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Textile Artist Jennifer Cardenas Riggs Embroiders + Inspires

By Bethanie Hestermann

Jennifer Cardenas Riggs learned how to embroider at the age of 8, thanks to her grandmother, and now this textile artist + author of Embroidery Now sells stunning embroidery products and patterns through Thread Honey. Using her vintage 1930s chainstitch sewing machine, Jenn creates one-of-a-kind art in the form of embroidery hoops, wall hangings, and up-cycled clothing items.

Jenn says there’s something very personal about creating things with a needle + thread, and she never imagined when she started out that she’d be able to sell her creations or (via her book + social media presence) inspire people to pick up a needle and create for themselves! This mom boss’s superpower, besides gorgeous chainstitching, is reducing clothing waste by transforming dust-gathering items into go-to pieces. 

Learn more about Thread Honey in today’s Q&A!

Tell us about Thread Honey!

I started Thread Honey in September 2015 by selling pop-culture-inspired embroidery hoops on Etsy. Since then, my business has grown and evolved into downloadable PDF patterns, embroidery kits, fine art framed wall hangings and custom wall banners, patches and other clothing items.

When did you first start working with textiles + embroidery?

My grandmother taught me to embroider when I was 8 years old. It was something I enjoyed doing growing up, usually with kits that she provided to me from the craft store, but I kind of forgot about it until I was in college studying visual arts. It was during these studies that I realized I could use the skill I was taught as a young person and meld it with my own personal designs. Once that clicked, I started creating pieces to give away to friends, and it’s been pure love ever since. As a graphic designer, there’s only so far you can go while drawing up designs on a computer screen. Embroidery is such a tactile medium, and there’s something very personal about creating things for hours with a needle and thread.

Tell us about your book, Embroidery Now! What inspired you to write it?

The proudest moment in my career was the release of my first book, Embroidery Now, in October 2019. Writing a book has always been a dream of mine, and to create something that truly feels like a product from my soul is so rewarding. A lot of people have reached out to me letting me know that they had never even picked up a needle and thread before, but now they’re creating projects from my book. It means so much that I get to be a part of their embroidery journey. 

I tailored the book to encourage readers to customize the projects to their own personal tastes by switching out color schemes, clothing items, and even stitch techniques. I wanted the book to be a platform that readers could use to begin to create their own embroidery work and get in touch with their own artistic voice.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your patterns?

I get inspired by listening to music, practicing yoga, and traveling to new places. It’s very hard for me to sit down and plan out an hour to be inspired. I tend to get struck by revelation when I’m going about my daily life. Because of this, I can sometimes go a very long time without feeling any spark of creativity. In the past, I’ve tried to force myself out of these ruts, but as time goes on, I let myself sit in these times and embrace the stillness.

What is your creation process like?

I’ll usually start with just a “glimpse” of something, maybe a color scheme that I keep thinking about, a music lyric that’s stuck in my head, or a particular motif that I want to use. After I have my glimpse, I’ll draw on my iPad, usually just doodling while I listen to music until I start to round out and add more to the idea. Once I have a vision for the piece, I’ll draw it out in Illustrator and then determine exactly what I’m going to use to bring it to life. I’ll also decide if I want to create a hoop, a clothing piece, or a wall hanging and then what stitch techniques I want to incorporate. After I know my plan of attack, I’ll start stitching.

What is the best part about the community you’ve created?

I feel so grateful that I’ve been able to have so much support from people all over the world who are drawn to my artwork. I never could have imagined when I first started out that I could find people who would even care about what I created, let alone wanting to purchase it—or better yet create it themselves. It’s so nice to be surrounded by fellow craft people who also get a thrill from a needle and thread.

Favorite song(s) for boosting creativity?

I listen to a lot of Grateful Dead, St. Vincent, Arcade Fire, Dixie Chicks, Beyonce, and Janelle Monae.

What is your all-time favorite creation?

It’s an obvious choice, but the custom pink suit I created for my book release party remains at the top of my list. I hand-embroidered it over the course of a couple months. It was going to start off simple, but I had so much fun working on it, I kept adding more and more designs. I call it my pink power suit, because anytime I put it on, I feel untouchable. It’s like a suit of embroidery armor. 

What’s your dream collaboration?

There’s something so exciting about creating a piece of walking art that can travel around and interact with its surroundings more than a framed canvas. I would love to create a custom piece that could be seen on a mainstream platform like a music video or runway. I think this would create even more excitement about embroidery and how it can be used to reduce clothing waste by up-cycling thrifted clothing + allow individuals to express themselves through their own clothing.

Has becoming a mama inspired you to try your hand at any new designs/products?

Absolutely! Over quarantine I both got pregnant and bought a Vintage Singer Chainstitch machine that was manufactured in the 1930s for use in industrial factory embroidery. Unlike modern embroidery machines that use computers to create the designs, it works by using a freehand crank below the machine and feels like a natural extension of hand-embroidery where you have to control every movement of the needle by hand. It’s been simultaneously frustrating and thrilling to learn how to use it and be able to create pieces in a way that I never have before. 

Getting to know this new machine has reinvigorated me and pushed me into being open to new possibilities. The timing couldn’t be better, because my daughter Rio is obviously the cutest ‘lil babe on the entire planet, and I want to embroider every piece of clothing that she owns! I have a lot of handmade items from my own childhood that my grandma gave me (crocheted baby booties, embroidered jackets, and knit sweaters) that I now get to pass along to her, and every time I put her in one of those pieces, I see my grandma and realize that even though she never got a chance to meet Rio, they are connected in the most magical way. I want to create pieces of her that she can one day give to her daughter and keep the cycle going. 

Any advice for small business owners trying to build a strong + genuine community on social media?

If you’re starting a small business or trying to build a platform on social media, the number one thing I would say is to show up, do the work, and be consistent. Any amount of success you see in others comes from a lot of time and effort behind the scenes. So much of owning a small business is patience as you wait for the world to realize how awesome you and your products are. It can be really frustrating and discouraging to feel like you’re putting in a lot of work and not receiving any recognition for it, but your perseverance will be worth it in the end.

To anyone that is creating goods, I would urge them to allow themselves to be inspired by a lot of things, but then take those inspirations and meld them all into something that is purely you. I think it’s easy for people starting out to look at one successful person/account and think “okay they’ve cracked the code, now all I need to do is copy them.” But going that route can only serve you for so long. Try to think about your unique perspective and what you can share with the world that no one else can.

Follow along with Jenn (@threadhoney) on Instagram and on her site, TheThreadHoney.com.

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