Apparently Tea Towels are a Thing

ambrosia bite bannerOne night last month, my husband and I were watching Drunk History when my iPad pinged with an incoming notification from Spoonflower saying that two more of my Ambrosia Bite tea towels had sold. I gave a distracted, “Whoot!,” and went back to watching First Lady Dolley Madison tell the guys who were helping her save the White House’s national treasures not to roll up the portrait of George Washington like it was a “Jimi Hendrix poster.”

(If you haven’t seen Drunk History, and you can get past the swearing and hurling, it’s a great series. It’s given me a whole new appreciation for lip-syncing.)

The next morning it dawned on me that the tea towel buyer’s name had looked familiar, so I went back to review my Spoonflower statements, and, sure enough, the same person had put in a duplicate order last September. That was odd. I assumed that the first order had been a one-to-keep/one-to-give-away sort of thing, so why did they need two more so soon?

Poking around the web, I found that the buyers were hemming and selling finished Spoonflower tea towels on Etsy, and my initial reaction was, “WHAT?!?” I felt like my cat when he’s had an encounter with the neighbor’s yellow lab, and his tail freaks out like a bottle brush. Then I chilled out and acknowledged that they really weren’t doing anything wrong. I had been paid, and they were crediting the designs to “independent artists,” so not passing them off as their own. Probably not going as far as they should attribution-wise, but they weren’t stealing from any of us.

The good news: apparently my design is likeable enough to sell. Bad news: I don’t think I signed that design, and I’m a big dummyhead.

I’ve been surprised to hear Spoonflower designers say that tea towels are their biggest sellers, which shouldn’t surprise me because the one tea towel I’ve ever made is the only thing I’ve ever sold. Over and over again.

Nonetheless, I’ve never quite understood tea towels that are made out of linen or canvas. They’re fun and collectible, but I equate tea towels with dishtowels, and in my experience, if they aren’t made out of terry cloth, they just push the water around. Why would one want to own one if they don’t dry dishes? Am I using tea towels wrong? Maybe they aren’t supposed to dry anything at all? The real question, though, is, if they’re selling so well, what am I doing not designing more tea towels?!?

Ambrosia Bite tea towel detail
Detail of an unfinished Ambrosia Bite tea towel printed on cotton canvas. Designed, printed, and languishing in the studio since 2014.

I’ve had a print of Ambrosia Bites hanging around my studio for years waiting for me to hem it. I think it’s time to give it a good beta testing. If I wash it enough to soften the fibers, will it become more absorbent? I still want a tea towel to act like a towel, and they’ll be much easier to promote, if I find them useful too.

Ambrosia Bites duvet cover from Spoonflower
Spoonflower automatically shows a series of potential products with each design, but I’m not sure the recipe tea towel duvet is ever going to be a big seller. 🙂

Spoonflower Power, Part 2

Way back last September, after I decided that the first step I should take toward building an art/design career would be to establish a royalty revenue and that the best place to start would be Spoonflower, I had the brilliant idea to start entering weekly design challenges again. This was my logic: if I was voted into the Top 10, I would win Spoonflower credits, which would pay for future samples. (Any design that is made available for sale has to be proofed, which costs $1 to $5 each.) Even if I only made it into the Top 50, my challenge entries would be automatically placed in the Marketplace. I figured I made it into the Top 10 once, and I could do it again.

“A very smart and cost-effective plan,” I thought, patting myself on the back.

I entered two challenges back-to-back: a Limited Color Palette for which I misread the rules that said, “use of black and white accents is optional,” as “not optional,” and a Cut-and-Sew Fat Quarter project which was a whole new adventure for me. Despite the fact that I turned them both into extra-challenging challenges, they were a lot of fun to work on.

Since my last entry, I’d taken a terrific online course with Sherry London called, “Photoshop for Designers,” through the Textile Design Lab, and I got to use some of the fancy tricks I’d learned from her. I also taught myself how to set custom shapes and use the pen tool, which got me away from futzing with rasterized drawings. I felt like I finally had the chops to run with the designer big dogs and was so pleased, I was strutting around the studio high-fiving myself.

And that should have been the signal that pride would be coming (or is it “going”?) before an eventual fall.

When the votes started flowing in (or in my case, trickling), it became crushingly apparent that while I had personally grown by leaps and handsprings, I still had not caught up with the amazing illustrators and painters who had continued to develop their skills and make connections while I was off on a four-year coffee break. I was still paddling around the design harbor in my little kayak admiring the scenery, and the others were cruising out to sea on their big, beautiful schooners.

My Limited Color Palette entry, “Winken,” 265th/555 vs. willowbirdstudio’s glorious “Fabulous Feathers,” 1st/555.
My Fat Quarter Cut & Sew entry, “Gingerbread Bell Tota,” 69th/262 vs. gaiamarfurt’s charming “Christmas Doll 2018,” 1st/262.

In the first challenge, I placed in the top 47%, and in the second, top 26%, which did put me only 19 spots away from the Top 50, but still not in the Top 50. It dawned on me that trying to subsidize the development of my fabric collection by winning Spooncredits was like trying to bankroll a movie deal by playing the Powerball. No guarantees! Plus, I had created two random designs that didn’t fit in anywhere.

I finally had to admit that challenges were probably not the smartest use of my time.

“Recalculating…”

My So-Called Business Plan

Shifting gears from “artist” to “artist who sells stuff” reminds me of the day I got tired of losing at Scrabble and decided to play for points instead of poetry. Up until then, if I’d been given the choice of playing “qi” on a triple word score for 33 points or “quince” for a plain, old 17 points, I would have chosen “quince” because it was prettier and more exotic.* Seriously. I compared it to seeing a rare bird in the wild. “Oh, look! A whooping crane! Cool!” A moment to be commemorated and celebrated. Points be damned.

Being intent on winning seemed a bit distasteful too, as so many of the world’s problems—greed, aggression, ruthlessness—can be boiled down to “playing for points.” And so with art. Focusing on the money rather than the art seems unsavory—kind of soulless and sellout-y—but I either need to up my game or find a soul-sucking, back-aching desk job. Surely I can find a way to be congenially competitive at art and Scrabble.

610 MAGNOLIA, 2016, 51” x 40”

Making art for art’s sake is a wonderful thing, but it hasn’t gotten me very far. Like the rare bird, novelty has been something I’ve sought in the studio: “What can I make that doesn’t look like anything else even though it might end up being weird and ugly?” And—surprise!—even though I found the work fun and quirky, others found it strange. I once heard my quilts described as something from “outer space.” Few people were beating down the studio door to take any of them home.

So, I need to change tactics, and looking at my work through a lens of greater appeal and sale potential has helped crystalize the issue. Some ideas get pushed immediately to the periphery while others come whizzing into the forefront, and I see them falling into three categories:

  1. Items that are made and sold and that’s it. A one time deal. Let’s call it, “Art.”
  2. Items that are made and sold and can be remade and sold again, which sounds a lot like “craft.”
  3. Items that I design but are made by someone else as often as demand dictates. Mmmmm . . . “Royalties!”
I still have a cute, little, R2D2-sized kiln, so ceramics are still on the table. Licensing, podcasting, and workshops also seem like viable possibilities, but they don’t fit particularly well in any of the Business Bubbles.

Potential avenues:

  • Art—galleries, exhibits, juried shows, Etsy, Instagram, interior designers, a 2nd blog
  • Craft—Etsy, craft fairs, a 2nd blog
  • Royalties—Spoonflower, Society6, RedBubble, Blurb

So, now that I have too many ideas, where do I start??

Putting on my pragmatist’s hat, it seems like “royalties” are my best bet. If I can create a library of digital designs that can be printed and delivered by third parties, that would create an income stream that would give me time and space to focus on the more labor-intensive, riskier, higher overhead arts and crafts.

 

* I know “qi” isn’t all that ordinary in real life, but in Scrabble whenever you draw a “q,” you can almost always find an “i” to give it a home.)