For a decade fabric designer Anna Maria Horner says she kept her head down and her eyes straight ahead. As a fabric designer for Free Spirit since 2005, she created almost in isolation. Known for her artistic collections featuring deep jewel tones and bohemian motifs she says, “I didn’t really pay much attention to what was out there until I would come to Quilt Market each season.”
Then, in 2014, she opened her own quilt shop, Craft South, in Nashville, and her world expanded. Thrust into the role of buyer she began to take in the entire industry’s retail assortment for the first time and to crave fabrics that represented something she realized was rare: fine art. “I think there’s an idea in design that the imagery needs to be watered down or simplified to make it quiltable and I don’t think that’s the case at all,” she says.
It occurred to Anna Maria that she could expand her role at Free Spirit from designer to curator, bringing in fine artists and translating their work into fabric for quilters. The moment felt right. At 45, she knew her career was at a turning point and it was time to be intentional about the future. So she began reaching out to her favorite artists, women in Europe and the United States, some of whom she’d met in person and others just over Instagram, asking if they might like to design fabric with her. And then she brought the idea to Free Spirit.
The company embraced it and, although there were a few weeks of intense uncertainty when Coats announced the company’s closure, new owner Jaftex picked the project up seamlessly and it continued. Called Conservatory, it launches today as the premier Schoolhouse at Spring Quilt Market in Portland.
Anna Maria has played almost every role in the quilting industry: designer, buyer, shop owner, instructor, quilter, author, pattern writer, and publisher. She brings all of these experiences to bear in structuring Conservatory so that it’s not just business as usual.
“I feel like I’ve developed a knack for how to make beautiful art into good fabric,” she says. For this first go-round she’s taken original pieces from printer Arounna Khounnoraj of bookhou and animator Monika Forsberg and created concise 15-18 piece fabric collections, while preserving their unique artistic identities. Anna Maria has a brief collection of her own as well and together the three make up the first “chapter” titled “Pathways” consisting of 48 pieces in total with three shared colorways.
The progression from art to fabric of bookhou’s collection.
“Vestige” is the quilt pattern that accompanies this collection.
For each chapter there will be mixed designer fat quarter stacks that Anna Maria says are “not overly coordinated, but go together in a way that a quilter might pull fabrics from a wall for a quilt. It looks like someone just put it together really beautifully.”
Anna Maria will continue to release her full spring and fall collections as usual, with Conservatory added into the mix in the summer and winter. The next chapter will feature painter Courtney Cerutti, who is also the senior content producer at Creativebug, and artist Nathalie Lete.
The progression from art to fabric for Monika Forsberg’s collection.
“Savernake Road” is the quilt pattern that accompanies this collection.
Anna Maria has given careful consideration to how to bring Conservatory to market. “My hope is that Conservatory will help to grow the industry some,” she says. First, she’s chosen artists with large, faithful communities outside of quilting. She’s betting those audiences will be interested in buying fabric with prints from their favorite artist, introducing new consumers to sewing.
Second, she’s designing a pattern program that brings avid quilters into shops to buy patterns and the accompanying fabric. “My feeling is we have enough free stuff in the world,” she says. “I think we have too much.”
Rather than putting patterns for Conservatory online on the Free Spirit website, or on her own website, Anna Maria is offering those patterns exclusively to quilt shops who buy the line. Shops are encouraged to sell the patterns as PDFs on their own websites or to print them out to sell and kit. “It’s like an incentive, a sort of trade, to buy into the collection,” she explains.
According to Anna Maria social media has caused fabric manufactures to become confused about who their customer really is. It’s not the consumer, she says, it’s the shop. By offering free patterns, manufacturers are leaving the shops out of the equation. She’s hoping to change that. She also knows that as a designer she puts more work into a pattern that isn’t offered for free. “I want everything I design to be beautiful and if it can contribute to business it’s a lot more inspiring. There’s a lot of really, really bad free stuff out there,” she says.
So far, quilt shop owners are giving Conservatory a positive reception. As the owner of Calico Gals quilt shop in Syracuse, New York for 17 years and the founder of Row By Row Experience, Janet Lutz has seen numerous promotional programs for fabric collections. This one strikes her as especially innovative. “I think what Anna Maria is proposing is absolutely genius,” Janet told me over the phone last week. “As a store owner, those freebie patterns tend to be nothing but a headache and full of mistakes. This is really unique.”
With Conservatory Anna Maria is no longer simply in the role of designer. She’s looking outward; eyes wide open, shaping the future. “I view myself as a curator, as that translation point,” she says. “I want that opportunity to work with incredible artists that have no foot in this industry and turn what they do so well into something that will be meaningful on textiles, and useful and beautiful for quilting.”
Carol Gillen says
I can’t begin to tell you how much I agree about who the customer is. As a consumer, it’s so frustrating to see manufacturers tout fabrics on social media that I am not going to see for 6 months or a year. I was really interested in Swell Christmas last year, but by the time it was available I was already tired of it!! It would be great if the manufacturers could encourage shops to have a stronger social media presence (like AMH and CraftSouth). I’d love to see some local shops telling me what’s just come in. Even Gather Here which is active on social media doesn’t show a great deal of fabric or projects. Great article, Abby.
As a recovering quilt shop owner, this was music to my ears. So many times we would hear “when are you getting this line” or “but I want this fabric” because we didn’t pick up the entire line. It was exhausting—and I completely agree with the statement that quilt shops are the customers!
Deborah Brown says
Love this! As a shop owner, I have run into so many problems with the “free” patterns put out there by some manufacturers. And yes agree 100% that these companies have lost sight of who their customer is. Carol Gillen says it best. Thanks.
Carol Gillen says
Totally agree with you about the free patterns as well. I find with most of them you get what you pay for.
Fiona Pullen says
I recently tried using a free quilt pattern from a fabric manufacturer for the first time and it was full of errors. Worst of all it had the wrong fabric requirements so I didn’t have enough fabric to complete the quilt despite checking the requirements before ordering. I had to pay a second lot of postage to order the extra fabric and couldn’t complete the quilt top until it arrived (there were no local stockists so I had to order online). Then the number of blocks you needed to make was wrong so when I started to piece the quilt top I then had to stop and make more blocks. I was so annoyed by the end I couldn’t bear to look at the quilt and will not be buying fabric from that manufacturer again.
I contacted them about the errors thinking at least they could update the pattern so other people didn’t have the same issue, and I didn’t even get a response. The stupid thing is it was the pattern that convinced me to buy the collection, I loved the look of it and wanted to make it in those exact fabrics. Won’t be falling for that again.
Serena @sewgiving says
If I walk into a quilt shop and can see me the personality of the shop owner on the shelves (via the fabrics they choose to stock and the FQ bundles they curate from different lines) I always have the best experience. There’s enough generic out there, I love this collaborative approach!
Helen Marie says
Susan Guzman says
Thank you, Abby. I love this on so many levels . . . from Anna Maria’s keen sense of artistic style and motivation to form a collective, to her insight into her role as a shop owner and what she feels has played a prominent role in the over-saturation of the quilting market. I’m all for bringing solid, unique designs to the forefront through the marriage of fabrics and their use in quilt design. However, most importantly, I fully support giving control back to the shop owner and would gladly participate in making this happen.
Leslie Tucker Jenison says
I love this idea so much! Brilliant!
Rachel Hauser says
Thank you for introducing those of us who don’t attend market to Conservatory. I was eager for more information! I’m impressed with Anna Maria’s care in developing quilt patterns that really fit each of these designer’s styles. They’re very well-designed and fit the fabrics so well! I rarely use patterns to make quilts, but I have my eye on Savernake road. I have missed hearing Anna’s voice, as she doesn’t keep up her blog anymore, so it’s nice to hear what’s on her mind in a bigger way than IG allows. Kudos to you, Anna Maria, for carving out a future that fits you! You’re on the right path.
So fun to see you on here, Rachel! You and Abbie are my favorite sewing bloggers (would love to see you on Abby’s podcast). I feel like you know Anna Maria Horner well, Rachel- or maybe I’m just thinking that because you both have an eye for color!
Also good to know that not everyone goes to “Market”!
I can understand why shop owners are delighted with this return to view the shop as the customer as it gives some primacy to the shop. My take on it is that the consumer is the end use customer with the shop the route to market. There may be other routes to market but shops have to be supported by the manufacturer and not undermined. The crazy carousel of constant releases doesn’t help. It would be nice to live with a range for a while and explore the possibilities over a longer period.
I do agree that there is enough free stuff out there though not all free stuff is bad quality, feedback to the designer is important so everyone can benefit. I am very excited by Anna Maria’s designs and I love collaborations – Conservatory looks like a brilliant project and I’ll be looking out for it, especially Savernake Road! I’m glad shops will be able to sell the pattern online as we don’t all have a LQS within driving distance and are still happy to pay for postage for custom content. I think Serena was spot on when she said there is enough generic out there.
“crazy carousel of content releases”- so true! I don’t understand why fabric has to have so many “lines” that are released each year, like the fashion industry. I have NEVER bought a fabric long line soon after it was released
kathy doughty says
Shop owners all over the world are rejoicing that Anna Maria Horner has the exposure to say what we have all been thinking for years. Shops are the heartbeat of the industry as the face to face place for quilters. It is true that we all need to be knowledgable, service oriented and have our own statement as shops to stay alive. Having said that to hear these words and see the groundswell of support is gratifying. As a shop owner of a popular shop for 15 years I can say we have on principle NEVER used a free pattern. Not only do we have our own design strategy but we also want to clearly state what that is by the fabrics we curate and the design we sell.
In regard to the artistic nature of the fabrics, Anna Maria Horner fabrics have been a staple here since she started. Give me interesting, polychromatic fabrics that start a story over basics any day! Having a voice and learning how to use it is the essence of quilting. Anna just makes it sing. Thanks for the interview and photos… Australia is a long way away from the action!!! Kathy