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11 February, 2022

What fabric should I design? The surprising bestsellers of 2021

2022-02-11T13:00:57-06:00Everything Else|Comments Off on What fabric should I design? The surprising bestsellers of 2021

I did an artist talk a few weeks ago and there was a question that someone asked that has stuck with me. That person said basically: I am a little scared and unsure how to get started and I don’t know what to design. What would you recommend?

I answered something about really designing what you love. Start there. Which I believe 100%. That’s one of my very favorite things about designing your own fabric is that you can make the fabrics that you love and there is nothing more motivating that to be working on something you are excited about.

But then I got curious about what designs of mine were really resonating with other people. On the weeks when I enter the design challenges, I do get a sense from votes and favorites what designs that the “design challenge voters” group of people really respond to and which ones they don’t. Sometimes that’s really surprising. But the contest voters aren’t necessarily the same audience as the people who are buying fabric.

My bestsellers from 2021

So I decided to dig in to my sales from last year and see what’s selling. Spoonflower doesn’t really give you stats of any kind. I just downloaded a spreadsheet and did some tally marks of yards sold on a scrap of paper. This is low tech analysis here. The image you see above is my top nine selling designs from 2021. There were some of these that surprised me. When I see a sale email come in, I am always super excited to see it but I don’t really tally up in my head “Oh, that’s a sale of that design”.

The Loons on the Lake was my bestseller, which is cool since that feels like a very Minnesota kind of design and I know I have an enthusiastic local group of supporters. That design was created for a “Pine and Mint” limited color palette design challenge from 2020 and came in 159/858.

Interestingly, at least to me, was that my second place bestseller was the “Tea With Lemons” design, which was from 2021 and is also from a color limited palette design challenge which was the yellow and grey Pantone colors of the year. It ranked 66/1456 designs.

I do keep track of my stats from design challenges, which is a little geeky I realize. But I set myself a goal of entering every design challenge from 2018-2021. (I took a break the second half of 2021 because I was swamped with puppy things.) I was curious if I was “getting better” or if I could learn anything from keeping track of the results and where I finished in the pool. The answer is not really. In 2019 I had 11 designs that hit the top 100, in 2020 it was 2 and 3 in the part of 2021 when I participated. Only five of those designs that were in the top 100 are in my personal bestsellers.

The rest of my top nine from 2021 fell into more or less equal sales numbers.

  • The mosaic clouds design was my top finisher in a design challenge in 2021 (it came in number 25.) I entered it in a design challenge, but it’s a mosaic style which is kind of a signature for me so it wasn’t something I did specifically for the challenge.
  • The Flamingos Flying design was a 2019 design challenge theme of “aerial views”.
  • The Dancing Skeletons was for a “gothic halloween” challenge. This one was a surprise for me. I love the design, but I didn’t realize it has been as popular as it was.
  • Eye Doc, especially the small scale version, was really popular in 2020 and continued to be in 2021. I think it was used a lot for masks. This was a “medical professionals” design challenge entry.
  • Your Brain’s not Broken” is also a personal favorite from a design challenge of “causes that are important to you”.
  • The Kelp Forest design was no surprise. I have this as the backdrop for all of my Zoom calls and it’s probably the design of mine that gets the most eyes on it because of that. I wallpapered my bathroom in a different colorway of this same design.
  • The steampunk squid continues to be a perennial favorite. I designed this one in 2015 for the Spoonflower Handbook, although it’s the navy and white version that sells better than the pale blue we used in the book.

What did I learn?

With the exception of the squid design, every one of these is something I entered in a design challenge. To be fair, I don’t design a lot of things that don’t go into a design challenge. Creating one new design a week is doable for me, designing more than that doesn’t happen nearly as often.

I tend to do well in the color limited palette design challenges; those are consistently some of my highest design challenge rankings. I’m not sure why, but I think it does go back to that idea of designing what you love. The thing about the color limited palette challenges is that you can design *anything* as long as you stick to the specified colors. So I get to really bring my quirkiness into the design more than some of the others. At least I think so.

Some of my top 25 finishers in the design challenge have had zero sales.  They were popular among challenge voters, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into customers.

I also think it’s super interesting that these two designs are both available on Etsy/Amazon/eBay through Spoonflower’s shops on those venues. Even though they were selected to be on those platforms (along with several other of my designs) they aren’t popping up with more sales through those venues.

Here are the top 18 overall Spoonflower bestsellers according to Spoonflower’s site. I have no insight into how they determine this and I know that some of those designs (like the elephants and fireflies) have been on this list for at least 5 years. It doesn’t change often. It makes me curious to know about things like the blue lemons design. Are there really that many people shopping for lemon fabric or does this mean that this one design sold oodles of yardage to one customer? We just don’t know.

What I do love about these bestsellers is that they do reflect some of my personal style and that idea I shared about designing what you love. The flamingos, skeletons, squid, brains, and clouds are all made from cut paper illustrations. The tea and kelp designs are drawn in illustrator primarily but are overlaid with handdrawn/painted textures. These are all really textural design elements that I love. Even though many of these were the response to a design challenge prompt, they do have a lot of that quirkiness that I think is important. Where else would you find brain fabric or an eye doctor print?

Although one single print didn’t make my own bestsellers list, my oboe fabrics are an overall bestseller. I have about a dozen oboe designs, so even though each one of them might not sell more than a couple of yards, as a group the oboe fabrics probably were right up there at the top.

Sales isn’t really a factor that drives what I design, so I know I’m never going to hit that bestseller page on the Spoonflower site. My art practice has a different focus than that. I design far more fabrics that I use to make things; these are designs that are not available for other people to use. I also feel a little more free to design what I want to design and not follow the color or aesthetic trends. That works for me. But I think it’s always interesting to step back and look with a wider lens and see what you can learn from what you are doing.

24 January, 2022

Ask the Artist: Questions from the Spoonflower Webinar

2022-01-24T15:15:14-06:00Everything Else|Comments Off on Ask the Artist: Questions from the Spoonflower Webinar

Last week I had a really great time doing an Artist Talk webinar for Spoonflower about my process, my long friendship with Spoonflower, and about my art. There’s a link to the replay below. There were a collection of questions in the chat that we didn’t get to (and some on my social channels), so I thought it would be fun to write a follow up post and answer some of those.

Q: What type of scanner (and other tools) do you use?

Scanner: My scanner is super simple. It’s an all-in-one printer/scanner made by Brother and it’s probably 15 years old. You really don’t need a high tech or fancy scanner, you just need a few settings and clean glass. I very often create designs that are larger than I ultimately want the finished fabric scale to be because it’s hard to make tiny fine details in cut paper. So I most often scan things at 150 or 300 DPI knowing that I will be printing them at 150 DPI (Spoonflower’s resolution).

Sewing Machine: I do all of my sewing for everything: exhibition pieces, things for sale in my Etsy shop, samples. I have a Pfaff Expression 3.2 that is an awesome machine.

Software & Apps: I do most of my editing in Photoshop and Illustrator. Because I know them and they work for me and that’s the most important part. There’s no one right tool to make art. I teach using Pixlr, because it is a free app and that makes it the most accessible for my students. I don’t use tablets or Procreate because I just don’t like drawing/painting my designs. That’s just not the way that I work, so those are not the right tools.

Q: I think it’s so clever how you’ve designed into your Shop Header to “be sure to click NEW to see my latest designs.” A “steal-worthy” tip for sure!

You are right: it is a steal worthy tip and I know because I stole it! Credit for that idea goes to my friend Anda Corrie, who was the author of Spoonflower’s “Quick Sew Project” book. She shared it on her social media somewhere and I totally copied her.

Q: Do you teach on Skillshare too?

No I don’t, for a couple of reasons. I know Skillshare is super popular, but I don’t like their teaching format (which is only video like a TV show) and the way that teachers are compensated. I also don’t like the idea that my classes would be only accessible via a monthly membership fee paid to another company. I feel like it just makes them inaccessible for too many people.

I DO offer online classes that I host through Teachable! I am in the middle of moving classes over to Teachable from another platform, so it’s a little bit in transition right now but they should all be migrated in the next couple of weeks and I can start adding more.

Q: What recommendations do you offer for expanding your marketing reach beyond social media?

Don’t we all wish we had an answer to this question? I talked a little about this in my webinar, but get your work in places that people will see it. Make things you can exhibit, get it into shops on consignment or wholesale, wear it, use it, talk about it. If you don’t sew or make things, partner up with someone who does. See if you can come up with a partnership that is a win for both of you. Enter the Spoonflower weekly contest.

No one likes to be sold to. Think about all of the jokes about used car salesmen. So don’t focus on “selling” your work but on telling the stories. Talk about what you do and why. Share the inspiration for the design or the colors. People love to see behind-the-scenes and sneak peeks. I can spend half an afternoon watching “making of” videos from artists on Instagram but I can’t think the last time I clicked through to see someone’s post about a “new collection for sale”.

Q: I want to take a class from you, starting with the mosaic, to the finished fabric!

Noted! Mosaics are SLOW so I think it would make a really boring in-person class but I have thought about translating it into an online class so you can do some of the time consuming part offline. That mosaic toad design I showed you in the webinar probably took me 5-6 hours to create from start to finish. I have a design of mosaic waterlilies that I think took more than 40 hours.

Q: Is there a blog post on Spoonflower that explains how to do this? Is this possible still on Spoonflower, such a ‘placed’ print? [This refers to printing a design as a placed/engineered print for clothing rather than a repeating design.]

Not on Spoonflower’s blog, but there are several projects like this in the Spoonflower Handbook. In the simplest terms, the way to design like this is to not think about making a repeat but to think about designing a whole yard (or more) of fabric all at once. I do this alot. Instead of setting up a canvas that is 8 inches square or something like that, I set up a canvas that is 42×36 inches, or that will fill a whole yard of fabric. Then I design what I want that yard to look like. It’s not any harder than making a repeat (in fact I think it’s easier) but it’s just a different way of thinking about it. If you want to design to place something on a dress, for example, you have to do a little math to know what pieces you need to cut out (bodice, sleeves, skirt) and to design blocks that are the size you need to cut out those pieces.

23 January, 2022

Betrayed by my tools

2022-01-23T20:52:36-06:00An Artist's Life|Comments Off on Betrayed by my tools

Today was one of those days where I think I made negative progress on a project. Like I am pretty sure I ripped out more stitches than I made. It started when I mis-measured something. I didn’t want to cut out something using the pattern piece, so I thought I would just measure and cut the rectangle using my rotary cutter and a ruler. It seemed like it would be more accurate, but then I did the math wrong and ended up with a piece 7/8″ too long and I didn’t realize it until I had stitched it to something else and it completely didn’t match. (Enter seam ripper.)

So I recut and tried again. But then as I was cutting, trying to be more accurate than the first time, I discovered something. Take a really good look at that photo above. Do you notice anything unusual? Look at the hash marks.

This is the cutting mat that sits on my studio table and has been there for 18 months. Those hash marks are 1/10th inch and not 1/8 inch. This might seem trivial, but this is my cutting mat for sewing and quilting where 1/8 inch is the absolute standard. The long marks are for unknown reasons at the odd numbered increments: 1/10, 3/10, 5/10 and so on. But all this time, I saw them and assumed they were 1/4 inch. It never occurred to me that it would be anything else, so I never bothered to count them. Why would I?

The thing is, this is a great cutting mat. It’s heavy and thick and doesn’t slide around my table. It is much nicer and more durable than the quilting brand ones I have had before. But for 18 months, I have been using those tick marks to line up my ruler and cutting crooked pieces. Not enough that I noticed evidently, but enough that everything was just a little bit off. That’s why I finally noticed today. Because everything was a little bit off. I had to recut pieces. Things weren’t lining up when I stitched them, the sewing machine was acting a little funny. I was really frustrated, so I was being really careful. So I counted tickmarks. And then had a moment of “what the $%@&#@” when I realized what I was seeing.

Why? Why is it in 10ths of inches? I texted my dad who had the same “what the $%&#*” reaction I did and had to google. He discovered that some engineers use “decimal inches” because the math is easier. This mat isn’t branded as an engineering tool. It’s just an “art cutting mat”. The description doesn’t say that it’s in 10ths of inches. But maybe that was a factor in this design choice. Who knows! So I’ve pulled it off my table and ordered a different one. Because as much as I like it, that inability to trust the measurements thing is a deal breaker for me. It’s a go-to tool that suddenly got a whole lot less useful. I feel a little bit betrayed! (For anyone who is curious it’s an Arteza brand mat I got on Amazon. And except for the absurd measurements it’s been awesome.)

My sewing machine decided today to have a tantrum as well. Just as I was coming back to work on the project after discovering my measuring issue, the stitch length/tension of my machine went off the rails. Nothing happened except for the clumsy puppy stepped on the pedal and zoomed the motor for a few seconds. That must have stuffed some lint into a crevasse or made a belt slip or something. Because suddenly it only makes ridiculously tiny stitches. I checked everything, rethreaded, cleaned, swapped threads and bobbin, googled and all of the other tricks I know and nothing helped. So I am completely out of commission and I’ve emailed the local dealership. Sigh.

12 January, 2022

Moving my classes to Teachable

2022-01-12T11:35:09-06:00Everything Else|2 Comments

Change is hard.

My very first project of 2022 wasn’t the thing I was planning on creating. In fact, it wasn’t even really making something new, but re-making something I didn’t want to redo.

At the end of 2021, Coursecraft, the platform I used to host my on-demand online classes decided to go out of business. They were a small company (which is part of why I loved them) but that means that I think they got a little burn out being constantly on the front lines of keeping everything up and running. I think many of us can relate to that. When they said that they were going to turn everything off in April, I spent a couple of days thinking.

  • Did I want to go to the trouble of moving everything to a new platform?
  • Are students going to be upset if I couldn’t automatically give them access to the new class?
  • Would they even notice if the classes just disappeared?
  • Were enough people registered for them that it made sense to continue? Would the additional time investment be worth it?
  • Could I find a new platform that didn’t cost a lot more?

It was the kind of unforeseen event that forces you to take a look at things in many different ways.

I decided that those on-demand classes are something I love to teach. Even though I am not right there talking to students in real time, it’s still a great teaching experience. I know that the students have so many more options. You can do the whole thing at once or come back and work on it whenever you have 10 minutes free. You can jump back and refer to something that you don’t quite remember. I know there are classes I wish I could do that with. I took a book binding class last year and I am certain that I couldn’t make another one on my own at this point. I took good notes, but I have forgotten so much because everything was so new. But most importantly when I look back at the last couple of years, those online classes are a big gold star in the “positive things that happened” column. There sure is a whole lot of negative that happened, so it really is nice to have something to celebrate.

Ultimately, I decided to move everything to Teachable. It was super similar to what I had before and I like a lot of the features it has. On the other hand, some things aren’t as good and I’ll have to change how a couple of lessons work. It’s slow going. There’s no tool to help you migrate something like this. Just a lot of copy and paste and waiting for videos to re-upload. I’ve listened to music and a book on tape. One morning I played an online game of Settlers of Catan while I waited on video uploads. It’s been great thinking time. I thought about new classes to teach for this spring and what I’d like to add to my new school at Teachable.

I even made a deal with a friend of mine who is working on a similar project right now: something she wants to get done, but at the same time dreads doing it. We’ve been sending each other progress photos and grouchy observations when things aren’t quite going as smoothly as we had hoped. That was the best idea ever. It makes it not quite as hard when you have someone to complain about it to.

So things might look a little topsy-turvy on that classes page right now, but I think more good things are to come. And it’s nice to take a minute to re-evaluate and come up with the same conclusion that I did when I started. Classes are a great way to connect with my community or artists and makers and I hope this is the start of more new great things this year.

29 November, 2021

On Sondheim: “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new.”

2021-11-29T21:45:36-06:00Everything Else|1 Comment

You might not know this about me, but I was a theater major for a few years in college. I was a huge highschool theater geek; the queen of the costume shop. I worked for five summers at a summer childrens’ theater and I fell in love with my husband in a truly ridiculous show where I played the Damsel in Distress and he played the giant sea monster that ate me. (It did have a happy ending.) That’s us in the photo above, right in the center.

I never wanted to be an actor; I was a designer. Sadly, I didn’t have the self-confidence I have now and when faced with the larger-than-life personalities in the department, I never found a place where I felt like I was contributing anything other than endlessly washing paintbrushes. So I drifted off and changed my major and found other creative channels.

But it was in my first class as a theater major that I met Stephen Sondheim. I don’t mean that literally of course, but the first thing we studied in “Theater Appreciation” was the musical Sweeney Todd and it was the first Sondheim musical I’d ever seen. I remember that we watched the “Great Performances” version and we had to split it up over about 3 classes to be able to see the whole thing. I sat with all of the freshman theater majors in a row in the front of the auditorium. It was a required class for theater majors and filled a humanities credit for a whole lot of other people, so we were surrounded by football players and business majors. Looking back, Sweeney seems like the strangest choice to introduce to Theater Appreciation, but I still remember it 30 years later.

I remember walking to dinner or somewhere after watching the first act of Sweeney and thinking seriously WTF. I had never seen theater like this. I am a HUGE musical theater fan. I have watched every big old Hollywood movie musical dozens of times. I think “My Fair Lady” was my first live show when I was 8 or 9 years old. I knew all the words to “Phantom of the Opera”, which all theater kids did in 1992, and the “Guys and Dolls” cast album was among the first half dozen cds I owned. I grew up in South Dakota, where touring companies don’t travel, so I didn’t see my first real Broadway show, “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, until I was an adult. This was not like those musicals.

If you don’t know the story, Sweeney Todd, in short, is a musical about a serial killer and Victorian era cannibalism. It’s creepy and full of dark humor and more than a little twisted.

Sweeney Todd, image from Playbill.com

So, walking back to my dorm room, I remember thinking “what is this demented thing they have us watching? This isn’t a normal musical.” and also “why haven’t I ever heard of this before?!”

It ends up that I love Sweeney Todd. I didn’t have a chance to see it live until a decade or so ago when a friend played the lead in a community theater production, but I’ve watched that same recorded version several more times and a concert version too. I’ve since discovered more Sondheim. My husband introduced me to “Into the Woods”, and I also watched the Great Performances version of that. I’ve never liked “West Side Story” although I’ve seen it a couple of times.

But my great Sondheim love is “Sunday in the Park with George”. A friend took me to see it a bunch of years ago and although I had heard of it, I really didn’t know much about it. It was breathtaking. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the musical centers around George Seurat and at one point in the production they make the painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte” come to life in a way that’s purely magical. I don’t remember a lot about that production other than liking it. I do remember very vividly going on a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago a year or so later.

Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte, photo from the Art Institute of Chicago

I didn’t know the painting was there and I came around a corner and literally took a step backwards. It took my breath away. I stood for minutes in front of it just mesmerized.

Years later, I was contacted by the gift shop manager from the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. She and I had met at an art show that I did and she had a brainstorm. Could I design some fabrics inspired by the musical they were doing for the summer and then they could carry that work in the gift shop? I jumped at the chance! She says, “You might not have heard of this show. It’s a little weird. It’s called “Sunday in the Park with George”.

So, I spent a couple of months studying it. I listened to different cast albums and watched the movie versions. I studied the painting and George Seurat. I designed a whole collection of designs inspired by elements from the show and the painting and they are some of my favorite designs I have ever done. I listened and read the lyrics to every song, looking for phrases and words to bring in to my designs. I named one design “Rue de Magenta” because that was the Paris street where Seurat had his studio. I made the black dog from the painting into one of my black labs posing to be painted.

After I had made the collection, we went to see the Guthrie’s production of course. I had tears running down my face at the moment that the “painting” snaps into place. I was a total wreck in the absolute best way possible. It was amazing.

I won’t forget those two breathtaking moments with the painting and the show. I think it’s because Sondheim and I shared a moment and understood something together about art and artists and this amazing painting. What a gift. Stephen Sondheim passed away this week and I am sorry that I won’t get to share more new moments with his art.

8 November, 2021

New Book: Native Plants of the North Woods

2021-11-08T22:05:54-06:00Book Reports, Everything Else|Comments Off on New Book: Native Plants of the North Woods

I started this collection of native plant illustrations in an art residency I did with The Bell Museum, a local natural history museum. My project was to study their herbarium collection of preserved plants native to Minnesota and create art inspired by it. I wrote all about that project here.

When I started to make my plant illustrations I realized there was something missing from the plant specimen sheets. You can see one pictured behind my mask, shown below. The plant’s habitat and person who collected the plant were well-documented by the museum. However, even though I could study the shapes and sizes of the plant from the preserved sample, they all looked dull, flat, and brown; there was very little information about the color or texture. As an artist, those two qualities are very important to me!

I went in search of more reference material. I studied local field guides and resources from non-profit organizations that focused on native plants, like MNWildflowers.org. I looked for shapes, colors and tiny details that make each plant unique. By using these details to craft a more complete picture of each plant, I could bring them back to life.

I used hand-painted deli paper to make each cut paper illustration. Deli paper might not seem like an obvious art material, but it’s thin and strong so it’s easy to cut out fine details and make layered shapes. As I painted, I designed one-of-a-kind papers for my plants. I blended colors and created textures with the brush. I drew stripes and speckles. I even cut out a paper alphabet to make a custom typeface for my plant labels. I chose to make the plants larger-than-life rather than try to make things actual size because some of them are tiny! I really wanted the reader to be able to see the details that I would never be able to render in cut paper when the blossoms were only 1/4 inch wide. I also decided to picture each plant as you would see it in early summer, so most of the pictures show the flowers you would see in the summer time but not the berries or seed pods you might see in the autumn.

For the final project for the residency, I scanned and printed the illustrations on to fabric. I made a set of face masks. I was inspired by native plants with medicinal properties and how, like face masks, these plants can help protect us from disease. The museum displayed a small collection of these masks, but I knew that exhibit was just a seedling, so to speak.

The seedling grew into this book: an artist’s field guide to native plants. Native Plants of the North Woods features 21 different plant species and 11 native pollinators in a family-friendly field guide. Each page has details and quirky facts about each kind of plant and is geared at an upper-elementary age reading level. I started studying Minnesota species because that’s where I live. My parents are from upstate New York and remember the plants they grew up with too. As I showed each finished illustration to my mom, we realized that many are common to the north woods all the way from Minnesota to New York. She remembers walking through the woods with her parents, finding huge patches of trillium and popping the seed pods of touch-me-nots. I hope you will take a walk in the woods where you live to see if you can find these plants. And I hope you’ll make a little art inspired by them too.

Get the Book in my Etsy Shop
See the Fabric at Spoonflower
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