It all started with reading Heather Ross’s textile arts blog. See, as a writer, you have to constantly find new ways to avoid writing, and for me, crafting has always been a reliable method. Or even better, reading about crafting, because that counts as research, see? And then you don’t have to do any actual work.
Now normally I’d be perfectly happy to just read Heather talking about drawing her gorgeous designs for children’s fabric, and look at the pretty pictures, and perhaps occasionally buy some fabric, thinking that, oh, someday, I will make a skirt out of this for my daughter. This is the sort of thing I would do even before I had a daughter.
And now that I do have one, and some of Heather’s fabric sits on a shelf in my basement, that might be the end of that. You can go quite a long time on the pleasure of the lovely skirt that you’re going to sew, some day, especially if your sewing skills are basically non-existent. But then I hit a roadblock. Or rather, Heather did.
She became enmeshed in a discussion that erupted in the fabric world about diversity and representation, about the paucity of children of color in children’s fabric. (I don’t want to recap that discussion here, although if you’re interested, you might follow this link or this one.)
My own position is that while it makes me sad that I don’t see my brown Sri Lankan-American self in fabric, and even sadder that my young mixed-race daughter doesn’t see herself either, I don’t think it’s necessarily Heather’s responsibility to put us there. Her work is often autobiographical, with a fairy tale flavor, and if that’s what inspires her, she gets to do that.
But still -- the lack of such fabric made me wish I could draw. I can’t. Or rather, I thought I couldn’t. But Heather frequently encourages her readers to try drawing, and one day, I went to the art store and picked up colored pencils and good paper (it turns out that the art store is another great writing-avoidance technique), and I tried sketching a few things.
One thing led to another, and I was surprised to find that I could, with some careful copying and much erasing, draw a quite respectable little moon moth. The Indian moon moth is found in Sri Lanka as well. I added the word "nilavu," which means moon in Tamil (the language my family speaks, though one I have mostly forgotten since immigrating to the U.S. at age two). I was surprisingly happy with the result.
Now I might have done nothing more with that sketch, if it weren’t for Spoonflower. Do you know about the wonders of Spoonflower? It’s astonishing. You can scan in a sketch, or a photograph, or draw something on-screen. Then you upload your finished artwork to Spoonflower -- wait, this is the magic part -- and they will print your art on fabric! At first there were just a few fabric options, but there are lots now. And, yes, the price per yard is not cheap. That’s what happens when it’s being printed one-off, custom, just for you. But having this option available to us at all is frankly wondrous.
Sometime in 2011, I drew my moon moth and scanned it and uploaded it to Spoonflower as a test fabric. And then promptly forgot all about it. I stopped back in a year later, looking for something else entirely, and discovered someone had sent me a message saying they wanted to buy a yard of it. I was so flattered! I made it available for purchase, and if anyone buys it, I actually get a tiny royalty as a designer. A designer, me!
Now, the print isn’t perfect. The colored pencils were very pale, and I didn’t color the background at all, so it’s just white. But nonetheless, I liked the result, and I guess at least one other person did, too. Perhaps they were as frustrated with the lack of desi (South Asian) kids’ fabric as I was? I immediately ordered Heather Ross’s book on making fabric (and things with fabric). I devoured it cover to cover when it arrived, and then promptly forgot about it on a shelf for the next two years. Because, as I said, all of this was avoidance behavior for writing (and for my day job as an English teacher), and eventually, all that avoidance catches up with you and you have to actually do some work.
But here we are, two years later. My semester just ended, and last week I wandered onto Spoonflower again and thought, "Hey, I should do something with that fabric."
It definitely helped that the previous winter, I’d signed up for my local park district’s Intro to Sewing class. The four two-hour sessions, $60 total, had actually gotten me comfortable with threading my long-dusty sewing machine, and in the course of a month, we’d made four items: a tissue holder, a lunch sack, a gathered cowl, and two cushions for the kids’ playroom. I found a few yards of totally awesome elephant and monkey fabric (very much the kind of fabric I’d like to draw) on an online remnant site and sewed my cushions. I was madly in love with the end result and feeling far more confident in my sewing skills.
So I ordered a yard of my fabric. Now, here, I made a terrible mistake. Two of them, in fact. First, I didn’t pay any attention to the scale of the print -- Spoonflower lets you offer your image in various sizes, and I just bought the default size, which is quite a large image on the fabric. I’d imagined lots of tiny little moths on what might have made a charming skirt for my now seven-year-old daughter, but instead, I got a few big moths, and that just looked kind of scary. I didn’t want to give her nightmares. Mistake number two was just guessing that "silky faille" was the kind of fabric I wanted -- it turned out to be a slightly heavy polyester, which I’m sure is good for something, but wasn’t what I wanted at all. By this point I had given up on the slightly ambitious skirt and was envisioning a scarf, a light little cotton thing, suitable for summer. Back to the website.
I discovered -- too late -- that Spoonflower actually offers, for a measly $1, a little sample pack with all their fabric. I strongly recommend you buy this first; it is lovely, cheap, and super helpful. It turned out that what I wanted was the cotton voile -- I changed the size of the repeat to something a little smaller, and ordered again. $21.60 was a lot for a scarf -- but I was crossing my fingers that I could actually get two light summer scarves out of a single fat quarter of fabric. About $12 per scarf seemed much more reasonable.
And in fact, it worked out perfectly. The fabric came. I pre-washed it with a load of laundry and ironed it dutifully (as my sewing instructor had insisted one do for decent results). And then I tore it in half (making a slight cut first), width-wise -- always a bit nerve-wracking, but it worked just fine. Literally ten minutes with my sewing machine, double-folding the edges (my teacher would have told me to iron them down first, but I didn’t bother), and sewing them down with creamy white thread, gave me a finished scarf! Triumph!
I gave that scarf to my sister, who I hope will like it as much as I do. I’m going to keep the other for myself, and possibly stop by the fabric store to get a bit of trim to add at the ends. I’m thinking something dark green, with bobbles. I’m going to print the fabric again, with an even smaller repeat, and try sewing a simple dress for my little girl. Maybe other desi parents will find my fabric too, and be delighted to find something culturally appropriate for their own children.
And I have such plans for what else I might draw -- Indian palaces, definitely. Elephants and banyan trees. Monkeys, no doubt. Did you know Spoonflower will let you print wallpaper too? And decals? It turns out that I can spend even more time daydreaming about images I might draw as I ever spent reading about someone else’s drawing. Writing avoidance behavior wins again!