Surface design : Cathy Helmers

Cathy Helmers always thought of herself as a writer, not an artist.

When she was growing up, her older sister was always considered the artist. “She’s quite talented, even was as a child, and I felt I never measured up to her. As a child I was easily intimidated and comparative and usually judged myself to be lacking.” It is only now in adulthood that Cathy has come to the realisation that her artistic talents are just different; more hidden and mysterious.


chelmers - glow

chelmers – glow


Currently working as a freelance marketing strategist and copywriter in Dayton, OH, her move into art began in 2006 when she and her sister started a business called The Art Garden, which was a space for  artists’ studios, workshops and events. One time they hosted a beaded art doll class, and even though it didn’t interest Cathy, she felt obliged to take it.  “I ended up thoroughly enjoying it, went on to make another beaded art doll, and then another, and another… I decided to start selling the dolls mainly because I didn’t seem to be able to stop making them and I didn’t know what else to do with them. I continued to make beaded art dolls until a couple of years ago, selling them through galleries and occasional art festivals.”


chelmers - leaves

chelmers – leaves


“Along the way, I discovered Zentangle, which is a fun way to create images by drawing structured patterns. It seemed that each time I tangled, I thought the design would make great fabric. So I also began designing and selling fabric through Spoonflower.”

For Cathy, Zentangles rarely have an end idea and just evolve. “In fact, if I have too much of an end goal when I start, I find I fight with it and end up going in a different direction in the end. The creative process is exactly that for me – a process. I find if I just start with something that inspires me (fabric, nature, a piece of lampwork or a stone cabochon), my hands will find the way.”

And unlike the more commonly accepted technique of structured text, this slow evolving of the work is the same way she approaches her writing; “If I simply sit down and start the work, inspiration will come. The process of doing the work is what opens the creative flow for me.”


chelmers - spiced spiral

chelmers – spiced spiral


Quite apart from her designs for Spoonflower, she still spends a good amount of her time working with bead embroidery. Not in any fancy studio though – she told me that often she is “On my couch, in front of the TV.”


chelmers - horns

chelmers – horns


chelmers - bulbs

chelmers – bulbs


Her best advice? “As a young adult, I took a mask-making class. We made plaster masks of our own face and painted them. As we began the painting process, the instructor pointed out that there was no right or wrong, no good or bad to our color choices and how we decided to paint our own face mask. It was an expression of our unique self. I felt that statement at a deep level and it completely changed my relationship to art. I no longer looked at what I created (or what anyone else created) as good or bad, as better or worse– only as an expression.”

You can find more of Cathy’s designs on Spoonflower at chelmers, and find her beadwork on her Facebook page here.


Small biz how to : Starting in surface design Part 3 – designing repeats

Designing repeats for surface patterns:

Hi there! And welcome to part 3 in this series on getting started in surface design (find part 1 here – it’s all the basics of editing your images ready for uploading, and part 2 here – it’s all about how to deal with colour when you’re printing. There’s lots to know!)


claudia owen

claudia owen – (l) ‘stars’; (r) ‘iron bars’

(read more about Claudia Owen here)


So, there are a few more technical and practical issues to cover for the basics of using digital files. There’s no real theme overall, but each of them is important.   Let’s start.


How big do I need to make my repeat?

There are two aspects to this question : the first is the size of the motif you’re using, and second is the end user of your design.

When your talking about the size of the motif, it’s an obvious question of size. For instance, the one used by Claudia Owen (above) is small and quite regular, so the repeat would be relatively small. However, the motifs used by CJLdesigns (below) are quite complex, and the repeat would need to be a fairly large to bring out its full beauty.


cjldesigns - garden at twilight

cjldesigns – garden at twilight

(you can read more about CJLdesigns here)


The second aspect comes down to whether you’re designing it just for your own use, or whether you’re designing to sell. Obviously if your motif is small, a prospective client doesn’t want to see just one motif, they’d like to see a reasonable amount of repeat. If your repeat is super-large, showing them an entire repeat may also be unwieldy. Michelle Fifis of Pattern Observer recommends this: “If you have been hired by a client to develop an original print, then I recommend working within an 11” x 17” (27.94 x 43.18cm) artboard. There is no point in wasting your time or your client’s money developing an excessive amount of artwork if they are not going to approve the concept. That size is plenty of artwork to convey the motifs, layout and color usage of a pattern.

“Alternatively, if you are developing prints to sell through an agent, print studio or directly to manufacturers, then I recommend developing at least 13” x 19” (33.02 x 48.26cm) of artwork. As with any industry, you’ll find variation within the market -some studios require more artwork and some require less.

“And if you are just starting out and want to create artwork to sell, then try working within a larger artboard, such as 13″ x 19″. If your business is up and running, ask your customers which size they prefer!”


How do I create variety within my repeat without drawing a million different elements?

The solution is simple as! When you are drawing individual motifs to put together at a later stage to create your repeat, don’t feel like you have to make oodles for it to work. Any image-making program, from PicMonkey to Photoshop and Illustrator will allow you to flip, rotate and resize your elements. I used it in my process to create this Bloomsbury-style repeat, using only a few different styles of borders and 4 different paintings of poppies. FLIP, ROTATE AND RESIZE. (If you’d like to read about my whole process, join Pattern Observer and check out the tutorial here).


Bloomsbury inspired - Julie Gibbons

Bloomsbury inspired – Julie Gibbons



What image-editing program should I use?

If you just want to do just basic things and experiment with your own designs, then you can probably manage with something like PicMonkey – it allows you to upload your own elements that you can layer on top of your base image, and it will allow you to resize, flip and rotate to your heart’s content. And of course you can adjust brightness, colour and contrast. It is relatively flexible and easy to use, but there are limits to what it can do, although you can purchase more sophisticated elements and tools which can give you more usability options.

If you would like to get a bit more serious, then Photoshop and/or Illustrator are the industry standard. I have a stand-alone version of Photoshop on my computer that I got several years ago, but these days it’s only available by subscription through their Creative Cloud (which can be a bit pricey, depending on what you want). However, it also means that you always have the advantage of being able to work with the latest version of a high-end product. You can find out more about your options on Adobe (the manufacturers of Photoshop and Illustrator) here, and you can test out whatever you want for 30 days for free.

Photoshop is highly sophisticated and incredibly flexible for its ability to work in editable layers, and for its blending options and filters. Although its focus is working with images based in pixels, it also has the ability to work with vector graphics. Conversely, Illustrator’s focus is working with vector graphics, but it also has the capacity to work at a pixel level. You can easily switch images between the two, if you want even more editing flexibility.

The basics of Photoshop and Illustrator are easy to grasp, so don’t feel like you have to be a technical whiz before you start. Whether you choose these, or a simpler, less expensive alternative, depends entirely on how serious you wish to get about a career in surface design.


I’m serious. What’s next?

There are several online courses out there offering learning at basic level right through to advanced skills, on many different aspects of surface design. You can check out places like MakeItInDesign or Skillshare, but of course my favourite is Pattern Observer (because I write for them!). I’ve worked my way through a few of their courses, and have found them excellent.

There’s lots more to know about the study aspect too, so I might leave that until the next post. As I noted at the beginning, if you missed the first two posts in this series, and want to know the ins and outs of what file formats to use and ways to deal with colour, you can check Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.


See you next time with some more juicy surface design goodness!

Julie x


The crafted object : Quality ~ it’s in the details

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said “God is in the details.”

Quality is being purposeful and attentive to all those little things that many of us rush over, and is the reward for those of us who choose to heed we see.


Rebecca Hannon - 'cobblestone' brooch - front and back {via}

Rebecca Hannon – ‘cobblestone’ brooch – front and back


 It’s in the interiors and undersides of objects.



yumiko higuchi {via}

yumiko higuchi


 It’s present in immense skill and precision.



thyme tealight - {}

thyme tealight – {}


 It’s in the understanding of materials, and how they look when the light catches them.



Molly Hatch  cups {via}

Molly Hatch cups



yumi okita -

yumi okita – cross’s wave moth



And NONE of it is made by casual fiddlers or doodlers.


Build your vision, build your skills by years of long, hard work; 

and one day quality will appear, as if by magic. 



Surface design : Celia Forrester

Celia Forrester loves a good palette. In fact, for her it’s the biggest and very funnest part of any design – and it shows. Her colours are rich, warm and inviting; bright and evocative without being obtrusive.


celia forrester - jazz fusion

celia forrester – jazz fusion


Celia started out years ago as a graphic designer then went into fashion design, designing for several women’s wear lines in the Southern California area. She also had her own small children’s wear line, called Boo Kitty.  “One of the lines I designed for was called Faith, and it took me to Bali, Indonesia (where it was manufactured) and I ended up living there for three years.”

Now, she has settled to life  in Snohomish, a small city near Seattle – and her current workspace is the dining room table, with just a pencil, sketchpad, scanner and laptop computer. “I was always interested in textile print design, as in my fashion career I used a lot of prints in my designs (either designed by others, or my own simple prints). Last year in June I decided to try my hand at print design when I signed up for an online course through Skillshare called “Reign Repeats”, which taught me how to do seamless pattern repeats in Illustrator. I loved it! So right now I am in the process of reinventing myself as a textile/surface print designer.”


celia forrester - molecular mayhem

celia forrester – molecular mayhem


celia forrester - march of the arabians

celia forrester – march of the arabians


Working with a very graphic style influenced by Modernism and Abstract Art, her designs start off with simple sketches which are then scanned in and built up through Illustrator. It’s all a big learning curve, and she admits that “the best part of design is when something wonderful happens on the screen that you were not expecting.”


celia forrester - slice of pie

celia forrester – slice of pie


celia forrester - dim sum checkers

celia forrester – dim sum checkers


She’s not sure where her favourite piece of advice came from, but loves it for its invitation to experiment.

“Figure out what other people will do, then do the opposite”.


And she also adds a framework for those words to sit in: “You need to be true to yourself in order to develop your own unique style.”


celia forrester - paikea blue dots

celia forrester – paikea blue dots


celia forrester - snake zigzag

celia forrester – snake zigzag


(No artist is complete without a muse. This is Cassie)

celia's muse

celia’s muse


You can find more of Celia’s designs in her Spoonflower shop, celiaforrester.


Surface design : Sheri McCulley

Sheri McCulley’s art heroes are mid-century superstars – Betsey Clark, Mary Blair and Charles Schulz. “My inspiration comes from mid-century pop culture, classic stories and sayings, nursery rhymes, and the commercial art of my childhood. I always wanted to create art that could be mass-produced and reach as many people as possible, which is why I went into licensing. I love the idea of a child being as excited to have a new pillowcase with one of my designs on it as I was when I was nine and my mom sewed me a pillowcase out of Holly Hobbie fabric.”


sheri mcculley - chick-a-doodle floret - green

sheri mcculley – chick-a-doodle floret – green


Sheri’s patterns are full of life and activity, and often incorporate animals, people and flowers – and sometimes  everything together! They’re a mix of sweet whimsy and bright fun with touches of mid mod and folk, all delivered in palettes of pastel brights.

Working out of her own studio in Overland Park, Kansas, Sheri spreads her creative output between pattern design, embroidery and papercraft, seemingly without drawing breath. {” I tend to lose track of time when I’m designing, and often forget to eat lunch (as well as breakfast, and sometimes dinner)”}. A self-employed illustrator and pattern designer, she licences her art to various manufacturers, as well as selling paper-based products and embroidery patterns directly to consumers on Etsy.


“I truly blend my days and nights and therefore weeks into one creative non-stop process. I love it. I live it. I breathe it. Hopefully the passion I have for it shows in my artwork and craftsmanship.”



sheri mcculley - chick-a-doodle tulips

sheri mcculley – chick-a-doodle tulips


Like many creatives, it has been a convoluted path to get to the point where she is with her business. After graduating from art college, she got a job teaching graphic design at another college – “a type of work I was pretty well acquainted with since my dad was an art professor. Though I ultimately left higher education and spent time raising my kids, I always kept designing and spent a couple of years at a small private school as an assistant kindergarten teacher / elementary school art teacher. I enjoyed coming up with new art projects for the kids every week, each designed to teach some principle of art.”

Teaching was a joy. “What was interesting to realize is that the overall ratio of kids who actually have an obvious passion and talent for creating is about the same in kindergarteners as college kids. I liked encountering the special kids who have an obvious affinity for art and who surprise you with unique or deep ideas about what they create, even at a very young age.”


sheri mcculley - rainy day flowers

sheri mcculley – rainy day flowers


Sheri got serious about her art business about eight years ago, when her and her husband/business manager Tom Seibold first went to the Surtex show in New York and had a booth. They produced fabric, cards, crafting supplies and struck up a few licencing deals, including producing Christmas merchandise for Macys.  However, the focus of her business has shifted and grown. Tom told me “While we still do some licensed products with a few long-time manufacturers, Sheri has been shifting into selling her own designs via digital downloads and print-on-demand products (like the Spoonflower fabrics) – all of which offer ongoing sales with no definite end date, as well as her own hand-crafted stationery products, sold via her Etsy shop.”

“In fact, her Etsy shop is an increasingly important part of her workload as orders come in from around the USA as well as other Anglosphere countries – including the UK and Australia. She personally customizes, prints, and die-cuts each piece of stationery, and it was actually her ‘Signature Fragrance’ design that got this business started. She did an announcement in what we now call her “signature cut” style (i.e.: shaped card, not rectangular) for our niece during autumn, 2012.


“The photographer’s random shot of the bride holding the announcement got ‘pinned’ and set off a flurry of requests to have her do it by brides-to-be.”


The change from purely licencing designs to being more hands-on with the stationery through Etsy has been involved and hard work, but ultimately more satisfying. “I like being my own product manager, controlling the designs and quality, and working first-hand with my customers—the brides-to-be.”


sheri mcculley - kitsch-n-mixer utensils

sheri mcculley – kitsch-n-mixer utensils


Another aspect of her business is designing a collection of shapes for cut paper, which are sold via digital download to the crafting market. Illustrator files are converted to files that work as cutting paths with digital paper cutters like the Silhouette (/CraftRobo) or any digital cutter that can connect to a PC (i.e.: not the ones that use designs pre-loaded on cartridges). Each collection includes a series of floral elements that can be selected and cut on demand for specific projects (you can find out more about her digital files here).

Being an avid collector of vintage textiles and furniture since she was in college has resulted in a home full of wonderful vintage, including furniture that she and her husband Tom have refurbished. More importantly, her textile collection – some of it dating back to the 1930s – was the inspiration for turning some of her own illustrations into embroidery patterns. Always charmed by the “Aunt Martha” transfers that had been used by American housewives for generations to add personality to aprons and dishcloths, Sheri saw the resurgence in hand embroidery a few years ago, and it all just clicked.


sheri mcculley - tinker talk

sheri mcculley – tinker talk


sheri mcculley - tinkers toys

sheri mcculley – tinkers toys


sheri mcculley - tinker thinker

sheri mcculley – tinker thinker


Despite all these creative endeavours, Sheri doesn’t really even consider herself a ‘crafter’. “I grew up creating art of all types and started embroidering at a young age; although these days, my most craft-like activity is papercrafting, such as the items I design and prototype for the craft art patterns (and print-and-cut downloads) I sell on, and the embroidery patterns sold on Etsy.”


sheri mcculley - digital papercuts

sheri mcculley – digital papercuts


sheri mcculley - signature frangrance wedding stationery

sheri mcculley – signature frangrance wedding stationery



“You could say I’m inspired more by designing the elements behind the craft, and giving crafters the pieces that will motivate them to create.”


You can find more of Sheri’s patterns in her Spoonflower store sheri_mcculley; more about what she’s up to on her blog; and you can also find her embroidery patterns as well as her beautiful wedding stationery in her Etsy store,


Surface design : Maze and Vale {Leslie Keating}

Leslie Keating of Maze and Vale is a serial creative, picking up ideas and inspiration from “absolutely everywhere. I try to keep track of them in a sketchbook, where I also keep a ridiculous number of lists of things to do and projects for consideration.”


maze and vale - quill in peacock - certified organic cotton

maze and vale – quill (peacock) – certified organic cotton


Named for her two daughters, Maze and Vale grew out of Leslie’s intense love of fabric and her background as a graphic designer. Hand screen prints on natural fibres, in a range of muted tones punctuated with bold, her designs are clean, simple and graphic.

“About 7 years ago I fell in love with sewing in general but particularly with quilting and wanted more control over the prints and colours I could use in my work. I’d worked with a lot of hand printed fabric before and decided to use my graphic design skills to create my own textiles. I started carving stamps and using them to print on cotton and linen and then moved onto screen printing as a way to cover larger areas more quickly. Screen printing was way too much fun to stop, and so I decided to start selling the fabric I was creating.”


maze and vale - seedpods in perfect red - organic cotton

maze and vale – seedpods (perfect red) – organic cotton


To keep her ideas fresh, Leslie uses a variety of techniques with her original sketches, working between hand-carved stamps, pen sketches, or even working straight into Illustrator. All her prints are pulled by hand in her one room studio, and all the colours are custom mixed by her using environmentally friendly, water based textile inks and are printed on natural, sustainable fibres of hemp, organic cotton and linen.

Her list of favourite artists and designers is long. “I honestly couldn’t name them all but a few that immediately spring to mind are Lotta Jansdotter, Julie Paterson of Cloth, Arounna Khounnoraj of Bookhou and Lara Cameron of Ink & Spindle – all amazing designers who screen print their own work, as I do.”


maze and vale - tiny forest in alabaster

maze and vale – tiny forest in alabaster


I asked Leslie if there was anything quirky or curious about her that she’d like to share. She replied, “I very often get my rights and lefts wrong which I thought was pretty ridiculous until I read an article a while ago that said it was a common trait of highly creative people. Now I see it as a badge of honour! I’m also terrible at remembering people’s names unless I see them written down, another quirk of being so visually oriented, I guess.”


Leslie never lets the bad experiences get to her. “I tend to just roll with the punches; it makes life a lot easier, and some really beautiful work can come out of ‘mistakes’.”



maze and vale - verses - overcast - organic cotton

maze and vale – verses – overcast – organic cotton


I love Leslie’s description of her design, Verses.

“Hand drawn marks that resembled text; I added and sketched until I had two paragraphs of unknown words. The paragraphs’ spacing is a bit random and wonky and it somehow makes my heart ache just a little bit, like there is something life-changingly important written there, if only you knew the language.”


maze and vale - xox - velvet black - organic cotton

maze and vale – xox – velvet black – organic cotton


Her best piece of advice? “To ignore what other people are doing and follow your own style. If your work is from the heart and you put 100% into it with no shortcuts, your audience will find you. (Well, you also have to put it out there in order to be found 😉 )”

You can find more of Leslie’s gorgeous fabrics in her Etsy shop, mazeandvale.