Four People…

I’ve been thinking a lot about our industry this past week, for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of things I love; there are some things I would change, but today I want to take a moment to step back and thank a few people. While I struggled greatly with the weight of yesterday’s post, today I want turn things around and celebrate just a few of the people I owe so much.

Now this is in now way the exhaustive list of people I could, would, and should thank; I have been helped by so many. But there are four people in this industry I don’t go a day without thinking about, without whom, in very different ways, I probably would not be here.

1. Amy Butler

First off, I think I owe Amy a debt of gratitude in a very general way. I’m still learning the intricacies of this industry’s history, but it seems to me that many of us new designers ought to thank Amy for opening doors that might not otherwise be open to us, that she did a great deal of the heavy lifting that led to a market for the fabric I design.

But that is not why I think of Amy every day I spend time in my studio; there is a much more personal, though convoluted, connection. Back in 1994 I was a senior Studio Art major at Kenyon College. That year a pair of young artists did a show in the Kenyon gallery: Amy and David Butler. Back then I was doing work based on weaving patterns, using found and natural materials and their work resonated with me. And when I found that they had their studio in the nearby town of Mt. Vernon, Ohio I contacted them and asked if I could visit their studio. They graciously and warmly welcomed me, and I visited several times, gleaning basic information about how to maintain a practice as an artist after college. In fact I bought a small sculpture of David’s that still happily lives in our house.


Zoom ahead 16 years. As I was making my first steps into the fabric world back in 2010 I went to my first quilt shop and there I ran smack dab into a wall of Amy’s fabric. Cue the double take. Since then I don’t think a day has passed without my thinking about Amy and her practice. Before 2010 I had never even imagined I would be here; my life was in academia, galleries, and museum. To be honest I was a bit terrified about diving in, but Amy, without even knowing it, bolstered my confidence, illuminated a path from gallery artist to fabric designer, made me feel like less of an outsider. In short she gave me faith that I could make it here.

2. Kate Spain

Back when I first started thinking about trying to design fabric, as I was just sketching my first few, terrible, ideas, I sent a few emails out to other designers asking some questions. I will always be an academic at heart, so when I start something the research always comes first. Several wrote back, but one designer in particular wrote back with extraordinary depth, sensitivity, and generosity: Kate. She took time to answer every one of my questions, and then went further to suggest myriad questions I had yet to think of. Since then every time I’ve had a question about any aspect of this industry Kate has given so openly of her time and her self.

I don’t mean to say Kate is the only one to give of her time as I’ve navigated this industry; so many have shared their knowledge, their insights, and their experience, and please don’t mistake my not mentioning each and every one of them here for a lack of gratitude.

The reason that Kate remains in my mind daily is the respect I have for her practice; something about the way she goes about the totality of her practice as a designer resonates with me. Some of it may come from certain similarities of our academic backgrounds; certain things leave an enduring mark. But, when I try to put it into words, it comes down to one idea: a practice. This word has a special significance to me; it feels tied to basic Buddhist principles.

From my limited understanding as a non-Buddhist, Buddhism is practiced, it is worked at, and is a continual process of growth and understanding; it is not simply a matter of acceptance. It is lived daily, and through everything one does. This is how I think of my design practice, and that is how I see Kate. I may be wrong, but as I observe her work, what she makes and how she talks about it, I see her as exemplifying the notion of a practice. She seems to me a restless practitioner in some ways, always exploring new challenges, striving to learn more about her practice through that practice, as though she is slightly uncomfortable in what is complete because she her practice is continually looking toward further understanding. Every time I speak to her I am struck by her boundless humility amidst her manifest success; her practice is not about achieving, it is about the practice.

Not only do I feel a great affinity for Kate in the way I perceive her practice, it serves as a perpetual reminder for myself. It doesn’t compel me toward humility – heck I’ve hardly achieved anything yet. It reminds me to accept my own looking forward, to accept that my practice is never about what I have done, that it will always be about the project down the road, about learning more, about better understanding myself through that practice. Kate is my touchstone to accept myself as I am.

3. Sarah Fielke

You have no idea how much I love talking with Sarah. What will always stick in my head is a conversation we had via Skype about the idea of Modern quilting and first-generation feminist art from the 1970s; it may well be the most gratifying conversation I have had in my career thus far here in the quilting industry. But really that conversation itself is beside the point. Sarah always pushes me to clarify myself, to think more carefully about what I do, whether I am talking to her or not. In my own head I bounce almost every fabric/quilting idea I have off of Sarah.

I don’t know how much Sarah and I agree on; I think at the core we share nearly identical beliefs, but the paths we take from those first principles diverge greatly, which I love. Our work and our practices are very different in a lot of ways, but when we talk, and even when we disagree (sometimes passionately) there is always respect at the core (I hope). I think of my relationship with Sarah as the essence of how we should all be able to talk about and share what we do in this industry. Our relationship is not Pollyanna; everything we do is not perfect and wonderful. If I needed a serious critique the first person I would turn to would be Sarah. The norm around here seems to be to never say anything negative, which is not the same as mean. After a life in academia I find that unnerving; critique is a necessary part of learning and growing. With Sarah I feel like I have found a kindred spirit in that belief.

Sarah’s generosity with her time, her experience, and most importantly her honesty with me has made me a better designer, a better quilter, and a better practitioner. More than anything Sarah serves as a reminder that I still, and always will, have so much to learn. Perhaps most importantly, though, Sarah is the person who will never hold back from reminding me of that.

4. Kathy Hall

You likely don’t know who Kathy is, but you should. She is a fabric designer and the Art Director at Andover Fabrics; she has been guiding me through this process in large and small ways since I started with Andover. The remarkable thing about Kathy is that she is almost always right. Actually, in my experience she is always right; occasionally I may not take her advice, but that only happens when there is more than one right answer or I make the wrong choice.

There are very few people I can say this about, but I trust Kathy implicitly. She makes my work better; it is as though she has managed to root around in my mind and tease out what I am trying to do, but cannot manage to get out. She doesn’t change my work; she makes it mine. She selflessly gives of herself, seeking only to help guide my practice.

Whenever I tell her how I feel, she defers credit, insisting it is only her job, but it is more than that. Having spent much of my life trying to guide students to find their own best work I can attest to how difficult it is to do, and Kathy does it with such seeming ease, with such generosity that it amazes me. She guides me to find the decisions I want to make, not to her conclusions. She doesn’t just make things better; she makes me better, helps me move beyond the immediate design problem to see the bigger picture.

In short Kathy is helping me move from someone who designs things to be printed on fabric to someone who designs fabric. Because of Kathy I am beginning to understand what I am doing. If it were not for Kathy there very well might not be a 2013 for me in this industry.


So, these are my four people, the people without whom I cannot imagine doing what I do. Again, this is by no means the exhaustive list of people I could or should thank. If you are not on this list please do not feel slighted; I hope everyone in my network of colleagues knows how much I appreciate and love you.

And to everyone who has made it to the end of this post, thank you for reading it. This industry is overflowing with people who support, inspire, and propel each other. We need each other in more ways than I can enumerate. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree, quarrel, and even dislike each other, but I hope that we can always be mindful of the mutual respect we are all due.


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11 Responses to Four People…

  1. 1
    Colleen says:

    I didnt know who you were until someone in twitter posted your copyright post. Im now a follower. I made it to the end and appreciated your words.

  2. 2
    Teresa says:

    Beautifully written, Thomas. Kudos to you for acknowledging these folks. It’s often too easy to get lost in the hubbub of life to say it, especially publicly. Your respect and admiration and kindness is evidenced here so clearly.

  3. 3
    Ramona says:

    I discovered you with Pear Tree fabrics, which are beautiful and so interesting. I’ve enjoyed your recent posts. It’s great to see someone building up others (we need more of that!) and your post yesterday on copyrights was extremely helpful. You answered questions I’ve had regarding selling items made out of copyrighted fabrics. Thanks so much for sharing your talent and your time.

  4. 4
    Sequana says:

    Your last two posts here have been saved by me as a couple of the more thotful about the fabric industry. I will go back to them again and again. Thank you for taking the time to put your thots out here so clearly for all of us.

  5. 5

    Howdy Thomas, I have found you today through a convoluted trip on my Facebook. I love the “Flock” and am looking forward to some flock fat quarters real soon. The article on copyright was educational and should be repeated often. I will be looking forward to more news from you in the future. Keep on Keeping on with your practice. Thanks, Teresa

  6. 6
    April says:

    What a beautiful and generous post. It’s always nice to read positivity and personal insight about people who can sometimes seem larger-than-life to “the rest of us”.

  7. 7
    Belinda Shreeve says:

    Well said, again.
    And you’ve made me a little bit teary!

  8. 8
    Ani says:

    I am so happy to have found your blog Thomas, I can almost hear you speaking when reading your posts! =0) You give me hope that someday my passion for a creative life will indeed blossom and grow!

  9. 9
    Dan R says:

    Thank you Thomas. This post is a wonderful example of the generosity I cherish in this community.

  10. 10
    Jeanell says:

    Looking forward to reading your first book ;>)when will it be out?

    Well now I know the five people I’d like to meet at Quilt Market 🙂

  11. 11

    […] Thomas published this post last week but that Horace jumped in with his whole wild Easter/Passover weekend crew and took over […]

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