Life of a Professional Weaver: Laura Fry
I’m excited to help you learn about professional weaver, and School of SweetGeorgia weaving instructor, Laura Fry. We approached Laura to film a couple of classes with us in 2021 because Felicia loved her The Intentional Weaver book. Laura replied and agreed to film two classes for the School. Both The Intentional Weaver and Magic in the Water courses are fantastic resources for our members. Laura Fry is a passionate and generous teacher. You will find her in the Community Forums often, sharing her knowledge and her latest weaving projects. Today, she shares some insights into her work and practices.
How did you get started as a professional weaver?
I was looking for something that I could do for the rest of my life and still keep learning. Before the age of twelve, I’d learned to knit, embroider, and sew my own clothing. As a young adult, working at a custom drapery shop, I suggested to my husband I could weave textiles and sell them and earn some money.
Long story short, we bought a bigger house with room for a loom. When I sat down at a floor loom for the first time, I got the distinct sensation that I had finally come home.
I treated being a weaving student as a full-time job, so I spent every day I could in the studio to maximize my learning and wove as much as I could, reading every book I could find, all with the goal of one day producing something saleable.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
The value of my time, weaving is resources, real estate, equipment, and time. It is very labour-intensive, and I had to learn where to spend the coin of my time.
Other important lessons were how to run a business, how to set schedules, work to deadlines, how to market/sell my things, and that not everyone is my customer. Learning which markets might be interested in my textiles and able to afford them was crucial.
I spent much of my early years honing my skills in order to become as efficient as possible and work ergonomically to protect my body and reduce injury from an activity that could set up repetitive stress injuries. Taking care of my body was equally important as taking care of my equipment, schedule, and budget.
What non-weaving hobbies do you have?
My hobbies include reading, knitting, bobbin lace, spinning, and jigsaw puzzles. When I can no longer weave, I can still do those things. While I am ‘retired’ as a production weaver, I still teach online and have been very much enjoying the classes with the School of SweetGeorgia.
Why do you work with textiles?
My earliest memories include textiles. They have always been a large and important part of my life. I like the tactile feel of the cloth and yarn in my hands. When I ‘discovered’ weaving, I loved the possibilities and the intellectual and creative challenges involved. To find something I could do that I loved and get paid for it? Priceless!
Tell us about some of your processes and equipment?
For most of my career, I wove on a 16-shaft dobby with fly shuttle and auto-cloth advance. The fly shuttle and auto-cloth advance enabled me to weave very efficiently and once I could produce at a higher level, I could begin earning enough money to operate a ‘real’ business. But income from handwoven textiles is cyclical, so I began doing more writing and teaching. I would schedule teaching trips during the quiet income months of the year. I was an early adopter of more mechanical looms and weaving software. Once the computer-assisted dobby came on the market, I saw the potential for saving tons of time because I didn’t have to peg every bar in a dobby chain manually but could sit at the computer and do the job. The software also allowed me to make quick changes, saving time when I wanted to change tie-ups or treadlings on a long warp.
Most of my project management was done in my head as I kept my deadlines noted on the calendar and worked toward being ready for sales and/or teaching trips. For larger projects, I would keep notebooks with outlines and bullet points of what needed to be done and when. This allowed me to pay attention to my yarn inventory and make sure I placed yarn orders early enough I didn’t run out of yarn and needed to wait for more to arrive.
I learned how to envision big projects and the incremental steps that needed to happen, in which order to bring the project to a conclusion on time.
Every day was a potential workday and I frequently worked 7 days a week. This wasn’t a hardship because I loved the physical act of weaving and seeing the cloth pile up as it went through the loom, wet finishing, and onto my shelves, ready for the upcoming show dates. Weaving was—and is, still—a working meditation for me. Life is always ‘better’ if I can get to the loom and weave.
Now that I’m ‘retired’ I still try to get to the loom every day for a couple of hours. It’s just that now my goal is to use up my yarn stash and experiment more. Because I am still learning and that is very exciting.
What advice do you have for potential professional weavers?
Be flexible. Be open to feedback from the people who might be your customers but understand that not everyone is going to be your customer. That the customer is NOT always ‘right’ because not all the people who come to you will be your customers.
Learn where to find your potential customers. (Tip—it will not necessarily be the small church bazaar or local farmer’s market.) I almost exclusively sold through the high-end (juried) craft fairs, and for a time at the Southex Gift Show—the biggest gift industry show in western Canada. At one time, we had 29 wholesale accounts. Then the market changed, and everyone wanted printed florals, which I could not do. I had to rethink everything when our accounts went from 29 to 3 in 18 months.
I learned that if you keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing when things change, you will soon run out of customers.
The number one tip is to treat weaving as a business. Learn as much as you can about running a business, especially if you’ve never worked in retail. Find out the legal requirements for being a business in your town, province/state, and country.
Make sure you follow the legal requirements for collecting taxes and remitting them. Hire an accountant to do your tax returns to make sure all your deductions are included. Above all, pay into Canada Pension for the future.
Have goals. Big ones, yes, but also? Daily goals. Weekly goals. Learn to schedule downtime. It is a lot easier to take small steps every day rather than wait until a month or week before a major show to pour on the coals. You have to have enough inventory for a show to pay for the costs of doing that show *and* bring in income above and beyond that.
Major juried shows are not cheap and textile people rarely sell more than twenty percent of what they bring. If a five-day show, a corner booth (for best positioning for textiles) costs $1000, plus travel, hotel/food, etc., the expense of doing that show is more like $2000. Add in the cost of the materials for your textiles, and that you might only sell 20% of what you offer, and then the goal is to arrive with between $30,000 to $40,000 worth of inventory.
New textile artists need to ask themselves if they can make that much (you can accumulate over the years, building on previous years’ work) in a year. Research what other textile people are charging for their work. If they are willing to share, ask them if they feel a show is worthwhile for them, if they generate income through the year by people ordering from their website, etc.
I have found textiles difficult to sell online because most of what sells my work is the tactile quality of the cloth. Most of my online sales come from people who have seen my work in real life and are confident that they will get the quality they want from me.
But a website is critical these days and excellent photographs are needed to convey the qualities of the cloth you are offering for sale.
I have had a website since before the internet was ‘commercial’. My blog was begun in 2008 and I still post several times a week. Some of my sales come from my blog posts. A few years ago, I opened a ko-fi shop and again, most of the sales come from my blog or Facebook account directing people to the shop.
Earning an income from any creative endeavour is labour-intensive. Be prepared for the commitment to doing what needs to be done. Disengage your ego because there will be plenty of negative feedback, especially at the beginning. My motto was ‘do it anyway’. Much of my life has been spent figuring out how to change what I was doing when it was clear that what I had been doing wasn’t working well enough.
On the other hand, there is no need to do it as a full-time ‘job’. Many people continue to work full-time (or part-time) jobs and take commissions from people to work on in the evenings or other available time. Everyone has to determine what works for them. If it isn’t working, then they have to decide if they can change what they are doing and make it work, or if they do textiles as a hobby—an avocation rather than a vocation.
What tips do you have for students of fibre arts?
Keep an open mind. Be willing to experiment. Be willing to ‘fail’. We assume that failure is ‘bad’ when failure is just a result. The only thing failure means is that we didn’t get the result we wanted, and then we need to ask ourselves why? Can something be changed to get closer to the desired result?
I am currently working through a new design series based on a new-to-me approach to a weave structure. I started with a very simple approach to see if it would work. When that warp worked well, I begin nudging the threading, to begin with, to see what would happen when I started changing things. Once I became more confident, I started looking at how to change the tie-up and see if that would work. And now I’m working on changing the tie-up and treadling to create motifs instead of ‘lines’ after experimenting with straight, curving, and circular lines. Change one thing and see what happens.
But above all, stay open to new things. New ways of thinking. New ways of seeing. New ways to push the textiles in directions that may or may not work. Textiles are an endless journey of trying something to see what happens. Learning.
After 40+ years of weaving, first as a professional, and now as my avocation, I still learn. It keeps me getting out of bed, dressed and to the studio pretty much every day!
What do you love about the School of SweetGeorgia?
As an ‘elder’ and 40+ years of hard work (and injury from other causes, because life is like that), I can no longer travel to teach. But I still love helping people figure things out. Retiring from teaching happened last year, insofar as I had to make the decision that I could no longer travel long distances to teach in person. By then, I had taped two classes for SOS and enjoyed working with the SOS team.
Using the forums, I can continue to have contact with weavers and hopefully provide insight if they have problems.
I do miss not being able to see the lights in their eyes go on, but I love seeing photos of completed projects and sharing in the excitement as they share their work.
SOS also gives me a platform to talk about weaving in more detail through the Fundamentals of Weaving live lectures. When I log into the forums, I’m always interested to see what people are up to, and potentially help if there are problems.
It is a platform I never dreamed I would have access to, and I am grateful to Felicia and the SOS team for the invitation to participate.
Thank you, Laura, for sharing your journey with us. You can find more about Laura Fry here and her School of SweetGeorgia courses. We will release two more courses with Laura soon: Lace Structures on 4-Shafts and Sectional Warping.