Interview: Cynthia Mann of Birch Fabrics on Storyboek

{ Storyboek – Girl Palette }

Today’s interview is with Cynthia Mann, mother of two, and the woman behind the online fabric shop Fabricworm. Not long after launching the shop three years ago, she started her own fabric company, Birch Fabrics, and helped expand the selection of modern, organic fabrics on the market. She also opened a brick-and-mortar store in Paso Robles, CA, also called Birch Fabrics. If that isn’t enough, she teamed up with her husband Jason to design their own collections under the name Jay-Cyn Designs, and their first collection Avalon came out this past spring. Today, the focus is on Jay-Cyn’s sweet, folk-inspired collection Storyboek. The conversation also turned to the technicalities of the “organic” label — something I’ve always meant to research, and I know you readers are curious about too. And if you haven’t seen them already, don’t miss the sneak peek at Birch’s upcoming collections at the end of the interview!

What is the idea/inspiration/story behind Storyboek?

The inspiration behind Storyboek was a combination between a verse by Robert Louis Stevenson that I was fond of as a child called “Foreign Lands,” and an inherent love of all things Dutch (especially when it comes to fairytales). Being Californians, we spend a lot of time at Disneyland, and especially love the Storybook boat ride. I think a lot of the inspiration for Storyboek comes from that sweet boat ride, a family favorite for sure!

Tell us about the Jay-Cyn collaboration. And this is your second collection now, was the process any different from Avalon?

The Jay-Cyn collaboration has been awesome! Jason (my husband), is the Jay, Cynthia (me) is the Cyn. Jason has been a graphic designer for over 20 years. Working with clients such as Oracle, Diageo, and really too many to list. In recent years his focus has been multimedia and working in Flash, After Effects, and animation programs. He designed both the Birch Fabrics and Fabricworm websites. When I started Birch Fabrics, I had solely worked with commissioned designers. I thought that maybe we should try to design a line ourselves. Within two weeks we had designed Avalon, and there was no turning back. We both had so much fun watching our ideas take shape into a collection and as best friends working together, it was definitely a dream realized for us both.

The process was quite different on Storyboek than Avalon. Avalon was all done on the computer. With Storyboek being completely hand drawn first, it took about four times as long to design. Answering for both of us, I’d say that Avalon is a side of us both that we connect to as adults in the graphic design world. Jason has Japanese heritage and I think Avalon shows much more of his design influences than Storyboek. I’d say Storyboek is much more from my perspective and undoubtedly my love for Japanese Import and Kawaii fabrics, especially those that are illustrated first really show in Storyboek. I guess we are both driven by styles from Japan, but his more graphic and mine more illustrated.

How was it designed? Do you draw by hand, use the computer exclusively, or are you somewhere in between?

For Storyboek the designs are hand drawn first, then scanned, then colored and manipulated in design programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Jason is much more of a trained artist and has a steady hand, so he drew all of the architectural elements (castle, windmills, etc.), and many of the animals. I drew some of the animals, people, and natural elements.

{ Storyboek – Boy Palette }

Will you give us a tour through the prints — how does each fit into the overall collection? Any stories you’d like to share about them individually?

When I approach a collection I am coming from several angles. I start with a palette and concept. Then I make a list of must-haves. For Storyboek, it was conceptualized around a girl and a boy’s perspective of living out a fairytale. The must-haves were a silhouette animal print, a whale print, and a cheater for both the girl and the boy. The first thing I drew was the little girl with the basket and the boy in the boat. At that point we had our muses, and this drove the whole collection. Jason then drew the castle, windmills and whale and they all started falling into place. The Gone Fishin’ prints are especially dear to us both because our two boys love to go fishing, and it’s just a really sweet, soft print.

{ Gone Fishin’ Cheater Print }

The palette in this collection was derived from colors in my bedroom as a child in the 1970s. My mom was big on wallpaper, and growing up I had a soft yellow patchwork wall paper that had a white print. I wish I could scan a piece of it and attach it, because subconsciously I must have really channeled it for this collection. I don’t really remember what the print was, but the yellow is identical. I’ve been admiring prints since I was very young. In fact I still remember wrapping paper that was on a present from my grandmother when I turned two. I don’t remember what was in the box, but I remember the wrapping paper dearly, and if I still had it, I’m pretty sure you’d see all the colors in the Storyboek palette in that sheet of wrapping paper.

{ Field Stroll Cheater Print }

Wow, now you’ve got me nostalgic for my childhood home! We grew up around the same time, so I can totally picture everything you’re talking about. Now for a bigger business question. How would you describe the current state of the organic fabric market?

Wow, this is a really tough question. I’m not sure I’m really qualified to answer from our small company perspective. And please note, our answer is based on the organic quilting fabric market, not the organic fabric market as a whole (definitely not qualified to answer that).

Even though we only released our first collection a little over a year ago, the organic quilting fabric market has grown tremendously in that small time frame and it has also changed a lot. It’s great to see so many companies that are as passionate about reducing the effects of pesticides used on traditional cotton by providing an organic option. I would still like to see manufacturers move toward providing all of their fabrics in organic, and start to move away from traditional growing and printing all together.

Our recent research has been a little daunting in that we are still finding that consumers are responding more to the designs on the fabric than the fact that is organic. I think we had hoped that the growth in the industry of organic fabric would also result in a growing education for consumers in the importance of organic and why it’s better for not only the environment, but their household as well. But since it’s really only been a year or two, we are very optimistic!

There are more options now for consumers to choose from in organic fabrics. I think it’s important for consumers to understand the different levels of certification and quality.

Right. I knew there are different organic certifications, but I admit that I don’t know the differences. Would you give us a rundown?

While I’d love to be able to eliminate any confusion in what is truly “organic” in fabric, and what is “made with organic cotton,” it’s not really that easy. If a fabric buyer is looking for a truly “organic” fabric, well, this would be hard to find. “Organic” has become very loosely used, and a bit confusing in turn. For a truly “organic” fabric, you would want to look for a fabric that has been organically grown and printed with herbal dye. As a manufacturer it is very difficult to produce fabrics with herbal dye due to the production restraints and limited color choices. That is why many manufacturers of organic fabric, including ourselves, are using low-impact dyestuff. While low-impact dyes are not completely natural and do contain petroleum, they are still the most environmentally friendly form of non-herbal dyestuff.

There are two certifications that are commonly used by manufacturers of organic quilting cottons: GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), and OE 100 (The Organic Exchange Standard 100).

As long as the manufacturer is following the labeling rules set forth by the certification of that which they have standardized against, a fabric buyer should be able to identify the difference between a GOTS certified fabric and one that is certified by OE 100 by the way the fabric is labeled. GOTS certified fabric is the only certification in which allows the labeling of goods as “100% certified organic,” or “100% organic.” OE 100 fabric must be labeled as “made with 100% organically grown cotton” (according to OE 100 Standard V. 1.3). The reason for the difference in labeling is to limit the confusion between the two, since the OE 100 standard does not regulate the conditions or process beyond the farming of the cotton itself. That said, it is not always the case that fabric is properly labeled, so if the certification is of concern to you as a buyer, or manufacturer of made goods, you can email the fabric manufacturer directly and ask them, or request the certification be emailed to you.

I will say that I don’t know enough about the OE 100 certification to give a fair and balanced understanding of it, since we use the GOTS certificaiton, but here’s what I gather from my own research, mostly from the site Textile Exchange. (And here’s a handy chart.)

From my understanding the biggest difference between GOTS certification and OE 100 certification is that with GOTS certification, the entire process is regulated. Guidelines are set that must be adhered to from seed to finished product, in a not only environmentally responsible way, but also a socially responsible way. To put it simply, this means that not only do they make sure that no pesticides are used on the cotton during farming, but that the dyes used to print the fabric do not contain heavy metals or other harmful chemicals, and workers are treated fairly and have safe working conditions. Vs. with OE 100 Standard, the process is regulated through the farming of the cotton itself and does not have guidelines for the processing beyond yarn form.

At Birch Fabrics we have always used the GOTS certification.

And where do you see the organic fabric movement going?

While this is speculation of course, I’m optimistic that we will see many more companies offering organic fabrics! We’d like to think that they would also begin joining forces to educate and inspire consumers with great ideas on how to incorporate organic fabrics into their home and how they can keep their family healthier doing so.

What can we look forward to at Fall Quilt Market?

{ A few prints from Circa 52 — click to see full collection }

Fall Quilt Market will focus mostly on our newest release by Monaluna, Circa 52, a followup to our debut collection, Circa 50. Circa 52 revisits the bestsellers and includes a brand new print called Woodland Party. We are really excited to get started on samples!

{ Just a few prints from Commute and Mod Basics — click to see the full collections }

Jay-Cyn Designs will be presenting two new collections Commute and mod basics. And we are also hoping to have a couple little surprise collections by Dan Stiles and Monaluna Designs, but this is yet to be confirmed.

High five, Cynthia! Storyboek is in stores now.


  1. Cynthia says:

    High Five back at ya! Thanks so much Kim, it was really fun to answer your questions. We really appreciate you taking the time out to share even with little one in tow!

  2. Melissa Quaal says:

    This is excellent, I’m going to pass the word onto all my Facebook followers (I teach sewing classes and have lots of students concerned about organic fabric usage.)

  3. Really, really nice interview! I love the Storyboek collection – nice to hear more about it. I truly appreciate Cynthia’s summary of the organic certifications. It’s challenging to educate consumers about organic fabrics, let alone all the types of organics within that category. See you in Houston, Cynthia!

  4. MarciaW says:

    The cheater fabric is cute.