I’ve been writing a lot about digital textile printing, but you may be wondering where and how you can get your own designs printed. And I’m here to tell you. Spoonflower is a no-minimum, unlimited color digital printing start-up for custom, on-demand fabric. I interviewed company founder Stephen Fraser to tell you all about it.
So where did the name Spoonflower come from?
Spoonflower is the common name of an endangered wildflower native to North Carolina. The White arrow arum, or Spoonflower, grows along the edges of swamps and bogs. My wife Kim and I ran across the name when we were looking for plants that would survive in a rain garden we were building in the backyard of our house. When the idea came along to build a web site to serve the crafting community, Spoonflower just seemed to fit.
Where did this idea come from and how long did it take to actualize it?
Spoonflower was originally my wife’s idea. Kim has always been a crafty sort, but over the past few years she’s also become an avid sewist. A little over a year ago I was a marketing consultant helping Internet start-ups, and I knew nothing at all about textiles. One night Kim asked me if I had ever heard of a company that would let her print her own fabric. My immediate response was that there probably was a company like that, but I expected that she would need to order hundreds of yards at a minimum.
As a conceptual problem — Can an industrial production process be put at the service of an individual’s creativity? — her question about fabric rang a bell for me. I used to be the marketing guy for a company called Lulu.com that solved the same problem for people who wanted to publish a book. By marrying the Web with digital printing technology, Lulu made it possible for an individual to publish a single copy of a single book for less than $10.It turns out that you can also print fabric digitally. Putting that technology together with the Web seemed like such a good idea that I was able to convince my former boss, Gart Davis, to join me as my business partner shortly after he stepped down as Lulu’s president last year.
It took us about six weeks to put together a very rough beta site that went live around the beginning of June 2008. Based on buzz among craft bloggers, the number of people on the waiting list grew into the thousands. We ended up opening registration to one and all in October and at this point Spoonflower has around 20,000 registered users. We’re still working on getting all the features of the site in place, most importantly a marketplace for designs and a broader choice of fabrics for printing.
How do you market your services? Has it all been by word of (virtual) mouth? Do you plan on exhibiting at any trade shows?
All of our growth so far has been by word of mouth. We are very, very lucky to have customers who not only spread the news about our service, but who offer suggestions and ideas on a daily basis. Many post photos of the things they make with their fabric in the Spoonflower Flickr pool and on their blogs. It’s amazing to me. And fun. We look forward to participating in trade shows, especially Quilt Market and Maker Faire, but as a bootstrap operation we’re just not able to put our energy and money into those efforts just yet.
To date, how many unique patterns have been printed with your services?
I have no idea, to be honest. Last time I checked there were well over 20,000 designs on the site. If you’re standing next to the printers it’s amazing to see one design after another being printed and moving slowly onto a big roll of fabric with hundreds of other designs. Each design is wildly different from the last. We also see textile designs that come through over and over again from week to week from individuals who run shops and businesses that now rely in part on custom-printed fabric they designed themselves.
What fabrics do you currently offer?
As of right now, we offer only cotton sheeting — 60-square for the fabric geeks out there. It’s a quilting-weight cotton, but fairly flexible in terms of its application. It’s very easy to sew. Very, very soon we plan to add a home-dec weight cotton suitable for upholstery and other projects that require a heavier weight fabric. After that, we’ll probably add a linen or a linen-cotton blend. Introducing an organic cotton is also high on our list.
Tell us a little bit about your equipment. What kind of printer do you have and how many? What sort of steaming processes do you use?
We use digital textile printers from a Korean company called Yuhan-Kimberly. The same company also makes the Nanocolorants we use in the machines, which is one of the more interesting elements of the technology we’ve been able to put together so far. These are water-based pigments rather than reactive or acid dyes, making them much, much more eco-friendly than the dyes typically used in textile printing. Our fixing process — which makes the fabric wash-fast — requires only heat, not steaming or washing. That means the process of producing Spoonflower fabric requires no water at all and very few chemicals.
That’s fantastic. And a lot less work!
Does your company offer any design assistance to those who want to print fabric but don’t know how to make repeat patterns?
Not yet. We do have designers in the discussion area of our Flickr pool who have offered their services for that purpose. We also recently introduced a feature that allows people to edit Spoonflower designs in Picnik, which is a very easy-to-use image editor. That lowers the bar a little bit for all the folks who aren’t Photoshop or Illustrator savvy. Now it’s possible to take a scanned drawing, upload it to Spoonflower, clean it up and size it in Picnik, and put together a lovely fabric design.
I visited High Point, NC my senior year of college and know that the Carolinas are the textile manufacturing center of the U.S. Do you see Spoonflower as an extension of this tradition?
The Spoonflower offices are in Mebane, a city right in between the area of North Carolina known as the Triad, with a rich textile history, and the Triangle, a hotbed for technology companies like Red Hat, Lulu, and SAS. We think we’re in exactly the right spot. Although neither Gart nor I knew the first thing about textiles when we started, we’ve benefited enormously from the expertise of nearby institutions like [TC]2 and NC State, which has an amazing textile program.
What has been the most unexpected outcome from starting Spoonflower?
The most unexpected outcome? That I have had to become a printer mechanic. Since Spoonflower launched, I leave work every day with ink-stained hands. That still surprises me.
I’m personally very excited about Spoonflower. Between their fabric printing capabilities and Ponoko’s custom laser-cutting lots of great things could happen.
p.s. If you liked this, you might like one of my very first post about the Mimaki printer.