picked out a turquoise and blue-grey (peacock and pewter from Benzie Design) and some size 8 perle cotton. Even though the felt slipper pieces are about 3/16th inch thick, they are super easy to stitch into. I drew the whales onto some freezer paper so I could cut out all the little details easily. I basted them onto the uppers with a little glue stick. Once I had stitched around the whales, I added a few transparent sequins to add some sparkly bubbles.

I read through all of the instructions to assemble the slipper pieces and they offer a video, but I didn’t feel like I needed it. They have a couple of clever little notches that help you line up everything. Although they suggest using a backstitch to put everything together, which I’m sure works great, I decided to go with a double running stitch because I thought it would be a little neater on both the top and bottom.

These were so much fun to stitch! The pre-punched holes make it really easy even though you are stitching through four thick layers. I couldn’t wait to try them on.

Overall, the kit was packaged nicely, the instructions are great, the materials are super nice, and it shipped fast. I loved that I could customize it to the colors I wanted. I am just delighted with the results!

4 January, 2024

A quiet leap: Transitioning to new media in my art practice

2024-01-04T14:44:51-06:00An Artist's Life, Gallery Exhibitions|1 Comment

At a dinner party with friends a few nights ago, someone suggested that we go around the table and share something we did in the past year that the group might not know about or might be surprised to learn.  One friend had joined a new musical group and another started teaching Spanish to elementary school kids. For a moment, I blanked on what to talk about because I really feel like I didn’t do anything new this year. I’ve been teaching, keeping up with my Etsy shop, doing shows. The same things I do every day.

But then I remembered that the thing that has been quietly changing this year is the kind of art that I make. For more than I decade I have been designing fabric, and I still love doing that a lot. But I really took a break from that this past year because fabric projects were not really calling to me. I didn’t feel motivated to tackle a big sewing project. I didn’t have the need to create those pieces.

Many years ago now, I stepped away from the fabric art center that was my entire life. There were lots of factors that came in to play there, but when I called it quits, I not only stepped away from my job, but I removed myself from that community as well. I needed a break; not just a rest, but a separation.

In August, after 3+ years of taking classes, I finished my Book Arts Certificate from the MN Center for Book Arts. It’s a program that they administer to “certify” artists in a study of book arts techniques. I think of it like a mini Masters Degree. I took classes which I loved (boxmaking, marbling) and ones that I did not love (letterpress).

I found that I wasn’t as interested in making art as I was in the experience of being a beginner again. I needed to ask questions and make things that were ugly and didn’t work and just to try new things.

I gradually learned enough skills in book arts that I could start to incorporate some of the fabric techniques that I love. I marbled paper and carved stamps to hand print in repeating patterns like the sea turtles (left).

My weekly embroidery class students got me thinking about what kinds of embroidery stitches I could do on paper instead of fabric. I explored and sampled all kinds of stitches to see how the thickness of the threads in each stitch and the threads traveling across the back of the paper would influence the stitched pattern on the front.

I learned to make my own bookcloth. I’d used bookcloth in several classes to cover both books and boxes, but being a person with a love of fabrics, I was immediately discouraged by the lack of fabric options. I could only find a handful of solid colors. So I printed my own Spoonflower designs on cotton lawn and peel and stick wallpaper and used that to cover books and boxes. Then I tried embroidery on bookcloth made from some batik fabrics to make small journals that were really a fusion of fabric and paper techniques.

And finally I put some of this new work out in the world. It’s one thing to share photos of all of these experiments on social media, but it’s another leap to take the photos and enter something new in a juried exhibition at a gallery. That’s what I did. And that felt brave.

When I tried to describe to my friends how it felt, I said to imagine that you have played the clarinet all of your life and then decided that you wanted to learn the trombone and you just played your very first trombone solo at a concert. (There were a lot of musicians in the room.) To someone looking from the outside, it might just look like art is art. But to me it felt very new and unsure.

The three pieces at the top of this post are all ones I exhibited this year. I did so a little bit quietly. I talked about them a little in my newsletter and I posted a little on social media, but I didn’t really talk about the intention of taking my work in a completely different direction: a fusion of fabric and paper techniques. Saying that goal out loud seemed a little too much of an “announcement”. So I just sat back and waited to see how people reacted and how it felt to watch people interact with these pieces.

One of them won an award. Another was dismissed as being “too fine art”.

It’s January and my business task for today is to work on setting goals for the upcoming year. I am procrastinating a little bit by writing this post, but reflecting is an important part of setting goals and I basically gave myself a year off from design challenges, fabric designs and garment making to try something else. I think the experiment is a success. I have another embroidered paper piece that has been accepted into an exhibition in January. I’m teaching a class making coptic bound sketchbooks in February. A college student reached out to me over the holiday break wanting to connect with other paper embroidery artists. And I am thinking about more classes combining hand embroidery with paper components. That sounds like the start of something interesting.

29 November, 2023

The unpredictability of running a small business

2023-11-29T18:58:50-06:00An Artist's Life|2 Comments

I was planning an afternoon of sewing up some special orders, but due to a package of materials being delayed, I found myself with an unscheduled afternoon.  So I filled it with a whole lot of admin odds and ends: ordering supplies for some end-of-the-year classes, sending some invoices, delivering class kits for another class. I was looking at a pile of to-be-sewn zipper bag fabric on my table and feeling like I am unusually low on stock this year. I feel like my making “rhythm” is a little off. So in the spirit of procrastinating doing anything about that, I decided to do a little research. :)

It’s really hard as a small business to predict what’s going to happen with sales. As you grow, I am sure that gets easier in some ways. I certainly can predict big general things like November is going to be busier in the online shops and I always have a bunch of different in-person events in May. But this year, my Etsy stats say that overall my sales are down 42% this year. It’s been hovering around 38% for most of the year, so it’s even more discouraging to see it taking a dip right now for sure. I’m not sharing this as a sob story to get you to buy something, but I really think that its helpful for other small businesses to see that maybe they aren’t alone if they feel like this year has been a rough one in more ways than one. (And I know that you are out there reading this.)

You get a gut feeling when you have made things as long as I have for what are the “trends” in your items. I always order extra when I print anything in this waterlily fabric because it is always a bestseller. I keep only one or two of some zipper bag designs in stock, but others I always order 6 when I do a restock because I know they will sell.

Some years throw a wrench in your gut feelings for things and this year felt like one of them. I design fabric whenever the mood strikes me throughout the year, often participating in Spoonflower’s weekly design challenges. I usually make a plan to do 3-4 new designs leading into the fall because that’s when I do some of my biggest in-person shows of the year and I like to have new things to show people. But this year, my big fall show got cancelled somewhat unexpectedly (and too late to apply for another event). So I found myself with time blocked off to design and sew in preparation and nothing to prepare for. I made some new designs anyway but with a different audience and product in mind than I usually do.

Today I started to wonder, how much different things were this year. Even though my Etsy shop sales are down, there’s not much else different there. The things that usually sell well are still selling well, the entire volume is just lower. There are lots of reasons that could be contributing to this, but I don’t actually think there’s much useful to be gained by trying to deep dive into that because it’s been consistent all year. (I’m not interested in talking Etsy conspiracy theories.) So instead I decided to look at my in-person sales, which was completely fascinating.

I decided to just look at my four kind of big selling item categories and the ones that I have been selling consistently for a long time. I looked back at my records just to see the number of items sold in these four categories: clutch bags, loop scarves, large project bags, and small zip notions bags. I didn’t even bother to include 2020, because all of my in-person events were cancelled. I only did one show at the very end of 2021.

The most interesting to me was to look at the blue and red bars on these charts. These represent this year 2023 and last year 2022. It’s no wonder that I feel a little like I don’t know what’s going on! The large project bags are almost exactly the same but in all of the other categories the bars are completely flip-flopped from one year to the next.

I have a few clues as to what’s happened. The loop scarves, like the one in the photo at the very top of this post are my absolute bestseller at the show that was cancelled. That design was one of my new fabrics for 2022. So it’s not surprising that the bar for loop scarves this year is so low. I did three new-to-me, in-person shows in 2023, where the zip bags were the stars. I kind of thought they would be, given the audience that would be at these events so it’s nice to know I guessed right on that. I tend to curate what I bring to different shows because I really try to pay attention to the kind of audience that will be there and what I think will be the right fit. I don’t bring scarves, for example, to the vendor market at the knitting conference.

My in-person sales total are up about 10% over last year with about the same number of show days. I don’t do a lot of in-person things but tend to do them very consistently, so people know to look for me there.

I’m not sure if I’ve learned anything that I can move ahead with, but it did feel very validating to know that I wasn’t crazy. This was an unpredictable year!

20 November, 2023

Fabric Design Spotlight: Security Detail

2023-11-20T17:38:19-06:00Spoonflower & Fabric Design|2 Comments

One of my favorite materials to make fabric designs from is the humble security envelope. They are the ones with black and white patterns on the inside that your bank statements or rebate checks come in. They come in multitudes of patterns and I collect them every chance I get. I wanted to do a set of new patterns for the holiday season this year, so I decided to illustrate two dozen dogs and cats on security envelopes.

I drew them with a black pen, cut them out and used some scraps of magazine photos to make their colorful collars. Here are some of the dogs.

After I drew them, I temporarily attached them to a piece of cardstock so I could scan them all at once. Then I pulled them in to Photoshop and made a repeating tiles, so you had a continuous pattern of dogs. There’s not a lot a magic to doing a seamless repeat like this, it just takes a lot of patience to get everything lined up perfectly to match from one tile to the next.

Once I had finished a seamless pattern of both cats and dogs, I decided to reuse the same art and make a calendar tea towel. I love when I can use art multiple ways to make different designs. For the tea towel, I already had made the months for a different design three or four years ago using ransom note style letters and numbers cut out from magazine pages. I rearranged the numbers to match 2024 and created a new calendar design with a cat and a dog sitting next to each month. Here’s a screenshot of the calendar in progress.

Then, I decided to reuse the cats and dogs once again, but to make holiday ornaments! Once I have the original paper art scanned, I can do anything I want to with the originals. Sometimes I remake them into other things.

To make ornaments, I wrapped some scraps of bookboard with marbled paper that I made in a class. I covered the front side with handmade lokta paper in a solid color and then added one of the cats or dogs on top. I punched a hole in the top with an awl and threaded through some sparkly ribbon to make a hanger. Each one got a tiny initialed signature in the corner.

The rest of the ornaments went off to holiday shows at the Northrup King Building and North Suburban Center for the Arts, but I decided that I needed to keep this Stanley for myself. I love this particular security envelope design so much. If you look closely it says “PLEASE RECYCLE THIS ENVELOPE.”

I’m sold out of calendar tea towels but you can get them from my Spoonflower shop! 

15 November, 2023

Halloween Behind the Scenes: Making of This is not the Droid

2023-11-17T13:33:42-06:00An Artist's Life|2 Comments

Many people have an annual tradition of taking a holiday photo of their family. But many years ago we decided that there wasn’t much very interesting about a photos of us and our assorted dogs year after year, so we have an annual tradition of taking a Halloween photo. My husband and I met doing summer theater. When I was 17, I wanted to be a costumer when I grew up. So we started taking Halloween photos. At first it was just us and the costumes that I made for us to go to a Halloween party. But then we started to think about how we could stage something more entertaining. This was the first planned photo.

This one we took in a borrowed photo studio with some borrowed equipment. The genie costume I had made years before. The “flight suit” was a thrifted jacket I dyed orange. We’ve been taking a photo every year pretty much for the last 17 years. I start planning in about July every year, keeping an eye out for costume bits and props. The theme of the year is top secret until Halloween day.

This year was the year for Star Wars. We had talked about Star Wars before but had never come up with the perfect characters or scene to do. Until I looked at Andy and realized that he suddenly was an old guy with a beard and perfect to play Obi Wan.

Several people asked “how do you do that?!” so I thought it would be fun to write a “Making of…” post this year. So this is your spoiler alert warning if you don’t want to know the behind the scenes secrets.

We have a few rules when we do Halloween photos. It must be both of us. It must be 90% “in camera” which means we aren’t just green screen photoing us into a stock background. So we started our Star Wars scene by creating the background of the shot as a miniature. We’ve done miniatures before as backgrounds and they are really fun.

We constructed some buildings out of corrugated cardboard, aquarium gravel and leftover tile grout. I left the scissors in this photo so you can get an idea of scale. We looked at lots of photos of the “These aren’t the droids” scene to see what the background looked like in that photo. We let this dry for a few days and then I painted some grunge with watered down acrylic paints. We added some Storm Trooper action figures to the scene, which we rubbed down with sandpaper and rolled around in some backyard dirt so that they were a little bit less new and shiny. Finally we made some free-standing set pieces because we aren’t exactly sure where we’d need them to be in the scene so we wanted to be able to move them around. In the movie you can see lots of antennae towers and that’s what we were going for with these.

This tower was made from the junk drawer: plant pot, plumbing bits, jewelry chain, safety pins, prescription bottles, snaps, telephone plug. They were stuck together with some E6000 and then spray painted. We shot the background and Storm Troopers as one shot after we did the photo of us, so we could get the angle and the Storm Troopers exactly in the places we needed them to be. We tried several things in the far distance to fill in the gaps between the buildings and actually ended up using Andy’s gauze “robe” from his costume that I stood and held behind the shot.

The first photo we took was us. We’ve learned a lot doing these for so many years. We first shoot a whole bunch of test shots with us just in plain clothes so we can adjust the light and how we are sitting and all of that before we are in costume. We use a remote trigger for the camera that is triggered by a sound. In this case, I stomped on the floor and that would trigger the shutter.

Here’s a photo of my view sitting in the “speeder” looking at the camera. The big box behind Andy is our big studio strobe light. This was a hand-me-down gift from a friend who was downsizing his photo studio. We have another smaller one that was off to the left side and there’s a big white reflector on the right. We shot us and Stanley against a big sheet of white paper so we could insert us into the background scene easily. Once the lights are set we get into costume. We coach each other about what we want to get in the shot: where to look, what’s the story we are trying to tell, who needs to sit up taller or lean back. It usually takes a few dozen photos before we find the one we both like. We shot Stanley in the same place, but by himself because he was way too excited to sit still in a shot with us. He is not normally allowed in the basement and he got about 12 treats for sitting and looking the right direction, so he thought it was the greatest day ever. He totally didn’t care that he was wearing a silly gold vest.

The costumes are always all about giving the idea we need with the simplest solution. Stanley’s C3PO was a gold lame hoodie I found on Amazon. I was looking for a ski hood but this popped up in search results and it was too funny all by itself. My costume is a bathrobe and the same wig we used to do the Dread Pirate Roberts from a couple of years ago, but with a terrible shag cut thanks to my sewing scissors. Andy is wearing a cloak that I’ve had for probably 30 years. We used it for Leonardo DaVinci in a previous year. The robe underneath is a piece of gauze fabric (which we reused as a background) and a brown t-shirt. The grey beard is his own. We have what we call the “Prop Shop” which is a built in workbench in our basement that is full of props, wigs, costume pieces, and curtains. So we pull things from there for many photos.

The funniest thing to me about this set of costumes was the number of people that thought I had cut my hair into Luke’s terrible shag. Yikes! I told my hairdresser this and when she got done laughing, she said “I would never let you leave my salon like that”.

We layered the photo of us and Stanley over the background photo. We try not to need to Photoshop much. We clean up little things so the layers blend together and erase stray fuzz and the inevitable dog hair. We adjusted the color of Andy’s cloak a little bit because it photographed a little too orange.

For the first time this year we used a tiny bit of AI to add to this photo: the windshield of the speeder. We talked and talked about how to photograph something that looked like the windshield because it needed to be in the photo. We had a clear ball ornament that we thought about adding to the background scene, but we weren’t sure how to make the reflections and transparency look right. We scrounged for a plastic something we could use for a windshield, like the plastic cover for a window well, but they were a couple hundred dollars, which was way too much for a photo effect. So we decided to try Photoshop’s “generative fill” where you select a part of the image and tell it what to fill in the space. We drew an oval and it took a couple dozen tries, but I think the prompt “dirty transparent glass dome” was what finally gave us something that worked.

We usually leave the photo up on the computer and tweak it for the last few days before Halloween. Adjusting the light or the colors and whatnot. It’s very collaborative. And so much fun.

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