Bari J. Ackerman is a designer and the owner of Bari J. Handbags & Accessories, a shop selling original vintage-inspired bags, brooches, cell phone cozies, and belts. (There’s even a design-your-own option, which allows you to choose your own fabric.) Bari was the talk of Fall Quilt Market 2008 — or at least she was with the people I met! There are many sewn product designers and many people presenting fabric designs to the manufacturers, but hers stood out not only because they perfectly reflect her fresh, unique take on vintage/modern, but because she already had her designs printed on fabric (she used Spoonflower‘s digital printing services) and sewn up. Shortly after Market, Bari announced that she signed a contract with Windham Fabrics to produce her first collection, Full Bloom. Full Bloom has 22 coordinating floral prints (with some teapots and birds in the mix) in a beautiful palette dominated by fuschia and violet and accented with greens and yellows.
Bari’s journey is a huge inspiration to anyone who has dreamt of designing fabric. I have enjoyed following her progress, from the germ of the idea to the bolts arriving on her doorstep, on her blog. She shares more of her story in our interview today.
Where do you live? What is the creative scene like there?
I live in Northern California. The creative scene here is incredible. In textile design alone, there are at least five other designers right in the area. In the 20 miles around me there are a minimum of four incredible quilt shops. Really, it’s fabulous. I don’t think I could have dreamt it up any better.
Can you tell us about Bari J. Handbags & Accessories?
I started Bari J. in 2005 on much of a whim. I had seen Alicia Paulson (Rosy Little Things/Posy gets Cozy) make a bag on HGTV, and tried my hand at it just for myself. After I made a couple and got the concept of the construction of a bag down, I was able to start designing my own pieces. One thing just led to another and at some point it was a business with a plan and a focus.
Your journey to becoming a fabric designer happened in a very public way via your blog. Was your route to landing a contract unusual? How did it all evolve?
Yes, it was a public journey, and I wanted it to be. I had for years wanted to design my own fabric, but I was afraid to say it out loud because I didn’t want to look like a “wanna-be,” as they say. So many people were starting their own fabric lines, it almost seemed trite. But I knew in my heart of hearts that it was something I absolutely wanted and toyed with the idea that I could actually do it. Then last Spring (2808), I went to a Country Living Women Entrepreneurs event, and the keynote speaker had us say what we wanted and write it down. So finally, for the first time, I said what I wanted aloud. I hadn’t even voiced the idea to my husband. I was just quietly working away at figuring it out.
When I got home from the event, I basically announced on my blog what I intended to do, and then I just plugged away. I would have to say, a bit ferociously. Meaning, I was zoned in on it, and extremely focused on getting to my goal. I had decided that by the following Spring, I wanted a fabric line out, and that is exactly what I did. It wasn’t magic, I just plain old Decided that I was going to do it. And truth be told, I thought in the past, “Other people have talent, other people have the magic, other people do that, but I never could.” Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
It wasn’t confidence that got me there. It was sheer determination and the willingness to be vulnerable and possibly fail. Publicly.
As for getting a contract, it actually wasn’t that unusual. I showed my line at market to various companies. There were a TON of people wandering around doing the exact same thing. I met a lot of people. The funny part is, that I didn’t have an appointment with Windham. Before market opens there are classes, called Schoolhouse. I was sort of wandering the halls, not knowing anyone, trying to decide which class to go to next. I came upon a room that was absolutely packed and wandered in to see what the hub-bub was all about. Turned out that it was a lecture from Windham called “So, You Want to Be a Fabric Designer?”. Perfection. After it was over I waded my way through the crowd to the front and gave the speaker my card, explained that I had a finished line to show, and could I get an appointment. I ended up seeing them the first thing the next morning. I’m not sure I would have stopped there because I was not aware that they were looking for contemporary designers … which they were.
What were the easiest and the hardest parts about designing your first collection? How much of it was solidified before you started working with Windham?
The absolute most difficult part was getting started. What was my look? Who was I in this fabric world? I was scared to death of it looking like what was already out there. So getting myself to just relax and doodle it out was really tough. But once I did, things started falling into place. Things were easy when I was working along and in “the zone” just plugging away drawing what I like and not caring about the world around me. That was and is just absolute heaven.
How much was finished: Well, I had been told that a lot of companies won’t even look at your work if it’s not in repeats, so I had the line practically finished when I showed it to Windham. I put the designs into repeats, got it printed by Spoonflower and made it into a quilt. I made some appointments, marched myself down to quilt market, and showed it to whoever would look.
After the contract was done in mid November the colorways were worked out, the patterns were pared down, a color card was made up, and by January it was being sold.
What has surprised you most about the business and the process so far?
I think the kindness and openness of most of the people I have met has been the most surprising. I was cheered on by several designers that were already in the business, and their support helped immensely.
Can you tell us a little about your design process? Full Bloom has a unique look to it — painterly and organic yet graphic — how would you describe it?
You know how, when you were in school, and the writing teachers would tell you to just write. Just write and write and you’ll edit later? I think that’s what I did. I drew and drew and tried not to judge what was coming out. Eventually, I was able to see a theme emerging and Full Bloom was born. One thing I learned along the way is that if I don’t have absolute confidence in a piece, it shouldn’t be shown. If it’s right, I know it because I’ll be jumping out of my skin to show someone. If I’m questioning, it probably can be set aside.
I’m not sure how to describe it, I think it does have a painterly feel, and also somewhat graphic. I think it also has a traditional, sort of vintage feel. Seriously, no clue. I’m just glad people like it, whatever it is.
What are the colorways of Full Bloom, what do they mean to you, and how were they developed?
In Full Bloom, we wanted cool tones and hot tones that could all be mixed together. As I initially presented it, the pieces were all in one colorway each. By suggestions through Windham and what I liked, we eventually came up with the cool palette. It was definitely a learning process for me. One which I took to the next line that is coming out.
Can you please tell us a little about each print — its name, its role in the collection, any stories behind it …
The flowers [shown L-R above] are Ranunculus, Hydrangea, Fox Glove, Cherry Blossoms, Pussy Willows, and a bramble vine. Then there is the tea set piece and a tone on tone [below]. The ranunculus and hydrangea are the bigger prints, the fox glove and cherry blossoms are more toward the medium scale, the pussy willows serve as a vertical piece and the tea set offers a little bit of whimsy. And of course, you’ve gotta have a tone on tone. I designed with quilting, home decor, and fashion in mind.
There aren’t any real stories around it, just that I love flowers and color. But I do remember one instance in particular where I felt like I’d had a “By George, I think I’ve got it!” kind of moment. The pussy willow idea came to me on a morning walk. I was near a creek and there were those big cat tails near the water. I had started thinking that I wished there was some pussy willow down there too. There’s not much I don’t turn into a print or a drawing in my head, so I was instantly picturing pussy willows on fabric. When I got home I got right to work on it. The little bird was part of another drawing, but he sort of flew right over to the pussy willows where he belonged in the first place.
What advice do you have for all the aspiring fabric designers out there?
Be yourself. Have a vision. Don’t let all the “No, thank you’s” stand in your way. Even if you are quietly thinking, I don’t know if I can do it, keep plugging along. And be willing to put yourself out there, be really uncomfortable, to fail and pick yourself right back up again.
So you’re already working on a second collection?! How is it coming along? What else is next for you?
Yes. There is another coming … I think it should be on cards in the next month-ish, and then debut at quilt market (Houston, October), and I heard something about stores in January. Don’t hold me to all that.
What else? There will be sewing patterns shortly and I want to design other surfaces … If it doesn’t move (ok maybe even if it does move) I want to put a design on it.
Thank you so much, Bari! If you haven’t already, don’t forget to visit Bari’s blog — right now she is giving away three fat quarter stacks of Full Bloom fabrics. Enter before July 24, 2009.
All photos in this post are copyright Bari J. Ackerman and used here with permission.