interview :: organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

last week i was surprised by the sweetest note from Harmony Susalla, owner of 'Harmony Art' thanking me for a recent comment i posted about the need for a shift in the fabric industry for more organic. i was thrilled when i found out she designed and produced her own organic fabrics, and asked her to do an interview for us. grab a cup of tea and enjoy her writing, obvious passion, and wonderful facts and info she provides about the organic fabric industry!

her sweet e-mail was signed with this wonderful quote from Margaret Mead:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens

can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

- Margaret Mead

1) tell us a little bit about yourself: I am one of those people who takes personality tests and ends up in the center, with no real classification. I am part type A, part hermit/recluse, part extrovert. I use to be the anti-procrastinator (you know, the kid that finished the month long book report the first week) but the older I get the more I am apt to work on something when the spirit moves me which isn't always right away! I don't like shopping. I do like hiking. I never met a potato I didn't like.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

2) how and when did you get started in the organic fabric industry? I started designing textiles in 1998... my first "real" job was designing pajamas for designer Karen Neuburger.  Then I spent 4+ years working for a design firm doing a LOT of big box home, soft-goods products.  I started researching organic fabrics in 2004 and I launched my own line of organic cotton fabrics in 2005.

3) tell us a little about why it’s important to choose organic: If I had to sum it up in a word, why organic?  Because it's thoughtful.  Specifically GOTS processed organic fabrics, actually takes the environment and the people on it into account during the production. The processing is designed to improve land, top soil, air and water health and it does so with the expresses intent to help the farmers and the workers improve their lives as well.  As of our newest reprints (due in the next 30 - 60 days) our organic fabrics sourced from India are fair trade certified from seed to selvage.  I am proud of that.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

We live in a time in history that has been unlike any other.  As Americans, we have access to virtually anything at anytime.  My beautiful and talented friend Katie and I were recently hiking on Mt. Tamalpais and talking about just how incredible that is!  Our access to "stuff" is mind boggling... and a relatively recent phenomena (in our lifetime).  The downside of this excess of choice is the toll the planet and the people on it have paid to provide us with these things.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

Here are some facts about conventional and organic cotton:

“Today, only 0.15% of the world’s cotton is guaranteed to be pesticide free. This means that the majority of the cotton we wear is likely to have contributed to the poisoning of lives and the environment in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities”, says Linda Craig, Director of PAN UK.

Cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world.  The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens.  The chemicals sprayed on cotton are some of the most hazardous. According to the World Health Organization, 20,000 people die each year in developing countries as a result of the chemicals sprayed on conventionally grown cotton.

Organic agriculture uses 50% less energy and reduced water pollution by 75%. It takes carbon out of our atmosphere and puts it back in the soil leaving the land healthier and reducing global warming.   A 23 year report on organic farming by Rodale Institute shows that by converting all crops to organic we could come close to effectively eliminating global warming.

For a quick breakdown of the differences in our processes than conventional organic fabric processing click here.  If you are really interested in the topic, I highly recommend reading the Environmental Justice Foundations report:  The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton. After reading it, I am guessing you won't look at your t-shirt the same way again.

I don't think anyone wakes up and says:  "Today I want to pollute the world.  I want to ensure the planet is spread with toxic chemicals and that our air and water is slowly poisoned."  Sadly, our consumer culture practices are doing just that.  Textiles are just one (and maybe the biggest) culprit.  [Yes, organic products are more expensive.  I make no apology for that.  The reality is that the "cheap" products are actually MUCH more expensive (in terms of our global, farmer and personal health)] but those costs have been externalized and passed on to our children and their children to clean up.

4) share with us your process and about the journey from designing a line to actual  fabric production: I actually don't have "lines" in the typical sense.  When you are financially underwriting rotary fabric production, the investments are HIGH and to put out a full line with multiple colorways would put me way out of my financial comfort zone.  (Note: we are currently purely self funded.)  Lately our new designs have been picked from our password protected "design library" by a customer who is looking for something that fills their particular needs/taste.  They commit to half of the production run and then I take the other half and add it to my stock fabric selection.  If it is a "hit" I will continue to stock/reprint it.  Other times I just fall in love with a design and decide to go for it!

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

rotary screen printer

As far as the design process goes, almost every design starts with a trend hike.  I find hiking keeps me emotionally sane and also provides me with an unlimited supply of design ideas.  I use to be paid to go "trend shopping" which I found to be the most soul sucking part of being a designer.  I don't want to follow trends, I want to set them.  (remember, I really don't like shopping.)  I hike with my camera in my pocket and snap photos of images that inspire me.

Here is an example of two designs and where the inspiration came from.  It can be a flower, a stick or even the side of a building or the cross section of a vegetable.  Pattern is all around us and I definitely view the world through a designer's fabric industry with Harmony SusallaOnce the decision has been made that a design will be produced, I send the artwork in repeat with color specifications (typically Pantone chips) to the convertor I work with.  They are responsible for the production of the design from there.  It then becomes a waiting game.  It typically takes from 3 - 6 months for a design to be produced and received at my warehouse in South Carolina.  If I am picky about the colors or need to get another strike off made the weeks/months can add up.  Over the last 4+ years I have become more zen (aka patient) about the process.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

5) what does your typical day look like? I am not sure I have a typical day... but I guarantee it involves checking email WAY too many times and most likely a trip to the post office at 1:50 pm (daily pick up is at 2).  We don't get mail delivery at our home/studio and I often times think the post office is what keeps me involved in the "real" world, showered and dressed.  I usually work from about 8am - 10pm when Sus (hubby) gets home and makes us a fabulous, albeit late, meal.  Sometimes I think we belong in Spain or Italy where eating late is more accepted.  For us an early dinner is before 9pm.  Somewhere in there I will take a break and sit on our "sun deck" and get my vitamin D, write in my journal, meditate and ask the local redwood tree for advice.   From 10am - 1pm in the background I will be listening to Lizzard's Lunchtime Lounge on our local radio station KTDE.

The beautiful (and yet hard to sometimes embrace) thing about being your own boss is that you truly can set your own schedule.  I don't do alarm clocks, I don't wear a watch.  Cell phones don't work at my house so you won't find me twittering.  99% of my time is spent just doing basic business stuff - order processing, billing, production follow up, marketing, customer service, education, research, etc.  1% is actual design time.  I have hundreds of unprinted designs... just waiting to be made...

I can take time off on a whim to help a friend, go on a hike, write a speech, design a new print, or engage in a pity party.  With all that said, I most definitely work longer and harder at this job than any previous job I have ever had.  Being a personal slave driver comes naturally... taking time to live is something I strive to do more of.  My unwritten book is titled: In Pursuit of Weasure (work + pleasure).

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

one of Harmony Art's prints used for bridesmaid's dresses

6) as your read these words- type the first word that comes to mind (i.e. i say winter you say cold)
-summer: sunshine
-work:  email
-chocolate:  yummmmmmmm
-Sunday:  water the house plants (is 4 words ok?)

7) mac or pc? what other equipment and/or programs do you use? Both.  I use a mac for designing and most day to day work: email, web site updating, music, photos, etc.  I use my pc for my Quickbooks, accounting.

As far as programs go I use Freehand to design but having been trying hard to make the migration to Illustrator (Adobe bought Freehand and with the newest release CS4 they finally have the features from Freehand that I am addicted to).  I would happily exchange room and (fish-atarian) board in our coastal, redwood surrounded home for a week to anyone willing to come stay and answer all of my Illustrator CS4 questions.  Any takers??  I am serious.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

this is my studio... where all the computer work is done.

As far as other equipment goes... I purchased a swatch cutter in 2006 and have NEVER regretted that decision.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

8) what have you found to be some of the most challenging aspects of being an organic fabric designer? Keeping my sanity.  Ok, seriously, I think the most challenging part is learning things I don't want to learn.  Being a designer is the easy part, however, when you own (and run) your own business there are SO many details that have to be dealt with and not all of them are interesting to me.  In fact, some details I literally have not just no interest in, but negative interest in (examples: credit card processing, cpsia legal issues, taxes).  So, when those things come up I tend to find them the most challenging.  Once I get through the issue, I always find it wasn't as bad as it felt when it was staring me in the face but getting the energy, focus and gumption to actually deal with those topics is my biggest challenge.  I keep hoping one day I will have faced them all, but alas, almost 5 years later there always seems to be something unpleasant to learn.

The other more practical (less personal) challenge has been getting people to understand the wide width fabrics we offer.  Most of our fabrics are 110" or 90" wide, not the typical 45" quilting fabric width.  People see the price per yard and think, "expensive" but if they stopped and thought about the fact that they are effectively getting between 2 - 2.44 more fabric per yard they would realize our fabrics are really quite competitively priced.  The other is getting people to understand that just because a fabric is made from organic cotton does not mean it has to be a beautiful shade of oatmeal or granola.  Harmony Art is dedicated to infusing organic fabrics with color and design... in a thoughtful manner.  Another challenge is just educating people as to why it is important and what it means, so THANK YOU Bonnie for the opportunity!

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

photo by: Béatrice Peltre

9) most rewarding? Knowing that my life's work is contributing to the global health of the planet.  Also, connecting with like-minded people.  I truly have met so many amazing people/friends.  Having a business where my success and my customers success is intertwined is a great thing.  That co-creation process is really magical.  The very first person to be interested in and use my fabrics in their product line is Michelle Meyer from Cotton Monkey.  I consider Michelle more than a customer, she's my friend.  Having someone to share the journey with and to discuss challenges with and collaborate with has been really wonderful. I tell people I have the World's Best Customers and I truly believe that.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla10) Most surprising? The most surprising thing has been I have found myself on the lecture circuit.  Earlier this year I had the great pleasure of being one of the featured speakers at the SDA (Surface Design Association) conference in Kansas City.  I have also been invited and spoken at FIT, Yale, de Young Museum, UC Davis, etc.  I use to be deathly afraid of public speaking. In fact, I dropped several college classes as soon as I learned that an oral report was required.  So that fact that I am now doing public speaking is pretty phenomenal!  The surprising part is that I actually LOVE public speaking.  It is easy to get bogged down in the minutia of running a business.  Speaking puts me back in touch with what inspired me to launch Harmony Art in the first place.  I always leave a talk re-energized, and hopefully I have inspired others in the process.  Note: in case you want to hear one of my talks... the SDA talk was taped and is part of their DVD (Full disclosure, I am not paid a royalty on dvds sold, but I do believe the SDA is a wonderful organization worth supporting.) If anyone reading this has a group or event that is in need of a speaker on organic cotton, please feel free to contact me.

11) do you run the whole operation yourself or have you gotten 'signed' with a company? I am a one woman (with supportive, amazing husband) show.  I would have loved to be 'signed' with a company, but when I started Harmony Art there were no companies offering printed organic fabrics by the yard for home sewers and small businesses to use.  You could buy left over organic stock that places like Patagonia had discontinued from their line, but there was literally no one designing organic printed fabrics for sewers or small businesses to use.  I basically created my dream job since it didn't yet exist.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

12) anything else? Well, I guess I would like to leave you with the true (and inspiring) story of hairspray:

Years ago there was talk about the effects of CFCs in hairspray creating a hole in the ozone layer. While industries debated the reality of the situation, and our government attempted to draft regulations to phase out the use of CFCs, consumers took matters into their own hands.

Once women knew the risk (our world's protective ozone layer), they made a simple but dramatic change. They stopped buying aerosol hairspray! Simple? Yes. Effective? Yes. As a direct result of the staggering loss of sales, hairspray manufacturers stopped using CFC aerosol propellents almost immediately, years ahead of the proposed phase outs! (If you are interested, click here for more details.)

WE ARE WAY MORE POWERFUL THAN WE KNOW! We vote with our dollars every day.  It is easy to play the victim and blame big multi-national corporations for the mess our planet is in, but the reality is that when we buy their products we are in effect telling them to make more.  What we choose to spend our money on radically and dramatically impacts what is made and how it is made. What if we were to all suddenly boycott bottled water or conventionally grown tomatoes? Simple acts repeated day after day by large numbers of people in my opinion is the key to solving... well, almost everything.

organic fabric industry with Harmony Susalla

I know that organic cotton fabrics don't exist to the extent and in the variety that sewers are looking for.  I am not telling you to stop buying conventional fabrics, but I am saying that each time you shop for fabric if you at least ask for organic cotton you are planting the seeds of change.  By supporting the small independent organic fabric producers like Harmony Art or Mod Green Pod or Betz White you are helping to make the vision a reality.  The more successful we are the more likely the bigger companies are to take the chance.  I am sincerely grateful to Bonnie who makes a point of asking her fabric reps to show her organics.  Believe it or not, that simple step of just asking for organic fabrics does and is making a difference.  The good news is that there are more organic fabrics in the works by new designers so stay tuned!

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  • Harmony Art Fabrics have a wonderful “hand” and great color. So using them is good for the planet and good for your project, as well. It is great to hear more about Harmony’s work.

  • Great interview–and very informative. I am proud to call Harmony my friend, and I can tell you that her fabrics have a truly beautiful texture and richness of design. They work great in quilting.

  • Wonderful to see Harmony’ work and words featured here, Bonnie. She is passionate and pioneering – and incredibly generous with her professional knowledge. Thanks for sharing!

  • Wonderful interview!
    Harmony is the best!
    Harmony is a pioneer in the organic cotton field.
    I’m a very proud mother-in-law
    GO Harmony!!!!!!!!! Teach the world.

  • What a delightful interview with my good friend, Harmony, one of the most delightful, caring and insightful people I know. Harmony sets a wonderful example of how a thoughtful and commited citizen can change the world – to paraphrase her favorite Margaret Mead quote.

  • Harmony Art fabrics were the most wonderful addition to our wedding. With it’s amazing width, 9 yards of the fabulous ” eyes of the world” we made 4 bridesmaids dresses, one little dress, 5 vests, 5 ties and a runner for the wedding table. We have fabric left over. Thank you Harmony for your wonderful designs. Jim Hudson

  • Harmony, I’m finally taking a few minutes to browse your interview- it is incredibly well done. You’ve hit all the hot points and made the case so eloquently for ‘organic’. Brava!!
    The wedding dresses and ties with ‘eyes of the world’ are ‘adorable!!
    Love you’re very tidy studio…so sweet.
    All the best, always.
    Oliveira Textiles

  • Great interview! I’ve been a fan of Harmony’s for a long time and have had the great pleasure of connecting with her at both organic and textile events. She is as fantastic as she sounds, and operates her business and life with integrity and inspiration. And her fabric is wonderful, and getting better with every new design!

  • When I first began looking for an alternative to conventional cotton and came across the Harmony Art website, I was thrilled to find such inspirational offerings and was immediately moved to work on my sewing chops! Harmony is a true inspiration. Real, down to earth, passionate, accessible, and empowering. Yes, a true pioneer!