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.”