How did I start my creative career?
Outside my yellow front door, March 2018
- Not a quick question to answer but I'll have a go!
I’m what you might call a late bloomer in this field as I didn't start my design career until I was in my late 30s! I also haven’t taken a conventional route to get here, which will hopefully be of some inspiration to you.
Picasso said that all children are born artists but the challenge is to remain an artist when we grow up. I’m a child of the 70s and loved making things, painting and playing the violin. My parents weren’t particularly creative but did encourage me and my sister to follow our dreams.
A bit about my background -
I left home at 17 and moved to Manchester where I spent 5 years at the Royal Northern College of Music studying the violin and piano. I then did a PGCE before spending 2 years volunteering in Cambodia for 2 years.
I then moved to Brighton where I taught music for 14 years.
In 2002 I wrote a kids book for my two nieces in the style of a Dick Bruna 'Miffy Book' using simple poster paint illustrations crudely cut out and glued onto coloured cardboard backgrounds. (*Little did I know that many years later I would be doing this for a job!)
A spread from my first ever handmade children's story book
In 2004 I started selling vintage fabrics on Ebay that I bought online from all over the world. I became a fabric geek and specialised in fabrics from the 50s and 60s. I made them into cushions and these sold really well.I had a regular customer in New York who turned out to be one of the largest Mid Century Modern collectors in the world. Selling handmade Mid Century Modern cushions was a relatively new idea at the time so I developed a popular following. This was long before social media and iPhones and I was still a full time music teacher. I was using a little digital camera with very little experience - learning as I went along.
My handmade Mid Century Modern fabric cushions - Marian Mahler, Terence Conran, Jaqueline Groag and a few others.
A very poor quality snap shot of my studio at this time in our spare bedroom.Shelves full of my fabric collections!
In 2006 I discovered a Screen Printing Studio round the corner from where I was living in Brighton so I signed up for a 6 week evening course.
It felt like ‘coming home’ and I was immediately hooked. I booked into drop in sessions in the evening and printed fabric to make into bags and prints. The print studios were called BIP (Brighton Independent Printmakers) and were run by two fabulous inspiring women called Jane Sampson and Ann d'Arcy Hughes.
Shortly after, I took part in the Brighton Festival Open House Studios and was spotted by a company called The Art Group. It was a huge surprise as the work they chose to use was the work I’d produced during the evening classes, literally a few weeks earlier. I was screen printing simple Scandi style monochrome prints such as these shown below.
My early Scandi style monochrome screen prints
My 'Birds at Play' screen print that was published by The Art Group and sold in Habitat and other stores.
I subsequently signed with them for 10 years and they produced prints and cards using my designs.
My work was also spotted at another Open House event and I began designing clothes and toys for the company Clothkits. It was really fun designing items that I knew children would enjoy.
*I was still teaching full time but getting other career ideas!
My designs screen printed onto children's pinafore dresses.
One of my Scandi flower designs screen printed onto a child's linen dress.
In 2007 I opened an Etsy shop and I started to sell to local shops in and around Brighton. I also opened my first Big Cartel web shop. Selling online was still relatively new then so the method I usually used to sell my products was to book appointments to visit Independent shops to show them my work and then they’d either dismiss it or agree to sell on a sale or return basis. Everything I learnt around this time was trial and error - there was no social media to learn from or books on the subject. I made lots of mistakes!
My early Scandi Fish design - also printed onto my apron!
In July 2008 I left teaching for good and a week later we adopted a baby girl! I was so happy! It still seems like a miracle even now. My challenge was to carve out a new career so I could work from home around Polly and not have to put her into childcare.
That very same week I pushed our daughter's buggy past Habitat in Brighton and spotted my cards in the window alongside Dick Bruna’s!
I was so determined to make my new career work, I seemed to have an abundance of energy and drive. I worked every second my daughter slept in the day and worked every night. I spent lots of time filling note books with ideas, future goals and dreams. This method has always worked for me as I think the act of writing these down helped me to focus on what I actually wanted.
It was also in 2008 that I started my first blog. (which I naively deleted some years later before I knew anything about how algorithms worked!) My work attracted some publicity and in 2009 I was featured in a large 4 page spread in the Independent on Sunday and in Coast magazine. I remember naively buying 200 cardboard print tubes thinking my sales were going to go through the roof, but they didn’t. I learnt these things as I went along!
Coast Magazine feature in Brighton
In 2010 we left Brighton and moved to Devon.
I started screen printing from home - my partner Jim made a cheap exposure unit and taught himself how to expose screens in our windowless utility room.
It was also around this time that I invested in a better website and designed the logo of my head that I still use today on everything.I guess this was the start of me becoming a brand!
For the next few years I screen printed fabric to make into toys, bags and cushions which I sold all over the world from my website and Etsy shop. There was an ethos of people wanting to buy handmade so this helped. I invented new products and designs on a regular basis testing them out in my web shop. Some would sell well, and others didn’t sell at all. It didn’t matter as I could produce small quantities and test the water. I believe in the idea that you need lots of bad ideas to increase your chances of good ones! It felt incredibly liberating to experiment on the world showing my work online. (albeit a bit scary at times too!)
My Totnes home studio surrounded by handmade cushions and toys.
Screen printed Scandi Chicken bag
Despite working incredibly hard and doing what I loved, I often struggled with the uncertainty of being self employed and rarely had time off. I think all my hours of being in solitude practising the violin at music college for years helped me to keep motivated when at times, I could easily have been tempted to return to teaching! Every morning I would wake up and ask myself the same question - 'How am I going to earn a living today? What can I make / print / do differently?' I'd have many days where I didn't earn a penny and would worry about the lack of certainty all the time.
2012 'Tipping Moment'
In 2012 I had what I often refer to as my ‘tipping moment’. I was approached by a talent spotting company literary agent asking me if I wanted to write a book. I met the woman in question and she suggested we put together a book proposal to then take to some publishers to see if we could get a book deal. She became my literary agent and I accepted a three book deal with Pavilion books to produce three craft books. I couldn’t believe it! I developed insomnia for a few weeks whilst I lay awake wondering what to write! I was also incredibly excited!
In 2012 my Fish Supper collage was sold as a poster in Ikea world wide - I was gradually being noticed around the world.
Also in this same year, my home in Totnes was featured in the Ikea magazine and online - they were doing a special Scandi fabric issue and must have found me online. I think it was around this time that my publishers suggested I start Facebook and Pinterest.
My work life was becoming incredibly busy and I made the decision to get some help with sewing toys whilst I juggled running my small business and writing my first book Fun With Fabric.
My first book Fun With Fabric published by Pavilion (Anova Books)
A photo from Fun With Fabric by Alun Callender
My rented studio at Dartington
I continued to appear in magazines and one in particular was Mollie Makes. I designed the free cover gift for an early issue.
Mollie Makes cover gift - make your own little sausage dog
In 2014, Mollie Makes magazine introduced their first Mollie Makes Awards and I won the Established Business Award.
It was around that time that I attracted my first ever product commission. It was for a Japanese Department store called SHIPS and I licensed my designs for mugs, blankets, bags and hot water bottles.They'd found my work online.
Some of my mug designs for the Japanese store SHIPS
2014 Make Collaboration
Spring 2014 I was also approached by Keith Brymer Jones (who you may have seen on the Great Pottery Throw Down) asking if I’d like to collaborate on some new mug designs as he liked my work. He works for a company called MAKE INTERNATONAL. It was such fun and he involved me in every stage of the process ranging from what size the mugs should be, what colours to use, what designs and how the designs should look. I also helped design the mug boxes and how the logo would look on the bottom of each mug. The process happened quite quickly from checking the samples, putting them into production to then seeing them on a stand at London Top Drawer in 2013.
My mugs and glasses for Make International
It was at Top Drawer that John Lewis's Haberdashery buyer suggested that Keith produce a range of Haberdashery for them so within a year, we’d developed a whole range of designs. By this stage in my life I decided to stop selling wholesale in order to concentrate on having the time to illustrate and work on my books.
Creative craft with kids
Up until now, everything that I was creating for my web shop was either made from vintage fabrics, designs that I screen printed onto paper or onto fabric to be sewn. I'd been referred to as a 'Textile designer' although didn't often use labels for myself.
A photo taken for my Creative Craft With Kids book - published by Pavilion
My Creative Craft With Kids book published by Pavilion.
I was asked to provide some little illustrations for my Creative Craft With Kids book and it was on seeing these that my agent suggested we might try to put together a book proposal for some children’s books.
I began working on a proposal for an alphabet and counting book and the publisher Templar offered me a two book deal. These were published in May 2015, thirteen years after the little book I’d designed in Brighton for my sister’s children!
In 2015 we took the big decision to move house to a different area with then main purpose to build a studio in our back garden to work from.
The garden studio my partner built
Outside the studio drying some silk screens
At the start of 2016 I was fortunate to be offered the chance to work on five more baby board books with Templar.
During the same year, my new zodiac mugs were launched with Make International and I think it was around this time that I also started showing my work on Instagram.
Some of my zodiac mugs for Make International
My Zodiac tea towel for Make International.
Momentum was building at such a fast pace so that in the Summer of 2016, I worked on 6 new books in a row and more mug ranges.. One was my first colouring book for the publishers called Pavilion. I was pretty much given free reign to draw whatever I wanted, which was fun as I drew everything from my imagination.
My colouring book published by Pavilon
Also in the summer of 2016, I was contacted by an America publisher called Quarto who asked if I wanted to design a fun cardboard stitching book for kids.
Stitching with Jane Foster by Quarto Creates
I also worked on some new exciting children’s City books - New York and London. These took me out of my comfort zone a bit but I liked the challenge of having to draw things that I wouldn’t normally, such as buildings.
Sacre Coeur illustration for my Paris book
I was also asked to add a few more baby books to the previous collection.
cloud 9 fabrics
I guess I still attracted an audience in the fabric world as I was also commissioned to design some panels of fabric for a US company called Cloud 9 fabrics - panels to make cushions and bags.
My fabric panels for Cloud Nine fabrics
In 2017 I worked on four new seasons books to be published by Templar publishing later this year. I also worked on a baby book for South Korea, also due to be published later this year.
It’s been my passion for creating that's kept me going all these years. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
In between my book illustrating, I love creating new screen printed prints and products for my web shop.