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Behind The Stitches: Melissa Galbraith

“I always like to think of embroidery like coloring with thread”


Sam: Where are you from and where are you based?

Melissa: I am from the bottom right-hand corner of Washington state. Which is called the Tri-Cities and right now I’m in Seattle, Washington.

Sam: How did you end up in Seattle?

Melissa: Well, the Tri-Cities is a really great place to raise your kids and retire if you love golf and wine. But there aren’t really a whole lot of great opportunities for younger, more artsy, crafty people. So after going to college and moving home for a little while I realized it wasn’t a good fit. My boyfriend, now husband, ended up moving to the Seattle area because that’s where his family is from. I moved up here for a job and I have been bouncing around in the area ever since.

Sam: How would you describe your embroideries to someone who has never seen them?

Melissa: I would say they’re vibrant and colorful. There are a whole lot of botanical designs in them. They are whimsical, playful, and kind of just like a fun take on what you see in nature.

Sam: Have you always been a crafty person? How did you learn to embroider?

Melissa: Well, my mom actually taught me when I was in elementary school and I did not appreciate her patients at the time! I was not a very good student at all. But my mom has always been really into crafting and making things. She had us try all sorts of crafts as kids. We did bobbin lace, knitting, quilting, paper-mâché and everything in between. It was really fun as a kid because I got to try all these different hands-on ways to make stuff. As an adult, it’s something that I’ve really grown to cherish and love. I have a day job in social media. So I sit behind a computer all day and everything I do lives online. It’s so nice to come home and really work with something tangible, play with color and texture, and really feel in love with what I’m making.

Sam: Then what was it about embroidery specifically that drew you to it over the other crafts that you did when you were younger?

Melissa: Hmm, I guess I always like to think of embroidery like coloring with thread. As a kid, I loved to color and as an adult, I don’t love it as much. But I wanted something that was kind of similar and playful and doesn’t have as much structure with it. Whereas with cross stitch there’s a lot of mapping and planning. With embroidery, it is more free-form. I get to enjoy that artistic playfulness. But I can still create my own patterns and kind of do what I want. I just don’t really like rules.

I also needed a craft that was more portable and small because my husband and I live in a 600 square-foot apartment. I don’t have a whole lot of space to put a whole lot of stuff everywhere. Not that I haven’t managed to put fabric, thread, and yarn everywhere in our apartment anyway.

Sam: I’m sure every inch of crafting space is accounted for!

Melissa: Oh, yes! My husband has commented more than once that part of our living room looks like a craft store!

Sam: I don’t see any problem with that.

Melissa: Me neither I think it’s great!

“I’m feeling more like an artist. I’m valuing my time and craft more.”

Sam: How much time do you devote to your creative practice every day?

Melissa: I would say at least four hours. But it’s really split up. It’s not like a giant chunk of time. I am fortunate in the sense that I get to commute to work. I take the bus every day and I can embroider on the bus to and from work. Which is kind of a relaxing way to get into work and then start my day job. It helps me de-stress on the way home. It also gives me the flexibility to work on it a little bit while I cook dinner. I can pick it up and set it down whenever I need to and want to.

Sam: So much work goes into your embroideries did you ever struggle with placing a price on them?

Melissa: Oh, in the beginning, I 100% underpriced all of my work. I guess before you start making things and actually selling them you don’t really think about all of the time and energy that actually goes into making stuff. I think I sold my first piece for maybe about $25 when it really took me about 10 hours of working on it. It was ridiculous.

I’ve realized how much time I’m actually putting into all of these things. I’m feeling more like an artist. I’m valuing my time and craft more. It’s made me realize that I need to set more of an hourly price and figure out how much time goes into every piece. I talk to my customers about why this piece costs so much and what goes into every piece I make. It’s not only about the stitching it’s about the design, it’s about finding the right materials, it’s about slowly bringing this piece together. It’s about everything that goes into it and that makes it really exciting.

So many people are used to just buying things at big box stores where it’s like “oh, I can get a piece of art for about 20 bucks... yes, it’s a print”. But then when they go to markets and fairs they see that their $20 doesn’t go as far and wonder why. As an artist who is selling your work you have to be like “this is why your $20 doesn’t go as far”.

A lot of my pieces are one of a kind originals. I usually don’t do the same design twice and if I do it’s going to be slightly different because everything is made by hand. Sometimes trying to communicate that to a buyer can be challenging. They have to understand that they are buying a unique piece of art.

Also, embroidery is seen as kind of being at the lower end of the arts spectrum because it’s a “woman’s craft” and it’s something that used to be done in the homes and it isn’t seen as high fine art. So putting a price on that can be challenging.

Sam: Oh, the patriarchy.

Melissa: Yeah… I mean it’s really exciting to see that fiber art, in general, has had this modern insurgency in the last couple of years. People are becoming more familiar with what it takes so it’s not as much of an uphill battle anymore. That’s not to say that it isn’t one, but I do meet people that are like “Oh, my gosh! that must have taken you so long”, really understanding what goes into a piece, and appreciating it. Which is really exciting!

Sam: Yeah, that is really exciting. Hopefully, things will continue in that direction. What’s your favorite thing to embroider?

Melissa: Probably the prickly pear cactus. I just love that they have all sorts of weird and wonky petals. They look a little alien. I love doing kind of an ombre effect with the colors. I kind of blend different colors together to get them to look a little variegated. I just think they’re kind of fun and weird. I love that all plants I have a little weirdness to them. I have kind of a whimsical style and I can play around with them. I can make them feel slightly fun and different. But people still recognize it as some kind of plant.

Sam: I noticed that a lot of your work has cacti as the source inspiration is that something that you grew up seeing a lot of? Or are they in the area that you’re in now I’m just wondering where that inspiration originally came from?

Melissa: No. A lot of my corner of Washington State is the desert. Which isn’t something that most people think of Washington State as being. But we don’t really have a ton of cacti. It’s just really hot and dry. My husband’s mom moved down to Arizona about maybe four years ago now. Ever since we went down to visit her I just fell in love. I was like “This is home. I love this I love everything about it”! I’ve always liked plants not that I have the best green thumb but I’ve always liked them. I love that they’re so weird and prickly and come in all kinds of funky shapes and different colors. They’re just so cool.

Sam: What inspired you to start doing the broaches instead of just doing the hoops? I guess I should start by asking what came first?

Melissa: Well, hoops came first just because when you first start embroidery you usually start by learning how to do it inside of a hoop with your fabric nice and tight. I first started making mine by covering the back with felt and adding a hook so that people could easily hang it up like a picture frame. But after doing quite a few shows I found that people only have so much wall space. I can totally relate. But because of that, I found it was harder and harder to only sell home decor. So I wanted to branch out. Since then I’ve done broaches, bandannas, and visible mending. I’ve also dabbled with punch needle and combined that with my embroideries. I make punch needle pillows and things like that to make it easier for people who love my work and want to support me but they don’t have the wall space for it.

Sam: You also run embroidery workshops! When did you start hosting those? What has been your favorite part about teaching?

Melissa: I started teaching workshops last fall. I was at the Seattle Renegade Craft Fair when one of my really good friends, who works at a food and craft lifestyle company said they were interested in doing workshops. I had never really taught a workshop before. But I was like “you know what I’m gonna do this I’m just gonna give it a go”. So I figured out a design, set everything up, and since then I’ve started hosting about a handful per year. Which has been fun because even though a lot of the workshops are grounded in embroidery basics there are so many things that you can learn from it. We’ve done tote bags. We’ve done ornaments. I’m doing a star sign one coming up. There are all different kinds of ways that people can use embroidery. Its been really exciting to share, see people try a new craft, or pick up something that they haven’t done in a really long time. We also did a mending class earlier this year. It was really exciting to see people bring pieces that they really loved and give them the chance to repurpose that piece so that they could keep it and still love it. I love seeing them find joy in sewing, making things by hand, and playing with color. Its been really rewarding.


“Just know that we’re all on our own paths and trajectories. It’s important to have a plan but know that we all are going to get where we’re going at a different pace and that’s OK.”

Sam: I know that you have done craft fairs and markets like The Renegade Craft Fair before. When did you feel like your business was at a place where you should be doing those? Do you have any advice for newbie crafters who are thinking about doing a fair?

Melissa: I guess my advice would be to jump in before you’re ready. Because I’m one of those people who has all of my lists and makes sure that I have everything planned out. Sometimes I get stuck focusing on the details. Then finally one day I was just like “I’m just gonna do it and then figure it out as I go”. I feel like that’s how a lot of running a small business works. You just have to try something, figure it out, and see if it works for you.

I had done some small farmers markets before I did a really big show. Urban Craft Uprising is a really big local artist market. They do a ton throughout the year in the Seattle and Portland areas. I just applied to some of the summer shows and I ended up getting in so I was like “All right I’m gonna figure this out”. Doing it made me realize that I had to price my work higher. It made me realize that I had to figure out how I wanted to display things and what I actually needed for my table. But it also helped me really engage with the artist community in my area. Which I think is something that not a whole lot of artists do, but it’s so critical.

Embroidery itself is a very solitary art. I feel like a lot of other crafts are as well. So you can end up working on your own and you end up not seeing a whole lot of other artists. So for me when I go to shows or just attend them I think it’s really important to talk to the other makers that are there. It helps to build that community. Now I have a network of makers. We get together every once in a while for crafting dates. We all work on different crafts and we just kind of talk about what’s going on in our businesses, shows that we’re looking into, challenges that we’re having, or just really exciting things that are coming up for our businesses. It’s such a wonderful and exciting community to be a part of. As a small business owner and an artist, it can be hard to find your community and challenging to know what’s out there and how to run a business. So I feel like fairs and markets have really helped me to develop that. I’m so thankful for them.

Sam: In your Am I A Copy Cat blog post you talked about an incident that happened a while back. Can you tell us a little about that situation and what you learned from going through that?

Melissa: Yeah, so in that blog post I kind of referenced another local artist who also does punch needle art. It’s very similar to the wavy landscape style that I started doing with my texture landscape pieces that combine embroidery and punch needle. I had expanded upon that idea and did them on pillows and it turns out that the artist had very similar pillows. When they first reached out to me I was really taken aback and frustrated because I wasn’t familiar with that artist's work. I had never seen it and I kind of felt like that artist was personally attacking me about this. So it took me a while to step back look at it from both points of view and understand that if that had been me and I thought that another artist was copying me I would’ve felt very upset about it as well. But also coming from my point of view I was like “I know I haven’t copied this other artist’s work. I know I have the source sketches and ideas of where all of this stuff came from”. It really made me think about how there are so many similarities in the art world, where inspiration comes from and sort of how we use that inspiration. I mentioned in the post that there are so many common themes that people pull from these days. For example, in my work, I look at plants, animals, and cacti. There are so many embroidery artists that use these themes. I know I’m not alone. It did make me take a step back when I’m looking at other things that I see online. I know that people aren’t intentionally, for the most part, trying to copy other people. We’re all just taking inspiration from the same places because that’s what’s around us. It’s hard to recognize those things. It’s about how a particular artist interprets their inspiration and makes it unique and special.

Sam: What’s one thing that you wish you knew before you started your business?

Melissa: I don’t know if there’s really one thing that I wish I had known. Because there are just so many things in a small business that you learn along the way. Just really know that running a small business is such a challenge but it’s also so rewarding. Know that you don’t have to do everything all at once. It’s OK to start small and then build up. I have another blog post where I talk about how I expand from only doing pieces and hoops to branching out to kits and pins. As I was writing it I thought “I hope that nobody thinks that you have to do this all at once, because this is something I’ve done over the past year and a half”. It was something slow and steady that I’ve worked on. So I want other businesses and artists to not compare themselves to others and to what they see everybody else doing. Just know that we’re all on our own paths and trajectories. It’s important to have a plan but know that we all are going to get where we’re going at a different pace and that’s OK.

Sam: It’s so difficult with social media though, because it’s like you don’t really see the struggle side of things with people. You just kind of see the finished product.

Melissa: Oh, yeah. And I know I’m not super great about saying when I had a terrible market or saying guys I made this awesome thing but nobody’s buying it. Because you don’t want to complain about stuff on social media either. You want people to be excited about what you have and what’s upcoming. You want to share the highs because those are more exciting to talk about then the lows. But it’s important to say that the lows are there and they happen. For me having a strong community and such a wonderful amazing supportive husband has been so helpful. Because when I first started doing shows there were times when I would come home in tears and I was just crying “It was terrible, I didn’t even make my fee back, people were so mean” and he would be like “It’s OK. Your work is amazing. You just have to find the right market”.

Sam: How did you get the courage to continue on after you had a couple markets that didn’t go well? How did you decide that you still loved it and you wanted to keep going?

Melissa: I love making things. I would continue to keep making stuff if they didn’t sell but like I said we just have no space in our apartment to put it anywhere. The other factor is that for a lot of these markets you usually plan to do them far in advance. So one show that I had at the beginning of the month was terrible but I would already have a show lined up for later in that same month. So I had to go to it. I am one of those people that when I say that I’m gonna do something I’ll do it. Whether I’m really feeling it or not. As a small business, you only have so many resources so once I’ve paid for something I’ll be there unless there’s something absolutely awful that happens. For me, it was a great way to push me to do it even if I didn’t feel like it.

It’s also important to reflect and look back. Now that I’ve been doing markets for a while I can say “OK so February is a really great month for shows and then March and April are kind of crappy” because people aren’t out wanting to buy stuff as much. But then as the weather gets nicer you see people coming out more and more in June and July. They are wanting to be out in the sun and shop at markets. So you start to notice trends. Then you also start to notice what sells well and what price points are really good for certain kinds of shows.

Sam: That’s actually a really good point because if you’re new to doing this I could see how you would do a show in March or April and think that nobody was interested in what you were selling when really it’s just not a very good time to try and do a market for your product.

Melissa: Exactly! It could also be the audience that goes to that particular event. I’ve done arts and crafts fairs and I’ve done festivals that are attached to food truck events. Each of those has a different demographic. I always suggest going to a show first if you can. Check it out and talk to the other makers that are vending there. See if it’s a good fit before you invest your money in it. Also, see what kinds of price points are selling at the event.

Earlier this year I made some really awesome pieces that I really loved, they were part of my texture landscape collection. They had punch needle 3-D texture at the bottom and then detailed embroidery at the top. But because those took so long they were priced a lot higher. So it was harder for me to sell a bunch of those all in one market because it’s harder to have a dedicated audience that’s willing to spend over $100 on a piece of art in a day when they weren’t expecting that going into the fair.

Sam: It’s so important to know who your audience and who your customer is.

Melissa: It’s rough as a small business owner. There are so many things that you have to take into account. Really look at what’s working and what’s not and why. But really you just don’t know sometimes until you’re in it.

Sam: How long do you think it took you, and of course this is not going to be the same for everybody because everybody’s different, but how long do you think it took you to get a handle on what was working and what wasn’t working for your business?

Melissa: I would say probably at least a year of doing shows, trying out a bunch of different stuff, and really seeing where I needed to diversify. Just because that’ll take you through a full cycle of a year and knowing when things are popular, when things aren’t, and learning when you should start selling Christmas pieces. For me, embroidery takes a while so I usually start Christmas pieces in late summer. But you don’t start telling people that you’re working on them in late summer because nobody wants to buy Christmas ornaments then. It’s about knowing when you need to start things and also figuring out what shows are happening in your area throughout the year and when you need to start working on prepping on stuff for those shows. When are the best times to explore and try out new ideas? When is it just crunch time and you just need to make specific things for a specific time of year? I would definitely say that you need a full year.

Sam: Are there any books or online tutorials that you would recommend for people who are just getting into embroidery?

Melissa: I follow Hope of @hopebroidery on Instagram. She is super amazing. She makes embroidery approachable and easy. She has a bunch of short video tutorials of different stitches. She’s also really honest and open which I love. So if you’re looking to learn how to embroider I feel like that’s a great place to start. There are also a ton of different patterns out there that you can try. I have patterns, a bunch of other local artists have some, and you can find a ton on Etsy. I would say go to your local craft store, but I know that mine has terrible old outdated patterns that weren’t super exciting and fun.

Small business-wise I feel like the Merriweather Council has a bunch of blogs and tutorials that were really helpful. They have a whole program that you can go through as well but I know that as a small business owner it can be hard to spend a lot of money upfront. I would also just say try messaging people who you really like in the community. Try to start up a conversation and talk to them about running a small business. I know I’m one of those people that usually likes to sit back and watch or listen before I’m really ready to jump in and start talking to people. But as I’ve done more markets it’s made me more open with other makers and people in my community. And because I’ve been more open they’ve been more open with me and we’ve been able to have a lot of those conversations about what’s been helpful and what’s not. Even people who have done shows for years are still asking questions about which markets are successful. Just building that community and being open is really important.

Sam: Lastly, I always like to ask everyone the same final question. What do you like to binge-watch or listen to while you craft?

Melissa: Well, I am super into murder mysteries and true crime. It’s actually a running joke in my office right now. We do the Goodreads challenge every year and last year I exclusively only listened to murder mysteries and true crime audiobooks. So I love those and podcasts. I just finished Pine Gap on Netflix. Which is a really great US/Australian spy intelligence thriller. It is really cool. I don’t know I just find it really interesting and completely different from anything else that’s going on in my life.


..........

If you want to see more of Melissa's work you can follow her on Instagram @mcreativej and visit her website.

Who should I talk to next? Leave your suggestions in the comments section along with any thoughts you have about Melissa's interview. I’m always on the hunt for inspiring crafters. Also, don't forget to follow along on my Instagram account @bobbleclubhouse for your daily dose of all things fiber. Until next week, happy crafting!


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