Heather Ross’ Blog March: Inspiration to Fabric

Today I am thrilled to welcome artist/designer/writer extraordinare Heather Ross (blog). She’s here as part of her Blog March to promote her brand new book Weekend Sewing. The publisher, STC Craft, is giving away a copy of Weekend Sewing to one lucky reader. Just comment on this post by this Saturday, March 21, 2009, at noon central U.S. time for your chance to win. (Winner will be picked randomly.)

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“The Chinese consider the cricket to be a metaphor for summer and courage … ”

Isn’t that one of the prettiest things you have ever read? I stumbled across those words while I was researching crickets for a print idea, and when I read that line I sat down on the floor at the bookstore in the exact spot I was standing (without moving really, other than letting my knees buckle) and kept reading. After about thirty minutes, a young clerk who I don’t think spoke much English (I had been trying to enlist her help in my cricket book search earlier) walked towards me with another book in her hand. I assumed that she was going to point me in the direction of the bookstore’s cafe, where more civilized people sit in chairs and read books they have not paid for, but instead she handed me Eric Carle’s book, The Very Quiet Cricket. I smiled and thanked her and resumed reading, entranced by the idea that every living thing could be nothing more than a metaphor for a season or a feeling, but she was insistent. She opened it for me and to my surprise the very last page, when turned, made the tiny insistent sound of a cricket. The little chirp made heads turn the whole room over, and the clerk and I both stifled a giggle.

I doubt anyone was surprised by the idea of crickets being in a bookstore, they seem to turn up everywhere. I have heard them in movie theaters and offices and even in the dark quiet of the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, where apparently they escaped being lunch in the amphibians exhibit and have set up camp under the stars. This was the place they seemed most at home to me.

In the summertime at night in Vermont if you stood at the top of the meadow above our house you could see a dizzying amount of stars in the sky, extending far into the valley below you in a way that made you feel as though you were floating in the sky. It was always the first thing visitors noticed. “I never knew there were so many stars,” they would say, and then everyone would be quiet, except of course for the crickets. Both the stars and the operatic chorus of chirping stretched from horizon to horizon, and if you didn’t know better you would think that one was the sound of the other.

peddlarBut we knew exactly where the sound was coming from because we had plenty of crickets indoors as well. I never looked too closely at them until I found a tiny little wire cage in my mother’s things. Her parents and their parents had lived in China for a long time and as a result we had lots of little mysterious trinkets in the house. When I asked her what it was, she told me that it was a cage for keeping pet crickets, and that in China there are crickets who sing like birds, and that they are much fatter than the ones that our cats were always trying to catch under the sofa.

I was shocked that no one had bothered to tell me this before now. And newly obsessed. Sadly, our little cricket cage was broken and would not keep a pet, especially the thin, quick little Vermont variety, who I imagined to be a poor but resourceful type of cricket. I would have loved to have caught and kept one anyway, and maybe made him fat with big spoonfuls of peanut butter pushed at him, but it was probably a good thing I didn’t have the chance. We were forever catching things and putting them in jars and then becoming distracted and missing feedings. This would not have been a nice way for any cricket, regardless of socioeconomic standing, to spend a humid afternoon. Obviously, this memory stuck and I have always thought of that tiny little cage when I hear a cricket and always loved the way they remind me of vermont and summer. Which is how I ended up researching crickets in the first place.

And now I really needed to start drawing or it wasn’t going to happen within my Kokka deadline.

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First, I gathered up a nice selection of images of crickets, some technical, others purely for inspiration. Eric’s artwork, of course, and a lovely woodcut of a cricket cage peddler. Then a few amazing examples of cricket cages, including a simple and beautiful woodblock of a gourd turned into a cage, and then immediately following, a modern-day cage also made from a gourd.

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I should admit that I then spent about an hour trying to find and buy a copy of the woodcut of the gourd and cricket. This happens to me more times than I would like to admit. Finally I forced myself to actually find some images of crickets, and then to start sketching.

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I usually make very simple sketches, trying to focus on the characters and their expressions, gestures, and pose. With a print like this, where I intend the subject to be repeated with slight variations, I will draw as many as I can at a time. Next, I scan them into Photoshop using a very inexpensive scanner by Epson.

Then, I add color. I use the channels method in Photoshop, where I can bring in one color at a time as though I am screen-printing my design. When you print fabric, you make a separate screen for each color. Eventually, each of these channels will become a screen. I draw with a stylus and a Wacom tablet, which is also my mouse. (I have been using a stylus for so long that I can’t actually maneuver a mouse properly. It’s a little sad to watch, like someone trying to draw with a wet flipper.)

With my sketch visible, I create channels on top of it and trace the edges of my sketches, making lots of changes and improvements. I set all of my channels to be transparent, so that I don’t cover up my original sketches as I work. i don’t like to draw outlines, I prefer my illustrations to be made up of solid blobs of color and then add detail with a single dark scratchy line. The result looks like this:

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Cute, right? But sort of blah? I remember the magical cricket cage and decide to add it. Bonus, this gives me the opportunity to add more colors and play up the graphic elements. I try caged crickets, but they look like they are in jail. I opt for empty cages.

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I like it. I print it out in ten different colorways, changing the ground and the cage and the crickets each time. This is the best thing about drawing one color at a time using channels, you can change the colors really easily and try lots of variations. I love Epson Fine Art Paper for printing colors, and I use the low-end Epson photo printers — the ones with six ink cartridges give the best oranges and pinks, FYI. It’s pricey, but produces something that you could frame if you wanted to.

My crickets were actually intended to be a part of the Far Far Away line for Kokka of Japan. I sent it to them along with the unicorns and princesses and frogs and snails. And guess what.

They hated it.

It was (very respectfully) cut from the line. This happens a lot, at least to me. I have an idea that I realize, much too late sometimes, relates to too few people. And the thing is, when you decide like I did to become a commercial artist, you have to respect that.
So my little crickets came back to me after their trip abroad (which means that they have now been to Japan and I have not) and currently take up permanent residence on my inspiration board. More organized designers use their inspiration boards to plan and generate new works, but mine is really more of a wildlife refuge for everyone who emerges from my printer unfit for the real world, a little too creepy or scary or odd, or having been born too late or too early and missed that window of relevance or popularity or even recognition. They are, of course, my own little strays. I’m sure a few of them will venture out successfully one day, but for now they are quite happy and safe here with me. Plenty of peanut butter to go around.


Thank you so much, Heather! Look for Far Far Away, unfortunately sans crickets, in fabric shops soon.

95 Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    I love seeing how artists get their inspiration. Love this!

  2. Melissa says:

    Thank you for describing your creative process. It’s very helpful!

  3. Kelley says:

    The crickets are great!

  4. MichelleB says:

    A very interesting post. It was great hearing about Heather’s creative process. I loved the crickets.

  5. Jen says:

    What a great post. I particularly love that you shared a not yet commercially successful design with us (maybe Kokka will see how much we love it and change their mind:)). How candid and inspiring.

  6. Dot says:

    Nice piece from Heather as they all have been. Her designs are going to be missed but more will come in the future. She combines the real and fantastical so well.
    Thank you for posting this piece from her.

  7. Jennifer says:

    wow, what a great post! It is so very interesting to hear about Heather’s creative process- do love the crickets too!

  8. What a fantastic story! I was utterly engrossed, and will be listening for crickets on this summer evening for sure.
    Thanks, Heather!

  9. Ashley says:

    Love the crickets! Wish they had made the cut…
    Loved this post – great story, and very interesting to see how different prints come into being.

  10. Kathi says:

    Love the green of the crickets. Would have been so cute with a coordinating dot print. Not so in love with the hot pink cricket house (not really a pink lover..if it were red it would be perfect..much more gender nuetral as well).

  11. Carrie says:

    I hope I can win! I really want to make lots of stuff from that book!

  12. Ursa says:

    Oh my. This is such a great way to see a way into a design. Thank you.

  13. sarah says:

    The crickets are adorable! And, as always, Heather managed to spin us one heck of a tale to tell us how they came to be.

  14. Nova says:

    Please add me to the hat.

  15. Jane says:

    Crick Crick pick me!

  16. charlotte says:

    What a fun read… great way to see the design inspiration come to life!

  17. julia says:

    I love the little crickets!! Poor little guys. I did enjoy reading thier story, though!

  18. Tanya Barrett says:

    I love the crickets too! I think it would make a great fabric!

  19. Carrie says:

    Oh, I love the crickets… what do they know anyhow! Thanks for sharing your process… love it!

  20. Anne says:

    Love the crickets – they are charming.

  21. Michellle says:

    Heather Ross’ book sure has some cute projects! I just love her style!

  22. Elizabeth says:

    What a beautiful story. Is there a possibility of seeing that fabric at some point, even if Kokka isn’t making it this go-around?

  23. Emily S says:

    Aww, i love the crickets and am sad that they didn’t make it! Reminds me of the lucky cricket from Mulan and that adorable futuristic cricket from Wall-E!

  24. Melanie says:

    This was a great post, reading to process from wo to (sadly) no go. I just love crickets and have wanted a pet one for a long time. I’m surprised that Kokka turned the design down – like China, people here in Japan keep crickets as pets. Every summer, I look longingly at the cages and crickets and ask myself if I should get one.

  25. Jessica says:

    What whimsical fabric! Thanks for the giveaway!

  26. karen says:

    I love the crickets!!!

  27. Wonderful post! So fun hearing about the process.
    Personally, I love the crickets. They remind me of my childhood, when I was far more comfortable handling bugs. :)

    Kimberly

  28. Darci says:

    Ohhhh I want that book really bad…..I am crossing my fingers.

  29. gina pina says:

    If my chickens could buy fabric they would be all over cricket prints. I give them crickets as a special treat every other month or so and it is absolutely their favorite snack although not far behind berries and tomatoes which they receive with more frequency.

    Thank you for the glimpse into your inspiration and design process.

  30. Mary says:

    oh, I want the crickets! I wonder why they didn’t like them? You have snails, unicorns, frogs. man.

  31. Jo says:

    Weeee, I can heeeear them!

  32. Susan says:

    I love the story! And more importantly, I LOVE the crickets. I totally would have bought some! What a fantastic fabric idea! Can’t wait to see the book.

  33. Jennifer J says:

    I love Heather Ross all fantastic fabric print, one of the best i reccon. Loved the cricket story. Waiting impatiently for her new line to arrive.

  34. Abbington says:

    What a great narrative! And I can hear a cricket outside as I write, so very timely (at least, down here in the southern hemisphere, where the weather is still warm!)

  35. natalie says:

    aww, those crickets ARE cute!!! i’ve been wanting her book for some time, and was excited to find out that she’s actually going to be in the DC area as part of her book tour- so that’s where i’m heading today!!

  36. Felicity says:

    I liked seeing the inspiration images. Is that picture of the cricket and the gourd cage a woodcut tho?—it looks like a painting by modern Chinese artist Qi Baishi (1864-1957)or at some working in his style…

  37. Cara says:

    Maybe all these comments will convince Kokka to print the cricket fabric sometime in the future.

    I can’t wait to see the book.

  38. Angela says:

    I’m fascinated with Heather’s description of the drafting process. I’ve never heard of a cricket cage either. I wonder if every day objects that are familiar to a wide variety of people are printed more often than exotic objects?

    I’m a HUGE fan of pop garden. I’ve made a fabric-covered dresser with it, slip-covered milk crates and lots of zippered bags with this line.

  39. Rachel says:

    I loved seeing the process of Heather’s inspiration becoming a fabric proposal. Her enchantment with the crickets and cages clearly comes through in the print. Thank you for this behind-the-scenes!

  40. Leigh says:

    I LOVE your stuff, Heather! The goldfish line was one of the first fabrics that really got me into designer fabrics, even before I started learning to sew.

  41. georgia says:

    I loved this! It is fun to see into the life of a designer that I love. Thanks!

  42. TheresaJ says:

    Dear Heather, I haven’t read your blog before, but I am loving what I read about your cricket ideas. If you ever got the cricket fabric printed I would love to purchase a few yards!I always wondered how people think of their designs in their fabric lines and it was fun to read about how you thought up the cricket designs. Maybe you could rework it somehow? I really admire creative people and keep up the good work! TheresaJ

  43. Staci says:

    Awww. The crickets are cute. I could think of a bunch of projects they would have been great in. :(

  44. Carrie says:

    I also think the crickets are adorable…the colors are really brilliant.

  45. McRegan says:

    I would love to have this book. I also wish the crickets were available! Thank you