Stephanie Waddell, of the website Agnes & Hoss, designs fabrics that press my "instant covet" button, and turns them into pillows, handbags, and scarves that are perfect foils for the textiles. She agreed to answer five questions for A Dress A Day …
1. How did you get into fabric design? Was there an "aha!" moment where you knew this was what you wanted to do?
Ten years ago I had no idea this is where I would end up. I graduated from college with a degree in studio arts, specifically painting and drawing, and moved to Chicago. For several years I worked in the Chicago gallery scene as an administrator while always taking classes of some sort (art history, languages, sewing) in the evenings to keep myself alert and stimulated beyond my job. Sewing was the one that really stuck with me and as my skill level increased I started experimenting with some of my own designs and patterns … and this led to the handbags. While still working other jobs full-time and then soon only part-time, I launched Lily Starr, a hand-made handbag line using printed and woven silks (at this point store bought). I was just completely drawn to silk because of the material's ability to receive a print and reflect color so well. Because I was hand-making this line I kept distribution down to about 3-4 stores, but it only took about 6 months of slaving away at my sewing machine before I realized that what I was really passionate about were the fabrics themselves, and not the making of a handbag. This, combined with a lifelong obsession with mixing color and pattern in both my clothing and my home, made me realize that I should really pursue the textile angle, which in turn could open doors to a enormous range or products and ideas … from clothing and accessories to rugs, wallpaper, lighting and so on. This felt so much more freeing to me and so I just dove into it head first. Fortunately I had an art background, which really comes in handy, but I had no textile design experience and just taught myself how to develop repeats, work with mills, etc., on my own. I really wanted my first line of fabrics (and likewise the first range of products … handbags, scarves, pillows and lighting) to be something special so I took my time developing them. I think in the end that paid off. I officially launched Agnes & Hoss at the New York International Gift Fair in January 2006.
2. The patterns in your collection seem to straddle the line between abstraction and naturalism — did you find it hard to get to that "sweet spot"? Were you trying for that feeling?
I suppose I was trying for that feeling but hadn't thought about it in those exact words. I always respond to and am drawn to create natural and organic imagery, but also enjoy seeing the artist's hand in a design. I like that you don't necessarily see the imagery in my work right away for what it really is. For example, most people are not able to recognize my Seaweed as it actually is…they see trees or flowers. Likewise, upon first viewing the Starlings print, most people do not see the hundreds of little birds perched on the branches … they just see a jumble of branches or who knows what. And maybe that's all they ever see … it doesn't actually really matter to me … because it is what you want it to be. If you respond to the pattern you respond to it in your own way, like a Rorschach test, and that says something about you and how you see the world. But then there is a secret "truth" behind each design which always brings a smile to people's faces when they hear it. I always include a tag with each of my products telling the "story" of the corresponding print … what it actually is and how it came to be. It gives a little insight into the print as well as myself and what I'm inspired by.
3. What's your process from going from idea to finished fabric?
I spend a lot of time collecting natural material like shells, flowers, weeds, leaves, etc. I've trained my mind to be extremely alert to these things and particularly to unusual ones. I also look at a lot of books and online images. Often the images are a result of something I became interested in for completely inexplicable reasons … could be an article I read, a story someone told me, or something I found. The seaweed design, for example, is derived from a piece of seaweed I found on the beach in Cape Cod. On the beach, it was one of a million pieces of seaweed that had washed ashore, but for some unknown reason it just completely jumped out at me. There was something about its winding stem and flowery leaves (if that's what you call them) that seemed almost poetic. Then, once I really glom onto something (currently it's aerial images of river systems) I move into the pattern development phase by working on different drawings, bringing them into my computer and playing around with possible repeat systems, and color combinations. Once I've got the design nailed down, I send it off to one of a few domestic fabric companies I work with that farm the printing out to mills in China and Korea. The rest of the process takes about 8-10 weeks — 4 weeks to see and approve 1 yard strikeoffs from the mill, and another four weeks to make corrections and receive the production yardage. I'm very particular about color, so if a color isn't right the first time around and they have to adjust it, that could end up adding another 2-4 weeks onto the process.
4. Are there fibers or materials you'd like to work with but that aren't practical now? What's your dream fabric?
I would love to do a line of woven fabrics, where my designs are woven into the fabric. These could be used for upholstery or fashion. I would also love to do a line of rugs, made in Tibet or Nepal, because it supports the weavers and would also allow me to travel there! Regarding my dream fabric — I may already be working with it! Silk charmeuse (and I use a particuarly heavy weight charmeuse) will always seem special to me. I could invent a dream fabric, it would be a silk charmeuse that doesn't wrinkle.
5. What advice would you give the hobbyist or "prosumer" who wants to start out making fabric in smaller quantities?
If you want to start out making fabric in small quantities the best solution is to hand-print it yourself or hire a hand-printing studio to do it. If you work with a large print mill, as I do, you have to meet their minimums, which can occasionally be as low as 100-200 yards per design but are often much higher. This is a big upfront c
ost to take on. While I do love the look of hand-printed material and may eventually produce a line myself, I currently have my designs mill-printed overseas because I like the crispness they can achieve with line and repeats.