Q&A: Jenny Hart of Sublime Stitching

Posted by Rob Walker on June 4, 2008
Posted Under: Buying In (the book),DIYism,Q&A,Subculture Inc.

And now, the last of Murketing.com’s series of three Q&As with Austin Craft Mafia co-founders who I interviewed for one of the closing chapters of Buying In. Jenny Hart is the founder of Sublime Stitching, a successful business that encourages people to do-it-themselves with embroidery patterns, kits, and books, and she is also a widely respected creator and artist in her own right.

Here she talks about her Crafting A Business column in Venus Zine; about getting asked for business advice; about dealing with big companies (including when to walk away); and about why it’s hard to explain the DIY movement. Check it out:

Q: As with Jennifer and Tina, I’ll start with the Craft Mafia(s). How do you see the ACM at this point, and all the new Craft Mafias that seem to keep forming?

We constantly struggle with the best and most effective way for us to organize, and recently we had a meeting where we made some really important decisions about who we are at this stage. Because, several of us are no longer running businesses or have moved on to other things. We decided that at this point the group needed to continue to support the other mafias in terms of being an administration of the hub site, but we’ve never sought to be a group that dictates the structure or activities of other mafias other than some general guidelines.


Q: One thing that’s happened since we talked for the book is you’ve started writing a kind of business-advice column for Venuszine. I get the impression there’s a lot of hunger out there for business advice as people look for the way to turn their creativity into a way to make a living. Is that sort of how this column came about? Are there things about being an “indie” entrepreneur that are different from being a “traditional” entrepreneur?

Ever since I began my company, I’ve received a lot of emails requesting advice on starting a business. I also used to be very active on discussion forums where information about starting up was shared. I thought that what you pointed to you in your article Handmade 2.0 about the DIY movement being as much a work movement as a craft movement was very true. Having a column was a logical way for me to address the same questions that get directed at me in a way that’s visible to several people at once.

But, it’s all very specific to my experiences. I’m not a small business expert, and can only offer what I’ve learned based on how I approach building my company, which is very niche, although based on a traditional product. I definitely think there are differences between being an indie entrepreneur and a traditional one, most of which are brought about by changes and opportunities created with the internet, the communities that crafters have formed, the huge wave of independent craft markets.


Q: You once told me a very interesting story, in an off-the-record setting (translation: over a beer), about doing a project for a mass-oriented retailer that basically went awry, and in the end, if I remember right, you pulled out. Is there any way to tell some version of that story in terms of “lessons learned” or a “cautionary tale,” or, best of all, how to think about “big opportunity to be in a mass setting vs. how much sacrifice to integrity am I really willing to make” ?

Well, it serves to inform the growing number of independent designers out there as to what can happen when and if they enter into that kind of relationship. And there are no easy answers — so many companies simply make a practice of stealing the work of independent designers, knowing just how to skirt copyright to avoid being stopped, or counting on the artist to not have the resources to stop them. Other issues seem to be that designers don’t fully understand the contracts they are entering. Or how their product can be mis-managed once it’s not just them, but a corporate creative team hammering it out with the company’s goals as their priority, not the original designer’s. If you have a strong vision of your work that you want to keep intact, it is very, very hard work to protect it.

My experience with that large craft manufacturing corporation is one that I exited largely unscathed, because I very carefully negotiated the contract before any work began, allowing me to get out of it and keeping their hands entirely off of my creative body of work and company. Their original contract, had I signed it, would have given them first rights to any of my future designs. That’s an egregiously far-reaching and unreasonable term to include, unless they were buying my company or paying me an annual salary. This was for a licensing contract, and designers should view such terms offered as an warning sign of a company that may not be good to deal with. (They weren’t).


Q: You’ve started to work with some guest artist collaborators on Sublime Stitching. (Example at right: Mitch O’Connell.) How do you think about that in terms of working with people who are “right” for the brand?

It’s really just artists whose work I love that I feel would translate well into embroidery, that I think stitchers will enjoy. The branding of Sublime Stitching really has to do with moving embroidery design and inspiration forward (embroidery design had gotten pretty stale there for a good long while).

Do you ever get approached by big companies to do collaborations etc. with them? Stitching a Scion for instance? What are your thoughts on that kind of thing?

Well, my brand is something that I’ve had to work very hard to protect. I’ve been asked to create work to promote things that I really didn’t want to do. Like national advertising campaigns that I’ve turned down. Then, there are others offers that I do like — I really enjoyed doing the Brak Show DVD for Adult Swim and am happy with the results. I’m not at all against working with larger companies in this capacity, it just has to be the right project.

You were at the first Craft Congress, and in fact we met in person there. What’s your big picture take on where “the movement,” as it were, stands now, vs back then. Continued momentum? Changes in the way it’s perceived, or in what it feels like to be a part of it?

It definitely feels bigger and more defined. Gosh, I don’t know. It seems like there are a lot of women who were affected by it in their teenage years and now entering college (I say this because a lot of them contact me for papers they’re writing). It’s almost like a second generation of the DIY movement happening. It’s great, it’s awesome. Being a part of it? What’s that like? Seems like I’m talking about it all the time to other people who keep asking me. :) It’s busy, that’s for sure. I don’t know, I’m just doing my thing!

Most of the people in my life are people I’ve known for years now as a direct result of this movement, its markets, online communities and businesses, books…. As a businessperson, it’s really tough to explain the DIY movement to others, and especially those companies already at large. It’s really hard for me to gauge what the big picture is, I guess. I feel like I’m just a very small part of something that’s touched on numerous communities and various creative endeavors. The big picture looks really nice. How’s that?

Pretty good, actually. Lastly of course: What do you hope the future holds, for you and for the ACM?

I’m really not sure. I used to worry about how long interest in craft media would endure but not really any more. Crafting is always going to hang around.

Murketing thanks Jenny Hart for taking the time to answer these questions, and the ones I asked back when I was putting Buying In together. Visit her at sublimestitching.com and jennyhart.net.

If you missed the earlier Q&As with Jennifer Perkins and Tina Sparkles, they are here, and here.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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