The Fabric of Life

Textile designer Jean Mason ’11 explains how she found her way as an artist, designer, and small business owner.

Jean Mason ’11 has worked for some of the biggest brands in fashion, including Eileen Fisher, Lilly Pulitzer, and Urban Outfitters. Today she’s a designer in the kids’ department at San Francisco-based Stitch Fix, and she runs her own business, jeanmasonPRINT, designing commemorative tea towels. Mason spoke with DAM about her artistic inspiration, the importance of saying yes, and developing a side hustle. 

When did you become interested in textile design? 
I moved to New York after college, and I was working at Condé Nast and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a basis in printmaking coming out of Dartmouth, and I was doing my studio work on nights and weekends at a little studio space in Midtown. Thea Stusman ’13 had a friend who was starting a fashion label. She approached me and wanted to do a collaboration for her capsule collection. I hadn’t done a textile design before but I feel like the name of the game is just say yes and figure it out. I figured out how to do a repeat pattern in Microsoft Word, which seems really funny because I now use all this advanced textile design software. So I just sent her a little line drawing that she turned into a sweater. After I saw what was just a doodle on the back of a napkin become a product, I was like, “Holy sh*t, this is an actual job.” From there I quit my job and got a couple internships, just to confirm that was what I wanted to do. Then I got into a fibers program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Why did you feel it was important to do a grad program?
I knew that I wanted to be a textile designer, but I just didn’t understand how you get from something scribbled on a piece of paper to a fully finished product. How do you digitize work? How do you clean it for production? How do you know how many colors you’re allowed to have in a design? All those technical things were a huge gap in my education. I went back to grad school to kind of pump the brakes. I guess you can learn that stuff on the job, but I wanted a more intensive training.

You’ve worked with a wide range of major brands. What lessons have you taken from those companies?
I didn’t really realize until I got into those jobs how truly different the approaches to design are. Those different environments gave me a good sense of the values that were important to me as a designer. How much is a big name-brand important to me versus how much is developing business acumen important versus how much do I really want to put my pen to paper every day? And how much do I want to be involved in the production-related aspects of my work?

How do you like working within a brand’s specific design constraints?
I actually enjoy constraints—having them helps me separate my personal work from my 9-to-5 work. With Lilly Pulitzer, the prints are very painterly, with super bright colors and animals. So when I’d be doing my own work, anything I had that fell into that bucket, I’d save for my job. And then any other ideas I had, I could get out of my system in my own work.

Stitch Fix is a little different because it’s a data-driven company. Originally we sold third-party brands, but now they’ve gotten into designing their own stuff based on data from customer feedback. That’s definitely a constraint that I have now—is this design decision that I’m making backed up in data? It’s definitely a very Silicon Valley approach to design.

What’s your artistic inspiration?
I really soak in the culture and the visual cues and the environment of wherever I’m living. Recently Ive been drawing more succulents because I live in San Francisco. My work shifts every time I move.

You also design tea towels as a side hustle—how did that start?
My mom works at an interior design store in Philadelphia, and she thought they needed a tea towel that describes the Main Line, which is the little cluster of suburbs outside of Philadelphia where I’m from. She asked me to make something, and I printed 300 Main Line-designed tea towels and sent them to our store. Those sold out really fast, and I thought I should do a New York design or a Philadelphia design. Now I have custom clients—a lot of brides who want custom tea towels for their weddings and the Savannah Bee Co. commissioned towels for its stores. It’s been a nice side project because it’s grown slowly with me and I’m gradually expanding my number of retailers and learning how to register a business, pay taxes, and all those little things.

How has Dartmouth influenced your path?
Having a combination of fine arts with a liberal arts foundation and understanding how to write and present your ideas—which you learn in your freshman writing seminar, basically—has been something that’s served me pretty well when I was writing my thesis for grad school,and in daily interactions trying to explain my work to buyers or people who are critiquing my work in a more fine art setting.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in art?
My approach was just saying yes to everything, even if I wasn’t sure that I could execute.

If you fail, you fail. But if you don’t fail, you might discover a new career path for yourself. I also think getting a breadth of experience is important. There’s no shame in doing internship after internship if you feel like you’re still learning. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to use my art—did I want to be a fine artist? Did I want to be at a large fashion company or at a smaller studio? You kind of have to try it all out in a relatively low-commitment way until you can understand what lights your fire.

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