3 August, 2022

Trying out fantastic new materials: Making a Kraftex Paper Ledger Book

2022-09-28T10:24:10-05:00An Artist's Life, Tutorials|2 Comments

Want to listen instead of reading?

A few months ago I ran across an article talking about Kraftex paper. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s like a heavy flexible paper, which feels a little like a cross between paper and leather. It comes in an unwashed version, which is stiffer like watercolor paper, and a washed version which has some flexibility and almost a drape, like fabric. I mentioned in my newsletter that I was super curious about it and a staff member from C&T Publishing reached out and offered to send me some samples to play with. I jumped at the chance!

Because I believe in transparency, I want to say that C&T didn’t ask me to review, post or promote anything in exchange for the samples. This is not a sponsored or paid post.

I’m dedicating some time this summer to both trying new things in my studio and practicing some new-to-me skills, so this morning I pulled out some of the washed Kraftex paper and decided to make a small notebook. I’ve been expanding my art practice to include more paper arts because I have found that it helps make my work more accessible when I am trying to do community projects. Fabric, and the tools needed to work with it, can be cost prohibitive and feel challenging for beginners, but paper is everywhere.

I started by tearing down some sheets of paper to make the pages for my book. This is some lightweight drawing paper and I made strips that were 3×11 inches. Tearing down pages was something I learned in a coptic sketchbook class I took recently from the MN Center for Book Arts. And although that seems like kind of a silly thing to want to practice, getting a consistent edge really does take some practice. I really love the look of a torn edge, so it’s something I want to get better at. It took just one large sheet of paper to tear down into smaller sheets for my notebook.

I cut the cover out of a piece of Kraftex paper with my rotary cutter and a ruler. This is the washed version in a color they call “Natural”. I loved how this one really looks like leather. It is about 1mm thick and very flexible. I really chose the size of my book to maximize the use of a piece of this Kraftex paper. It comes in 8.5 x 11 sheets or rolls, so I cut a strip 3×11 inches for the cover too. I folded each page and the cover in half to make a finished book that’s about 3×5.5 inches. The kraftex took a fold nicely and didn’t crack or warp like thick papers sometimes do. I think the Kraftex is going to make the perfect cover. It’s heavy enough to feel like a cover but not stiff or bulky.

I decided to use a decorative paper punch to create the holes so I could bind the book together. It was relatively easy to punch, but I should have made myself a jig so it was easier to line up the holes in the pages and cover. Something to remember for next time. This kind of a “ledger” binding just needs two holes near the folded edge and then you stitch and tie a sturdy thread through them.

I used a variegated cotton sashiko thread to bind the book together mostly because it was the first thing that caught my eye. Sashiko thread is like a very thin cotton cord and it worked just fine for this.

I thought it would be fun to add a little bit of something to the cover, so I used the same thread to stitch a couple of embroidery stitches. I punched the holes with an awl before I stitched because I didn’t want to crease the paper trying to punch the needle through it.

I have so many ideas for this! For my next project I want to try something with a little origami folding. There’s a technique to fold thicker papers where you get the paper wet before you fold it and I am really curious to see how that works with this and if I can make something interesting and three dimensional. Kraftex is also dyeable, so I am absolutely going to try shibori dyeing a couple of sheets. If you want to play with some, I think the best source for Kraftex is through C&T’s website. They have some great variety packs so you can get a bunch of sheets in different colors and they have dozens of free tutorials if you want to do a specific project.

8 June, 2022

Handmade pricing: Here’s why I don’t need to charge more for my art.

2022-09-28T11:07:16-05:00An Artist's Life, Everything Else|2 Comments

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A few weeks ago, a colleague reached out to me and said “I’d love it if you wrote a blog post about how you price your classes and your art”. She was looking to change direction in her business and wanted some insights into making her art and classes more affordable. One thing she said really resonated with me: I want to create high priced art, but then that’s weird because I can’t afford that myself.

This is something I think about a lot. When I decided to make this art business of mine a full time adventure, I thought alot about how I wanted that to look. I come from many years of working in the non-profit arts sector and I could recite the mission statement of my organization from memory. Part of what you do in that non-profit world is always look at things as they relate to that mission. So I needed a mission statement. I decided that mine was really made up of a set of values.

Make more art.

The first value I settled on was the idea that my job meant I was making art. I define that idea of “art” pretty broadly so for me it means I am making things. That might be fabric designs or clothing or classes or websites. I am working with my hands and my brain and creating new things. The way my brain is wired, I need to be problem solving and innovating and creating to be happy.

Support the community.

The next value I came up with was that I really wanted what I was doing to help support other artists and creators. That means when I source supplies to make my art or to teach a class I start with other small businesses as resources. About 90% of what I use for classes comes from Etsy sellers and other small businesses. I get zippers from a shop in WI and my favorite felt comes from a shop in IL. I’ve been ordering all of my fabric from Spoonflower since they were a single printer in a repurposed sock factory. I partner with local non-profit organizations like the county library system to teach classes. I want to know a person at the businesses where I do business.

The past few weeks I’ve been sitting on a grant review panel for the regional arts council. A group of about 12-14 arts professionals evaluate all of the grant applications. I wrote about that process for a grant I have going on right now. I have gotten several grants like this and other panelists have reviewed my applications, so this is my way of making sure that community thrives by taking my turn as a panelist.

That’s also why I write posts like this. When I was first getting started I didn’t know anyone else who was just getting started and it was scary and lonely. I didn’t know if I could make it work and I didn’t want to quit my day job and then fall flat on my face. If you can take something from this post and use it in your business or art practice then I am delighted and I am giving you a virtual high-five.

Make it accessible.

The last value I settled on was to make things accessible. If you’ve worked at all in non-profit orgs, that word might make you cringe a little bit. It’s been a huge focus of missions and programming for decades and it gets talked about a lot. Often in the simplest sense it gets broken down into ADA compliance and ASL interpreters. But accessibility can be addressed in so many different ways. For me, affordability was a big accessibility barrier that I wanted to work on; I’ll come back to that in a bit.

I used to teach at a venue where the class prices were on the high side. I don’t think that org is doing their pricing wrong; everyone has overhead and expenses and many other factors that go in to determining their prices. But because the prices were at the level they were, they attracted a certain kind of student. In a very broad general sense, the only people who took classes from me there were wealthy and retired. Other people told me that classes were too expensive and they felt out of place. This bothered me, so I started to try and look for other places that I could teach that might be more accessible to more different kinds of people.

I was approached by Skillshare to teach classes for them many years ago, but it bothered me that there was a membership paywall that made those classes unavailable to a lot of students. That wasn’t the only factor that made it seem inaccessible to me. Skillshare also has a video based “formula” that they want classes to follow. From a teaching standpoint, I didn’t want to be limited to only teaching in a lecture/video format, which isn’t the best match for all learners.

The pandemic era boom of online classes was, in a way, a complete revolution. At the beginning, none of us knew what we were doing and how to work with the technology. But as we all got more experience, I realized that online classes can open up accessibility in so many more ways. By using captions and other video tools like speed control and ability to pause and review, they can be adaptable to different or preferred learning styles, visual and auditory abilities, or language barriers. Allowing students to learn in their own space can help with transportation and childcare needs, physical needs and mental needs like social anxiety. Online classes absolutely have drawbacks and inherent barriers as well, but I love that there is a more available and widely acceptable option for a lot of students. I love teaching online. There was no support for me to do that before 2020.

I also look at the materials and tools I am using in classes. I love to teach Adobe Illustrator for example, but time-after-time guilds and small fiber groups asked me if I could teach them how to design with Spoonflower but not using Photoshop or Illustrator because their members couldn’t afford it. Could I teach them using free software so more people could participate? So I did that and I learned a whole bunch of free and low cost apps that I could teach with. I’ll be honest and say that I struggled with that for a while. There’s a perception that the “experts” or “professionals” use Photoshop or Illustrator or Procreate and they charge $$$$ for it. I didn’t want to be seen as less expert or less professional by teaching using free apps and recycled materials, but this was what people were asking for and it’s something I’m good at. It took me a long time to really identify and embrace that as a niche I love.

So accessibility is a value that I try to think about in all of the things I do in my business and I look at many different ways I can define accessibility and try to make things more accessible so I can work with more different kinds of people. I can’t do everything and there’s always more to do, but I am always looking for ways that I can try to pay attention and try new things.

How do values equal action?

So it’s great to talk about what you aspire to do by stating business values, but how does that actually turn into something concrete? Here’s where I want to talk about pricing and affordability as one example of that. This is how I put that value into practice.

How do I set prices?

The easiest example I can think of to tell you about prices is to talk about my Etsy shop. I make all kinds of things from zipper bags to scarves and sell them both online and occasionally in-person. I have a very specific way that I set prices. First I have to design and figure out exactly what I am making. This prototype phase is about just working out the specifics: how much of what things do I need. I look at everything I can think of from fabric and zippers to copies of instructions and packaging bags for kits. After I have the design figured out then I move on to pricing and the details of making it.

For example,

  • Let’s say a yard of fabric to make zipper bags costs $30. I can make 18 zipper bags from that yard of fabric. That’s $1.67 each. Then I add on the cost of the rest of the materials I need to make that bag (lining, zipper, tag etc) and it comes out to about $2.50.
  • Then I literally get out a stopwatch and make a dozen of them. I time myself making them per piece from cutting out the fabric to trimming the threads at the end. I can make a zipper bag in under 7 minutes. It took me a while to get to that rate, but I have all kinds of systems and patterns I do now that speed up the process. Not only does it help me figure out a fair price, but I know exactly how long it will take me to get ready for a big show or do a special order for someone.
  • Then I multiply that time per piece by the hourly rate I want to get paid. It depends on what I am doing what rate I pay myself for the time. My “just basic sewing” rate is lower than my “designing a custom fabric” rate. So let’s say for this example that’s $3 per bag or about $20/hour. Before anyone says $20 per hour is too low, let’s keep in mind that it’s more than I was paid hourly at my last “office job” and more than my mom was paid for her 20+ years of experience as a highschool special ed teacher. I consider it a fair rate.
  • So we are now at around $5.50 for materials and time. I usually double that to account for overhead & profit. Overhead is everything from the amount I will have to pay the IRS to the time it took me to design the thing to the Etsy listing fees.
  • I look at all the math and then round up or down to come up with what looks like a sensible price (ie, not $9.47). For those zipper bags, that’s $10. I am paid for time and materials, I have covered overhead expenses and I have profit I can invest back in my business and save for retirement. I don’t make a lot of profit but I do make something on every piece.

Pricing classes works in much the same way. I look at hours invested in preparing and face-to-face teaching time. I add in overhead like my Zoom subscription and time it takes me to promote classes. I total up materials and postage if I am mailing kits to students. For a class where I take individual registrations, I divide that up on a per student basis. For a class I teach for a larger guild or group I have a flat rate. I am simplifying here naturally, but if you want to dig into that deeper, I have a class all about it. I don’t charge more for a class with more students because for me it’s the same to teach a room of 3 or 20. I am still giving you 100% of my preparation, effort and experience.

Are my class and product prices accessible for everyone? No, probably not. But I have tried to make them as fair and transparent and authentic as I can. That’s not a very retail or corporate approach, but it is aligned with my brand values.

“You should charge more.”

I get this comment a lot and I don’t think it’s true. I talked at the beginning of this essay about my friend who said “I want to create high priced art, but then that’s weird because I can’t afford that myself.” I occasionally help artists and small non-profits set up their websites and Etsy shops. If I charge a high rate for designing a website, for example, then I price myself out of working with exactly the people I want to help make their website. Just because the “designers” at Joe’s Website Shack charge $200 per hour to set up a website doesn’t mean I need to charge that much or that that’s the value of website set up. I am my own target customer (ie an artist who needs a website) and I couldn’t afford to have Joe’s do my website.

One of the ways I can make my prices less than Joe’s Website Shack is to keep my overhead down. I don’t have to pay for overseas call centers. But I also don’t have to pay for every monthly fee for every marketing or business service out there. I’ve watched a lot of seminars and classes about running a small business and almost without exception, someone recommends a monthly service: something that schedules posts for you, brainstorms your SEO, provides links to your Instagram posts or templates for your graphics or the premium Etsy shop template. If I subscribed to even half of those, I would be spending hundreds of dollars a month in overhead. I kind of feel the same way about single purpose kitchen gadgets. As much as I think a Millenium Falcon waffle maker would be cool, I really don’t need that taking up space in my tiny kitchen cupboards.

I think really carefully about the tools that are important to me. My email newsletter software is essential. My newsletter list is like gold. They are the people who really engage with what I do and I am grateful for them everyday. Do I upgrade that software to include all of the “trickle campaign” and automation emails services? Nope. Because those things make me nuts. I hate automated emails. I bet you hate them too. I was asked to participate in a study that my e-newsletter software company did and after the interview I felt a little weird about it, like I was small potatoes compared to the interview questions they were asking me. I didn’t use half of their stuff. I told a friend about this and she very wisely said, “Well sure you are small potatoes, but you have an open rate that’s like 5 times what the big potatoes do. That’s why they wanted to talk to you.” Luring people into signing up for the newsletter with free stuff and “onboarding” might be the marketing wisdom of the day, but the additional cost would raise my overhead.

I added a plugin to my website a few months ago that automatically delivers the Zoom link to students who sign up for my classes, so I don’t need to remember to email them and send it before class. This was an investment for me not only as a time saver, but after I nearly forgot to send the links out to a class, I decided it was also an accessibility upgrade in making sure that students had the information they needed to participate in a timely manner and a format that was easy to find. I need to try to recruit a few more people in to signing up for some classes to cover that additional cost, but I decided that it was a great investment. My Adobe subscription is another great example of this. I subscribe to the Adobe Suite and I use it for everything: creating art, marketing, website, graphic design, video etc. It’s one tool that can help me with many aspects of my business activities so it’s a great value for me.

Finally, I also look at all of the different things that I do and I look for synthesis. I am not just a retail business or a teacher or a website designer or an artist. I do ALL of those. The grant project I am working on right now has a big part of it that is paying me for my time to make the art. I will use it to complete the grant project, but that art is going to go on and be 15 more things once I get done. I’m illustrating a book, but those cut paper illustrations can also become fabric designs and postcards. I will have the books to sell in my shop. I will teach some classes about the art and the book. I love finding ways to “reuse” my art. That grant is going to subsidize a big body of other work so those future projects have less overhead. My Etsy sales have been really great in the last couple of years, which has allowed me to invest in time to make some new designs. When I make a kit for my shop, writing the instructions is the same as the majority of my class prep for teaching. So making a kit and a class at the same time is more economical than doing one or the other.

What about the free stuff?

Now you might be saying to yourself: “But Becka, there’s a lot of FREE stuff on your website. How does that work? How are you covering your costs if it’s free?” I don’t teach for free. But you can take a lot of my classes for free and it’s because of that synthesis I was just talking about. A couple of my classes are free because I put them in my marketing budget. Instead of buying an ad somewhere, I made a free class about Spoonflower so you can take a class from me and see if you like it and maybe come back for another class another time. That felt like a better investment than an ad in a magazine. The “free” classes I teach for the county library system are free for students, but I get paid to teach them from the library’s programming budget, funded by a state sales tax amendment. They are a win for everybody. Another set of free classes were something I was paid to do and “licensed” to a group for a certain period of time and when that time was up, I could put them up on my website as a class. I was already paid for the time to teach and develop those, so I can offer them free to students now.

Will you be able to run your business the same way I do? I can’t answer that for you. We all have different things that we have to factor in to what makes our art practice “successful” and what that means for each of us. I do hope that this post has given you an idea or made you think about how you can bring more of your values into what you do. I’d love to hear about what works for you.

1 March, 2022

What it’s like to be awarded an arts grant

2022-03-31T15:39:35-05:00An Artist's Life, MSAB Creative Support|Comments Off on What it’s like to be awarded an arts grant

Want to listen instead of reading?

Today is the official start day for my MN State Arts Board Creative Support for Individuals grant. Woohoo! As I was getting ready to start the grant projects rolling I thought it would be interesting to write a little about how grants like this work if you’ve never applied for one.

I started work on this grant in August of 2021, which is when the application was due. I should have probably started sooner, but this is a new program and I wasn’t really sure that I qualified or that had a project in mind to work on. So it was a little bit of a last minute decision. This is the third grant like this that I have received, but the application process has all been fairly similar.

The application

The application starts with a section about eligibility and qualifications. For this grant, for example, I had to be a resident of MN and “have a history of engaging MN citizens in the arts” among other things. This program was specifically designed to help artists stay engaged with their audiences throughout the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Compared to many other applications, this one was relatively simple. It had a narrative section which asked you to answer three big questions, a basic budget form, and a collection of links to work samples. This is actually the first application I’ve done which didn’t require me to submit photos, which I thought was kind of awesome. Instead you could submit links to web pages, articles, videos or other media that demonstrated your history of working in the arts. I loved being able to link to projects on my website like my “I Spy” utility box covers or the “Reflected Wardrobes” collaborative art I did with participants at the Museum of Russian Art where I think you can get a much better sense of the whole project. All of those include photos of people making art with me, which I think reflects the project so much better than a single photo of a finished piece.

The narrative section is basically where you have to convince the panel that you have a solid project idea and that you are qualified to do it. These sections always have a limited word count and it’s never enough. I always end up having to cut and cut and cut what I write to get it to fit into the 5500 characters. For this grant I basically had to answer three things:

  1. How have you engaged Minnesotans in the arts as a creator, performer, or teacher of art? Describe how others have interacted with you and your art. Provide as many examples as you can, given the space provided.
  2. As a creator, performer, or teacher of art, how will you use the funds to remain connected with your community during the FY 2022 grant period?
  3. Reviewers will not see your applicant background form. Please use this section to tell the reviewers what you want them to know about your identity including your cultural background, ability or disability, or geographic location. If these characteristics of your identity influence the work you do as an artist or culture bearer, please describe how. Describe the connections you have to underserved communities as an artist or culture bearer. Underserved communities may include, but are not limited to, residents and communities in greater Minnesota; individuals with disabilities; veterans; individuals in institutions; individuals who are black, indigenous, and/or people of color; LGBTQIA communities; older adults; or others.

Picking a project & goals

For this grant I decided to focus on reaching new audiences. Because of the work I do, which is primarily textiles and clothing related, the people who come to my community workshops are predominantly women. My social media audience is primarily women. I really wanted a project that would help me reach a more diverse audience. So I decided to do something a little outside of my normal work.

In the past few years I have been incorporating more and more paper into my work and somewhat less fabric. I love working with both, but it has been a really practical choice as well. Much of what I love to do with my work is to create collaborative community pieces where I work with a group to make art together and then create larger installations or finished pieces with elements from the participants. But cost is always a factor when doing these projects and very simply, paper is much less expensive to work with than fabric. Accessibility is always a huge consideration for me. Not only is paper less costly, but people are often much more comfortable working with it as beginners. It feels more approachable; you don’t feel like you need to know how to sew to participate.

So here’s a tiny sneak peek of the project I proposed. My friends Carrie and Rolf aka OboeBass are professional musicians. They do music programs in schools and senior centers all over the region and one of the programs they do uses a story that Carrie wrote about the musicians in an orchestra and the jobs they do. They tell the story and play clips of music, but we have talked for years about how it would be awesome to have a book to go along with the story. So my project is illustrating that story called “Ada’s Orchestra”. The illustrations will all be done as cut paper collage made in handpainted and recycled paper. This is a technique I use all the time for designing fabrics. (In fact some fabric designs might come out of this project too!)

I did just a couple of pages before I applied for the grant just to test out the idea and see if it looked like it would work and that Carrie and Rolf liked the look and style. I have two big challenges with this project: creating the instruments and making people. The biggest challenge for these designs will be the instruments. It’s really important that they look like the real instruments, but I can only do so much fine detail in cut paper. So it’s a balance to make sure I get the shapes just right to capture all of the important parts of the instruments. You can see my oboe and the bass here, but the bass is missing its strings and a couple of other tiny pieces that I will add using Photoshop. The second hurdle for me is that I really don’t like drawing people; it was a real mental block for me to convince myself I could make something I was happy with. Because this story is about people.

Finishing & waiting

The whole application took me about 6-8 hours to write, edit and complete all of the forms. My mom was my proofreader. I polished up the pages I’d linked on my website and quadruple checked that everything was complete.

Then you submit and wait. The applications all get reviewed by a panel of about 12-14 people that are all from the arts community. I have been a panelist on other grants and it’s an awesome experience and a LOT of reading. Panels are usually made up of people that work in all different kinds of art. I am a visual artist, but on the panel there will be dancers, musicians, theater performers and technicians, and arts administrators or the people who keep all of the arts organizations running from day to day. They read and discuss the applications and then give a score based on how completely you answered the questions. Sometimes you can listen to them discuss your application. I did for this one and it was totally nerve wracking hoping that they would “get it” and believe that I could do this project. I always learn a lot listening to the questions and concerns they have. They really thought this would be a great way for me to connect to some new audiences connecting through both book art and music. I’m glad they thought so!

Finally the panel makes recommendations and the State Arts Board meets and approves those recommendations for funding. I found out that I got the grant in mid-January, signed a bunch of paperwork, and today was the first official day that I could start working on it. One of my goals was to write and share a lot about the process of creating this book, so you will see more posts as I go. To celebrate today being the start day I did a little work setting up files to be ready to drop illustrations into and now I am going to go order some paint so I can start making more handpainted papers to start cutting and glueing.

24 February, 2022

A Pamphlet Book with Spoonflower’s Grasscloth Wallpaper

2022-02-24T15:34:18-06:00An Artist's Life, Spoonflower & Fabric Design, Tutorials|4 Comments

I’m not really a home decorating kind of person, so when Spoonflower introduced a new Grasscloth Wallpaper, I was intrigued to know what it was like, but it was pretty unlikely that I was going to be inspired to wallpaper parts of my house. So I decided to think about another project I could do with wallpaper. I have been very slowly working on a “Book Arts Certificate” from the MN Center for Book Arts here in Minneapolis over the past couple of years. I’ve loved book binding, marbling and paper making and have not really loved the letterpress because of major ink fumes and inaccessibility (I can’t really do it at my house.) But I love working with paper.

So I decided to make a pamphlet book. I am woefully un-expert at all of the vocabulary of book arts; there is a LOT. But basically a pamphlet book is sheets of folded paper, stitched together to make a binding, with a heavier paper on the outside for a cover. With my sewing background, I love sewn bindings. So I ordered a swatch of grasscloth wallpaper in one of my designs and decided to use that as my cover. When it arrived, it was rolled up and wouldn’t lay flat, so I unrolled it, slipped it under the heavy cutting mat that sits on my desk and let it flatten out for several days.

Grasscloth wallpaper is like a woven fabric backed with paper. It has a warp and weft that is very prominent, making its iconic texture. One set of threads are heavier than the other, which gives it a rib like texture. On the sample you can see at the top, the heavier threads are running parallel to the selvedge (that unprinted edge of the wallpaper sample) or horizontally across my design. This is the sisal or the grass in grasscloth. The threads running the other way are much thinner. As a wallpaper, it has a really rich looking texture. It has a very matte finish and feels like a piece of art paper when you run your fingers across it.

The first experiment I did was to see if I could fold it because I needed to make at least one fold to make the spine of my book. It folds much better parallel to those heaver threads than if you fold across them. They are brittle, so they crack rather than folding. So I decided I needed to keep that in mind when I was cutting my cover. That meant that I needed to rotate 90 degrees so that my fold and the heavier threads were going the same way. It doesn’t really matter on this design, but you’d have to keep that in mind with a more obvious directional print.

One thing I noticed right away when I unrolled my wallpaper sample was that the edges felt a little fragile. It was easy to catch the fibers and peel them up from the backing. If it was glued flat to a wall that wouldn’t be so much a problem, but for a book cover it wasn’t ideal. I decided to bind the edges of the cover like you do with a quilt by wrapping a narrow strip around them. I tried a fabric tape I had and some simple 1/2 inch strips of white tissue paper. I didn’t have any in green, but I think that might have even kind of disappeared into this design. I made a couple of little samples and decided that I liked the way the tissue paper didn’t add any bulk to the cover, so I decided to go with that. For this one, I used gluestick to attach it to the cover. I think next time I would use a brush and some PVA (Elmers) glue because the glue stick was drying so fast, it was a challenge to get everything lined up and stuck in place. I stuck it to the back and then folded over to the front of each edge of the cover. I burnished it down with my bone folder to make sure it really stuck well to all of the bumps in the paper texture. It works great and traps all of those cut ends so nothing is rough or catching.

Finally I used the bone folder to score the cover and carefully fold it in half. I added the pages, which I made from some lightweight drawing paper, and used an awl to punch holes through so I could stitch the binding using some perle cotton thread. It makes a great paperback journal! I’m going to put mine under a heavy book for a couple of days to really set the fold so it doesn’t pop open. If you want to try one like mine, I cut my papers and cover to 9×6 inches and the strips of tissue paper were 1/2 wide and I trimmed them to length after I glued them. Here’s a really simple tutorial on how to make a pamphlet book like this. In the photo with the book cover open you can see the back of the wallpaper, which is a nice plain white paper. It comes without any paste on it, so you don’t have to worry about it getting wet or sticky, which makes it a better choice for a project like this than the Smooth Wallpaper that comes pre-pasted. I will probably be able to make 4 books like this from the 24×12 inch swatch I got. It was really fun to see if this would work and I think it makes a beautiful book.

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.

5 August, 2021

You Don’t Have to Spend Money to Make Art & A Symposium Takeaway

2021-08-29T22:07:17-05:00An Artist's Life, Spoonflower & Fabric Design|4 Comments

I attended the first ever Surface Design Symposium with Craft Industry Alliance and Spoonflower today. It was a day of webinars on different topics about being a surface designer: marketing, licensing, creating repeats in Illustrator and Procreate. It had a little something for lots of interests. I didn’t go to every session, but I picked three that I thought I would take a little something away from. I think overall the conference was aimed at a slightly more beginner level than I am, but I always learn something new from watching someone else teach. So I had a lot of fun.

There were a lot of messages about embracing your style, getting your work out there, or doing something every day to further your goals. Those are really great advice. The whole conference had a real “can do” and “everyone is welcome” kind of vibe in many ways. But I realized sitting down and reflecting about what I had learned today that there was also a more subtle message: that to be successful, you had to have money to get there. Absolutely no one said this specifically or explicity; don’t get me wrong. The intent was absolutely not to say “you have to buy your way to success”, but in each session I attended, often the advice that the panelists gave involved investing in something with a not insignificant cost.

For example, one person advised getting a fat quarter of your favorite designs and making something with it that you could photograph and show on Instagram. That’s an awesome idea and I think it’s great advice. People love to see samples of the “real thing”. But then I think about my personal budget for “making random things to show on Instagram” and I wonder how many fat quarters that stretches to. Fat quarters are about $10-$20 a piece. That adds up fast.

Another panelist talked about how Spoonflower is almost more curated than other print-on-demand companies because you do have to purchase a swatch before you can make something available for sale. Her point was that as a designer you might self-curate or post your best work because there was an investment of money (as well as time) in order to putting your design out there. She has a totally great point there as well; I might be more picky about what I placed for sale knowing that it’s not free to do it. But on the flip side, that means that I need to have a budget to be able to pay $1-5 a piece to make my designs part of the Marketplace.

Several of the presenters talked about or demonstrated using Adobe Illustrator and I learned several things watching one of those sessions. It was great! I love Illustrator. It took me YEARS to learn it and it was hard to learn, but I use it all the time now. My husband worked for Adobe for many years; we are big fans of all of the Adobe software. That’s how I could afford to learn it when my business was just a baby.

The panelists talked about how Illustrator was a standard for surface design so you should really invest the time to learn it if you wanted to work in the field more professionally. I don’t disagree. They also talked about how they often used it in conjunction with other tools like an iPad and Procreate. But wow. Getting an iPad, Procreate, an Apple Pencil, and a subscription to just Adobe Illustrator for a year is about $1500 (on the low end). That’s a big investment and more than I used to make working for a month at my non-profit arts job.

Those are just three examples, and there were many more recommendations for classes and tools, which were all great and valuable resources for sure, but also involved additional costs. I absolutely agree with all of the panelists that you can do a lot by investing in your art and learning and it’s important to do that. I am a teacher; I believe in that 100%. But not everyone can jump in full-time the minute they are inspired to try it. Even having the conference in the middle of the day on a week day made it inaccessible to aspiring artists with regular day jobs (which is a lot of us).

I thought about how much these sessions would have completely broken my heart when I was just starting out because there’s no way our budget would have been able to stretch to afford all of those things that were recommended. I still don’t make enough regularly in commissions on Spoonflower to pay for my Adobe subscription. As a new artist, an iPad for me would have been equivalent to a couple of months rent and completely out of the question. So if I had one more message to contribute to the discussion today it would be:

 You don’t have to spend money to make art

Sure, Illustrator is an amazing tool and fun to use. Yes, it’s fun to print your fabric and make a quilt from it. But you don’t HAVE TO do that to get started. There are many ways to make art and you don’t have to spend lots of money to do it. You just have to want to make art.

I have struggled for years as a teacher trying to figure out the best way to teach people how to get started in designing fabrics. When we were working on the Spoonflower Handbook, I was a huge advocate for not making the instructions be step-by-steps for using Photoshop or Illustrator, but using more general tools and concepts that were common to many kinds of graphic design apps. That probably made some people crazy, but I thought it was important to not make the book specific to one app. I love to teach Photoshop and Illustrator because I think they are fun and they are tools I use all the time, but the guilds and groups that would approach me to teach for them were asking more and more about alternatives because their members were really interested in learning, but couldn’t afford to buy an iPad or subscribe to Photoshop. “Can you teach us with something that’s free?” they said. I wrote a grant to buy 6 Chromebooks so I could teach more people who didn’t have access to a laptop. I developed a series of classes that used all kinds of other apps that work on different platforms. And for a while I felt disappointed teaching them because it felt like it wasn’t “professional” enough or that I wasn’t good enough to teach Photoshop like the “famous” designers.

And what I realized was that I was perpetuating the myth. There is a huge group of new artists out there who want to learn but are stuck because they think the only way to do it is to have an iPad and Procreate and an Adobe subscription and that’s the only message that’s getting out there. I heard it again today.

When you learned to ride a bike, you had a tiny little rig with training wheels. You didn’t start on a ten speed, but you were still learning all the fundamentals to ride a bike. There’s no reason to start learning to be a designer with Illustrator. As much as I love Illustrator, it’s just a TOOL. It doesn’t make my art great; I do. And I can use any tool I want to make my art. No matter what tool I am using, I am learning how to make better art by doing it. Several of the panelists spoke to this today too; the more art you make, the better you get at it. Someone on a panel mentioned a one year timeline to get to be a successful surface design artist. That’s fiction. Everyone has a different journey and a different timeline.

You can watch all of the recorded sessions from the conference on Spoonflower’s blog later next week and I think there’s some awesome information there but the biggest thing I learned was that I need to keep helping to make learning fabric design MORE accessible. There aren’t enough people doing that. I don’t want the fabric design community that I am a part of to be limited only to people who have the flexibility to take a day off to attend a conference or those who can afford an iPad and Photoshop. You might need to proof some designs or print some fat quarters to help grow your business, but you don’t have to start out with that investment. You can grow to get there at your own pace. I want to find more ways to help people get started, like the Intro to Pixlr for Fabric Design class I launched a few weeks ago, and that’s what I want to keep teaching. (Pixlr is a free web-based design app a lot like Photoshop.) If you take the time to go watch those symposium sessions, think about this post as an extra bonus session with a message that says: You just have to want to make art.

Origami model “Bunny Bill” shown at top by Mark Morden, folded by me.

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