Sunday, July 21, 2013

Living more creatively
in the kitchen and beyond
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel July 12, 2013

Rachel Santos makes her classic bucket bags from woven strips
 of upcycled rubber bicycle inner-tubes. Santos defines
 “upcycling” as the process of converting end-of-life products into new, 
valuable products without using lots of energy.

The brilliant writer Michael Pollan, famous for making Americans rethink their relationship to the land and the food they eat, spoke at Santa Cruz High School last month about his new book “Cooked: a natural history of transformation.” There are no recipes in this book about cooking. Rather, Pollan explores the act of cooking at home, because, he writes, it’s “the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable.”

Pollan told the sold-out Santa Cruz crowd that the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation and another four minutes cleaning up, which is less than half of what his mother (and mine) spent cooking and cleaning up in the 1960s. With Americans watching 34 hours of television a week, and 8 in 10 Americans watching the vast assortment of cooking shows, Pollan suggests that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves.

Of course what Pollan is also suggesting is that living healthier and more sustainably is also dependent upon our willingness to live more creatively. If creativity is a three step process—from concept, to planning, to production—we’ve missed out completely when we merely watch others cook. What’s more, we’ve willingly traded the smell, taste and health benefits of delicious home cooking for a passive bit of entertainment.

So, it’s all the more amazing when you discover people who don’t fit the reality-TV-watching demographic, who spend their time creating things that promote sustainability and self-sufficiency and do it without a recipe before them—who spend time imagining, engineering, and then executing, and who aren’t afraid to learn through trial and error.

Held last month at the School of Visual Arts Theatre
 in New York City, the Independent Handbag Designer
 Awards recognizes and discovers new designer talent
 and creativity across an array of handbag categories. 
Rachel Santos, of Dante Robles Design in Aromas, won
 in the Timberland Best Green Handbag category, for her
 classic bucket bag made from sustainable, recycled materials.
Rachel Santos is one such person. A resident of Aromas, she recently traveled to New York City for the first time in her life, to become a winner in the 7th Annual Independent Handbag Designer Awards. Attended by industry notables, the award ceremony honored winners in six categories, and Santos’s lovely woven bucket bag won the Timberland Best Green Handbag award, which requires the bag be made out of sustainable, recycled or organic materials.

She loves to ask others what they think her shiny black bags are made from, because the usual guess is leather. Folks are surprised when she tells them the leather is actually reclaimed bicycle inner-tubes. Her handbags don’t look, smell or feel like bicycle inner-tubes, because they’ve been utterly transformed.

To win such a prestigious award is all the more amazing when you learn that she began working with rubber as a textile only a year ago. But it seemed to be the perfect fit for a woman with a degree in environmental studies, a 15-year career working in open space preservation, and a family-nurtured talent for crafting. In her line of work especially, she is constantly considering end-of-life (EOL) materials and asking herself how they could be resurrected and given new life.

Besides handbags, Santos also uses the rubber and valves from spent
 inner-tubes to make bracelets.
After briefly working with EOL neoprene wetsuits, she switched to rubber inner-tubes from road and mountain bikes, since they were easier to stretch and weave, and very easy to come by. Every two months she stops by Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill, who hand over 4 or 5 boxes of spent inner-tubes they’ve collected for her.

“Initially I was just having fun,” she says about her handbag design. Then her husband, who has experience in marketing new products, was impressed with her design, and told her, “I think it has legs,” she remembers. He encouraged her “to go out in front of people and get their feedback.” And in the process, she learned that her design was something extraordinary.

In developing her handbags from scratch, she had to discover ways of working with an unfamiliar material. “You have to get used to the way it moves and feels,” she says. “You have to adapt to the material.” So she learned how to carefully cut open the tubes, wash off the inner coating of talc, allow the rubber smell to off-gas, and cut them into even strips. She tried various cutting methods until her husband developed a rotary cutting system.

With her woodworking skills, she created a loom for weaving panels of inner-tubes. She then invested in a Juki industrial sewing machine with a Teflon pressure foot, for sewing the woven rubber the panels into handbags. “I was experimenting, prototyping,” she says. “The Juki allowed me to do so much more.” She also incorporates other parts from inner-tubes, like the Presta valves, into her handbag designs. Besides her winning bucket bag, she’s created a clutch, a satchel and a cross-body handbag.

Santos would like to develop her inner-tube weaving into a line of clothing, and participate in the Fashion Art runway show in Santa Cruz, but for now she’ll concentrate on working with Timberland to reproducing her handbag for sale in their flagship stores across the county. “The fashion industry has started to reduce their carbon footprint,” says Santos, and she is pleased to be working with the outdoor clothing retailer, Timberland. “They have a consciousness of moving in that direction.” Timberland makes footwear and outerwear from recycled, organic and renewable materials, and even builds their stores in a sustainable way using repurposed and reclaimed materials.

The future looks pretty bright for Santos and her label “Dante Robles Design,” as she scrambles to market her handbags through social media and by making industry connections. “I met quite a few of the leaders of the handbag industry in New York, and some manufacturers,” she says. And “some of the other contestants in the competition want to collaborate with me in the future.” She’s also thrilled that her winning handbag will be featured in the September issue of InStyle Magazine and Bicycling Magazine.

The oak leaf, with its stem pointing upwards, is the perfect symbol for
 the upcycled materials Rachel Santos uses in her handbags.

“Dante Robles” is Latin for “enduring oaks,” and Santos has added an aluminum oak leaf to her bags with an upward-pointing arrow on the stem—the perfect symbol not only for the extended life of the upcycled materials she uses, but also for the upward trajectory of Santos’ career as a handbag maker. “[Winning this competition] has been a great launching pad,” she says.
Crafting in the digital era: Design your own fabric
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 28, 2013

 On a typical episode, the long-running competitive reality show “Project Runway” gives the remaining fashion designers a conceptual design challenge, then takes them off to shop in midtown Manhattan in a multi-level store (“Mood”) bulging with fabric. Famous for throwing curve balls, “Project Runway” has caught many a contender off guard by dispensing with the trip to Mood for one episode, and requiring them to design their own fabric, from which they are expected to create a winning look. The final results serve as proof that good fashion designers are not always good fabric designers, and many are so used to working with solids, they have no idea what to do with a print.

But for those of us who love to work with fabric, we watch this design-your-own-fabric episode with envy and wonder. What would it be like to have that much creative freedom and control? How much more would that curtain, quilt, dress or textile art we want to make become a truer expression of our creativity?

In this one-of-a-kind book-DVD package, 
celebrated fabric designer, illustrator, sewist, and
author Heather Ross shares reproducible artwork
 for her bestselling fabric prints and step-by-step 
instructions for designing your own fabric.
What with the recent development of print-on-demand calendars, books, and tee-shirts, I should have suspected there might be a way to have your own fabric printed. I’ve actually been doing that for years on a small scale, running 8-1/2 x 11 pieces of freezer-paper-backed cotton fabric through my home printer. But a small piece of fabric obviously has its limitations. So now there is a way to create yards and yards of fabric, digitally printed with your own design. Welcome to the amazing world of print-on-demand fabric.

The book that clued me in to this exciting new opportunity, written by a former Santa Cruzan, is called, “Heather Ross Prints.” In the late 70s, Heather Ross moved from Vermont to Santa Cruz in fourth grade with her father and twin sister, Christie. They lived in family housing at UCSC while her father attended graduate school there, and the girls had plenty of opportunity to explore their new community. Heather, who learned to sew at a young age, remembers shopping at Harts Fabric. “I used to buy my own fabric when I was in junior high and I remember shopping for my Halloween Bride of Frankenstein outfit and a woman helping me there,” she says.

In 2011 Heather Ross teamed up with Walden
 Surfboards to create this Mermaid surfboard for girls.
Today Heather lives in New York City, and has become an author, illustrator and trend-setter in the designer fabric world, with her whimsical, childhood imagery. Playful caricatures of mermaids, unicorns, antique bird cages or long johns dance about in soft, retro hues making her style very recognizable and sought after. “Prints,” her latest book, is unusual because she actually shares her signature designs on an included DVD, which can be printed at home on paper for use in several projects. But what really makes the book worth buying is her willingness to walk you step by step through process of designing and having your own fabric printed.

“I really had to force myself as an adult to use a computer,” says Heather. “Digital fabric printing was a little funky at first, but now it’s possible to get a really beautiful fabric.” About her book she says, “What people needed was just some really clear instructions,” and that’s what her “How to Create Designs in Photoshop” chapter is all about.

Heather suggests that good fabric design starts with paper and pencil. She writes that that “a simple drawing will translate much better to a digital design than a realistic or heavily detailed one.” In addition, “Wonky proportions and a ‘flat’ or ‘na├»ve’ style make the best prints!” For those who do not want to start with a sketch, she also shows a method for creating designs using photos.

“Heather Ross Prints” provides instructions for turning
 her “Race Track” fabric into a toddler duvet.
  The fabric can be purchased on
In her book, Heather demonstrates the process of turning a sketch into a print. From a pencil sketch of a donkey, she makes several photocopies, adds new pencil lines and ideas to create variations and connections, and then cuts them out to make a collage. The collage represents one block that will be repeated throughout the printed fabric, in a pattern of your choosing. The collage is scanned into Photoshop as a black and white image, cleaned up, and scaled to the finished size. Then she shows how to add spot color with various tools until she has finally created an amazing, fabric-ready image.

The finished block is then scanned and uploaded to an on-demand digital printing service, which can print on all sorts of fabric in quantities of your choosing. Heather uses Spoonflower, which prints swatches, fat quarters, and yards of fabric, plus wallpaper, peel-and-stick wall decals and wrapping paper. The website also has a fun “vote for the Design of the Week” feature, which is a great place to soak up inspiration and learn (or buy) from others. Another site, Fabric on Demand, specializes in custom fabric printing, and offers some fabrics, such as lycra/spandex, not available through Spoonflower.

Both websites are user friendly, offering several design layout options, step-by-step instructions, and examples. The process is not in expensive, though. On Spoonflower, for example, cotton fabric starts at $17.50 a yard, and their most expensive option, silk crepe de chine, is $38 a yard. But even at those prices, I think it would be absolutely thrilling to get that first glimpse of your very own design on fabric.

Heather, who still has close connections to Santa Cruz, recently talked with friend Matt Basile, the owner of Harts Fabric in Santa Cruz, at a recent quilt market in Portland, and mentioned that her sister, Christie Danner, who lives in Scotts Valley, has breast cancer. Basile offered to do a benefit at his store in Santa Cruz, and the event began to take shape.

Inspired by the wonderful murals on the streets in Santa Cruz,
 Heather Ross has hand-painted a sewing machine,
 donated for the auction by Harts Fabrics and Jacome.

The fundraiser they are hosting will take place Sunday, June 30, and will include both a raffle and an auction emceed by Heather herself, with donations by Harts Fabric, Martha Stewart, Amy Sedaris, Windham Fabrics, Walden Surfboards and many others. Heather will also make her newest flowery fabric line, Briar Rose, available before its wide release, which, Heather says, will appeal very much to quilters.

Heather’s twin sister, Christie Danner, who lives in Scotts Valley has been battling breast cancer for several months, and will start chemotherapy, July 1, the day after the benefit. “It’s a super aggressive type of cancer,” says Heather, “but they caught it early.” Christie is a mother of three and works full time as an advisor and intervention counselor at Scotts Valley High school. “She is the glue that binds my (somewhat functionally challenged) family together,” writes Heather on her blog. “She is never the person that asks for help, she is always the one who gives it.”

 All proceeds will help Christie (who is not eligible for district insurance, and is covered only by a high-deductible health policy) afford the mounting, non-covered costs associated with her cancer treatment. “The craft community is the most generous and heart-based community,” says Heather. “The response has been amazing.”

(All book photos provided by the publisher, Abrams Books, (Mark Gruen, photographer) except for photos of sewing machine provided by Heather Ross.  Surfboard photos also taken by Mark Gruen.)