How We Create A Career: Cloth Goods Designer

Geana Sieburger was born into a family of makers. She grew up being lulled by the sound of the sewing machine as her seamstress grandmother, Paulina (after which one of Geana’s smocks is named), worked bobbin and thread. It was not until after college, however, that she pursued working with textiles herself. Now she is the one woman show behind GDS Cloth Goods. Her specialty–customized aprons for makers and restaurateurs–can be seen on the staff at Four Barrel Coffee and on the shelves at Crown 9 and The Perish Trust. Her latest invention–cloth coffee filters, designed in collaboration with Ben Brewer, Blue Bottle Coffee–debut this year. I met with her in her West Oakland studio a few weeks ago to learn about how she developed her invention, and to see her work. Here, she discusses the value of going out on a limb, remaining relaxed, and throwing out the rule book.

GDS-sewing-machine

Geana Sieburger never thought that she would do administrative work. When she graduated college, however, she found herself doing just that, working at Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. Although the job appealed to her interest in fashion and textiles, it didn’t satisfy her creative impulse; she quickly felt the pull to return to crafting.”I have that desire to make things and be creative a bit outside the box. But right out of college, I was completely disillusioned by art and life. I needed a job, and I needed healthcare. I did not make any art for at least a year. I remember when I was in school thinking, ‘I will never take an office job.’ And there I was doing administrative work. I think the reason why I was able to do that was because it was a small business and fashion- and textile-related–definitely all things I was interested in. Also, I think I saw an opportunity there. And there was. From administrative work, I started doing assistance with the buying, which was fun. But something was missing. I felt a void growing.”

GDS-cloth

Her inspiration for where to direct her creative energy came at an unexpected moment–while shopping at the Temescal Farmers’ Market in Oakland. Admiring the work of the vendors selling handmade goods, she thought to herself, “I could do that!” While still working at Britex, she began devoting her spare time to designing and constructing her own pieces–linen shirts and overalls that were loose, boxy, and Japanese-inspired (the type of clothing she wanted for herself, but could not find)–and selling them on the weekends. Business did not immediately take off. Geana quickly realized that the work-to-pay ratio for her items was unbalanced, and that she would need to shift her business model. “What I realized very quickly was that that level of craftsmanship took a lot of time. And I was really undercharging for my work. So as much as I loved what I was doing, I burned out. It didn’t make business sense.”

The trajectory of Geana’s business took a drastic turn as the result of a giant leap. Noticing that the aprons she had started making were gaining in popularity, she made a cold call to Four Barrel to inquire whether they would be interested in outfitting their staff. They said yes. “I’ve always loved practical items, utilitarian pieces. For a long time I was making smocks and dresses that were very apron-like. Something you can throw on over anything that you’re wearing. So the apron just made sense. It was true to what I was doing and the kind of aesthetic that I loved. I also noticed that it was something that people were seeking out. During that time, the business was almost in hibernation. It was moving really slowly. I contacted Four Barrel, out of the blue. I sent them a really nice email saying, ‘this is what I do. I would love to work with you.’ And a few weeks later, the owner responded, saying, ‘sure, come in. Let’s talk.’ That was my first client. Together we designed my first business-to-business custom apron job.”

gds-apron-samples

Over the course of several years, while simultaneously expanding her role at Britex, Geana has grown her business to include many business-to-business partnerships; she currently primarily works with businesses (e.g. restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops) to dress their staff. She has also entered into exclusive collaborations with makers and with stores like The Perish Trust. This year she is launching Ebb Filter, a line of cloth coffee filters, born out of an interest in improving her own morning ritual and honed over the past three years in collaboration with Ben Brewer, Blue Bottle Coffee. The filters are made of organic, U.S.-grown cotton, and produce high quality cups of coffee. She will soon be leaving Britex to focus on GDS Cloth Goods and Ebb Filter full time.

gds-smock

In the future, Geana hopes to continue to teach as well as make. “I teach fiber and textile workshops. These are classes that are for the ordinary person that just wears clothes. They aren’t makers, they’re not designers. But they’re interested in the slow fashion movement. They’re interested in understanding where things come from, and the impact that they’re making. It’s the very beginnings of a movement similar to the organic food and slow food movement–people wanting better quality but also wanting to feel empowered by knowing what is actually happening to their food. I love teaching about that.”

Geana has not been without uncertainty or doubt. Primarily, this has centered around whether her work contributes to the greater good. “I’m always thinking about the larger picture. How am I contributing to society through product making? These questions have led me to do research and to focus a bit more on my buying. For example, I should be buying not just quality fabrics, but organic cotton if I’m going to be using cotton. If I’m going to be using linen, I better know where my linen is coming from. I can see myself at some point being less of a product maker, and more of a community organizer–creating programs and sharing education, bringing together different educators and people who have a similar vision and mission; giving that a place and a time and the energy to make it happen. I definitely see myself doing more of that in the future, but I also really like making things that offer people an alternative. I think ultimately that’s what gets me out of that doubt is that if there weren’t people offering alternatives to the stuff that’s being poorly designed with poor quality materials, and mass producing them, then we’d really be at a loss. That’s what keeps me going.”

GDS-aprons

She has also grappled with giving up the comfort of receiving a consistent paycheck. “I reached a point where the only thing that needed to change was my mindset. It was a mindset of being afraid. Because it’s scary not having that paycheck coming, whether you’re productive or not, whether sales are good or not. It is really comforting. For a long time I thought that I needed to have a very carefully crafted plan, and I made all these excuses that kept me from doing what I knew it was already time for.” 

What has helped has been an overwhelmingly supportive response from her community. “I’ve had very few people tell me that I can’t do it. Almost everybody that I’ve encountered has been inspiring in some way. And ‘thank you world,’ is all I have to say to that. Because I really needed that. When I first started, I was sure that the world was just going to reject everything I made. That’s a very small, humble beginning. And there are things that didn’t work as well as others, but for the most part, my work was received really well. And that was just so powerful and allowed me to continue forth. I think probably the most inspiring people were the ones that were able to take time out of their own lives to share a story or share some piece of knowledge with me.”

carpenter-apron-front

It also helps that Geana loves her work. In particular, she enjoys the constant flow of creative challenges that she must solve resourcefully. “What I really like about how my business is set up now is that every single project is new. So it’s a new set of challenges each time. The chocolate maker needs x, y, and z. She has requirements for what the apron should do or should not do. The woodworker who is also a potter – she needs the pockets not to be open in a certain way so that it doesn’t gather all the wood chips when she’s working on the lathe. The carpenter’s utility belt / apron was really fun because I had less than a yard of it. If you look closely there, some of the pockets are actually pieces of fabric patchworked together so that I could have a full pocket. And then I had to use denim on the backstrap. You’d look at it and think, ‘that looks really cool.’ But I actually ran out of fabric. If I’m running out of fabric, I have to figure out, where am I going to introduce the other fabric? How am I going play with this…? It turned out so beautifully. And I’m sure that part of it was because I had all these restrictions. I love every single one of those challenges. Because that’s where the creativity starts for me.”

carpenter-apron-back

To women interested in pursuing their own creative careers, she offers three pieces of advice:

1. Relax: “Don’t ever get too busy, because inspiration does not come when you’re stressed. That Sunday morning at the farmer’s market (when she got the idea to make and sell her own clothing), I was just relaxing. I was with my boyfriend, whom I loved. I was having a cup of coffee. I was sitting under the sun, totally relaxed. And I thought, ‘I could do this.’ Because I was happy, and I was at peace. Right there at that moment, that seed was planted. And if I was stressed out that morning, would I have had that realization? I probably would have been a little bit more closed off to that idea.”

gds-apron-ticking

2. Start slow and trash a plan if it’s not working out or doesn’t make you happy: “I think a lot of people forget that when they’re making their own business, they get to do whatever they want. There’s no book of rules! You don’t have to stick to whatever you’ve decided on, just because it’s the decision you made. That’s the benefit of starting out slowly. I started so slowly that at any given moment I could just throw plan A into the garbage, and try something new. I did that – a few times. And now I have systems that seem to be working.”

Geana-apron

3. Believe in yourself: “Know that you can do it. Embody that, just know it. You can do it. And then all those little doubts we hear us telling ourselves, just don’t take them as seriously. When you realize you don’t have the skill that you need or some piece of knowledge – that’s easy. Just go and seek it out. And then go get your hands dirty. You’re going to feel sad sometimes, you’re going to feel super defeated. And then you’re going to feel like you’ve struck gold. Don’t be that upset or impressed with anything. Just keep going.”

Geana-at-work

Thank you, Geana, for welcoming us into your studio and sharing your insight and process. Ebb Filter is such a brilliant idea, and I can’t wait to watch it–and all the other high quality pieces produced by GDS Cloth Goods–soar!

For more interviews with women who are forging their own paths, career and otherwise: Follow @shespoised on twitter, or like She’s Poised on Facebook (and select Get Notifications from the drop down menu).

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