A chat with Stephen Fraser: Maker, co-founder of Spoonflower, and 2013 Martha Stewart American Made Honoree

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As a creative, chances are the thought, “if only I could design my own wallpaper, fabric, wrapping paper, etc. etc.” has crossed your mind on occasion while decorating your home, wrapping a gift, or designing or sewing a garment.

Now, if you can dream it, you can make it, thanks to Spoonflower, a web-based company that allows users to create, print and sell their own custom designed fabric, wallpaper, decals and gift wrap.

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We became familiar with the Durham, North Carolina-based business during the 2103 Martha Stewart American Made events in NYC. Spoonflower was recognized as an American Made honoree this year in the Tech category.

We are enamored with the site and recently had a chance to catch up with co-founder Stephen Fraser, to delve into his business concept, capture his excitement around American Made, and find out what’s trending for the holidays.

How did Spoonflower begin and where did the name come from?

Spoonflower was my wife’s idea. Unlike me, she is someone who sews and has always had a passion for fabric. Back in 2007, Kim was hatching a plan to make new curtains for our den and she said something along the lines of, “You know what would be cool? If I could design my own fabric.”  As an Internet geek, I found it really strange that she couldn’t design her own fabric — after all, the Internet had already spawned a world where you could customize almost anything, from t-shirts to photo books. A few months later, at the beginning of 2008, I sat down for coffee with a friend, Gart Davis, and we decided to experiment with launching a print-on-demand fabric service. We called it Spoonflower after the common name of a plant that Kim and I had growing in our backyard, which seemed to fit the idea of a business built around creative personal expression and handmade things.

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We started out modestly, with a very simple web site that required an invitation to use. We had no office or fabric printers of our own, but would pick up orders at a small printing facility across town and cut them down after our kids went to bed. In August of 2008, Gart and I bought our first printer and rented our first office, which was in an old sock mill in Mebane, North Carolina. Now, five years later, we’re in a much larger office — one with air conditioning and heat! — in Durham, and we have about eighty people working with us printing custom fabric, wallpaper, and gift wrap around the clock.

Congrats on being named as an honoree of Martha Stewart’s 2013 American Made! How did you react when you realized Spoonflower had been honored?

Gart and I were absolutely thrilled when we heard about the award. The textile business in the US is usually talked about in the past tense, and almost never in the context of technology businesses, so to be recognized as a technology business that has contributed to the resurgence in American manufacturing was really gratifying.

Three words to describe the American Made experience in NYC?

Exciting. Creative. Delicious.

Getting to meet Martha Stewart and the other honorees was a thrill, as well as very inspiring.

Apart from the award winners themselves, the event was full of other entrepreneurs from NYC and elsewhere who represented a wealth of creativity across all kinds of products. At the opening event of the American Made exhibit at Grand Central, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Troy Ball, the founder of a distillery here in the mountains of our home state of North Carolina. In addition to trying Troy’s artisan moonshine for the first time, I got to sample some truly amazing food!

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Has your business seen an increase since being named an American Made honoree?

To be honest, Spoonflower has been a fast-growing business since the day we launched, so we’re always struggling to keep up with demand and to grow fast enough to keep up with the community of designers and crafters who use our site. So we were hustling even before the American Made awards!

We’re just past Halloween. Can you share some interesting examples of how your customers used Spoonflower to create unique costumes?

We held a contest to create one-yard cut & sew patterns for Halloween costumes this year, and the entries were amazing. We were only sad that we didn’t have time to sew all of the top ten before we announced the results of the contest.  But we did finish a few.

Can you describe examples of the most unusual designs and patterns you’ve encountered? How were they used?

Spoonflower holds over two million surface designs, only a fraction of which are public and can be viewed in our marketplace. But even among the public designs there are a lot of candidates vying for most unusual. We have, for example, what is without a doubt the world’s largest collection of zombie fabrics. One of my personal favorites is a toile, which is a classical style of fabric that emerged from 18th-century France, that depicts a flying squirrel attacking a Sphinx: www.spoonflower.com/fabric/141591

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Which patterns and colors are trending right now? Aside from traditional holiday symbols, which patterns will be a hit this holiday season?

Over the last few years people have really rediscovered tea towels, especially tea towel calendars, which make great holiday gifts. We just wrapped up our annual tea towel calendar contest, so the top tea towel kit designs from that contest — typically printed on our linen-cotton canvas — are really flying off the shelves right now. Lots of the designs people are buying on fabric and gift wrap right now use earthy, fall palettes. And you heard it here first, whales are trending.

We’re approaching black Friday and the official start of the holiday shopping season. Can you provide our readers with some interesting and unique custom gift ideas they could make using Spoonflower products?

We don’t sell finished tea towels, but buying a 2014 tea towel calendar design on a single yard of linen-cotton canvas costs only $27 and gives you four, easy-to-sew gifts. Just hem them and you’re done! Creating a collage of family photos to print on a yard of fabric to make a throw pillow is also easy, and pillows don’t require much sewing. If you lay out your images well, you could get 2 two-sided pillows from a yard, or 4 one-sided pillows if you use a different backing fabric. Right now my wife is working on making a new backpack for our daughter using some lovely horse fabric from Spoonflower, as well as matching pajamas for all three girls.

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How has your custom wrapping paper business grown? Aside from the beautiful patterns and customization available, how does the quality of the paper compare to store bought wrapping paper?

This is really the first holiday season we’ve had custom wrapping paper on Spoonflower (last year it was available, but still in beta), and it is really taking off. The paper itself is beautiful and quite heavy compared to most store bought gift wrap. The heaviness makes it slightly more work to wrap a present, but also makes the paper easy for people like me, who unwrap carefully, to re-use on other gifts.  We offer both matte and a satin paper for gift wrap. A roll is 6-feet long and 26-inches wide and costs $13.50 if you’re using your own design. In the marketplace, a roll costs $15 (with $1.50 of that cost going back to the artist).

What would you like designers, artists and paper lovers to know about Spoonflower?

Spoonflower is a technology platform for creative people. Our goal in building the business has been to give individuals access to tools that would allow them to create new products and test new ways of expressing themselves. But we’ve also tried hard to create a business that is a community, one that is supportive and experimental and fun to visit even if you never buy anything. Whether or not you’re a designer yourself or even a fabric person, browsing Spoonflower is a feast for the eyes. Looking through our site provides a chance to shop for unusual designs — with options ranging from dachshund fabrics to steampunk wallpaper — but it’s also fun, and a great way to discover new, independent artists. As much as anything else, Spoonflower is about providing creative inspiration.

All images provided by Spoonflower.

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