In this episode of Textile Art Business Interview, I’m so honored to have with me, Mickey Lawler. Mickey is an award-winning artist, an author, an educator and a business owner.
Mickey Lawler is famously known for her fine hand-painted landscape fabrics, called Skydyes. She paints skies, water, rocks, and landscapes. Her fabrics have been used in the artworks of some of the best textile artists you can think of.
Recently, I met with Mickey in her home to talk about the business of art. Over a cup of green ginger tea and some yummy brownies, we had a beautiful conversation about creativity, life, fabrics, and business. I had such a fabulous time with Mickey and I can’t wait to share it with you.
In this interview, Mickey and I talk about:
- How constraints lead to creativity – (in this case the unavailability of landscape fabrics)
- The importance of having help when you run a business
- Mickey’s tips for successfully vending at shows
- How she created 5,000 yards of fabric a year – by hand.
Mickey told me how she got started in the textile art business. She’d opened a quilt shop in town because she loved quilts and there were no quilt shops around. When a quilt teacher came to teach landscape quilts in her quilt shop, she fell in love with them. But at the time, it was impossible to get landscape fabrics to use as backgrounds.
Then Mickey’s friend who was also a quilt shop owner started carrying a line of fabric paints in her quilt shop. So Mickey began experimenting with them to create her own fabrics. Later, she sold her painted sky dye fabrics in her own quilt shop. And the response was phenomenal. Her Skydyes were selling faster than the regular fabrics. She closed her quilt shop and moved the fabric painting business home.
Here’s how the rest of our conversation went.
CN: Mickey, tell me how you got into vending your fabrics at shows.
ML: I began by vending at all the local shows. I started doing the bigger shows probably 1990 – Houston, Padducah, and California shows by Mancuso Brothers (Pacific International) which was just so much fun. Houston was fun but a huge amount of work.
The neat thing about Houston was, the first time I went, I took a friend with me (my husband was still working). And we were just so excited. Because people were coming to the booth and they were just buying this fabric like crazy. And I was like “oh my gosh”. We just had the best time.
At the time, Houston was in the Shamrock Hotel – downtown Houston. And we had such adventures.
Then from then on, I did the Houston shows and my husband took early retirement and did all of this with me. We had a ball.
CN: Did you find that having someone with you when you’re vending was helpful?
ML: Absolutely!!! You had to. For big, big shows you had to. We finally ended up with a huge booth in Houston for many years. You know, to set that up and pay the shipping and pay the guys to bring the fabric over to the booth. It was a very big deal. Two of my daughters actually worked with us that time.
So one year we wanted to go to Houston and we wanted to go to the California show and they were at the same time. And so, one daughter – Terry- went with my husband to the California show. And another daughter – Katie- and I slugged our way to Houston. That ended up being a very tiring show. A lot of fun but still exhausting. You’re busy all day and you end up eating at 9:00 pm in the night. It was exhausting but we enjoyed it tremendously and it was very lucrative too.
My husband –Dan- called one time and he said we’re having a great show. Their show was in Palm Springs. And he said in the afternoon we’re going for a massage. Then, we’re going to do this and this. And we were like, what? But umm, you know, little memories like that are really fun.
He passed away in 2004 so I don’t do the big shows anymore. As a matter of fact, I do very few shows anymore. I’ve taken on one show during winter when I visit a friend in Florida. Everything ,…., all my sales are now through the website now.
CN: So how do your website sales compare to your days of vending at shows?
ML: There’s no comparison. The shows will be more lucrative than selling through the website. When I was selling at Houston, I did 5,000 yards of fabric a year. And most of it went to Houston.
CN: Wow. You did 5,000 yards of fabric by hand a year? Did you sell most of it?
ML: I sold probably, at least 60 -70% of it. Yeah. But that was because Dan could help me also. It was such an interesting arrangement we had.
CN: So how did you set it up to be able to create so much fabric in a year?
ML: We’d set it up so that I’d paint the fabric on three separate tables- 7 yards each. And he’d come out and stamp the fabric with our little stamp, then fold it and take it to the person who does the color setting- you know the setting of the paint. And then, I’d be ready to put the next piece on. So, I was doing a hundred yards a day of painting by hand!!!
CN: Oh my gosh, Mickey. You were doing if my calculations are right. You were doing an average of 5 runs of the entire process every single day.
ML: I was much younger (laughing) and much more energetic then. Having that extra person helped. And he did the website and handled the website, which was great. Because it didn’t take me away from the painting at all.
But my body can’t do that anymore. You know, it’s just too intense. It’s kind of fun now just to do just what I want to do, remembering that people want skies and I have to create it for them.
CN: That right there makes me think that we have to look into the future and realize that we won’t be able to keep going at our current pace. We need to plan what to do with our future creative lives. Right?
ML: You can think of that but it’s in the abstract. You go into denial when you get there, though (laughing). I did say to Dan. “Dan, when I’m 70 years old (and I’m beyond that), I envision myself in a wheelchair running up and down the tables painting fabrics. That still comes to mind. And I’m very grateful that I’m not doing that. But it is physically demanding and the shows were so physically demanding too.
CN: What are you spending your time doing now?
ML: I do a fair amount of custom work now. You know people who have taken David Taylor’s class need a background for a bird or whatever it might be and they place an order for it.
CN: So do you collaborate with David Taylor? (David Taylor is an award-winning quilter who loves hand-applique. See David Taylor’s work)
ML: No David tells them to get in touch with me which is very nice. We’ve taught at the same time together. And I really like doing that kind of custom work. It’s more like somebody is coming up with a different idea than I have. So it’s more challenging and has some energy and excitement about it, —, usually.
CN: I find that interesting. I know some people don’t like doing commissions because they don’t want to take artistic direction from anyone.
ML: When someone comes with specific instructions to reproduce the exact background of a painting they’ve seen somewhere. I find that I do tell them “No, I can’t do that”. But most people want to create a certain “feel” or a similar “feel” as some other scene. Then it’s fun. It’s a creative challenge and I enjoy that.
CN: Tell us a little bit about your process. I know many of my readers love surface design.
ML: It probably takes me twice as long if not longer to actually mix the colors than to paint the fabrics. I test them to see how they look together. To see what mood I want. Does it want to be a pleasant sky or a stormy sky? And then I try to get some kind of inspiration. Sometimes from my photographs. I go to the Cape on and off in the summer time. And I try to do some photographing there. So, a lot of my stuff is beach-oriented.
CN: Cool, so you’re inspired by the beach. Mickey, since you spent a lot of time vending at shows, what are six success tips you can give someone who wants to go that route or someone who started not too long ago vending their creative works?
Mickey Lawler’s 6 Success Tips for Vending at Shows
- Have a good product that isn’t duplicated by other vendors.
- You have to like talking to people and be excited about your product.
- Simple, uncluttered display, letting folks know exactly what you are selling and, if possible, how it can be used in a finished project. (A sample or two)
- Ask, before committing to a show, how many attendees the producers expect and how many vendors there will be. The ratio I used for big shows was 100 attendees to every vendor. Remember that there are only so many sales to go around!
- Check out the map of the vendors’ booths. You don’t want to get stuck in a corner where there won’t be traffic flow.
- It’s always a plus if the vendors’ booths are among quilts in the show, not off in a separate room
Well, this is a good place to take a break. I’ll come back with the second part of my interview with Mickey Lawler about textile art business. You don’t want to miss that. In that part, we talk about teaching, book publication, how she decided to make a career out of her textile work and oh, she tells us her five favorite tools and resources.
In the meantime, here are the highlights of today’s interview.
Interview Quotes and Takeaways
- “It probably takes me twice as long if not longer to actually mix the colors than to paint the fabrics.”
- “When I was selling at Houston, I did 5,000 yards of fabric a year.”
- To be successful at vending, “You have to like talking to people and be excited about your product.”
- The help of family and friends is invaluable when you start a business.
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Also published on Medium.