CHARMING CHAT with Julie Jackson of Subversive Crossstitch & Kitty Wigs
Welcome to the first of hopefully many Charming Chats with some of the people I adore in the Craftsphere. First up I’m honored to bring you the amazingly talented and often quite private, Julie Jackson. Julie started Subversive Crossstitch in 2003, one of the very first women to launch a DIY business celebrating the then-dying/dead art of crossstitch. Julie gave this “women’s work” the hilarious and snarky kick in the butt it needed and the rest, as they say, is history. More recently Julie, along with photographer Jill Johnson, and Boone — glamourpuss extraordinaire — launched Kitty Wigs to global acclaim. Read on for an intimate cozy chat with Julie over a cup of virtual tea.
Jodi: Julie, hi! Isn’t it great for us to find time to chat in our busy DIY-diva lives? BTW, you have the most charming little Texas accent. Who knew? Did you grow up in TX?
Julie: Oh no, do I? All those years of voice training were for naught? Kidding. Yes, I’m from Dallas. Big D, Little A, Double L, A, S. The stars at night shine big and bright… etc. Can you hear me singing from there? Yee-haw!
Jodi: Ha! And I’m from “What’s round on the ends and hi in the middle… O-HI-O!” I remember when we first “met” and we traded some work; a sampler for a charm bracelet. That seems like forever ago! But, I think my daughter is finally old enough for me to post the sampler you did (pictured above) without seeming like a very bad Mommy. Back then she might have said: “Inappropriate, Mom,” and then charged me a quarter for her swear jar. It is such a cherished object in my studio. Do you still find time to do personal projects?
Julie: Cool! I just came across a photo of that today, oddly. We’re psychic friends! Personal projects… hmmm. Oh yeah, I did something recently, though of course it’s not done yet. We love that weird song by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, “Some Velvet Morning”. I found myself stitching the title on some dark green velvet. Then I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I wrapped it around an old piece of wood and now I’m going to bead the ends. So I guess that’s a weird personal project, huh? Also, I’m taking on a lot of custom work. I haven’t felt like stitching for a long time but I’m getting back into it.
Jodi: Oh I love Nancy too; I wanted to be her when I was a little kid… with some cool go-go boots for walking! So, I know you’ve been up to some exciting things in addition to Subversive Crossstitch, but since you’ve been doing Subversive for so long, I have to ask: What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about it? What keeps the fire burning and what parts do you wish would go away?
Julie: My favorite thing is the incredible interaction I have with my customers and people who take the idea and make it their own. Also, I get the most amazing emails from people who found stitching Fuck Cancer to be incredibly therapeutic or cathartic, their stories are so moving. It makes me feel like I’m in the right place doing what I’m doing. Least favorite is shipping because I hate getting behind with orders–it is completely overwhelming doing everything myself. I love it when I can afford help, but I wish I could hire a fulfillment company. I’m glad I started a PDF shop, because it’s a win-win situation. I can design something and put it out there without having to stitch first, and the customers get the pattern delivered instantly. Brilliant.
Jodi: That is brilliant. And I have to agree, it’s those relationships with customers that totally keep me going. For me, I wish the Web code would go away! And yeah, it’s challenging for sure to be designer, maker, shipper, writer, photographer, Web programmer…. so many hats. But it just sort of happens, doesn’t it? So, I’m sure people will want to know, have you been a stitchy girl forever? How did you first get into making things?
Julie: I’ve been a crafty girl forever. I was always super creative — my mom says that when I was a kid I would just make whatever I wanted. If I wanted a purse, I made one. I never would have guessed I’d be doing it for a living, though. I thought I’d be stuck at office jobs forever, writing away at a desk all day. I guess I am actually doing that, but at least it’s my own desk and my dog is asleep on my feet.
Jodi: It seems like some of us just have to be making things doesn’t it? You know, the handmade world has really changed a lot since 2003 when we both opened our shops. I remember when I first wrote to you and told you that your stuff reminded me of Jenny Holzer’s work. I mean NO ONE was doing anything like Subversive at the time. What developments have been either good or bad for handmade?
Julie: It seems like ages ago, doesn’t it? I adore Jenny Holzer, so I liked you instantly! hee. I think the way the craft scene has grown is amazing and fantastic. I’ve always said there’s room for everyone, and I love that places like Etsy make it so easy for anyone to give it a try. Almost everyone in the craft scene is friendly and inviting and supportive of each other, it’s just a great place to be. I don’t really see any negatives, it’s all good.
Jodi: Do you have any favorite stories of people you’ve made friends with during the process of building your business, other stitchers or crafters or artists? Who would you want to meet if you could?
Julie: Oh, I had the chance to be on a panel once with Amy Sedaris. Our paths have crossed a lot, but it would have been so cool to be on a five-person panel with her–I think it was at BlogHer or something. But I was just too chicken to put myself out there like that. My friend Leah Peterson was putting it together and she was kind enough to send me all kinds of Amy paraphenalia afterward even though I wasn’t there. The pill box is my favorite — it says “Pee on Me” in Amy’s handwriting on the outside, with her photo. Some of my very favorite people I’ve met are Katherine Shaughnessey of Wool and Hoop, Laurie Cinotto of Itty Bitty Kitty Committee and author of Making Paper Flowers, Stitchy McYarnpants of course, Emily and Matt at Steotch, Claire at Miso Funky, Jamie and Bridget of MrXStitch… there are so many. Also, I love the ladies at Bust magazine, Natalie who used to be the editor at Craft, Christina Loff and all the people at Chronicle… man, this list could go on forever. I’m already composing apology emails in my head to the people I know I’m not listing. There are just SO many funny and generous people out there who inspire me and keep me going.
Jodi: The mutual support in the community is truly inspiring. And I think anyone you forgot will forgive! One of the things I love about your shop is that there are soooo many hilarious subjects, it’s like there’s really something for everyone. What’s been Subversive’s hottest selling kit? Is there one in particular that just keeps on keeping on?
Julie: It used to be Go Fuck Yourself, but now it varies more. Sometimes Fuck Cancer goes through a phase of big demand, or Awesomesauce, or whatever’s new.
Jodi: I personally love CandyAss, that was the first one I did and it’s on display in my bedroom (pictured above)! It makes me think of Jeff Koons for some reason. And I did Whatever for Molly’s room, which I also love. Oh, and the Stephen Colbert Truthiness kit… I have that too; I LOVED seeing your piece on his show. But even with so many sparkly ideas, I know that my creativity seems to go in cycles and most artists I’ve talked to describe similar things. Do you ever get stuck? And if so, how do you unstick?
Julie: Yes. I just wallow in it. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done. I’m prone to pretty awful bouts of depression, so sometimes I can only do the bare minimum. It makes me more thankful for the productive times like I’m in now. I’m totally in flow right now and it’s great. I hate to go to sleep at night and I can’t wait to wake up in the morning. This is mostly because I’m completely redoing my website for the first time in almost ten years.
Jodi: I think every single artist I’ve met has the depression thing kicking around, myself included. It seems to come with the territory… I know there have been studies about this. And hey, so cool about your new Web site. I think the new So Charmed site will launch shortly after yours, and I can’t wait. It feels like such a fresh start doesn’t it? And we really need that from time to time. Let’s talk about your larger Subversive Empire for a minute… books, media coverage, and having your work in major hipster emporiums like Urban Outfitters. How exciting and glamorous it all seems! But is there a stressful side too? What’s it like having a book deadline, or seeing your work broadcast nationally? What sage advice would you give the young up-and-comers about this stuff?
Julie: Oh, it’s not glamorous AT ALL. And it’s never as much money as you hope it will be. It’s very stressful and the scariest part is, what happens if I get hit by a bus? It’s all on my shoulders and sometimes it’s hard not to freak out on that. If I have any advice it’s probably the advice everyone always gave me: follow your bliss. Kind of cliche, but it’s true. I used to stress out so much in my twenties about what I would do the rest of my life and you just have to wait and everything will unfold. You have to follow your heart and your instincts. The goal is to not have to do work that you hate. Also, I think something magical happens when you hit 40 – you kind of figure out what you’re all about, FINALLY. And things seem to start to fall into place. Don’t worry, enjoy life.
Jodi: Oh, I agree totally about bliss-following, and if you think 40 is magic… honey, 50 is nirvana! I’m thinking I’ll probably just explode with joy at 60! Lately, I’ve really discovered that it’s super important to sometimes shove the business stuff on the back burner and just get back to the joy of making things, of discovery and adventure. Speaking of adventures, how did you first come up with Kitty Wigs? The Web site talks about loud music and dancing. If we can turn back the hands of time, tell us what you and Boone were dancing to when Kitty Wigs was born.
Julie: Scissor Sisters! Yeah, Boone used to sit on my desk and stare at me all day long and I took a lot of photos of him. One day I was goofing off, looking around on Flickr, and I searched for “cat wigs.” I was surprised that there were only a couple of photos and the cats all looked mad and the wigs were clearly too big and really sloppy (no wonder the cats were mad). I don’t know what hit me, I just thought if people were going to take photos of their cats it should be more interesting and enjoyable for the cat (if possible). After a lot of research and trial and error, I found the right wigs and the right photographer. Again, I had no idea the idea would catch on so crazily, even bigger than Subversive. I’m still stunned but it makes me really happy that it makes people laugh. And gives them a new way of interacting with their cat that can result in amazing photos. It’s not at all like dressing your cat in outfits, it has turned out to be more about noticing things about your cat… it’s hard to explain. If you see the photos in our book, you can imagine how floored I was when I first saw them — it’s like the cats are showing their innermost personalities, it’s insane.
Jodi: Oh, I know, it’s really portraiture at its finest! Did you and Boone get to meet any of the famous people who have created buzz about Kitty Wigs? Conan? Chelsea Handler? Anderson Cooper? I can see Anderson having a cat who wears Kitty Wigs. Do you have any Kitty Wigs celebrity gossip to spread viciously through this interview?
Julie: We didn’t meet anyone, but I would have turned down any kind of public appearance. The Kitty Wigs photographer, Jill Johnson, was great to appear on my behalf in the press — she is such a pro and has such an amazing personality. I guess my favorite celebrity thing was Graham Norton, because I adore his show anyway so I was watching it when he suddenly started talking about Kitty Wigs and showing the website. He also talked about Subversive years before but I knew about that in advance and shipped some stitched pieces. The Kitty Wigs appearance was a complete surprise. I love Graham because he totally gets it, and he is just brilliant and hilarious. As for celebrity gossip, the people who were the coolest to correspond with were probably Bobcat Goldthwait and his girlfriend. They just reached out to me and were so nice. Bob had posted Kitty Wigs on his site and he ended up writing a blurb about it and sending me photos of he and his cat in a wig. Bobcat is truly a cool cat.
Jodi: Oh I would love to see those Bobcat photos! Before we finish up the last sip of our tea, will you tell us what else goes on in your world along with snarky crossstitch and wigs for kitties? What do you do to relax those busy fingers and that busy brain of yours?
Julie: I devour the internet, I always have looked to it for inspiration and I love those “wow” moments when I find something amazing. I’m always trying to get my friends to join in on my latest idea, like adhesive eyebrows for dogs or pistachio castanets. I’m the mischief maker.
Jodi: Yes, you are such an instigator, and that’s why we all love you so much! Anything new coming down the Subversive Road that you want to tell our readers about?
Julie: The Subversive website will be completely fresh and new — I’m hoping to re-launch on February 15th! I can’t wait, it’s going to make all of our lives so much better.
Jodi: Well, I know I’ll be looking for that launch email. Thanks, Julie, for doing this. You’ve made such a huge difference for so many people, helping to pave the way for so much of what’s going on today in crafts. And, with such good humor and generosity! Thank you thank you!