Gettin' Made: A Spoonful of Flowers

One of the big draws in crafting is the ability to make something, anything, your own. There's literally zillions of ways you can create something unique through the wonders of dyeing, knitting, embroidering and more. Sewing your own clothes is great, but sometimes you yearn for a fabric design that you can't find on the racks at Joann. Something a little out there, a little more you.

Until recently, hand printing techniques like potato stamps or even screenprinting your own fabrics was one of the few ways to accomplish an original fabric pattern. Then Spoonflower came along, and there was much rejoicing.

Never heard of Spoonflower? You've come to the right place; prepare to have your fabric-loving mind blown. After the jump, we chat with Stephen Fraser from Spoonflower about how this internet phenomenon came to be.


OC Weekly: Being able to easily make your own custom fabric is amazing – how did you guys come up with the idea for this business?

Stephen Fraser: Spoonflower was my wife Kim's idea, originally. One night about a year and a half ago she asked me if I knew of a service that would let her print her own fabric. She wanted a set of curtains with big yellow polka dots and hadn't been able to find the fabric to make them. I was stumped. There were Web sites that let you make personalized t-shirts and coffee mugs and photo books and everything else under the sun, but not fabric.

As an Internet geek who used to work for (an on-demand book publishing company) I knew a little bit about this sort of of business even though I knew nothing at all about fabric or sewing. I approached my old boss at Lulu, Gart Davis, around the time he was leaving the company, about taking a stab at creating an on-demand fabric site.

Together we put together an outline for Spoonflower and started the long process of emptying our savings accounts to make it happen.

OCW: Where does the Spoonflower fabric printing magic take place?
SF: Spoonflower is in an old sock mill in the middle of Mebane, North Carolina. Mebane is a tiny town, but it's not too far from an area called Research Triangle Park close to the cities of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh. There are train tracks that pass through Mebane about a hundred yards from our building, which means we get to listen to a train whistle blow several times a day. It's a great old building even though it's falling apart a bit around the edges.

OCW: The crafting public pretty much went wild over this, right? Tell us about the growth (and growing pains!) you have experienced since starting Spoonflower.

SF: Gart and I launched Spoonflower as an invitation-only beta in late May of 2008, but by the end of the summer we had over 10,000 names on a waiting list to use the site. During that time we were printing fabric using a borrowed printer and shipping it from our kitchen tables. We moved into our own office in August, bought our first printer and opened the beta to one and all in October. Now here we are a year later finally ready — about two weeks away, as a matter of fact — to take the 'beta' off and call Spoonflower a grown-up.

We have about 40,000 designers registered and using the site at this point and when we officially come out of beta those designers will have the option to sell their fabrics to anyone and everyone. We had to learn a lot along the way,  but it's quite a thrill to be at the center of this amazingly creative community and to be on the verge of fulfilling the original vision of Spoonflower.

OCW: No good business escapes controversy and Spoonflower is no exception – tell us a little about the recent hullabaloo over the fabric of the week contest and the pilfered design.

SF: We run a weekly fabric design contest in which the Spoonflower community is invited to submit individual designs and then to vote on their favorites. In a recent contest, we discovered belatedly that the winning design was not created by the person who had submitted it to the contest.

The design belonged to an artist ( who very generously shares her designs through her blog. About fifteen minutes after sending out an email to 30,000 people announcing the winning design, we got a very nice note from Yasmine at A Print A Day explaining that the design was hers. She was extremely gracious about the situation. We sent out a second email correcting the first, changed the attribution of the design on our own site, and canceled the account of the person who had submitted it to the contest.

We sent the prize — five yards of free fabric — to Yasmine, who plans to give it away as prizes to her readers. The terms of service on our web site are very clear about respecting copyright and uploading only work that you own or have permission to reproduce. All web sites play by the same rules from a legal standpoint. But not all web sites are equally successful at creating an atmosphere of respect for ownership. Setting the right tone is important.

In this case, we acted as quickly as possible to address a very public violation of our terms of service and by doing so my hope is that we sent the message that representing other people's creative work as your own is not in any way acceptable. It's unacceptable legally and it's also unacceptable socially if you want to be part of our community. The Spoonflower community is about expressing and sharing your individual creativity.

On the next page, find out the how and the what you can do with Spoonflower fabric.


OCW: I've done fabric design in the past for companies like Oshkosh B'Gosh, but lots of artists aren't fortunate enough to have had a chance to learn how to create a repeat pattern. Are there resources on your website to help first timers figure it out?

SF: There are some easy ways to create repeats, of course, so untrained folks — like me — can create simple designs and use our software to tile them or to create half-drop or half-brick repeats. For designs based on photos or paintings, you can also use our site to mirror the image so that the borders match up when it's tiled.

For more sophisticated tutorials on creating repeats we offer a few links on our blog. One good, basic tutorial is by Cameron Blazer over at Cottage Industrialist.

OCW: What are some of the most creative ideas you've seen come through the Spoonflower presses?

SF: I really love seeing people make plush dolls by printing the fronts and backs of their characters on fabric. A short list of some of the many folks doing that sort of thing: Sophie N Lili, John Golden, and Joybucket

But we also see all kinds of other cool fabric projects pass through, from fabric-covered buttons to camouflage.

OCW: Spoonflower's currently beta-testing giving folks the opportunity to sell their fabric designs – tell us about that, and how the testing is going. When can we expect to see that as a regular feature everyone can use?

SF: We're testing our marketplace right now with a small group of a couple of hundred sellers. It's going well but there are lots of suggestions coming in, particularly around providing better ways to group and browse fabric designs.

We won't be able to implement every suggestion right away, but we hope to have a serviceable 1.0 version of the marketplace open to everyone within about two weeks. Once the marketplace is live a designer can opt to make a design available for purchase. If someone buys that fabric, the designer will earn 10% of the retail price.

OCW: Any tips on getting the best results creating designs for your printed fabrics?

SF: Advice for getting the best from Spoonflower:

1) Start with a clean, high-resolution digital file. Looking at your file up close–at the pixel level–will help you spot unwanted dithering in the design or stray pixels. Size your file for print at 150 pixels per inch as a TIF or, if a TIF is too large, as a PNG or JPG.

2) Order a swatch first to test your colors.Colors on a computer screen bear only a tangential relationship with colors on physical objects. Fabric is also a media that takes color very differently from paper. Designers who use Spoonflower a lot often order their own color charts so that they have a reference for the colors our printers are capable of reproducing on cotton fabric using textile pigments.

3) High-contrast designs look best. Digital textile printing is capable of rendering much greater detail than screen-printing, but the designs that work best will have clear contrasts between individual elements. So while small drawings of gnomes will look fabulous, for example, a design of a space nebula probably wouldn't. Turning white fabric–which is what we print on–entirely black with ink is possible, but not really the best application for digital printing. The darkest color the pigments can render is really more of a charcoal than a true black.

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Stephen–I know this post is going to get a lot of people's creative gears going!


For more information on Spoonflower and to get started creating your own fabric, visit their website or follow them on Twitter. For photos of spoonflower fabric and crafts people have made be sure to check out their Flickr page.

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