Hear how Kelly Irvine went from in-house graphic designer to freelance textile designer, creating exclusive prints for the fashion industry, and how she also makes passive income with her designs.
Disclaimer: Some of these links are affiliate links, and I’ll make a few bucks if you make a purchase after using them. It won’t cost you anything.
Kelly Irvine is an artist and freelance textile print designer focusing on the fashion market. She received her B.S. in Advertising Design (graphic design) from the University of Maryland and worked as an in-house graphic designer for private industry and the federal government for over 25 years, while studying painting, designing and making handbags, and hoarding collecting patterned fabrics.
Since 2021, Kelly has been working as a freelance textile designer for White Buffalo Studio, a fashion print studio in L.A., where she creates exclusive prints for sale to the fashion industry.
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Kelly. It’s great to have you here.
Kelly Irvine: Hi, Colleen. Thanks. It’s great to be here. I love listening to your podcast!
Colleen: Oh, well, thanks. I love it when guests start out with that. You might be the first one.
Kelly: Really? Oh, yeah. No, not at all.
Colleen: I’ve got to start out with a couple of fun questions. The first one is: would you rather have a bad haircut or a bad dye job?
Kelly: I think probably a bad dye job because you could just go and recolor that thing and no one would know.
I’ve had a bad haircut and that was torture living that one out.
Colleen: Oh no! How long did it take?
Kelly: It was mainly an issue with bangs—asymmetrical bangs. That took a few months. It wasn’t as bad as it could be.
Colleen: Yeah, sure. What was the worst job that you ever had?
Kelly: That’s an interesting question. I feel like I haven’t had the total nightmare job that some people have had.
But I think probably I would have to say my very first job, I was in high school, I think 10th grade, and I was all excited because I got a job at the record store across the street from where we lived.
I thought this is so cool. I’ll have all these records.
But the very first night there, they told me I had to clean the employee restroom, which was disgusting. I don’t know if it had ever actually been cleaned in a long time.
Colleen: Oh, ick!
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. It was a bit of a downer, but I managed.
Colleen: Oh, wow.
You were doing graphic design for 25 years—I’ve been in the industry just the same amount of time, actually—and so how did you get into textile design?
Kelly: Well, I’ve always enjoyed graphic design. I think at heart I’m an artist and practicality is always a concern.
So as encouraged by my mother, I became something that wasn’t quite as financially risky, at least in our minds being an artist, so I became a graphic designer.
I loved being a graphic designer, for many, many years, but at the same time, I’ve always been interested in painting, sewing, and doing fiber-based crafts, like crocheting and knitting.
I started making my own bags. I really got into textiles and printed fabrics and would collect those and make bags from them.
I guess, maybe seven or eight years ago, I really started paying attention to the fashion industry, particularly printed fabrics, like clothes that had really wild, interesting prints.
After a couple of furloughs in the federal government, where I was at home and not working, I started thinking, “well, this is obviously a profession too.”
Just like graphic design, someone must design these fabrics. I started researching it more and taking a few classes online. That’s how it started.
Colleen: That’s really cool.
Now I’m wondering, did you ever design something as a textile design and end up using it in your graphic designs?
Kelly: That is a good question. I don’t think… well, I might have. I think I was kind of subconsciously doing that before I even thought about textile design.
It wasn’t a textile design but occasionally you have to design a cover for a report or something and I always found myself going, “I’ll just go ahead and make some abstract pattern.”
That’s one of the things I specialize in—abstract. I do abstract painting and I like to do abstract patterns as well.
I would do like a little paint splatter or a geometric pattern, and try to slip those in as a cover design for a publication.
Colleen: Oh, cool.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. It was lurking and I didn’t even realize it.
Colleen: That’s awesome.
I love your work. I follow you on Instagram and I just love your patterns.
Kelly: Oh, thank you so much, Colleen!
That’s always great to hear. Especially, since I consider myself still to be in the early years of this.
That’s wonderful because it’s a user-based, consumer-based industry, so to hear that someone likes your stuff is definitely validating. Thank you!
Colleen: You left your job as a graphic designer, what made you decide to switch to textile design?
Kelly: Well, I was in the profession for such a long time and I just started to feel like even though it was great… that last job I was in for the federal government, it was a wonderful opportunity because being one of two—well, for most of the time there, I was the only designer and then we expanded a little bit and became a two-person shop.
There was so much to do there. I really got this wonderful breadth of projects—print design, some web designs, design for social media, exhibit design, environmental signage, the whole nine yards. It was great.
But finally, even with all that opportunity, after so many years, I just began to think that maybe there’s something else out there for me.
As we’ve talked about, I’ve always enjoyed painting. I had started to do a lot of illustrating at my job too, like creating editorial illustrations for articles.
I just really have always loved the art, creating the art or the illustration side of things, which not all graphic designers do—you don’t have to if you’re a graphic designer—and then just getting more and more into textile design, not even thinking it as a profession.
I then realize that this combines graphic design, illustration and art. Like I said, just wanting to move on, looking for something else, I began to think that maybe I could really do this as a job.
I joined this online community called Textile Design Lab, which is an educational community. You can take training and classes in how to actually do textile design and surface pattern design.
It was there that I learned about the opportunities and how you could actually make that your profession.
I was ready to do something new no matter what anyway. I just took the leap, did it and here I am.
Colleen: That’s really cool!
What are some things that are important to know about having textile design as a career?
Kelly: Well, one thing, especially coming from a background as a graphic designer—is there is a ton of skill overlap between graphic design and textile design.
Of course, as we all know, Photoshop is such a huge, robust piece of software, so there’s always stuff you don’t know how to do.
It’s just… you and I, we’ve been using Photoshop since it was Photoshop, not any version, right?
Colleen: Yeah. I still can’t use it—most of it. I just do a few things in it.
Kelly: Oh, yeah. You have things that you do for your job and that’s plenty—just staying on top of that and then on top of the updates.
Moving into textile design and surface pattern design, it’s still great that you have the foundation. There’s still tons of stuff there that people without that background, it’s a huge learning curve for them, that’s not for you.
Now there are a group of things I use Photoshop for that I would not have been using before. But that’s totally learnable.
That’s the first big thing, if you’re coming from a graphic design background, you’ve got 50% of it covered already with that knowledge.
Also, knowledge of the printing industry, while they may not be using offset presses and printing to paper, it’s still kind of the same basic knowledge, understanding how printing works and separations.
Printing fabrics can be done in two ways. It can be done digitally, or what they call wet printing, which is basically screen printing.
I didn’t do a lot of screen printing at all as a graphic designer, but I had knowledge of it. I know how that works. The whole idea of separating out into colors is just really helpful to know.
The other thing I would say is, there are four different markets you can go with. I’ve chosen to focus on the fashion market.
Just like with graphic design, it’s really helpful to have a niche that you can focus on. That’s a good way to focus your efforts and attract customers.
We also have the home decor market, which would include creating designs for things like bedding, towels, sheets, kitchen linens, upholstery fabric, and wallpaper.
There’s the stationery market or some people call it the gift market, that’s things like journals, cards, gift bags and gift wrap.
Lastly, there’s the quilting market, if you go into a fabric store and buy fabric by the yard and it’s the printed fabric. A lot of the really interesting fun prints are used by people who are quilters, so that’s why it is sometimes referred to as the quilting market.
The other thing is there are different ways, just like with graphic design, there are different types of jobs. You can be freelance, be in-house, you can work for a studio, and you can work with an agent. That’s the similarity that carries over.
Colleen: That’s really interesting.
You’re saying your graphic design knowledge helps with this. What about different types of paper in the printing industry, some types of paper, like coated paper, it’s not going to absorb the ink as much, and with uncoated paper it does and that will darken the color.
Do you have that same kind of challenge when you’re choosing fabrics too?
Kelly: As a textile designer, I have not been in the position and I think typically would not be in the position of choosing fabrics.
I’m still in the early years of exploring the industry, but I would imagine if you worked in-house for a brand, then you might have a better idea of what fabric they would be using it for.
You would take that into consideration. I think they have something similar to press checks where they have strike-offs, which are like proofs.
I think that’s the point where you say, “OK, on this fabric, this is looking too dark,” and you would adjust. There is definitely that consideration.
Working as I do, I’m freelance for a textile studio, they’re kind of like the middleman. They’re a studio that brands will come to to buy prints.
You don’t know at the time you’re designing, exactly what type of fabric or garment it will be going on.
But I do have an idea because I’ll receive it from the studio, myself and the other artists that work freelance for the studio.
The studio will provide a mood board or direction board. We’ll look at that to get the idea of what type of prints they’re looking for in terms of like a floral, or geometric, or an abstract, and what colors they’ll include like a color palette, and based on that, you’ll have a pretty good idea.
Like this is going to go on swimwear, or this is going to go on women’s ready-to-wear or active wear. That’ll give you an idea of how it will be used.
You also can take into consideration the scale. With swimwear, you want something small because it’s little pieces of fabric. If it’s a really big scale the print would be lost. You wouldn’t really see what it is.
I went off on a tangent, but, but yeah, so I think the type of substrate just like paper with design with graphic design, the type of fabric with, the print design definitely affects how it looks when printed.
Colleen: That’s really interesting.
You were talking earlier about using Illustrator and Photoshop but you do a lot of painting. How do you normally create the prints and when do you decide, okay, I’m going to paint this or I’m going to start in Illustrator or Photoshop if you ever do that?
Do you paint something and then maybe take a picture of it or try to recreate it? How do you normally approach that when you’re creating?
Kelly: Every designer approaches it differently. But all of the possibilities you mentioned are actual possibilities.
For me, I like to paint and my style is as you’ve seen, kind of loose, you can see the hand-drawn or hand-painted look to it—the brushy look sometimes.
I like my devices. It’s a lot easier in a way to start on my iPad.
A lot of designers use Procreate. I use Adobe Fresco and that’s just because I’m familiar with all the other Adobe products. In my mind, it was easier to start with fresco, but it’s comparable to procreate.
It’s specifically for mobile devices where you have like an Apple pencil. You use it in tandem with your iPad or tablet. They have a bunch of different brush strokes, wet media like paint, charcoal pencil, and marker. It does a pretty good job of simulating that. You can control the brush with pressure.
I will typically either draw on that and you can do layers in that same with how you can do layers in Photoshop.
I try to keep things separated into as many layers as possible because that helps later when I bring it into Photoshop. There’s the capability also with fresco too.
If you’re on an iPad, you can do what is called an Airdrop and drop it right onto your laptop, and then open it in Photoshop.
I’ll try to create the individual motifs each on a different layer. A motif would be like, say, you’re doing a floral pattern, each unique flower is a different motif, and then if the motif has more than one color, I’ll also try to create each color fill on a different layer.
This is still all on my iPad, and then I’ll open it into Photoshop when I feel like I have enough motifs. That’s where I start playing around with the composition, the layout, and going into changing the colors, which is usually pretty easy, as long as I remember to keep the color fills on separate layers.
If not, then, I got to do a little bit of fancy selecting and cutting. That’s one way to do it.
Sometimes I will actually just paint on a canvas or on a piece of paper or draw. It’s the same process, I would scan it in, and at that point, all the colors are on one flat thing.
It would either just be a really simple drawing or painting that doesn’t have a lot of colors. If I feel like it’s worth it, I’ll go and hand separate them out in Photoshop, cutting things out and giving them separate layers when they didn’t originally have them.
Or I’ll do an abstract painting and I won’t bother if it’s too complex but I’ll still bring it into Photoshop to piece it together, so it can form a repeating pattern if needed.
Colleen: How do you get inspired when you go to create these brands?
Kelly: If it’s for the studio I’m working for, they’ll provide mood boards but you still have to make sure that it’s your own personal style.
You’re still coming from a place of your own inspiration because the last thing they want is for all the designers they’re working for to turn in prints that all look the same.
Kelly: That was something I had to learn but, typically, how I get inspired whether it’s for the studio or for something I’m just doing on my own is I try to go for a walk outside every day.
Luckily, where I live now here in Baltimore, even though I’m within the city limits, there are a lot of wooded areas and really nice paths. People have flowers growing in front of their houses, especially in spring.
I’m crazy with the camera and probably walking 50% of the time and taking pictures 50% of the time. I just know at some point someone’s going to come out and say, “what are you taking pictures of in front of my house?”
I’ll show them, “See it’s really just flowers.” I’m a sucker for beautiful flowering trees and plants, and even just textures. I’m also a sucker for textures.
There is some kind of metal utility pole down the block. For me, it’s really fat white pole, and it has all kinds of layers of peeling paint and rust on it. I have taken so many pictures of that thing. I know I’m going to turn that into an abstract print one day. It’s all in my Google Photos.
Colleen: Oh, wow. That sounds really interesting.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah.
Colleen: I know you have the studio that you do freelance work for but the designs that you do for yourself, do you sell them anywhere like CafePress or Zazzle like put them on different products and things like that?
Spoonflower is great because it actually serves a purpose for me, besides selling, I can order yardage of fabric from there. Since I sew, if I’m in the mood and I have time, I can order some fabric and they have all different kinds of fabrics, with my designs printed on them.
Making something for myself and wearing that out and about is like kind of a little self marketing thing. They also have some bedding and things like that.
Society 6 has a wider range of products, including iPhone cases, T-shirts, tents, furniture and some stationery.
That’s where I am right now. I’m on those two sites, but the ones you mentioned, like Zazzle, that’s a great one too. It’s just a matter of picking the one that you think offers the most of what you’re looking for.
Colleen: Yeah. Zazzle has a lot. I actually have two stores, I have one on CafePress and I have one on Zazzle.
And I’ve had, gosh, I think since 2008, or 2009 now. I don’t do anything actively with them but I’m very familiar with them because I uploaded a whole bunch of things that I designed to promote animal rescue.
I have a lot of pet-themed things and animal-rescue-themed things, and pillows and shirts and all that stuff.
What I don’t like about them is that when they add new products—I think it’s a setting you can turn on or off—there’s a setting where if they add a new product, they’ll automatically add your design, and sometimes things don’t line up.
So that’s in my store now and I have to go through and take it out. I haven’t even touched them in a few years.
I make a little bit of money from them every month or so doing nothing.
Kelly: Yeah. It really is pretty passive. Once you upload everything, it is pretty passive.
When COVID started, and they were doing masks, I promoted that a little bit on my social media. That’s how it is for me.
I would say every month or so someone will buy a yard or two of fabric with my prints on it, or a doormat, a mug, or something. It’s fun.
One of the cool things actually about Spoonflower is they have these monthly competitions, where they’ll have a theme.
I—as a graphic designer—did not support the idea of competitions, where a bunch of designers submits things and only one gets picked, and then you haven’t been paid for your work.
It’s different on Spoonflower because they have a theme and if you want to participate, you can upload your design, and sometimes there’s a prize, but it’s like audience favorites. If you are in the top—I don’t know what—50 you’ll get a promotion.
I did one competition so far and I was really excited. I was 35 out of like 200 or some and I got a lot of sales based on that.
It’s in your online store anyway. You’ve got it there for sale and it gets promoted. That’s actually a good way to drive people to your Spoonflower shop—to participate in those competitions. They usually have like three or four every month.
Colleen: CafePress and Zazzle allow you to put a feed of the products from your store on your own website.
You could create a website and have the feed on there. You can buy a domain name—I know this because I’ve done it.
I’ve got my CafePress shop, I’ve got my Zazzle shop, and then I’ve got a separate website where I bring in the products. When they click through to go buy the product, they’re still paying for it on the CafePress or Zazzle platform.
Colleen: Does Spoonflower allow for that too, to put your products on your own site like that?
Kelly: I don’t know for sure. I’m not going to say that they don’t. It seems more likely that Society 6 would allow that. Is that like a Shopify kind of integration?
Colleen: I just did it as they had some kind of PHP feed or something.
Kelly: Oh, OK.
Colleen: I just did it that way.
I designed the site, just, however, and then I had that one area where the feed would come in with the products, and then, you could filter it out by which ones were shown on that page.
You can show this design on this page, and then you have this design on another page, instead of everything just coming in from your store and it’s not organized.
Kelly: That sounds really good. I don’t know. I’m going to have to investigate that. That’s a great idea.
I had heard of that. There are a couple of other print-on-demand sites that I know allow you to integrate them into your website. I haven’t researched that but that sounds like a great idea.
Colleen: That’s your next step right there.
Kelly: That’s my next step.
I actually… I’m not going to say what it is but I would like to, hopefully, by later this year, introduce an actual product that I have in mind with my prints on it.
I still have to figure that out because I would like to not have to have yet another website to send people to.
It’d be nice to integrate it into my website, which I actually just launched my own personal website for print design. It’s print design and painting. It’s in the bare-bones stage.
But, yeah. That sounds like a great idea.
Colleen: I know you’re freelancing for the studio but do you also pursue freelancing clients outside of that too?
Where do you find the client for that?
Kelly: Actually, my plan is to apply to some additional studios and work because you don’t want to have just one client.
Now that I’ve been working for a little more than a year, about a year and a half for the current studio that I’m working for, which is White Buffalo Studio, and that’s been great—and that’s a whole other thing I can talk about.
I see that it’s probably good to branch out and I plan to approach some other studios too because the more places where your work is, the more you’re getting exposure. It’s just like numbers, the more likely you are to sell.
In terms of directly searching for clients, that’s something you could do, that would be either more of approaching for an in-house job or approaching directly their design director and saying, “I’d like to collaborate with you,” and that is another way to go. I just haven’t tried that avenue yet.
Colleen: You said you could talk more about the studio. What else would you say about that?
Kelly: I wanted to mention that because talking about how I learned about textile design, in general—I’m going to backtrack a little bit.
When I first started realizing this was an act—a profession, I thought, how do you learn about it?
Is there a degree program at a college where I could go or get a certificate or something?
Not in this area—we’re talking about the Metropolitan Washington and Baltimore area—there’s a lot of colleges but that’s not a program that really exists as such.
Now, if you go to New York, LA, Britain, or Australia, those are very popular programs in colleges and universities.
What I found was an online community educational resource called Textile Design Lab, which I think I mentioned before.
They are just this wonderful portal for all kinds of classes for people just starting out, learning how to do textile print design, people who have some experience but just need to learn more techniques. It’s just great.
You can get critiques and ask questions. It’s like the next best thing to, I think, probably being in a college program. I took and I’m still taking full advantage of that place.
The other place has to be the studio that I’m currently working for. Leslie Kenehan, who runs White Buffalo Studio also has an educational program that she runs—that’s more about the business of it, how to get a job in the field, and how to set up your portfolio.
You kind of get insider industry knowledge that just doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s kind of like a big mystery. If you don’t know anyone, there are certain fields where you can get tons of articles and you can just find out. That doesn’t really exist much in this industry.
I was working with her. She did a portfolio review for me. I took her portfolio builder class and other online classes, and then I got real brave and decided, what the heck, and I sent her a mini portfolio of the work I had done so far.
She invited me to start doing freelance work for them as one of their freelance artists. So that paid off and that was really lucky.
That’s how I got started and that’s been a great experience so far.
Colleen: Well, I love your plaids. Those are my favorite and some of the flower ones but I love plaid.
I love the style of how you do those too.
Kelly: Thank you. I think the ones you’re talking about were for White Buffalo Studio. On the mood board or the direction board, the prompt was to create stripes and plaids.
It was based on some stuff that’s been seen on the runway recently for spring, like really bright colors and just really fun plaids, checks and stripes, which I really gravitated to, and had fun with it. So thank you. I’m glad you liked it.
Colleen: I wanna totally check out your stores because there are several products I can think of like home decor type of things where I would really want to have like maybe pillows or something with that plaid or something like that. So I have to check that out.
So speaking of my needing to go to your stores to check out the products because I’ve seen the work now I need to see the products too. Why don’t you share where people can find your stores?
It’ll be different from the prints that I have with white buffalo because my agreement with them is exclusive but I have some things on both of those.
Colleen: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This has been really fun to talk about.
Kelly: Thank you, Colleen. Thanks for having me.