Fiber artist Bianca Springer has a vision: to create culturally relevant work that encourages others to make art a meaningful part of their own lives. She didn’t see people who looked like her in the maker world. With a knack for incorporating upcycled and unusual materials, Bianca’s work is bold, bright and diverse. Among other creative pursuits, Bianca designs embroidery patterns that reflect real people – with all of their beautiful variations.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
My creative journey is continually evolving. Even the use of the term “artist” makes me a little uncomfortable because it implies some intention. That is not to say that my work is not purposeful or that I approach it in a willy-nilly fashion. Rather, I feel like I create to express myself, and, as a result, the output is artistic. My friend Lisa Woolfork of Black Women Stitch, reminded me that being an artist is a practice. Reframing it as an ongoing practice makes the moniker more accessible to me. It takes the pressure off a goal of self-actualization and shifts it to an ongoing experimental journey.
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As I share the things I make and the ideas I have, they resonate with people. That resonance has afforded me invitations into spaces that I never planned on entering. As a result of connecting with people and listening, there have been light bulb moments that have led to fresh new ideas (e.g., my pattern weight business and writing my first book). There have also been moments of advocacy and resistance that I have entered kicking and screaming (e.g., the Nude is Not a Color quilt project). Accepting things as they come means that I am open to new ideas, opportunities and collaborations. That openness means my work evolves and looks different than it did 5 years ago, and it will look different 5 years from now.
What inspires you to create?
On an individual level, as I make for myself and my family, bold textiles, bright colors, retro patterns and upcycled materials inspire me. I like to bring a new vision to things that others may have ignored or discarded. I like to help people reimagine something they may have concluded was outdated or useless.
On a broader level, I create as a means to fill a void. People of color, Black women in particular, are routinely ignored in the sewing craft industry. When we are not ignored, we are often exploited and discarded once our visibility has been utilized. So I am inspired to stand in the open spaces and demand to be seen everywhere we are, all the time.
As a Black sewist, fabric dyer, pattern writer, hand embroidery artist, instructor, and bag maker, I am not an anomaly. With no self-deprecation or recrimination, I can say that I am not an expert in what I do. I have worked hard, and I have earned my place, but there are many of us out here doing amazing things. It’s important for me to stand on my patch to boldly declare that we are all seen. So I enter spaces where I am the first one who looks like me. I am inspired to make certain that I will not be the last or the only one like me in that space.
Why sewing and embroidery? What other ways do you create? How do those media best express what you want to communicate through your art?
I enjoy metalsmith jewelry making and hand-built ceramics. So I spent a few years being creative with those media. I really love the transformative process of both fields, but they required large workshops and extensive tools, which were available at the university where I worked. Those practices are time intensive and meant spending considerable time away from my home. As a mother to school-aged children, I needed a creative outlet that I could do with and near them.
My mother taught me to sew, and I benefitted from her impeccable sewing skills into adulthood. I did not sew much in college, but I returned to sewing and embroidery when I became a mother. I found I could still participate in the transformative process I loved while also being available for my family. The initial outlay for supplies was relatively the same, and my family serves as an endless source of inspiration.
I am an introvert, and I am comfortable being a silent observer in social situations. I must interact with others, and I cannot live in insolation. More often than I would like, I have found myself trapped in awkward situations and dreaded small talk loops. I have learned that expressing myself creatively with garment and accessory making allows me to have a level of control in social situations. Making and wearing interesting clothing serves as an ice-breaker and, at times, armor for me. I have found clothing to be a polarizing tool that simultaneously attracts like-minded creatives while repelling those who are dismissive of hand crafts.
How do you involve your family in your creative life?
My children do not know me as a Substance Abuse Case Manager, an EEO/ Affirmative Action Investigator, or as a university Dean of Discipline. They only know me as a creative person, and they see my work as an extension of who I am. My husband knows that former person and embraces the new person I am becoming. They all roll with my ideas and support me as they come. My family are a constant source of inspiration to me and they contribute to the creative process in fun ways. They all inspire me to take creative risks and see the world through their perspectives. They are great about challenging my choices and exploring my motivations to understand me and my work.
I taught both of my kids to sew. They have full access to my pattern and fabric stash and are free to use the studio. They occasionally make gifts for each other, family, and friends. My husband is my fierce cheerleader and social media photographer. He encourages me to tug on every creative thread to see where it will lead. He does not always see my vision in the beginning, but, over the years, he has come to trust my process and encourage me.
I work from home and run a small business out of our home. My pattern weight business is a labor-intensive, handmade product. My family all chips in to help with the production. They suggest new designs and veto ones they think will not succeed. My kids have participated in a child-focused class I taught for the Modern Quilt Guild. They have served as models for finished projects and promotion for my upcoming book.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I take creative risks that are fun, bold, and wearable. I have a knack for pairing retro styles with modern fabrics without making them look or feel dated. So I upcycle textiles, yoyo blankets, granny square throws and patchwork quilt tops in ways that make people say, “I would not have thought of that, but I like it!” While paying homage to the original maker, I introduce my unique style. I love maxi dresses in simple silhouettes sewn with vibrant fabrics, African wax, Marimekko florals, and my own hand-dyed fabrics.
In my pattern weight business, I stand out by offering customized designs. This has allowed small businesses, designers and brands to elevate their profiles. They can offer branded weights to their customers, host fund raisers, and offer sales to grow their businesses.
What is the greatest takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Represent! Embroidery Stitch 10 Colorful Projects & 100 Designs Featuring a Full Range of Shapes, Skin Tones & Hair Textures.
First and foremost, I want those who see themselves as the subject of this book to feel seen and worthy. We deserve to see ourselves reflected in all areas of our craft. I hope this book brings the maker joy, delight and a meditative form of creative escapism.
As I was working on this book, I would show select people the included designs. Multiple times, various people would say, “Oh, I’ve never seen that as an embroidery design before” or “Oh, you’re going to ruffle some feathers with that one.” To me, a Black father and son playing one-on-one basketball, a mother breastfeeding her baby, a modestly dressed young person in a head scarf or a person in a wheelchair are not novel concepts. It startles some people to see these designs in this medium with different skin tones and hair textures. I love that I am introducing these ideas and showing new techniques with this book. However, I think that it is problematic that the representation of ordinary everyday life, when presented to the majority, is considered new and revolutionary.
I had a White friend ask me this question, “I want to celebrate you and your book. I see many designs that I want to stitch. How do I support you and your work without appropriating your culture?” I want to be clear that this book is for everyone. There are 100+ designs that focus on a wide range of concepts that are relevant to many people. I wrote this book with an eye toward diversity. Though it is not about, and does not center on, the majority, it is for everyone.
Cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are big issues that individuals need to explore and research on their own. Cultural appropriation involves profiting financially and socially from the work of another culture. It involves coopting the work and struggle of another culture while claiming ownership of it without credit. It involves gaining social cache, “street cred,” and apparent “wokeness” through the exploitation of another culture.
Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, seeks to understand, learn and broaden perspectives and to connect across cultures. Appreciation requires the acknowledgment of the origins of the cultural element. Appreciation recognizes the cultural position and the role of the outsider within that cultural context. With appreciation comes the understanding that the outsider is a visitor, not a citizen of the cultural environment. Appreciation recognizes that admittance into that cultural environment does not grant acquisition and full use rights to cultural elements.
For those wanting to stitch a design they are uncertain about, I ask them to check to examine their motivation. If appreciation is the goal, please stitch away! The systemic racism in which we live constantly devalues the Black experience. Seeing Whiteness centered is not new. It is transformative to see ourselves reflected in everyday life. It is a beautiful thing to know that someone thought of you, considered your point of view, and that you matter. Conversely, it can be transformative for White makers to reflect on the experience of Black makers. Stitching a looped Afro texture with yarn is fun and new. Reflecting on hair discrimination in America may provide a perspective that people would not otherwise consider.
I had another friend ask, “Do I have to stitch the design as you present them? Will you be offended if I change them to look like me?” This question hinted at the perception of whitewashing my work and diluting the images and message. This book was born out of my frustration with tweaking mainstream White designs to represent me and my family. I recall masking off the flowing blond hair on an iron-on transfer to prepare to stitch my tight curls. I recall adding fullness to the hips of a design and adding a rounder nose to reflect mine.
The people in Represent! Embroidery are varied, and I hope that I present more than people usually see. If White readers want to modify the design to fit them, I see tremendous value in that. I want them to understand that what they are doing in this one book, Black makers have had to do in the thousands of books that have come before.
You don’t just sit back quietly and “tend to your knitting”, so to speak. How have you used your talent to advocate for causes that are important to you? How do you nurture connections in the maker community?
When I enter a room, I enter as a Black, cross-culturally, interracially-married, Afro-wearing mother to a son and daughter living in America. Everything I do is an extension of my identity. Using my voice and advocating for myself and others is a foregone conclusion. I don’t go looking for trouble, but when trouble finds me, I don’t turn away.
A few years ago, I was really enjoying the work and techniques of a couture designer. I enjoyed the process of making and publicly sharing them on my blog and Flickr accounts. I introduced many makers to techniques of the company and encouraged people to financially support the business. I anticipated the new collection, but the release disappointed me. The collection had a significant price tag and a large portion of the collection was a beige color they defined as “nude.” As a long-term fan, I thought it was an oversight, and I wrote to advise the company of the implications for everyone whose “nude” is not beige. I explained the systemically racist roots of the term and how it marginalized people of color while centering Whiteness as the ideal.
After a series of escalating emails with the owner, it became clear any education was unwanted and no change would occur. I privately decided to disassociate myself with the brand. Because my support was public, I felt compelled to inform my blog readers of the situation. They were very supportive and grateful for the education on something that had not occurred to some of them before. Many of them took it upon themselves to boycott the company. They emailed and encouraged/demanded that the company examine the situation and change the name. After a few months of engagement, the change was made.
In the midst of this, my friend Hillary Goodwin, who I met through our appreciation of this designer, allied herself with me on this issue. She designed and made the “Nude is Not a Color” quilt. It was an international collaboration of a diverse group of makers to showcase the range of “nude” skin colors we have. The message and the quilt resonated with art community. In 2020, the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit purchased the quilt, and it is currently part of their permanent collection.
Before signing with C&T Publishing, I attended an industry event and had the opportunity to meet with people from the company. I previously worked with them on a product, but I never met anyone in person. I used the opportunity to have a frank and earnest conversation with them about lack of diversity in their craft publications. Then I explained my frustrations with the content and author choices. Over the course of months and many conversations, they began to make changes. They initiated a paid diversity advisory panel of BIPOC makers to examine how they do business and what needed to change. They began self-examination and started implementing changes. Then they focused on hiring more diverse staff, attracting more diverse authors, encouraging diversity in models, publications, and promotional materials. Their willingness to make changes was part of the reason I signed on with them.
When working on articles and brand collaborations, where possible, I try to use independent, minority designers for joint opportunities. If I can use my project to bring exposure, revenue, and recognition their way, I try to make it happen. When writing my book, I sought an illustrator to help bring my ideas to life. The publisher suggested a known artist with whom I could partner. The idea of working with them appealed to me, however, I wanted to make space for someone with great talent but was less known. It was important for me to recognize that, though wonderful, the suggested illustrator is not the only one.
So often we see the same makers tapped for opportunities. This is good for them, but it perpetuates the illusion that the talent pool is shallow and limited. I checked Black Makers Matter for their Maker Monday profiles. The illustration work of Lauren-Ashley Barnes of Pineapple Sundays caught my eye. I loved her work, and we agreed to work together. She is the primary illustrator of the book. Secondarily, I choose Kirin Herbert, an up-and-coming recent high school grad, as the secondary illustrator of the book. I previously worked with her on a project for Sew News magazine and knew this was a good opportunity to build her portfolio.
Every year I get invitations to be profiled to celebrate Black History Month. Unless I have a previously established relationship with the brand, or I’m confident I won’t be tokenized, I pass. Alternatively, I offer to be profiled during another month of the year where my work can be highlighted over my race. I use the conversation as a teachable moment to encourage brands to establish ongoing relationship with BIPOC makers all year long. I have facilitated introductions between willing brands and creative makers for mutually beneficial collaborations.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? Can you share a bit about your process?
I tend to be an improviser in my personal creating, but a planner by necessity, when working on projects for others. I lean heavily on inspiration in my making. If I see a fun quilt top or retro fabric, I pair it with a pattern in my mind. Once it clicks, I usually go to the studio to ride that enthusiasm and get started. If I wait too long to begin, I lose interest.
For planned projects for other people, I tend to wait until it’s almost due. I don’t wait until the last minute, but if I begin and complete a project too soon, I rework and rethink it until the deadline. I find that I waste time deliberating if I have too much of it. So I may choose the materials and draft the pattern, but I don’t begin the final stages until I have a small buffer to tweak but not enough time to start over.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I find inspiration everywhere, and I’m willing to try most things. I don’t limit myself to one area of expertise. So I try a lot of things and I cross lines. I am willing to be a beginner and a constant learner. I’m willing to explore, experiment, and I’m willing to fail. I want to do good work, but I am learning to embrace imperfection. I enjoy taking classes to learn new skills. Digital and in-person classes work well for me because I am a visual learner. I think it is important to learn the rules and appreciate why things happen the way they do. Once that happens, I love breaking the rules to make things my own.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
My sewing studio is a converted two-car garage and I love it! One wall has a graphic wallpaper mural that looks like loose threads streaking across the wall. I have wall-mounted shelves and standalone shelves that create a wall of fabric. I built a 6-ft long cutting table on wheels with additional fabric storage beneath. My patterns are sorted by brand and time period, then stored in multiple modified filing cabinets throughout the space.
I am a Arrow Creator, and I have a Kangaroo Wallaby II collapsible sewing table with storage as my main work area. In addition I have two wheeled Arrow sewing chairs (one standard and one ergonomic). I have several additional workstations to accommodate my standard sewing machine, serger, cover stitch, heavy-duty machine, embroidery machine, and cutting machine. Because it is a converted garage, it also has a chest freezer for all the ice cream I could want.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
It may sound like a shameless plug, but the truth is I can’t live without my sewing pattern weights. Cutting out patterns and fabric is my least favorite part of the sewing process. It is a necessary evil that I have endured to get to the good part. I bought an antique set of weights at an estate sale several years ago. My daughter observed that I was smiling while I was cutting out my pattern. This was a rare occurrence, so she asked me what had changed. I explained that I was happy about how easy they made the process. She noticed that I was not miserable in that moment, and she suggested that I figure out a way to bring that joy to others who dislike cutting.
I use my pattern weights to cut out my pattern paper and cut my fabric. The felt-backed weights hold the layers together, and I use my rotary cutter and mat to get through the process quickly and efficiently. I save a lot of time not pinning and removing pins as I go. The fun designs and messages add a bit of whimsy to the process.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I must have something going in the background while I work or I get distracted. I love listening to audiobooks and crime drama television programs. If I am remaking a pattern and don’t need to be fully attentive, I may put on a movie. I have found that listening to music slows my process because I take frequent dance breaks.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think everybody has some level of creativity in them. What that creativity looks like may vary. I think what trips some people up is the idea that their creativity should look like someone else’s. I think it’s important for people to identify their passion and cultivate it. The garden that is tended is the one that will flourish.
Tell us about Thanks! I Made Them! Sew Can You. What inspired it, and what will people find there?
The premature birth of my daughter resulted in me leaving my job to stay at home to take care of her. That time together reignited my passion for sewing for her and for our family. I enjoyed making cute and creative clothes for her and loved figuring out coordinating outfits for us. I loved telling people, “Thanks, I made them,” when they complimented us. Often I was asked to sew for others, but I was only interested in doing this in special circumstances. I was willing to teach people to sew for themselves. I added the tagline, “Sew Can You,” when I started teaching individual and private sewing lessons to children and adults.
On my website: www.thanksimadethem.com you can find sewing pattern weights, vintage sewing patterns, sewing jewelry, DIY kits, and project kits for my QuiltCon class.
Do you teach classes? How can students and event organizers get in touch with you to set up a workshop?
With the pandemic and writing the book, I have suspended local sewing lessons. I will be teaching virtually with the Modern Quilt Guild Sessions on October 13-16, 2022. That class will help students integrate patchwork, pieced, and quilted details into garment making. I will also be teaching at QuiltCon in Atlanta in 2023, partnering with my friend Hillary Goodwin to teach a shift dress class that integrates improvisational quilting elements. In addition, I will teach a hand embroidery word search class based on the Find Yourself project from my book.
I can be mailed at [email protected]
Interview with Bianca Springer posted August 2022
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