My Career Story So Far - Jane Foster Designs

Jane Foster

Jane Foster

I'm Jane Foster and have a multi - hyphen career. I'm an illustrator, textile designer, author, tutor and small business owner. My reasoning behind writing this article is two fold - to write my story down so I don't forget it and to hopefully be of some inspiration to others who might want to follow their creative dreams. I started my career with no funding, no experience whatsoever, no background in design, sales, marketing.... but with a lot of tenacity.I've been someone who has tried hard, failed lots and kept going, creating lots and lots every day, good and not so good work.It's not been without it's ups and downs but has definitely been worth it as I've been able to live a life full of intention at home with my family. As you'll see from photos of my work, the majority of my designs have been for and inspired by my daughter who has grown up alongside my career being my greatest critic and source of inspiration. For years I didn't ever think I would be a mum. She is without doubt my greatest achievement but second to her, my self made career is too.

I’m what you might call a late starter in this field as I didn't start my design career until I was in my late 30s! In fact, I started this career in a recession! (and was completely naive!) I also haven’t taken a conventional route to get here, which will hopefully be of some inspiration to you. It's also worth noting that a huge part of my career grew without the use of an iPhone or any social media (Facebook or Instagram). *Some of the photos I've used in this article were unedited and taken with a small digital camera I used 15 years ago.

Let me start by telling you a bit about my background! My parents were both teachers - mum was a maths teacher and my dad was a physics teacher. Dad was quite creative - he made a fibreglass canoe, a rectangular guitar and a hexagonal wooden summer house that he’d copied from a park in London. He was always doing things around the house, making things in the garage and taking us to car boot sales to see what we could find.

Both parents encouraged me to be creative and although I loved making things and doing art, it was music that I seemed to be better at as a child so I spent many years playing the violin and piano. I went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music every Saturday from the age of 14 - 17 and and played in several orchestras.

I stayed on in the 6th form at school and did music and art A level. My art teacher was such an inspiring woman and she introduced me to screen printing using paper cut stencils. My other favourite medium was to painting with black Indian ink  - I would draw my favourite singers and bands in monochrome. She let me have my own printing table by the window in the art room that I could print on during my lunch breaks whilst listening to any music I wanted. She let me screen print T shirts and onto fabric to make into curtains and clothes. I absolutely loved art but didn’t for one second think it could have been something I could have taken further beyond school, or that I was even any good at it. I think I just about passed! 

I moved to Manchester when I left home and spent 5 years studying the violin and piano at Music College before doing a PGCE teaching course in music, drama, dance and art. After 2 years of teaching abroad (with VSO in Cambodia) I moved to Brighton where I became a violin teacher and then a class room music teacher for around 14 years. I worked with all ages ranging from reception aged children up to A ‘level. 

People can often quote a turning point in their life which gets them thinking in a different way - for me it was losing my dad to a sudden heart attack when I was 29. A few weeks before he died, he said to me that I could sell my art one day and that I’d be a mum. I was single and childless at the time so it was a tough time! I’m pretty sure then that a tiny seed had been sewn in my brain, that lay dormant for a few years, but nevertheless, was still there.

In my early thirtees, I became acutely aware that the rest of my life was mapped out for me but I was no longer enjoying my teaching job as much as I had in the beginning -  I was spending all my free time lesson planning and seemed to be getting exhausted towards the end of each term, often spending the holidays recovering. I also noticed that whenever the school holidays started, all I wanted to do was make things, sew and do DIY. Losing dad taught me that it’s vital to enjoy life to the full and not postpone happiness for a future time that may or may not ever happen. My dad had planned to retire early and travel around the world and also renovate a derelict old house for fun. These things were never experienced so I made a decision that I wouldn’t postpone the fun times for retirement! 

In 2002, my sister visited me with her two daughter’s and I decided to write a children’s book for them, just for fun. I wrote it in a similar style to the Miffy books by my hero Dick Bruna, who sadly passed away last Wenesday on the 16th February, my Birthday. Each background page was a bold colour and I painted the pictures using poster paints and stuck them on card so it was a board book. - You’ll see the relevance in this later! 

In 2004 I started selling things on Ebay for fun and as Ebay was relatively small in those days, it was really easy to make money. I collected vintage fabric from Brighton Station boot fair and all over the world to make cushions and bags. My studio at home was jam packed with wall to wall shelves of fabrics. 

I also started painting and getting involved in the Brighton Open Houses during the Brighton Festival, selling a few small colourful paintings that I did with poster paints and acrylics. I had a variety of friends that were artists and regularly visited them in shared studio spaces, being quite envious of their lifestyles.  

In 2006 I happened to discover a print making studio just round the corner from where I was living so I booked onto a 6 week evening course in screen printing. It was an amazing venue where you could learn screen printing, etching, woodcut and lithograph. I did screen printing and within a few minutes of printing, it felt like ‘coming home’ and I was hooked. It felt absolutely exhilarating to screen print again and I started to spend every waking available hour there when I wasn’t teaching, doing drop in sessions. I would go several evenings a week if I could, and go like the clappers, making use of every waking second I was there. I started to print onto paper for prints and onto linen and cotton canvas to then sew into bags. I always designed one colour prints which to this day seems to have become one of my trade marks. I designed very simple designs that had a Scandinavian style to them. I would pay the tutor to expose them onto silk screens - at the time, deciding to keep to one colour prints meant I could get more designs onto a screen and also keep the costs down, as you needed one screen per colour. There was also less room for error when printing onto fabric with a single colour as you didn't need to worry about registration. It soon became my trade mark and I still to this day enjoy one colour printing.

I met other printmakers at the print studio and was asked by one printmaker if I wanted to show my work in an Open Studio in Queen’s Park - a posh part of Brighton. I knew the large house she was referring to and said yes, as it was one of the nicest on the art trail. It was here that my work was spotted by a team from the publishing company The Art Group. They’d come to Brighton to head hunt some more talent. I initially signed to them for 5 years but later re-signed for a further 5 more. I was still at that time teaching full time but had definitely started to think about a new career.  

Some friends borrowed some of my screen printed purses to show at an Open House in Chichester and these were spotted by a woman called Kay Mawe who was at the time about to re-launch and old 70s clothing brand called Clothkits. I was soon asked to design some clothes and toys for her new business and this collaboration lasted several years after. 

My Lion design on children's dungarees for Clothkits

My Lion design on children's dungarees for Clothkits

 In 2007 I started selling my screen prints and printed bags on Ebay and Etsy and also opened my first simple webshop using big cartel. I started to sell my prints and bags wholesale  - on a sale or return basis in and around Brighton, but also to some London and Manchester stores. I needed to keep my finger in lots of pies so was also building up my collection of rare 50s and 60s Mid Century Modern fabrics and was making quite good money from selling pieces online and made into cushions. In those days, there weren’t that many people selling vintage fabric cushions so I found a gap in the market. I continued to do this for several more years, sourcing fabric from all over the world via the internet.

2008 was an incredible year for me  -  I left my teaching job in July and one  week later my partner Jim and I adopted a baby girl and I became a mum!  

Coast Magazine Feature 2008

Coast Magazine Feature 2008

In that same week, my prints and cards appeared in Habitat. I happened to be walking past Habitat window in Brighton pushing the pram and there were my cards in the window! They were next to Dick Bruna’s!

I now faced a challenging future - to be a good mum but to also continue to make money so I wouldn’t have to ever return to teaching, and that I cloud be with our daughter and work from home until she started school. I worked ever night and through all her naps in the day. I was so determined, I had the biggest drive I’ve ever had. It was also an incredibly scary time as although I’d been sensible and had saved some teaching money as a back up, this wasn't going to last me very long and I had to make money ever day to survive. I didn't get any maternity benefit (you didn't in those days if you adopted and were self employed) so I didn't take any time off at all. A few evenings a week and Saturday mornings I taught private violin and piano lessons from home and the rest of the time I visited shops that I thought my work wold suit and arranged to have appointments to show my work to see if they wanted to stock me. 

It was also in 2008 that I started a blog.(and very naively deleted most of it years later which I'm still regretting!)  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. My prints were sold in Habitat and Heals and a year later, my vintage cushions were attracting interest in magazines such as BBC Homes and Antiques.  

My Mid Century Modern cushions were featured in Homes and Antiques.

My Mid Century Modern cushions were featured in Homes and Antiques.

In 2010 we left Brighton and moved to Totnes. I got a new website and set up our own mini screen printing studio in a small windowless utility room in our home. We were lucky enough to have a spare bedroom to convert into my studio and sewing room and I was within walking distance to a post office which had become one of the main boxes to tick when choosing where to live as I seemed to spend every day posting orders. My partner Jim made a cheap exposure unit so he could expose my images onto silk screens for screen printing, thus keeping the costs down if we did this ourselves. He became an expert screen printing technician. By now I was screen printing fabric to make into toys - this seemed like a natural thing to do, especially as I could test them out on our daughter! I’d spent several years designing toys for Clothkits so then decided to design some for my Etsy shop and also some toy kits. We juggled looking after our daughter and when she started pre-school, I sat at the back of the sessions and stuffed toys every morning so she could still see me.

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 It was wonderful as I got to be part of everything she did and I felt to privileged. I would make and stuff around 30 toys a day and remember getting a wholesale order from Australia for 300 toy cats! It was over the summer holidays and I sat stuffing these cats on the beach whilst Polly played in the sand! It got to the point where I had to start paying a few helpers to stuff the cats for me as I couldn’t keep up with the demand. They were quite quirky unconventional looking toys that shops in Japan, Germany and the US seemed to love. With the internet gaining more popularity, it became easier to start to get noticed and to sell items. Etsy provided a great platform for selling on and helped promote me on several occasions buy interviewing me and having me on their front webpage. There was also an ethos of people wanting to buy handmade so this also helped. 

In March 2012 some of my handmade toys, cushions and quits were used on Kirsty Alsopp’s TV series Kirsty’s Vintage Handmade Home and new book. I felt momentum was slowly building, or at least I was starting to be found. 

Later on that year I had what people refer to as the ‘tipping moment’. Up until then, I’d felt I’d been really struggling for years to come to terms with the uncertainty of being self employed and not knowing from day to day if things were going to sell or not. Every morning I’d wonder how I could make money and what I could make or invent to sell. Not aways the best way to be creative but it was a necessity. I had to earn money to pay the bills. I think I had panic attacks for a year as I felt the uncertainty unbearable - my fear was always that I would have to give up trying to make a living from being a self employed creative as it was such a stress. I rarely gave myself time off and I think the longest break we ever had as a family was a two night trip away to Cornwall in a cheap second hand caravan, and even then, my pile of sewing and orders went with us!  

The ‘tipping moment’ was an email out of the blue that I initially thought was a junk one. It was from a lovely woman who worked for a company called WME asking me if I’d ever wanted to write a book. I did some research and discovered WME was a talent spotting agency that mostly worked with musicians and actors but they also had a small literary department. My reply was that I’d wanted to, but had never been asked. I think I thought that nothing was going to come of this but the opposite was true - I met the person in question in London 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 we ended up with several offers from several publishers and in the end agreed a three book craft deal with the publishers Collins and Bown, who are now called Pavillion. I was in shock and couldn't believe it. I think I developed insomnia for several months a I lay awake every night wondering what would go in the books, would they be good enough? Would people like them? etc… I think I had ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as on some level I don’t think I felt I deserved the deal as I was supposed to be a music teacher! Would I be found out?

My first book Fun With Fabric.

My first book Fun With Fabric.

In 2012 someone who used to work for The Art Group contacted me to ask if I wanted to try to get some of my work into Ikea. I submitted 10 designs and was thrilled that one was chosen - my collage called Fish Supper was sold the following year as a print in Ikea worldwide. 

 Also in this same year, my home in Totnes was featured in the Ikea magazine and online - nothing to do with the print, a complete separate company  - they wanted to feature Scandi style homes in the UK and I was just lucky. We got lots of free Ikea stuff for our home and it was fun having the team in our home for a few days.  

Ikea photo shoot focussing on Scandinavian Textiles.

Ikea photo shoot focussing on Scandinavian Textiles.

After the Ikea poster, my whole life seemed to be connected to fulfilling orders and as I was offering so many types of screen printed products, many of these I was making to order. The admin was incredibly time consuming and some wholesale orders involved lengthy courier forms to print out and custom labels. My life was becoming more stressful than when I was teaching as I seemed to have become a workaholic and was completely obsessed and tied to my work. I had to start writing my first book ‘Fun With Fabric’ so in order to keep up with all the toy making, I took on a graduate art student who helped screen print and sew for me, a few days a week. I still did all the photography of my products, the website listings, orders, blog and social media. By now our daughter was at school so it I could work solidly from 9-3 and then 7-midnight when she was asleep - on average a 10 hours day.  

My Fun With Fabric book was in two sections - half the book was dedicated to projects using vintage fabrics and the other half was dedicated to screen printing fabrics. Both my two passions up till now. The book was published in October 2013. 

The book attracted some publicity in magazines.(see magazine photos here) Mollie Makes Magazine featured some projects from the book and continued to feature my work and toys over the next few years. I designed the free cover gift of a make you own sausage dog in one issue.

My Mollie Makes Sausage Dog

My Mollie Makes Sausage Dog

 In 2014, Mollie Makes magazine introduced their first Mollie Makes Awards. It was open to all crafters worldwide and the application was online. It was quite a lengthy form where you had to include photos of your products and lots of information about yourself and your journey. Again, I didn't think I’d be in with a chance so when I heard I’d been shortlisted, I was shocked. I had to go up to London for the day and meet a panel to be interviewed. My partner said not to bother as it would be a waste of time, but I wanted to go anyway as I thought it might be fun. I took along many handmade products and showed the panel. One person on the panel happened to be the chief buyer from the haberdashery department of John Lewis. I was so nervous but must have come across as being very passionate about my work as I actually won my category, which was Established Business Award. My prize was a years worth of Mollie Makes magazines and some mentoring advice from Lisa Stickley, a London designer.A year later I was asked to be on the panel of judges which was very enjoyable and a privilege.

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I think it was during this time that I took the leap to rent a studio to work from away from home. I’d become a workaholic and my need for a larger space away from home seemed necessary as I was becoming obsessed with work and found it hard to switch off. The downside in making this decision was that I was having to fund the studio rent which was cutting into my income, thus creating more pressure to succeed in continuing to ‘make it’ with orders and possible deals. The anxiety this produced was quite hard to deal with despite at the same time loving having a larger space to work from where I could screen print, draw and sew all in the same space. I actually ran a few screen printing courses from the studio which was fun and held a book launch there.

I was asked by Waitrose Magazine to do some illustrations for a Scandi issue so that was my first bit of editorial work, and it was exciting.

It was around that time that I attracted my first ever product commission. It was for a Japanese Department store called SHIPS  - their equivalent of John Lewis. I licensed my designs for mugs, blankets, bags and hot water bottles.  They had over 200 stores so the fee was good and much more than I’d been used too earning.  

Also, out of the blue, I got an email from Keith Brymer Jones from a company called Make International asking if I’d like to collaborate on some new mug designs with them as they liked my work. I signed a five year contract and I took a train to Whitstable to meet him in his pottery studio. He asked me to choose my favourite mug shape from eight or so he’d hand thrown. Luckily, we both chose the same shape and then began work on the designs. It was such fun for me as this was really the first time my designs were to be added to products that were to be mass produced. 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. They initially launched 8 designs onto mugs and then added them on glasses. John Lewis loved them and stocked the whole range. 

**The same woman from the Haberdashery department who had met me at the Mollie Makes awards visited the stand at Top Drawer and asked Keith to launch a new haberdashery range with me as she’d loved my toy kits. This got Keith thinking and within a year, we’d developed a whole range of designs for the following year. Many of these were designs that I’d prototyped already in my studio. All the fabric range stayed true to my designs in that they were all screen printed onto fabric. I helped with the instructions and sent high res scans of all my illustrations and designs. Again, I was involved with all the stages and saw samples before they were put into production. By this stage in my work life, I’d had to stop all wholesale orders from my website in order to concentrate on having the time to illustrate and work on my books. 

My daughter holding some of the toys from a project in my Creative Craft With Kids book.

My daughter holding some of the toys from a project in my Creative Craft With Kids book.

My daughter's toys we designed and made together in my studio.

My daughter's toys we designed and made together in my studio.

I started work on my second book Creative Craft With Kids book. This was a book dedicated to simple crafts do do with children and it was a fun book to work on as I used my daughter and some of her friends in the photo shoots. The book also featured some quirky little illustrations that I’d been asked to do. It was on seeing these that my agent suggested we might try to put together a book proposal for some children’s books. 

I guess it was worth a try as I’d been illustration children’s designs for toys over the past few years. We decided to try and put together a simple alphabet book so spent several months putting together a new proposal.

It was quite an exciting challenge for me and was a steep and brand new learning curve. My agent and I eventually came up with a mock up book that we were proud of and my agent arranged some meetings with various publishers. The publishers Templar offered me a two book deal to illustrate two baby board books 123 and abc. I used some existing illustrations and some new ones. It was a straight forward process - I worked in black and white and sent my original illustrations to be scanned in on a roller scanner before they were coloured by the graphic artist. I was involved in what colours to choose and how each spread looked and these were published in May 2015, thirteen years after the little book I’d designed in Brighton for my sister’s children!

**One highlight for me was receiving a great book review in the New York Times for my 123 book.  

I continued to sell my screen printed products from my Etsy shop in the background but only to individual customers, not wholesale.

October 2015 we took the sensible decision to move house to a different area in order to build a studio in our back garden to work from instead of renting one.

The studio that my partner built

The studio that my partner built

Autumn   2015 was very exciting as my new Haberdashery Range entered John Lewis and other stores. This range included toy kits, bags and storage buckets. 

At the start of 2016 I wasn't sure what was happening next and began to get very anxious and uncertain about my future. I’d not got anything definite in the pipeline so I came up with the idea of creating two of my own little children’s books to show my publishers. I didn't involve my agent in the books until I’d finished as I felt it was important I wasn't influenced by anyone else. I think I was trying to test if my own ideas could come to anything. My agent liked them and arranged a meeting for February. It was actually on my Birthday but I didn't tell anyone! I was nervous  about showing my little book ideas and although they all said they liked them, they suggested we wait a while before working on any new styles. What they proposed instead was a complete shock - they were going to offer me five more baby board books, two of which were large and interactive. 

In January my new zodiac mugs were launched  - I was asked to design these as Make International suggested there was a gap in the market for zodiac mugs so asked me to come up with some designs. I wanted to try something bit different in that I only wanted to have colour in the backgrounds, leaving my illustrations just black and white. They were quite a challenge as every time I worked on an illustration, I literally had to cut out the design and wrap it round a mug to see if all the design was showing in the right places! How an image is placed on a product needs careful attention and even though they might look great on a flat surface, on a curved one might look silly. 

Some of my zodiac mug designs.

Some of my zodiac mug designs.

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 mugs 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. 

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Make International asked me to design some more animal mugs and placemats so I kept to the black and white style with coloured backgrounds. 

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Out of the blue, I was contacted by an America publisher who asked if I wanted to design a fun cardboard book where children will stitch through my illustrated cut outs. This was the first time I’d been offered a book deal from a publisher coming straight to me and not via my agent. My agent then became involved but it felt good knowing I could attract deals on my own merits too. 

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.

I was also asked to add a few more baby books to the previous collection published by Templar Publishing.

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 - three tea towel size linen panels to make into cushions, bags or tea towels.

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Just before Christmas 2016 I was asked by my children’s book publishers to start work on two more city books as the US publishers had loved how my New York book was looking. I was given a very tight deadline to finish two books, Paris and Washington within 5 weeks. It was a tough challenge and I worked right through the Christmas holidays on it. It was probably my most challenging book to date as involved me illustrating quite complicated buildings which was taking me out  of my comfort zone. I also really loved the challenge.

In between my book deadlines Ive always continued to work on what I call my 'passion projects'. Projects and creative ideas that no-one has asked me - ideas that bring me joy and that I test out in my web shop and Etsy. Some sell, others don't and that's always been the way. Some work sells that surprise me and that's part of the fun of it too! I've always designed products I like and not for any type of fashion trend. Here are some examples here. It's also through doing these self initiated projects that I often attract other companies wanting to work with me. For example, my red fox, lion, panda and cat screen print designs shown below were then used by the company Make International on the John Lewis Haberdashery products and mugs. These also featured in my early baby board books by Templar as the publishers loved them.

My red fox screen print - a bit of fun I had at home one day.

My red fox screen print - a bit of fun I had at home one day.

Below are some examples of my recent products and designs that have also been self initiated. (in no particular order)

Despite my children's books being very high contrast an colourful, my designs at home have been becoming more monochrome. These tie in with my interior design at home where we're trying to become more minimalist with everything. I still design everything my hand using a fine line pen. (I have iPad pro but have yet to get used to it!) I also love screen printing prints and fabrics in my studio  -  it's a lovely contrast to illustrating.

My illustration desk

My illustration desk

Some of the highlights from my career have been when I've been invited to give talks. I ran a children's workshop at the Edinburgh Book Festival last summer and was also invited to give a talk to the illustration students at Plymouth College of Art. I shall be returning there soon to give some masterclasses in screen printing. I was also very honoured indeed to be invited to be on the panel for Tempar's 40th Birthday Illustration competition where I got to meet several other illustrators and view the work of many wonderful talented entries.

During the past year I've been illustrating new books and have had more published including a baby book and posters for South Korea (see poster below) and more baby board books for Templar - Halloween, Springtime, Summertime and Christmas. I've also been working on a secret collaboration which will be revealed soon! 

My high contrast baby poster for South Korea.

My high contrast baby poster for South Korea.

Spreads from my Summertime baby board book - Templar Publishing.

Spreads from my Summertime baby board book - Templar Publishing.

What many of you might find surprising is that over the past few years I've been studying social media, Instagram and how it relates to self employed creatives such as myself. I'm now offering 1:1 sessions from my studio (and cafes) to help enthuse others with the knowledge I've gained over the past fifteen years. The current climate now is so different to how it was when I first started out but I've managed to ride the waves of al the tech changes and now realise that the way forward for many self employed creatives is to choose to live a life of muti hyphen careers and several income streams. This is a far more enjoyable, flexible and more realistic achievable way of working that the standard 9-5 in one job and It's worked for me and is for many others. If you're a creative and you'd like to work with me 1:1, I'd love to hear from you. I'm also excited to announce that I'm now offering 1:1 screen printing sessions in my studio. x (more info in my webshop)