Kristen, from Cakehouse, and I were able to have a great chat several weeks ago about how she transforms vintage sheets from the Salvation Army into lovely screen-printed napkins and other soft home goods. Just after, we met up at the Brooklyn Flea where I got to check out her products in person. Recycling vintage sheets is not only a great way to bring eco-consciousness to the table, but you also get the gorgeously soft hand-feel of the softest cotton as a result of lots of washing. With lovely llamas, foxes and cats screen-printed in the corner, they are a must-have for any table setting.
Alexandra: OK, tell me a bit about how your business got started.
Kristen, cakehouse: I guess to really see the genesis of the whole thing, I have to go back a few years... I had been working in publishing, which was something I had fallen into and was starting to not enjoy. So I quit and went to FIT for the textile design program (which was fabulous). But I wasn't sure what I was going to do when I graduated, because I didn't want to design on a computer, and I didn't really want to work for someone else. Thankfully I was spared having to make that decision by getting pregnant about 7 months before I finished school! ;) So I stayed home with my son for 3 years, and slowly formed the idea in my head of doing something handmade---during those three years, I started going on craftser and other sites, learned about etsy, and became more and more familiar with the indie craft community, and knew it was somewhere I could see myself. so when my son went to pre-school in the fall of ‘07, I traded in my childhood savings bonds for a laptop and a vintage sewing machine and dove in.
Textile design is so fun. There are so many gorgeous fabrics out there.
I know! it was definitely all of the amazing vintage textiles that I found in thrift shops that led me to the focus of my work.
Speaking of thrift shops, I know you re-purpose a lot of materials to make your products. How do you find your materials? What criteria do you have when shopping to help you decide what will be used and what won’t?
95% of my fabrics come from the good old Salvation Army, in the form of sheets and pillowcases and bedspreads. I am a total thrift store devotee---I get all of my clothes and most of my son's clothes and tons of the things in our house at the thrift shop. my mom always took me when I was little, and I’ve always loved the sense of discovery when you find something wonderful and unique. And now that I’m older I appreciate the value of re-using rather than buying new. My criteria mainly is that the patterns need to be appealing and in that 50s-60s-70s aesthetic wheelhouse. And they mostly have to be lighter-colored patterns, with an all-over motif that will work well with one of my silk-screened designs printed over it. And, of course, it can't be excessively stained or ripped... ;) though I will buy a sheet that I am totally in love with even if it's torn or stained and I can only get maybe 1 or 2 sets of napkins out of it.... ;)
There can be some amazing things in thrift stores, but you often have to dig through a lot of junk to find it. Are there some neighborhoods that have better thrift stores than others?
Oh yeah, there's a lot of digging.... thankfully, I live three blocks from a great and relatively undiscovered Salvation Army. I think I’m the only person to shop in the sheets aisle... Generally, Salvation Armies are the best for my needs. Goodwills carry hardly any sheets at all, and in general are less interesting to me because they get a lot of donations of overstock from stores, so you're less likely to find things with a lot of personality. The best thrift stores I have found, actually, are in Philly.... and thankfully, one of my best friends lives there, so I can go visit her and call it a business trip. hee.
Oh, and Florida! My mom lives down there, and I always get to as many shops as possible when I visit. Those little old ladies downsizing from big houses into condos give away some great things.... actually, I thrift on vacation whenever possible. I found this great site, http://www.thethriftshopper.com/, where you can put in a zip code and it tells you all of the local thrift shops. brilliant!
It’s a great excuse to go shopping. People get rid of some amazing things. Have you noticed any difference between wealthier neighborhoods or less fancy ones? I always wanted to hit up the Greenwich Salvation Army and see what they are throwing out...
Wealthier neighborhoods are as hit or miss as any others, in the long run, I think. I’ve found just as wonderful things in the Salvation Army in my neighborhood (which is definitely not wealthy) as in the ones on the Upper East Side. It all depends. I think a good amount of the good loot being given away in wealthier neighborhoods goes to consignment shops, rather than thrift shops. And the ones in wealthier areas are definitely pricier!
So once you have found an amazing sheet, what is the next step?
Once I have a sheet, I take it home and wash it with natural detergent and a natural enzyme cleaner, and hang it out in the yard to dry. I’m so lucky to have a yard with a clothesline. I don't know if I could function without it, nothing makes things smell as good as being hung out on a line.... Then I take it in and cut it up into napkin-sized pieces (with my trusty rotary cutter...), or a combo of napkin-sized and placemat-sized pieces. Then I print one of my animals on, cure the ink in the dryer (the only thing I use my dryer for at this point), and sew them up.
Tell me more about your printing process...
I have a great silk-screening table---it's an old iron table that I got on freecyle.com from a photographer who was dismantling his studio. On that is a wooden top that my husband and son made to my specifications, into which I’ve screwed some clamps that hold the screens steady. I’ve marked out on the table in black masking tape where exactly I need to place my fabric rectangles to get the motifs in the same place on each one---this is especially important in the 2-color designs, which need to be printed with two different screens, so the fabric needs to be in exactly the same place for printing with the 2nd screen as it was for the 1st screen. I’m totally anal about getting my two-color designs to match up (getting proper "registration", as it's called). I get more frustrated than I probably should when things don't line up and I know I can't use that piece of fabric.... I think it's because I have such a limited supply of each fabric. Anyway, I mix most of the colors myself, and though I coordinate them to the fabrics, I don't drive myself nuts trying to match exactly. I only do the printing myself. I don't burn the designs into the screens myself. I don't have the equipment for it, and don't feel like I’m ready to invest in that yet. So for now I have a great local screen printer, Roxanne of roxy's tees, burn my screens for me in her studio.
I would love to learn how to screen print one day. It’s such a science.
It is! it was my first class at FIT, and I fell in love with it. I was just saying we should do a new new screen-printing class....
Sign me up. You mentioned your son--how do you find balancing home life with your company?
It's difficult sometimes to balance the boy and the work. One of my goals for this year is to really put a strong line in the sand between my work time and my time with Wile. He's only in school 3 days a week, so on his days off, because my studio is in our house, and my laptop is always there, it's really tempting for me to try to get some work done.... but I’m trying to resist that. My time with him, when he is so little, is more valuable than anything to do with my business. I know it's a cliché, but childhood goes by so quickly---I’m still shocked every time I remember that he's going to be 5 this year... so I’m doing my best to be ultra-productive on my work days, when he's in school, and to put the laptop away when I’m with him. My husband has been really supportive of me, carting me and my tent and my tables all over creation to this fair and that fair, and/or taking Wile for the day while I’m selling in person. Fairs definitely cut into our weekend family time, but they're a big part of my business right now.
That leads to my next question... where else could people find your products, other than Etsy?
I’m doing a booth at the Brooklyn flea with may luk ceramics and box design (custom furniture from the people who brought us beacon bookmarks....), the third weekend of April, May, and June, and I’ll be doing two big spring fairs: Art Star Craft Bazaar in Philly, and Renegade here in Brooklyn. I’ve also gotten into some great stores: Youngblood gallery and boutique in Atlanta, and Renegade handmade and Sprout home in Chicago, both of which carry my things in their online shops as well. I’m aiming toward building my wholesale/consignment business. Though I love Etsy and want to always maintain a presence there, it's hard to keep up with the photographing and listing process when everything I make, I only make 4 or 5 sets of, because I only have that much of each fabric....
It’s really neat that everything you make is by nature limited edition.
I do really like that aspect of it, it makes them even more special.
Why should people buy handmade? What would you tell them?
To feel a connection with the object. To know that someone put thought and care into it, that it wasn't created by a marketing team to appeal to the masses, but by an individual with a unique creative viewpoint. And I have a personal relationship with all of the objects in my home and all of the items in my closet, and it makes me happy to look at something and think "oh, I remember buying that from so-and-so at that craft fair, they were so awesome."
Do you plan to expand into any other product categories or new screen designs? Where do you want to take your company next?
I’m about to have two new screens burned: a dachshund, and letters for monograms. I’ve done a few monograms in the past, but haven't had a screen, so I hand-painted them, which is crazy-making. so I’m excited to have the screens done. I love letters and typeface and fonts, so I’m really excited to incorporate those. And the dachshund is for my husband, who has a thing for them.... as far as new products, I’m working on wall hangings---for the people who look at my napkins and say "they're too pretty to use!"---and squares, which will be single-layer squares of fabric that can be used as a handkerchief or a bandana.
Next up? I’d like to eventually have someone coming in and sewing for me (which would mean actually coming up with patterns/guidelines instead of eyeing everything like I do now, ay yi yi!). And like I mentioned, I’d like to do more wholesale/consignment. I’d also like to eventually move my studio out of my house---though it's super convenient, it would be nice to have a more tangible divide between work and home. and I’ve always wanted to have my own shop. When I was little I dreamed that it would be a clothing shop, but now I dream of somewhere I could sell the things I make, and things I love that other people make...
Do you have any creative tricks that you could share?
I’d say that what has helped me be the most creative has been finding a niche that really appeals to me. Once I put together my philosophy and aesthetic---vintage, repurposed, home---the ideas just started flowing. Find what you love, and don't be afraid to run with it. Others will love it too. And: don't go anywhere without a pen and paper!
Where do you want to be in ten years?
In Brooklyn, still part of this awesome indie craft community, seeing my friends and still creating things that we love and being able to support ourselves with it---seeing more people being able to do that!