Across the world, regular chats with neighbours on the front steps bring people together. Lives loved and lost merge with gossip of the mundane and extraordinary. Ideas are shared, and time ticks on. Creatives Amy Prior and Carly Schwerdt met on the threshold of their respective businesses many moons ago, in their own industrious corner of Stepney, South Australia. United by childhoods full of imagination and wonder, their respective training in visual arts and graphic design was also complimentary, so they talked. And talked, and talked and talked. And in this way their thoughts on textile design and creative living expanded until the front step would hold them no longer.
Their first project was a charming flip doll, complete with 12 of their own textile designs. They printed fabric pieces and made sewing kits. These promptly sold, so within no time their collaborative effort grew, and Umbrella Prints began.
Originally conceived as a creative shelter for their individual work, the collective energy that had begun outside quickly grew within their lively walls. Both devoted to a life of making, their individual artistic aspirations dissolved into what has flourished as a truly collaborative effort for the past ten years.
Their work quickly expanded into a small range of base cloths, hand printed onto organic linen and hemp. Many of these designs continue to stand proud in their current collection, with the duo often experimenting with colour and scale to keep things fresh, and to explore the full potential of each design.
By continuing Carly’s original business, Nest Studio, which invites children into the space for regular art classes and workshops, the girl’s figurative ‘umbrella’ now firmly represents a space for open sharing. What these two passionate and capable women have come to know is that when creativity is shared, it knows no bounds.
“We love the idea of sharing creativity; it grows in ways you would never expect and exponentially,” explains Amy. “When we first began, umbrella was a word we used to describe a protected place of sanctuary where we could work as individuals. But we soon realized that it worked way better when we dropped the ego. We had to trust, and respect one another with each other’s ideas and work,” she says.
“We had been printing our own names on each selvedge; we dropped them. It seemed so irrelevant because all of the decisions were together and it wasn’t important who drew the motif or who chose the scale or colour. It gave us freedom.”
This freedom lies at the core of the designers’ business. Constantly grounded by the intuitive and joyful way the children create, free of judgement and restriction, the two have chosen to run their label (and lives) by putting creativity first. As mothers of five girls between their respective families, they work hard and always cut themselves the required slack to lead happy, healthy and joyful lives.
“We both have a drive to create; sometimes it feels like the business grew out of a need to justify the time we were spending in a world where money is the measure,” says Amy. “We love our work so much; there is an overwhelming feeling that we haven’t even begun yet. It’s been a logistical juggle with five children between us… we are beyond excited at the prospect of continuing on with our body of work and to taking it to its prime potential,” she continued. “As artists we are always grappling with the divide between art and the commercial. We have both had to learn how to be business women, but then produce work without considering a market in order for it to be honest.”
So their process is a largely intuitive one, often beginning with the regular and uncontrived creative moments they allow themselves, like a quick doodle or part of a painting. Both devoted to flowers, plants and time spent in nature, they invite all three into their studio in vases and pots that sit comfortably among inspiration boards, children’s art works, fabric swatches and picture books. When they first began, Carly, university trained in both graphic design and primary school teaching, loved to look at Amy’s print works and paintings and pull motifs from them. Her design training and bold approach to patterns allowed her to simplify the texture and detail of Amy’s creations into the monochromatic style best suited to screenprinting.
Quoted as describing this complimentary way of working as their ‘yin and yang’, Amy explains their design process by saying, “What we start with is not what we end with. It grows and changes, sometimes purely because of technical issues. We start with bringing together sketches and a collection of imagery we are in love with, almost like a show-and-tell. Other times it is like a pitch, you know, ‘I’ve had this idea, what if you put this with this? I know that funny colour would go kind of great with that; it’s missing something’ etc. There is no formula; our choices for colours are purely intuitive.”
Thus their designs really are a reflection of the creative lives they have made for themselves. Key to this work is the spirit in which they embrace and admire the work of others, giving Umbrella Prints a wonderfully close connection to the creative and craft communities. Amy and Carly regularly share the work they are inspired by, drawn from blogs, books, exhibitions, stores and conversations in the little store they created on site to share the work of others. In turn, the making community regularly supports them, with a multitude of articles, photos and mentions shared online.
This sharing spirit helps to keep the Umbrella strong. And like the idea of creativity growing when it is shared, this spirit multiplies their business, with the girls’ work being used by a dream list of
Riding that initial great wave of craft blogging in the late nineties, the work of Umbrella Prints has always been photographed and written about, with a respectable portion of words and images jumping off the internet and onto the page of various craft publications. Not one to sit still, Carly even wrote her own book, Little Handmade Things, shortly after the birth of her second child in 2011. Yessiree, this textile place is all about making.
The same can be said for their buyers. The designs from Umbrella Prints quickly became the darlings of a small niche of modern crafters who were passionately part of the craft resurgence. The synchronistic timing of this label’s creation meant Amy and Carly’s work found its way into the hands of a new type of quilter, crafter or maker, who was desperately seeking an alternative to the usual stable of fabrics available. The kitsch-free designs, printed on GOTS certified 100% organic base-cloths, were just what the new breed of crafter were looking for.
The fabric’s natural colours and muted tones (with the occasional very perfect pop of colour) provided the perfect anecdote to ranges of quilting cloths that had seemed to stay the same for the best part of decades. These women found their niche, and in doing so have built a business based on a very genuine connection with the people who purchase their fabric.
Describing their typical buyer as “a woman who is intelligent and creative, with a sense of who she is - someone who enjoys interpreting our fabrics into her life, rather than being prescribed to,” it makes sense that Amy and Carly’s market also appreciate the duo’s no-waste approach. Unable to part with any of the tiny fabric scraps that came from the in-house production of their products, in 2009 Amy and Carly introduced the Umbrella Prints Trimmings Challenge, an annual challenge, now in its 8th year, to create something with a small parcel of Umbrella Prints fabric Trimmings.
“We had always designed our patterns to give generous imagery to all customers, even those working with small pieces, so that no matter where you cut the design it would always look good,” explained Amy. “So we had these cute packets we called Trimmings and they just kept selling and selling and we began to really wonder why and ask ourselves ‘What were people doing with these packets?’”
“We thought we would find out by holding a competition. We have invited some amazing crafters, designers and artists to help pick a winner. Last year we added a Quilter’s category. It has been awesome fun. Had we approached our work from a business perspective, in terms of viability we would never have given anything like this a go. It is a labour of love. It is nice to see it become a ‘thing’ that people chat about and get excited about,” Amy said.
Participants are invited to post photos of their work on each Umbrella Prints Trimmings Pinterest board, where visitors place comments and share a conversation about their favourites. Over the years, judges have included Luisa Brimble (Alphabet Journal), Jenni Draper (Green Magazine), Irene Hoofs (Bloesem) and Jodi Levine (Martha Stewart), with the 2015 winner recently being decided by the inimitable Maura Grace Ambrose, of Folk Fibers. This wonderful list of women read very similarly to the characters Amy and Carly most admire, describing the most inspiring people they have met on their journey as “passionate thinkers who want to understand and make things better and who do what they believe in and have the courage to be themselves.”
It would seem these two keep giving out what they get in abundance. And while their venture is not without its challenges, requiring every bit of the tenacity and determination these girls invest, the end result really does seem to be joy. Amy explains that “the market for fabric in Australia is tiny and the cost to post it overseas is expensive. One thing we can do is engage with our audience like a big brand can’t. Plus it makes it fun and interesting. Producing fabric is like a collaboration, the cloth has another life beyond our studio - in people’s homes, or being worn as clothing, or dressing someone’s precious child. It is intimate; we love to share that.”
Images by Threadbound