To many in the creative community, ‘s name is synonymous with mastery of craft: she’s widely revered for her prowess in printmaking, an artist with a true grasp of her talents. A print maker, surface designer, textile artist and teacher based in San Francisco, CA, Jen’s style is unmistakably Jen — a knowingness of self that comes from years of developing her taste, skill set and confidence. But she’ll be the first to tell you that it wasn’t always like this.
Growing up, Jen was one of four African American children at her Catholic school, so she found comfort in a uniform that allowed her to blend in. It wasn’t until Jen attended the University of California at Berkeley did she discover the freedom to dress as she pleased and find her own true sense of style. While working a corporate job, Jen took a screenprinting class for fun, igniting her passion and artistry in tactile creative works. Jen moved from printing on paper to eventually printing on fabric. In 2014 she started a project called “,” where she honed her skills in block printing with a soft carving medium. In that same year she learned how to sew her own clothes, and combined her newly mastered craft of block printing on fabric with sewing complete garments. She then launched a new project — “Print, Pattern, Sew,” a process Jen documented in which she block-printed fabric and then sewed it into a complete outfit for herself.
The lessons and tactics learned from that project have been distilled into her new book, . The book (which is out today!) is a treasure trove of knowledge that coaches novices and experts alike through the process of creating block-printed garments — it’s like one big, handy how-to guide that breaks down everything from tools needed, to navigating mistakes, to easy-to-read steps on each project. Print, Pattern, Sew also includes seven full-size original patterns, so you can get started right away. With projects that include making your own tote bag, apron, fold-over clutch, cap-sleeved blouse, and more, it’s hard to choose which project to tackle first!
To celebrate the launch of Jen’s book and get to know more about her process, I interviewed her below to talk about everything from her beginnings in both sewing and block-printing to her community and self-care rituals. Read on to learn from Jen’s stellar advice and see how you can . —
Today we’re giving away 10 copies of Print, Pattern, Sew (thanks, !), so to enter for a chance to win, please leave a comment below sharing your favorite creative hobby — or one you’re hoping to start — by May 28, 10 am EST.
Tell us about your relationship with block printing and sewing. Did one love come before the other? How far back do your memories of each go?
I received my first sewing machine when I was 14. I was constantly talking about a classmate who sewed her own formal wear for all the cotillions and parties she was going to, and my parents thought that I was hinting that I wanted to learn how to sew. However, what I really wanted was to go to dances and wear party dresses! That sewing machine sat, mostly untouched, for 20 years.
I rediscovered sewing around the same time I started screenprinting fabric, and that’s when sewing finally clicked for me. I began by sewing my printed fabric into bags, which were the only things I could sew well at that point. At the same time the indie garment pattern scene was exploding, and suddenly someone like me, who hadn’t learned how to sew from a family member or a Home Ec class, had not only simple garment patterns with easy-to-follow sewing instructions, but also access to the pattern designers’ online tutorials.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I challenged myself to sew clothing using my printed fabric. Every month that year I printed yardage and sewed a garment using either a self-drafted pattern, or a pattern from an indie designer. I called this project “,” and it became the basis for my book.
What inspired you to create Print, Pattern Sew?
I’d been teaching block printing – both in person and online – for a couple of years, but wasn’t sure that I had anything to add to the existing library of block printing books. But then a culmination of things happened. My block printing classes started to sell out within days. I’d created my “Print, Pattern, Sew” project. Later that year, my friend Kristine’s book was published, and I realized that there was a market for more complex craft books. That was such a revelation for me. I’d been told that craft books needed to be simple and straightforward, yet here was a book that showed people how to dye their own yarn for knitting, or dye plain fabric for sewing – and its first print run sold out really quickly. I think publishers – and authors – had underestimated their readers.
So I put together a proposal based on my “Print, Pattern, Sew” project, and shopped it around. The response was really good (though some publishers did ask me to simplify it), and the book found its perfect home with Roost Books.
Sewing, in particular, can tend to be an intimidating feat for some people. Why do you think that is, and what would you say to someone who doubts they'd be good at it?
I think that we set ourselves up for failure by expecting perfection from the outset – we have an idea in our minds of what we want to create but there’s such a huge gap between our beginner skills and our visions. So, often, we convince ourselves to quit either before we’ve started, or soon after, especially if we take on overly-ambitious initial projects.
What I’ve found is that having a good teacher and a simple project makes a world of difference. I cut my teeth sewing really simple garments using patterns from and (I’m lucky enough that Sonya is a friend and I could take sewing classes from her), and built my sewing confidence with those patterns until I felt ready to jump to the next level. From there, I moved to incrementally more complex projects, sometimes just taking the leap and sewing with a pattern that seemed just beyond my reach.
Similarly, printmaking can seem daunting in its own right - where to start? How do you develop a pattern and know it will look good in larger swaths? Do you have any quick tips for noodling with a sketch to test its viability for use in a pattern?
I’ve been printing long enough that I have a pretty good idea of what will work and what won’t! I can usually execute the vision I have in my head. But I also have a process that I call “thinking with my hands” – I create a block and print with it on muslin (an inexpensive fabric), playing with layout and color until I have something I like. Then I work backwards from there, taking measurements and noting colors, then formalizing it into a repeat pattern. With printmaking, it’s important to get out of your head and use your hands.
What did you learn about yourself and your craft in the process of creating this book? Were there any surprises that revealed themselves to you?
For a long time I’d told myself that I wasn’t a good project manager, that I couldn’t handle projects with too many moving parts. One of my last full-time jobs was with an e-learning/interactive company, and I worked with all these talented producers. I didn’t see myself in them. But in managing the process of creating the content for this book I realized that I was a far better project manager than I’d previously believed I was. I had to manage multiple timelines, work with (and art direct) a photographer, style photos, manage a pattern designer. Craft books are a huge production, and I mostly got it done without freaking out.
How does it feel to create a piece of clothing from start to finish - from pattern conception to sewing a complete garment?
It’s pretty amazing to be able to create exactly the garment I want. One of the great things about sewing my own clothing is that I get to free myself from whatever trends retailers have decided are in that season. Thanks to 12 years of Catholic school, I grew up wearing a uniform. Sewing allows me to create a new uniform of sorts, and I’ll often sew the same pattern, varying my fabric choices with each garment.
What does community mean to you and what communities do you consider yourself a part of?
I’m a part of so many different communities. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 22 years now, so I feel very much a part of a physical community. But I also am part of an artist community, a community of creative women entrepreneurs, a community of San Francisco black professionals (I’ve lived in SF long enough to have watched the sharp decline of the city’s black population), a community of multiracial women. And what each of these communities provide are understanding and acceptance, encouragement and celebration.
Work/life balance is a myth, but the things we do to care for ourselves are very real and important. What are some things, big and small, that you do for yourself on a regular basis to preserve your energy, health and well being?
I’m an introvert, and need a good amount of solitary time in order to function. I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties stressed about not being a super outgoing person, but have learned to embrace my need for quiet time and small group interactions.
When I’m not creating, I feel most myself outdoors, so I make time every day to go on long walks through Golden Gate Park with my dog. I’ve been like this since I was a kid and can’t imagine how I’d handle living in a place where I didn’t have access to open green space.
Lately my biggest splurge was taking a sabbatical from teaching. I had been teaching the same “Block Printing on Fabric” class every month on a Saturday, which meant that I would end up working least six days per week. After three years of that schedule, I took a three-month break, and re-evaluated how I want to structure my time. I’ll be stepping back from teaching that class regularly this year so I can focus on other projects and other classes – and get my weekends back.
What is the biggest/scariest ask you’ve ever made and how did it go? (ie: asking for a book deal, asking for financial support, etc.)
The biggest ask I’ve ever made came when I was still working a full-time job. I asked my boss for a promotion, and she agreed without hesitation. This came during a time when I’d been working hard on building my confidence and taking on risks (see below!), and it really set me up to ask for what I wanted once I struck out on my own.
Confidence is like a muscle – it has to be developed.
What advice do you have for others about asking for what you really want?
Confidence is like a muscle – it has to be developed. I’m not a naturally confident person, and spent a lot of my thirties working with a therapist to get over my anxiety and perfectionism. The first assignment my therapist gave me was to consciously make a mistake and see what happened. I made that mistake, and nothing happened – no one died, no one laughed at me. Heck – no one even noticed. And so I learned how to take increasingly bigger risks. The same goes for asking for what I want. I have gotten so into the habit of asking for what I want that it’s not as scary anymore.