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We’re back with another fantastic installment of Sew4Home’s “Creative People We Love” series. A new feature here, and already a favorite of fans, it’s our way of supporting some of the wonderfully clever and inspiring folks we’ve met in our travels. Today’s profile is Tammy Hensley, who we met at The Creative Connection in Minneapolis this past September. While chatting during one of the classes, Tammy demurely mentioned how she had dabbled a little bit in fabric design. She then proceeded to pull out a swatch book with dozens and dozens… and dozens of the most amazing fabric designs she’d produced at Spoonflower. Whoa! We were floored by her creativity and imagination and knew we had to find out more.

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We’re back with another fantastic installment of Sew4Home’s “Creative People We Love” series. A new feature here, and already a favorite of fans, it’s our way of supporting some of the wonderfully clever and inspiring folks we’ve met in our travels. Today’s profile is Tammy Hensley, who we met at The Creative Connection in Minneapolis this past September. While chatting during one of the classes, Tammy demurely mentioned how she had dabbled a little bit in fabric design. She then proceeded to pull out a swatch book with dozens and dozens… and dozens of the most amazing fabric designs she’d produced at Spoonflower. Whoa! We were floored by her creativity and imagination and knew we had to find out more.

Tammy visits with us about the people and places which inspire her designs, gives us the nitty gritty of working with Spoonflower, and explains how her family photos escaped their albums and landed in her latest fabric collection.

Plus, this just in: Spoonflower let Tammy know they are going to giveaway a yard of one of her designs in conjunction with her Sew4Home profile. Yay! Visit Tammy’s blog to enter and get all the details.

S4H: You have so many talents, if I hadn’t met you in person, I’d wonder if you were actually a collage of several people. Do you have a favorite medium in which to work? If that’s too hard, how about the top three?

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TH: I do sometimes feel like I’m a collage of lots of different people, but I love it! Working in all kinds of media and with various techniques is exciting and invigorating. Two of my favorites are the ones I’ve been doing the longest: sewing and calligraphy. I started both when I was only about ten years old. In the last couple years, I began combining them to create mixed media art quilts. This was quite challenging as lettering on fabric is a very different experience than on paper or parchment. Designing fabric also has to be in that top three. I’ve only been at it for a little over a year; since I discovered Spoonflower in August of 2009. Even though it’s a more recent endeavor, I was designing fabrics in my head and my sketchbooks long before I discovered there was actually a way to have them printed.

S4H: You’re originally from North Dakota and now live in northern Minnesota. How does living ‘far from the madding crowd’ impact your inspiration and designs? What else inspires you?

TH: I love visiting big cities and have been lucky enough to see some amazing places around America. These bustling locations provide tons of inspiration when I’m there. However, you know the old saying, ‘It’s a great place to visit, but…’? I realized pretty early on that I couldn’t live in a big city. I start to feel a bit claustrophobic and way too rushed. I think it comes from growing up in North Dakota surrounded by beautiful, open prairies and lots of room to breathe and imagine. Now, living along the North Shore of Lake Superior, I love to gaze down at that enormous body of water, watching it constantly change season to season, often even day to day. I like to imagine it as a canvas of sorts and let my imagination run wild. Nature provides me with endless inspiration, as does my love of all things vintage. Preserving traditions and lost arts is hugely influential in my work. I believe every fabric tells a story, even if it’s not one of my designs. A wedding dress, an apron, a chair cushion… all these things have a history and meant something to someone. Every fabric I design has a story behind it. Sometimes it’s an expression of something I saw that was unique or intricate or simply pretty. Other times, I’m recording a part of my family’s history.

S4H: How do you work from idea to finished product? Do you design using a sketch book and/or a computer? How does your education as a graphic designer come into play?

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TH: Most of the time my designs go right from my head to the computer screen, because I’m so eager to see my idea finished and have it in my hand. I always have a sketchbook and a camera with me when I travel, so I can record all the things that capture my imagination. I have sketchbooks full of designs and patterns that are just waiting to burst to life. It’s hard for me to imagine trying to design fabric without graphic design experience, but there are great designers out there who don’t have a formal design education. I use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator when creating my designs. Spoonflower also offers some options for people who may not be comfortable creating a design from scratch.

S4H: We first got started talking with you because we were so taken with your fabric designs at Spoonflower. So, we’d like to spend a little time exploring the whole ” Spoonflower Experience.” To start, what got you thinking about creating your own fabric?

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TH: As I said earlier, I’d been dreaming up and sketching out my fabric ideas for a long time before discovering Spoonflower. My desire to create fabric came from a dream to see my own artwork on yards of material. I was already in the habit of drawing patterns for items I couldn’t find at all or couldn’t find in the style that was me. As I stitched up these patterns, I thought about how cool it would be to have a complete ‘Tammy Original’ –my own pattern and my own fabric from which I’d create personalized gifts for family and friends. Before Spoonflower, I did some experimenting with very small scale projects, including those fabric sheets you run through your home printer. I even created a little barrel purse for my sister with a design of her dog, Jessie, done up Andy Warhol style.

S4H: How did find out about Spoonflower; did you investigate any other options?

TH: I was visiting my mom and dad back in North Dakota, and was doing a search on the web for fabric (for what reason, I can’t remember). One of the results that came back was Spoonflower. I clicked and I was totally hooked! I also happened to discover it just in time for their first free swatch day. That day and the next were spent at my computer whipping up two designs so I could get my two free swatches. I’ve found some other fabric sites out there, such as KarmaKraft, and have looked at them a bit, but haven’t tried any others. I believe they offer some different fabric types, as well as the ability to have a finished product made from a few options.

S4H: Can you describe the basic process? Anything in particular you wished someone had told you before you jumped in with both feet?

TH: The basic process involves getting your design together in one of the required file formats. TIFF and JPG are the preferred file formats, but Spoonflower has recently added a few other formats. You also need to make sure the file size doesn’t exceed their requirement. This can impact the file format you use to save your designs. As I said above, I use Photoshop and Illustrator to develop my designs. Spoonflower has a connection with the website Picnik to help you create designs if you don’t feel comfortable working in a professional design program. There are also designers out there who are available to put together designs for you. I designed some fabric for a church quilting group who didn’t feel up to the task. If this sounds like an interesting route, start by browsing the Spoonflower designs to find a designer whose style suits you. Then, send him/her a quick email and ask if he/she would be willing to help execute your design and, if so, what they would charge.

The biggest hurdle for me when I started was figuring out seamless repeats. As a graphic designer, you usually have specific size limitations and compose within them. Designing a fabric requires your work to repeat seamlessly so it will print correctly to cover yards and yards of material with no obvious breaks. I’m on message boards and sites all the time that debate the merits of various tools and techniques, such as mirror repeats, but that’s getting pretty technical. Asking questions of the professionals and trial and error are your best friends here.

Recognizing the distinct possibility of some color shifting from the design process to the printed product is also important. I still struggle with this one a bit, but after a few go-rounds with one particular design that kept shifting from red to magenta (which seems to be the most problematic color), I spent an entire weekend and part of a week putting together a color chart and then a Pantone color chart so I could make more educated color choices when developing my designs. Now I have a much better idea how a color is going to appear in the final product, and I no longer spend a lot of money on revisions. Even with these aides, designing this way can be challenging; colors that don’t seem to look quite right onscreen often end up looking fine once they’re printed. It’s another “practice makes perfect” thing.

Once you have your design, you’ll create a profile and upload your file. Finally… the fun of ordering your fabric begins! If you want to make your work available for others to buy down the road, you’ll have to order a swatch to proof the design and colors. Once the swatch comes back, and you’re happy with the results, you can put the design up for sale, then you (and everyone else) can order fabric to your heart’s content. Even if you don’t want to sell your design to anyone else, ordering a swatch to begin with is still a good idea. As I described above, with a swatch, you can make sure the colors are really what you had in mind… before you order yards and yards of your creation. You can also make adjustments to the size and scale of your work if you decide it’s not quite right.

Spoonflower offers a few different fabric options, and I recommend getting their fabric sampler pack for $1 so you can get a feel for which fabric is best suited to your needs and projects. The options range from a quilter’s weight cotton to upholstery weight cotton twill to silk crepe de chine. There’s no minimum order; you can order anything from a swatch to yards and yards filled with your designs or the designs of other fabulous artists!

S4H: I believe you have over 100 designs at Spoonflower now; sounds addicting. How often do you create new fabric?

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TH: My designing kind of goes in fits and spurts. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and just have to get it done no matter what. And, I usually come up with a few color variations once I have the basic design-family finished. I generally create at least a couple designs a month. I could do way more if there were more hours in a day. If I could make designing fabric and patterns my full-time job, I absolutely would!

S4H: What can you tell us about the orders and inquiries you’ve gotten for your collections?

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TH: The fabrics I’ve had the most orders for are the color chart and Pantone color chart I’ve put together. Definitely not quite what I had envisioned, but I’m glad they’re helpful to others out there as well as myself! I’ve had some orders of a honeybee design I did for a Flickr group doing an ‘I Spy’ quilt challenge. My Divine Dining and Romantic Roses collections also get ‘favorited’ and ordered occasionally.

At Spoonflower, you get a 10% commission in Spoondollars for every order of one of your designs – except for swatches. Hopefully, swatch orders eventually turn into a larger order, but the reality is it doesn’t always work that way. You can save up your Spoondollars to apply to your own fabric order or have them roll over into a PayPal account once you reach $20. As a designer, you also get a 10% discount on orders of your own fabrics – again except for swatches.

S4H: Who are all those people in your wonderful ‘ FamilyFaces fabric? I’m guessin’ they’re all good North Dakota stock?

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TH: They are definitely my family and GREAT North Dakota stock! I have piles of pictures of my ancestors and have always been enamored of black and white and sepia photos. It’s certainly not practical to frame and hang up every old photo I love (I don’t have that much wall space!), yet I still wanted a unique way to preserve the images in my work. So, I looked through my collection and picked out a group of favorites. Then I got to work scanning and Photoshopping to kind of posterize them. As a calligrapher, I love to find fun fonts, especially ones with a vintage, grungy feel. I translated the word “family” into several languages, and combined these words with my posterized family images to produce the final product. Now I’m figuring out all the ways I’m going to use these Family fabrics. I think some of it is going to become inserts for an old changing screen.

S4H: So often the right combinations of color and pattern are the difference between love it and hate it. Do you have any advice on how to choose and combine elements?

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TH: I try to take cues from the subject matter in choosing colors for my designs. I’m a big fan of vintage items and love antique stores; when I design in this realm, I use a muted color pallet. But when I’m putting together a whimsical and fun design, I go brighter. My Adirondack Attitude print would just not be the same in pale pinks and sepia! I also think you have to be a little bit fearless and play; you shouldn’t be afraid to try something unusual. Develop your own style and what works for you!

S4H: You’re so young, I’m not sure which eras the term “vintage” might encompass in your mind. I’m worried I may have shoes in my closet that could qualify. But, this worry aside, you do incorporate some wonderfully vintage elements into many of your designs. Do you have a favorite time period? Where do you find the physical pieces you use, such as the jewelry, the photos, the lace and tatting?

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TH: I do love all things vintage, especially when it comes to fabric. I have such great admiration for the time and effort that went into creating beautifully detailed table and bed linens. I love scouring antique stores and flea markets for ‘old’ treasures. When I use photos, I always preserve the original photograph, using a scan or print instead in the finished artwork. You can’t really do that with jewelry and fabrics, so I usually look for inexpensive jewelry with a lot of character. I really love the larger pieces, which can be taken apart and incorporated into several projects. I also scan lace pieces, to have a record I can use to incorporate them into later designs, but I’ve also been known to cut them up when they suit a project I’m working on. A few years ago, I was so intrigued with the lost art of tatting, I taught myself how to do it using Mary Jane Butters’ instructions in her Mary Jane’s Stitching Room . Now I’m hooked and love to tea-stain my tatting or dye it to use in mixed media pieces.

Most of my photos are from my family with a few scatted ones I’ve picked up in antique shops. I’m currently borrowing family recipe cards from my mom and aunt that are in my grandma’s handwriting. They’re being scanned and will eventually become my next set of fabrics, again preserving a bit more of our family history. I hope to combine them with some hand-drawn illustrations of some of Grandma’s culinary creations.

S4H: Sometimes it’s hard to convince people to take the sewing plunge. Do you have friends you’ve been able to bring over to the creative side?

TH: I’ve had creative friends who’ve been very intimated by fabric, but love to use all sorts of papers and embellishments. Trying to get them to feel more comfortable with fabric can be challenging, but I’ve made some headway by encouraging them to incorporate small bits of fabric into their paper creations, reminding them fabric can be glued. Once they get their fabric feet wet, I nudge them to try a bit of hand stitching, suggesting it as yet another colorful embellishment to their paper. Hand stitching leads to machine stitching, and I always have them start out on a smaller, non-threatening model. They’re often hooked before they realize what’s happened. Even if I can’t win them over to needle and thread, I still want everyone to express their creativity in whatever way works for them, allowing them to tell their stories and express their own style.

S4H: You have your own blog , an Etsy shop, a Spoonflower shop, exposure on a Minnesotan artists website . How do you find the time? How to you keep the creative flame burning?

TH: I definitely have days when I feel less than inspired. And, like most people, I never find the time to do everything I want. It would really take a much longer day, week and month for me to create everything in my sketchbooks. I just try to make sure there is at least some portion of my day when I get to create, and I devote as much time as I can on weekends to my art. I also realize a lot of my ideas need more time than I will ever find in one chunk; in those cases, I break the idea down into smaller steps so I can keep some momentum happening. When I’m not feeling particularly inspired, I read my library of creativity books and magazines and page through my sketchbooks. Getting out into nature and taking photos is also one of the best exercises I know to jumpstart my creativity. And if all else fails, simply close your eyes for a minute, then open them, look at the world from a different perspective, and explore something new.

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