My Fabric Design Process – An Ask Me Anything Discussion

In one of my early Ask Me Anything episodes in the Christa Quilts Group on Facebook, lots of folks were interested in my fabric design process. So I’ve put together some images and files to share a peek into how the process works for me, and my experience in designing fabrics for Benartex.

GRIDWORK at Quilt Market Fall 2019

Quilt Market Fall 2019 GridworkMy Gridwork fabric line, shown at fall market last year.

About five years ago, I decided to get serious about designing fabric. As part of that goal, in 2016 I went to an industry event sponsored by Sara Lawson @sewsweetness and Brenda Ratliff @pinkcastlefabrics. It was called Sew Pro and it was only held that one time.

It was geared to helping people understand the different ways you could get involved behind the scenes of the industry. After that event, I decided to give myself five years to figure it all out, find a fabric company, pitch my ideas, learn the technical aspects and so on.

Two days later, the most unusual thing happened. (Really and truly, this almost never happens.) Benartex called and said they wanted to produce some modern-type fabrics under their Contempo label, and would I be interested in designing for them.

“Um…YES!”

But in the same breath I said, “I don’t really know how to do that.”

Now before I tell you the rest of the story, I should explain that I had already established myself as a Martingale author and a Bernina ambassador. I’d spent years developing a network in the industry, so while it was completely out of the blue for them to call me, it also wasn’t completely out of the blue for them to call me.

Bernina actually owns Benartex as well as a distributor called Brewer Sewing, so my connections in other parts of the industry helped me break in to the fabric design arena. 

Now Back to the rest of the Story:

 

As it turns out, there are at least three different ways to design fabric.

  1. 100% of the work is done by the designer
  2. Designer collaborates with a team at the fabric company
  3. Design work done by a team at the fabric company, designer’s name is attached to the fabric

 

My work with Benartex falls under #2 above: It’s a design collaboration.

When I told them I didn’t know how to design fabric, their response was, “No problem!” They assured me they had people skilled in the technical aspects and that we could work together.

So I jumped in, and Good Vibes (out in July) is my sixth collection for Benartex! (Cannot wait to show you all the fun things we’ve made with it!)

 

The Design Process

Before anything else can happen, I come up with ideas for prints and make rough sketches with notes. (Side note: Ideas are everywhere! One print in Gridwork was inspired by a bath mat in a hotel.)

 

The first thing we did with Modern Marks was to establish a “look.” (And by the way, that look is something I have continued through all of my lines.) When the first samples (below) came back to me, I thought they were beautiful, but they were not the look I was after. They were blendy and batiky and I wanted a flat, geometric, modern feel.

 

The first paper swatches that came back from Benartex

 

I got more descriptive about what I wanted, and we worked our way closer. This is how it happens.

A more evolved concept for Modern Marks on paper—we were getting closer!

 

We go back and forth as I share my ideas and vision, and they continually refine it and bring it closer and closer to what’s in my mind.

They create the repeats and together we work on getting the colors just right. The stylist and the graphic designers have the technical expertise and they help me bring my ideas to life!

 

Then comes The hard part…

 

Quirky Triangles made the cut, but Donuts did not.

Eventually we have prints and colors I’m happy with and then comes a really difficult part: narrowing it down. My collections are usually from 20 to 25 prints, which means I always have to weed out a few.

Heartbeat was cut from Modern Marks, but Herringbone stayed in.

It is so much fun when the final swatches are done! I usually only see the line on paper until I get the actual fabric months later. But this is the culmination of much hard work, many twists and turns and a few tricky decisions! It’s all worth it when you see the collection together!

Final swatches for Modern Marks

The Good News

Fortunately, just because an idea doesn’t work for one collection doesn’t mean it won’t ever work. I tuck all of the rejects away, literally (in a drawer) and figuratively (in my head) because they make great starting points down the road. More on that a little later.

My first computer drawings for Fandangle were reminiscent of Spirograph as a kid.

 

For Fandangle, I had the childhood concept of Spirograph in my mind and wanted to do a little more of the computer work myself. Above are the early images I created in Illustrator.

 

The design starts to evolve for the main Fandangle print.

 

Just above are some of the paper swatches that came back to me as we collaborated.

 

The final design of the main or “hero” print for Fandangle

 

And these are the final look for the main print in Fandangle. There are many steps that happen between these images, but you’re getting the idea of how it works.

Let’s circle back to the idea of rejects being useful down the road. On the right in the photo above is my upcoming line called Good Vibes. On the left are some low-volumes I wanted for Modern Marks that didn’t work out.

The main idea for Good Vibes was soft and loud: low-volume prints and bold, saturated prints together. The low volume idea was something I had to scrap from Modern Marks, but I held on to it and half a dozen collections later, it’s going to be one of my very favorites! Good Vibes will ship to stores in July; ask for it at your local quilt shop!

Mockup of the promotional folder for Modern Marks

One of the last things that happens is the creation of the promotional materials. The Benartex people send me a mockup (above) and later the final folder, which is used to show the fabric to potential buyers during quilt market, and by sales reps visiting quilt shops around the country.

 

It’s still amazing to me that from my simple drawings such a beautiful thing can appear! If you’ve read this far, I want to offer you a deal.

Use Code Gridwork for 10% off GRIDWORK BUNDLES

There are bundles of Breeze and Citron Gridwork fat quarters in the shop. Use the code GRIDWORK to get 10% off. And thank you for being here!

Click here to get the Gridwork Citron Bundle (shown above). 

Click here to get the Gridwork Breeze Bundle (shown below). 

Use the code GRIDWORK to get 10% off.

 

For a little more of an in-depth discussion of fabric design from my perspective, watch Ask Me Anything on video below.

And join me every Tuesday in the Christa Quilts Group on Facebook for “Ask Me Anything” at 3 pm Pacific time.

Here are links to several of the quilts/patterns/fabrics mentioned in the video below:

Click here for the free quilt pattern Rainbow Taffy.

Click here for the paper version of Surplus Strips.
Click here for the instantly downloadable pdf of Surplus Strips.

Ask Me Anything: Fabric Design Discussion on Video

Thanks for being here! I’m so grateful for you guys!

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at My New Branding

Christa-Quilts-lede

Hey guys, you may have noticed my new blog design. It’s all thanks to a lot of hard work from Design by Lindsie. I asked her to join me for an in-depth behind the scenes look at what it took to make these changes. This is a rather long and detailed blog post, but full of great info I wanted to share. So take it away Lindsie….

Hi! This is Lindsie Bergevin, Christa’s graphic designer. I wanted to stop by today and share with you an inside peek of the creative process we went through to create Christa’s branding, visual materials and website update. I also hope to share a few tips for those of you who want to go through a similar process.

It starts with a brand, not a logo

We all know how important a logo is to your business — it is the essence of your business in the simplest form. Everything your business represents is communicated in the logo. But too often we business owners get hung up on this and forget that there’s something more important.

When Christa contacted me to help her with the visual aspects of their business, the conversation started with discussion about her logo. She had a wonderful illustration she wanted to keep using in her new business identity, and incorporate it into her logo. But before I started in on that, we first talked about her branding.

What is branding? It’s not a logo. Or a color palette. Or even a website.

It is a message. And it’s one that you communicate to your customers whether you realize it or not.

Before I even start designing anything for my clients, I have found it essential to discuss the message they want to communicate. Having a clear idea of what your business is all about, who the audience is, and how you are going to approach them, are essential when you are creating the branding for your business.

To start the conversation with Christa, I asked her a few questions:

  • Tell me about yourself and your business
  • Who is your audience?
  • Who is your competition?
  • What colors inspire you?
  • What are some words that describe the message you want to communicate, words that describe the visual identity of your business?
  • What elements do you want incorporated into your visual identity? What do you not want?

What message do you want to communicate to your customers? What message are you communicating right now? Are they the same?

Branding is about creating a customer experience. When you apply branding, you are developing a perception about your business. Design is part of this process, but branding also includes elements such as naming, marketing strategy, advertising, public relations, market research, customer feedback and more. All of this helps you make decisions to run your business.

The fundamental idea behind having a brand is that everything a company does, everything it owns and everything it produces should reflect the values and aims of the business as a whole.

The visual identity then, is the application of your brand onto visual materials that your customers will see. It’s how you communicate your message.

That’s why I ask all of those questions. The answers to those questions, in particular the list of words that describe the business, drive every design decision I make in the creation and execution of the visual identity. I want each aspect I design to communicate the message of the branding.

For Christa, the list of words that she came up with to describe her business were:

  • Modern without screaming “Modern!”
  • Warm
  • Clean
  • Straight
  • Approachable
  • Trustworthy (Be a coach/Best friend)
  • Honest and upfront
  • Where to go to learn all about quilting
  • A modern quilting cheerleader

This provided a great starting point for us as we started in on the logo development.

Creating the logo and visual identity pieces

Before (left) and after of Christa's logo.

Before (left) and after of Christa’s logo.

When you work with a graphic designer to create your visual identity, it should be a back and forth process where you, as the client, are presented with an array of options that you pick from, then are narrowed down and refined by the designer, and then you pick again. These rounds of options are important to explore the design possibilities and give you say in how the logo is developed and what variations are created in the final suite of logos.

A selection of the logo comps we explored during the development phase. First row explores a B&W logo in various placement options, 2nd: font choices, 3rd: font weights, 4th and 5th rows: color variations. Above left is her color palette based on a photo she took of a few items that inspired the colors she wanted to use.

A selection of the logo comps we explored during the development phase. First row explores a B&W logo in various placement options, 2nd: font choices, 3rd: font weights, 4th and 5th rows: color variations. Above left is her color palette based on a photo she took of a few items that inspired the colors she wanted to use.

Christa and I went through six rounds of logo development, and while she probably didn’t expect going into the process that it would be that involved, I think the end product is a testament to her dedication and willingness to explore the options and really hone in on the versions she wanted. She’s happy with her logo and it embodies her — a win win!

The final variations of the logo include 4 sizes, all in color, b&w and reverse options. This provides Christa with flexibility to use the logo in virtually any application.

The final variations of the logo include 4 sizes, all in color, b&w and reverse options. This provides Christa with flexibility to use the logo in virtually any application.

I start off designing the logo and visual identity basics like fonts and color palette, and then apply that to the various collateral my clients need. Not everything has to be created, and each client has different needs.

Visual identity pieces usually include:

  • Logo
  • Stationary – letterhead, business card, envelopes, etc.
  • Marketing collateral – flyers, brochures, books, websites, etc.
  • Products and packaging
  • Apparel
  • Signage
  • Messages & actions
  • Anything that visually represents the business
Christa-Quilts-marketingvariations

A look at the comps I created for Christa’s business cards and QuiltCon button. She chose the vertical double-sided card option with matching button.

Start with what you need to get rolling, then work with your designer to develop items as needed. Your designer should also provide you with high-quality, vector files of each of your logo versions so that you can apply your identity to pieces (with and without a designer) down the road if need be.

Website updates

When I started with Christa, she already had a successful business going, with a busy shop, active social media followers and this awesome blog. Big changes weren’t in order, just a visual update. We are in the process of updating logos throughout social media and other locations online. Her newsletter got a new banner and next up is a redesign of her quilt patterns.

Friendly Threads Newsletter before and after application of the branding.

Friendly Threads Newsletter before and after application of the branding.

For this website, though, it needed a visual refreshening. Christa is using WordPress.com for her site, and the software has a variety of themes that allow varying degrees of customization. Prior to the redesign, the site was using a basic WordPress theme that didn’t have much personality. (It didn’t communicate her branding and message very well.)

Before: The old site used generic typography in the banner and throughout the site and dated colors in the menubar.

Before: The old site’s theme used generic fonts that didn’t pair well together, an understated title in the banner and dated colors in the menubar.

That was my task — to find a better theme that supported her message, and then customize it as well as I could. I found success in the Selah theme, and used WordPress’ Premium Design Customization options to further tweak the colors, fonts and CSS styling of various parts.

After: The new site feels cohesive in its use of typography, colors, large photos and more white space.

After: The new site feels cohesive in its use of typography, colors, large photos and more white space.

The new site has a wider main area, allowing for bigger photos, and a wider sidebar, too. We cleaned up the items on the sidebar, getting rid of outdated buttons and adding a widget of her quilt designs that refreshes on each visit to the page.

A new banner also was key to making the site feel fresh and new.

Christa-Quilts-headers

A few of the banner options Christa considered before deciding on the current banner that highlights her quilt Abacus.

A few tips

For those of you just starting a business, or those who want to retool their current one, congrats! Hopefully you have realized what message you want to communicate and are ready to get to work. Do you have a logo? How about a website? Here are a few tips for improving your site:

  • Add a custom banner that showcases your logo and communicates your branding. It’s the first thing your readers will see, so make it count.
  • Use the theme options and customization options to your advantage. You will be surprised what you can accomplish with the right CSS and plugins.
  • Test your site on multiple browsers and devices. Each show sites differently and you may not be aware something is broken until you pull up your site in different places.
  • A successful site can be built with either WordPress.com or self-hosted WordPress.org setups. It all comes down to theme selection and customization. You can find a way to make your site what you want. You may just need to find someone to help you get there.

If all of this seems overwhelming, please don’t stress out and feel that you have to know everything to make your business successful. Find someone to help that knows what you don’t know. I promise it will be worth your time. Each of my clients came to that realization before finding me. They each realized that their time was worth more doing what they did best (creating their products and running their businesses) than it was getting frustrated trying to figure out how to do things they didn’t know as well.

So a little plug for my fellow graphic designers and web developers out there: Hire a professional. They can help you achieve your goals and you’ll both be happier doing what you each do best.