Today, we are excited to have Thomas Knauer, a great creative mind, fabric designer and writer! If you follow Thomas’s blog, you know that he openly shares insight into the industry, the sacrifices involved in running a creative business and the importance of creating art. Read on to hear more about how he balances his creative endeavors with family time, his upcoming book and more!
Thomas, thanks for visiting Craft Buds to share more about your work as a writer, fabrics designer and creator! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how your work shifted to the textiles industry?
Until about five years ago I had spent my entire life in academia; I got graduate degrees from Ohio University and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and taught art and design at Drake University and the State University of New York. In 2008, I developed a rare neuromuscular disorder and had to leave both academia and the traditional work world.
Once we got my illness managed, I decided to make a dress for my then almost 2-year-old daughter. At about that age everything for kids starts to have corporate tie-ins and I though I could certainly figure out a dress for her. So, I made one, and then another, and another and another and another. She loved them, and I loved that she loved them, so I was hooked.
From there I decided to give fabric design a try and just dove in. There was so much I didn’t have a clue about, especially the industry itself, but by then it was about 20 years since I started my career as an artist, and all of those years did a lot to really help me jump-start things here.
Market quilt by Thomas Knauer in “Thesaurus” fabric
What would people be most surprised to know about being a fabric designer?
There are probably so many things that would surprise people, to be honest. The most likely is how much fabric designers make: generally 1-2% of the retail cost of the finished fabric. Certainly fabric design opens up some doors—it certainly has for me—but it also involves a remarkable amount of work to do really well.
Like any business there are always trade-offs, and in the end I am glad to be doing it. Certainly, there are a lot of personal rewards; I truly love figuring out how to tell a story or approach a conceptual problem through fabric design. At the same time there are only so many hours in the day. If you want to make a living doing this, you are going to need to do a whole lot of different things, and expect to devote and insane amount of time to doing it. Heck, I wouldn’t be able to do this if my wife weren’t a professor.
Actually, my advice to anyone trying to break into this world would be to do it part time for years while still working a straight job, or have a partner who can supply that steady income; it is a long, long road.
Doppelgänger quilt by Thomas Knauer and quilted by Lisa Sipes
I’m excited to hear more about your book with F+W Media, due out next spring. Can you tell us a little more about the book conception and writing process and what that looked like for you?
In my head, this book is something of a sampler, not a set of blocks to make a sampler quilt, but a sampling of quilts that illustrate a methodology, a conceptual approach to modern quilting. The quilts don’t all look modern, so I’m not really talking about modern in strictly aesthetic terms; each of the quilts in this book is a response to a specifically modern (or even post-modern problem). Each quilt starts out with a problem, a concern, and issue and I figure out how to translate a response into a quilt. In all but one case, the quilts are practical, usable quilts; the book is about integrating our values, our concerns, and our worldviews into the things we make and our lives, wrapping ourselves up in objects that speak to others and ourselves. One of my QuiltCon quilts—In Defense of Handmade—was made for the book. I wish I could go into greater detail, but that’s going to have to wait until we get closer to the release date.
As far as writing this book, it was a total dream. I waited until I found a publisher who I though was a really good fit, and F+W has been fantastic; they have really supported the project all the way through and allowed me to make the decisions that I felt I needed to make. I was lucky enough to have Lisa Sipes quilt all of the quilts for the book, which has been incredible, and have had the support of some fabulous piecers to help me get all of the tops done in time (you’ll hear about them in the book).
The actual writing really was the best part for me; I am a writer by nature as anyone who visits my blog can attest to. I actually wrote almost the entirety of the book in two four-days bursts. For one of them I took off to Philadelphia to see my neurologist and then locked myself in a hotel until I had finished the first half of the book. I can’t actually remember where I went the second time, but I wrote the second half in much the same way. The really great thing about this book is that F+W gave me a word count that could never really ever fit in the book length we had planned on, and I have to believe they knew that. It meant that they just wanted me go ahead and write, which is what I love to do.
Of course there was a lot of editing and revising; there always is. That added about two more weeks to the writing. The thing about a quilt book is that the making takes up almost all of the time, at least for me; luckily that is kinda awesome too. But the writing, that is definitely a bit like heroin for me; I am addicted and already looking forward to starting the second, third, and fourth books.
Blast quilt by Rachael Gander in Thomas Knauer’s “Asbury” fabric
How do you find a balance between your creative work and your personal/family time? Do you have any tips for creative entrepreneurs in this arena?
Honestly, sometimes better than others. That is just the nature of things here in the fabric/quilt world. Things happen in spurts and you just have to put in the time when you have to put in the time. For a while at the start I think I did a pretty mediocre job of balancing things, but now I am starting to say no to more things. I’m in a process of cutting down to the core of things that truly matter to me in terms of what I do in this industry, especially now that we have a new baby, and K is getting to work on her second book.
As far as tips, oi… So much of that depends on your financial circumstances. If you can afford to take things slowly then do it, but not everyone has that luxury; when it is sink or swim, you gotta do what you gotta do. My biggest advice for being a creative entrepreneur is to have a safety net, to have it be part time until the very last minute, and to have several back-up plans. Passion is a prerequisite, but it just isn’t enough. I don’t mean to be all negative, but I think it is important to hear. If you really want to succeed, don’t jump in too early; that is the best way to keep enjoying what you do and to have the space you need to prepare for a successful entry into doing this full-time.
What’s next for you?
That is always a hard question because I rarely know for sure. We are going to be living in England next year (K has a fellowship at Cambridge) and I hope to spend much of my work time writing another book. And of course I hope there will be a lot more fabric. I have just started a partnership with Janome and am diving in headfirst into machine embroidery, which I have wanted to do for a while. More than just cure stuff, machine embroidery can do some things that would be otherwise impossible, and that is what I want to do, some utterly insane designs that no hand could really do, or at least not in less that a couple of years…
I’m thinking I am going to start moving back toward the gallery a bit more after a long hiatus. While I am still in love with practical and usable quilts (and won’t stop making those), I am finding that I have a backlog of textile and stitchery ideas that are truly best suited for the galleries I used to haunt.
Beyond that, who knows? I have a feeling this is going to be a year of change…
Thanks for the thoughtful interview, Thomas! You can stay in touch by following his blog.
What did you find most interesting from this post? If you have questions or comments for Thomas, feel free to leave them here!