Initially, Ashley Brown created work for self-assurance, "a reminder to keep moving forward." The Massachusetts-based designer today makes a series of minimal yet historically-informed pennant banners inspired by the Woman's Suffrage Movement emblazoned with reminders of affirmation — "It's Ok," "Wild and Free," "Let It Go." This January, UO collaborated with Ashley on a series of exclusive banners. We caught up with her as a part of our Dreamers + Doers series, which explores the stories of inspiring artists, designers, and makers who are doing things their own way. Read on for a look at her studio and to hear more of how she turned her love of DIY art and traditional craft into a full-fledged business.
Can you share more about your background? How did you get started sewing and making things with your hands and how did that evolve into Secret Holiday?
I've been making things for as long as I can remember. My mother taught me how to quilt at an early age, and I was a pretty serious painter in high school. I ended up at a small art college where I worked in lots of mediums and used my crafting skills in nearly everything I made. I began a love affair with fine art and DIY culture. My work was very conceptual, dealing with personal themes and a strong feminist perspective. I began making and selling tiny stuffed creatures in 2005 as a way to sort of balance out the heavy emotions that came from my "real work." I called these creatures Fern Animals, and they launched my career via Etsy and the indie craft scene nearly immediately. Secret Holiday followed a few years later as I refined my aesthetic and purpose.
Can you remember when your "ah ha" moment was for the concept of making the banners?
I created the very first "It's OK" banner for myself, because I needed the reassurance. I was working multiple jobs at the time, and never seemed to have enough free time to bring all my ideas to fruition. I was looking at a lot of imagery from the Woman's Suffrage Movement, and was especially interested in the handwork involved behind the scenes. Not only were these women fighting for their rights, but they were also creating by hand every sash worn, every banner carried. I was moved by that thought alone. The time spent stitching each letter on an object that would move people to think, to act. I knew I wanted to work with this idea somehow (I actually intended to make affirmation quilts). Very early into this project I stumbled upon a couple other artists using affirmations in wall hangings and I began to feel defeated before I even got started, even though their work was nothing like what I wanted to make. It's so easy to fall into that trap with the Internet. So I created the "It's OK" banner to remind myself to keep moving forward. To make my own work, my own way. I never expected to be making that same Affirmation Banner five years later!
Is Secret Holiday your full-time job? What were you doing before this?
Yes, Secret Holiday is my full time job. Most mornings I still have to pinch myself when I remember I don't have to go work for someone else. I started doing SH&Co full time in September of 2013. Before that I had lots of different jobs, often multiple jobs at the same time. My husband is also an artist, so we've taken turns for the past number of years, one working more at a "job-job" while the other focused on their art, and then trading off. I've worked at a candy store, a grocery store, an online fabric retailer, a catering company, and most often as a nanny. Working as artists has always been our top priority, so neither of us has sought out anything that would take away from our art-making. We were pretty poor for many years because of this, but it's all been totally worth it for us.
How long does it take you to make one of the banners? What all goes into the process of putting one together?
It takes so long! It's definitely gotten quicker after having now made nearly 2000, but there are a lot of steps involved. Each banner starts with hand-cutting the letters, laying out the banners (cutting the shape, placing the letters), machine-stitching the text, sewing on the backing, ironing right-side-out, sewing a hem, hand-sanding and staining a dowel, adding the dowel and twine for hanging, and finally, trimming loose threads and cleaning up with a lint roller. Oh, and hand stamping and numbering a hangtag. There are many steps involved in each and every banner made, but every detail is important.
Can you walk us through a typical day in your life?
Most days are about production. We've been pretty busy the past few months working on holiday orders, and a two very large wholesale orders, so we typically have multiple piles of banners going at a time. I tend to work late into the night, so I usually to get to the studio around 11am. I'll start by laying out a stack of banners with any new letters I'd cut the night before. When my assistant Kaly comes in, she sets right to work stitching the letters on (she's a real champion and can sew the same thing for hours!) We've fallen into a pretty good routine, rotating around the large studio table from stack to stack, sewing, ironing, finishing, repeat. When I get home in the evening, I usually end up cutting letters for a few hours, in preparation for the next day. Somewhere in there I also find time to pack orders and respond to emails.
Do you have any other creative projects in the works, or ideas you're looking forward to acting on in 2015?
I have so many projects I want to work on! I've always loved quilting and really need to find time to make quilts again. I have a ton of banner scraps that I've begun dyeing with natural indigo. I'm looking forward to working those into a quilt or two, and making pouches. I also want to work on expanding my shop to include more goods, possibly some work by close friends and fellow artists. I've got big plans for 2015.
Can you share more about the special pieces you made for UO?
I was really excited when UO approached me about collaborating. I knew immediately that I wanted to create something youthful and romantic. Since most of my designs are created solely by me, it was a lot of fun to be sent a mood board and have the input of a whole design team. I'm excited to see the rooms these banners end up in!
What are some of the challenges of running your own business? What are the best parts?
Maybe my biggest challenge right now: letting go enough to grow. I think I really like doing things the hard way sometimes, like continuing to hand-write the address on each outgoing package. It takes a lot longer than printing out a label, but I feel more connected to each customer that way, and it feels more personal. And if someone emails to enquire about their package, I can specifically remember packing it up myself, no matter how many other orders I'd packed that same day because I took the time to write out their name. I'm sure it won't always stay like this, and I'm sure that time could be better spent doing a different job, but I like my system for now. It's pretty amazing to start a business from nothing, learn as you go, and then suddenly step back and look at all that has changed and progressed. And take note of the funny things you still do in exactly the same way.
Can you offer some advice for other young entrepreneurs looking to create and sell their own work?
Make something you believe in. Don't just make stuff you think people will buy. It won't work (at least not for the long haul). You have to create something you can stand behind 100 percent. Something that is uniquely yours and made to the best of your ability. Be willing to start off slow, find the best materials, learn the best techniques, be willing to even fail a little, but don't let that get you down. I was making banners for years before they really caught on. One day I just decided it was time to quit my other jobs and go for it; throw myself into it completely. I took the risk and it worked! I guess I'm pretty superstitious, but I kinda think no one took me seriously until I took myself seriously. If you really want it, you just have make it happen.
Your work is ALL OVER the Internet! It's awesome! Can you share any stories that stand out about when you've seen your work in other people's homes, or when you've been surprised or excited by where your work has turned up?
It is awesome seeing my work everywhere! I feel incredibly honored to have my banners hanging in so many homes around the world. I could list a few popular blogs I've been excited to see my banners pop up on, but honestly, I get just as excited when an ordinary, everyday person posts a photo to Instagram and tags me in it. I love seeing all the different spaces my work can occupy, but most of all I love the captions that often accompany the photos. It makes me feel so good about what I do when I receive messages saying how a simple wallhanging brought peace of mind to a stranger. I get emails like this all the time too and it's amazing. Someone will contact me wanting to purchase a "Be Brave" banner for a close friend who's been going through a tough time, or a mother wants to hang an "It's Ok" banner above their baby's crib. It reaffirms all of my reasons for doing what I do. It makes all the long hours of cutting and sewing so very worth it.