Interview: Connecting Threads Designer Jenni Calo (With Giveaway!)

I’m really excited about today’s interview with Portland designer Jenni Calo of Connecting Threads not only because I love her work and admire her versatility, but because it will be very interesting for those of you interested in fabric design as a career. The in-house fabric designer is a rare breed — as I write in the book, it’s tough to make a living in the field, but being an in-house designer full-time is a different ballgame. So Jenni is living the dream perhaps she’ll inspire the same in you.

I hope you’re acquainted with Connecting Threads, through my past posts or otherwise. In a nutshell, they are a manufacturer that sells their fabrics directly to consumers, which means high-quality quilting cottons (and kits, notions, etc.) at a significantly lower-than-usual cost. They have built a solid modern following recently, and are now introducing their first laminated cotton collections (Soaked and Home Front), both designed by Jenni (and both printed on regular quilting cotton as well). CT is offering some up for True Up readers along with the interview today. In fact the prize brigade is so extensive I’m just going to have to bust out the ol’ bulleted list!

  • For Two First-Place Winners: two yards of your choice of Soaked or Home Front Laminate Print(s).
  • For Two Runners-Up: Sampler pack of the Home Front or Soaked quilting cottons.
  • For a Third Runner-Up: Sampler pack of Shimmering Frost, Jenni’s new quilting cotton collection for winter-and-beyond.

To enter, just leave a comment on this post, and I’ll pick the winners randomly this Saturday, September 22 2012, around 10am Central U.S. time. U.S. and Canadian residents only, please!

 

{ The sweet, vintage-inspired Home Front Quilting Cottons and Laminates, by Jenni Calo for Connecting Threads }

 

I saw your portfolio on Coroflot that says you were in the fashion industry for 10 years. Can you tell us more about that — did you go to school for fashion/textile design? How/why did you transition from apparel to fabric prints? Are you still doing much of the fashion part?

I went to The Art Institute in Portland for Apparel Design. Although my degree is in Apparel Design, I always had a facination with textiles; I even thought of getting my Masters in textiles, but I was tired of schooling and wanted to dive into the work force. I knew after graduating I wanted to move to New York, since that’s where the fashion is. So off I went. I got my start in the industry as a Intimates Apparel Designer for a manufacturing company, working primarily with Victoria’s Secret Catalog division as well as other companies, like Frederick’s of Hollywood, and La Senza, etc. I designed sleepwear and lingerie. I also created prints and screenprint designs. But my designing of prints, was on a very small level, we primarily purchased artwork. But I definitely caught the bug. I left that company and went on to design sleepwear for the Jockey label, here I had even more opportunity to design prints. I had definitely caught the bug and decided that is what I truly enjoyed doing. What most people don’t realize about the fashion industry and being a designer, is that it’s not as creative as it may seem. So my final job in New York was for another sleepwear manufacturing company and this time I decided to change my career direction and went after a Cad Artist/Print designer position. There I was able to be creative all the time and draw all day.

As far as fashion, I’m not as involved in it anymore, my current job at Connecting Threads has made me really love the crafting and home interior side of textiles.

How did you get hooked up with Connecting Threads? Do you work freelance for them or in-house?

Almost three years ago now I moved from New York back to Portland with no job in mind. I was a little burnt out from New York and I moved back to be close to my sister primarily. I fantasized about opening a bakery, but realized that was better left as a hobby. After months of looking for the right type of job for me I came across an ad on Craigslist and thought it sounded too good to be true. My type of career is primarily offered in the bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle … not so much in Portland. I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to work at the sportswear companies in Portland, albeit they are fashion related; that is just not my thing at all. So when I saw the ad to design fabric, well I jumped at the opportunity. And it was just perfect timing! I am a full-time in-house designer for Connecting Threads.

 

Shimmering Frost by Jenni Calo for Connecting Threads }

 

You’ve designed my favorite Connecting Threads collections. And you have done such a wide variety of styles! Is that your natural inclination or does CT give you assignments and you rise to the occasion? Do you have a favorite?

Ahh thanks so much, that’s very sweet of you to say. I’m glad you’ve liked them!! The fact that I’m versatile is one of my biggest strengths. I definitely learned and honed that skill from my previous jobs in New York. It was a necessity to be versatile, since I designed for so many different companies; one minute I would have to design a juniors sleepwear print, another a missy contemporary floral. That skill has definitely helped me with designing for Connecting Threads. At CT we are one big team, so I always hear requests and suggestions, we have internal meetings where people can give me there thoughts on what they’d like to see. Then my boss and I make a plan for the year, making sure to have a variety of collections, with a mix of traditional styles, reproduction styles, basics, and modern/contemporary throughout. The bulk of our customers lend more towards country/traditional styles, but we make every effort to be current and design within trends as well. It’s really hard to say what my favorite is, because I like so many types of art. I guess I’d say I love traditional with a mix of modern. I really do appreciate every style, from dainty intricate florals to bold graphic geometrics. To date, some of my favorite collections I’ve done have been Maple Skies, Montecito, Matsuri, Smooth Sailing, and Folk Heart just to name a few.

Do you sew? If so, what do you make?

Yes, I do sew. Well, since working at CT, I certainly make more quilts than I ever have. Actually before starting here, I had made one, as a team project with a friend of mine. But now I’ve got at least 4 or 5 under my belt. I also make clothing from time to time, and bags, and accessories. In general I do enjoy being crafty and hands-on. I really enjoy embroidery too. I make a lot of things, primarily out of necessity. I’ve made curtains for my apartment, quilts and other projects as gifts. I’m right in the middle of sewing up a baby quilt for a friend who’s having a baby in a few months.

 

{ The no-doubt-inspired-by-Portland Soaked quilting cottons and laminates by Jenni Calo for Connecting Threads }

 

I see you were in Pattern People‘s e-book Repeat After Me, and I know they are also in Portland — do you know them? (What a great creative community to be in!) 

Portland is an awesome city! And the creative energy around here just keeps growing. It’s funny because when I first got involved with the project for Pattern People (which was a design contest), I didn’t even realize they were in Portland too. It definitely made it that much more exciting when I learned that. I don’t know them personally, but I’m sure our paths will cross again one day, this town is pretty small.

There seems to be a divide between the fashion print design world and the quilting fabric world, though I’ve seen them having more overlap in the last five years. Do you see the same thing from your perspective, and why do you think it’s happening?

There is definitely a divide with fashion print design and the quilting world for sure! However, yes, I’ve noticed things overlapping more and more. It’s just a matter of time before that barrier is weakened. Nowadays there are so many great artists and it’s such a great time because there is no limit. I really like the moniker of “surface design,” because that encompasses so much. I think all the time, how fun it would be to have my prints on more things than just fabric. I think Quilt market is a great proponent of … mixing the worlds. I think people that are creative want options, want variety. They want to be able to make a quilt and a dress with the same printed fabric. And why not! They should! It’s the freedom of expression really.

 

{ Connecting Threads’ video on how to use their new laminated cotton fabrics. }

 

It’s cool that a very quilting-focused company like Connecting Threads is venturing into different substrates. How did you approach designing the laminates? And the same thing for Matsuri, Connecting Threads’ first cotton lawn collection that came out this summer. What came first, the basecloth or the designs? Was the design process any different from regular quilting cottons?

Since my time here, I have definitely encouraged bringing new elements into our company. New fabrications is a great example of that. As I’d mentioned before, our customers are true die-hard quilters and are most comfortable with what they know, like our standard quilter’s cotton, however staying on top of or at least being aware of trends is still relevant and quite important. Cotton Lawn was our first venture into a “new” fabric, and most people have been a little nervous about it. But luckily Matsuri was received rather well and I’d like to think it helped introduce something new to users who may not have worked with it before. For me, variety is the spice of life. I don’t want to be told I can’t do anything, but rather have options for me to choose and play with. Our new fabrications certainly aren’t mean to replace our standard quilter’s cotton, but rather add options into the mix. In terms of choosing the fabrics for the collections, well, it’s all about timing and knowing which we feel will fit the best. Ultimately the design process isn’t effected much based on the fabrication. For cotton lawn, Matsuri was a perfect group to start with, because it was for Spring and offered up light wispy prints in soft pleasant colors. As for our laminates, we chose to include them in Soaked and Home Front because we felt they were appropriate there. Soaked lends perfectly for raincoats and ponchos, and Home Front lends for some really great projects that can be used in the kitchen or outside that you just want to be able to wipe off and clean easily.

Thanks so much to Jenni, and to Connecting Threads for the giveaway. Good luck!

153 Comments

  1. Sarah-Hayden says:

    Soaked! The lightening bolts, rainboots and umbrellas are brilliant! Thanks for a great giveaway and a very helpful video.

  2. Karin e. says:

    I think the rain drop fabric would make a great shower curtain!!!

  3. Connie says:

    I am so glad I discovered Connecting Threads website. I’ve ordered several times not and just love the quality. I love the Soaked laminate. Thanks for the give away. Connie in California