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Alexandra Forby is the owner and creator of Daughter Handwovens, a textile brand specializing in woven home and personal goods. Alex also co-founded Abode Studios which operates in Savannah, GA as a retail, rental studio, and workshop space for creatives. Grounded in her perspective on life, her faith, and artistic background, Alex weaves luxury hand towels, aprons, and bags from her looms in the studio. We discussed her fine arts training, creative process, and mission behind her work. -J Wheaton
Can you talk a little bit about how your business is organized and when you started?
I started Daughter in 2015. It was still out of my home then, but I didn’t make it a formal business until 2016. It’s pretty much just been a one-woman kind of business since then. I have had interns and apprentices along the way that have helped me out. Being right here in Savannah (Ga.), we have The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) so I get a lot of my interns from their fibers department. That ends up being a mutually beneficial partnership.
When a lot of people get started, they do their passion project part time, while they’re still in a full-time job. What was your experience starting out?
After graduating college, I worked for SCAD for a couple of years and it was a typical desk job. I did that for two and a half years and grew pretty tired of it. I think it really zapped my creative energy so I was ready to get out and do something with my hands. I ended up working as a nanny for a couple of friends. I then got a small, rigid heddle loom to play around with. I was a Painting major when I was at SCAD so I was just teaching myself how to weave. I worked on that small heddle loom for about a year. The kids in the family I nannied for went off to school so I wasn’t really needed anymore. I was at the point where I had to decide, “do I go get a job somewhere, or do I start a business?” I didn’t really want to paint and I didn’t really want to be in administration. That’s what pushed me to just give Daughter a try. I’d already been making things and selling things to friends, so I saw that people were interested in what I was doing. It was a leap of faith to go ahead and make it a full-fledged business.
Can you talk a little bit more about your fine arts background and painting? That term, “fine”, is interesting, I find the language and formality around it fascinating. Can you talk more about your training and how that does or doesn’t play into what you do now?
Art school really gives you a lot of tools: a background with art history, color theory, materials, and experimentation. I would still say that all of those things play a role in what I do now. I like to say that even though I have a painting degree, I don’t know much about painting. My first year was all foundation classes. My second year, I started getting into my intro to painting classes. Then my third year being essentially my senior year, I started doing a lot of experimentation and got away from paint as a medium and more into installation work and sound art. I did a lot of other weird experiments, none of which involved fiber really, which is hilarious looking back. As a painting major, they really push concept and the reasons behind your work and feelings. You have these really deep philosophical conversations which I loved at the time, but then I kind of got jaded by the business world and the behind the scenes of painting. When I started Daughter, I immediately just wanted to do products like home goods and utility pieces. Even now in all of my choices, there are reasons behind everything which is from that conceptual training. There is something really wonderful about having concept-driven pieces, because then it’s about what you are communicating (more than what the piece does).
And you’ve been able to transform it into a business along the way! Can you tell us how the SCAD community has played a bit of a role and shaped your journey along the way?
The maker community in general is really inclusive, really welcoming, really wonderful at sharing and lifting each other up. I really enjoyed that and embraced the ability to learn from other people, then share what I’ve learned. This is what we do in the studio I run called Abode that Daughter Handwovens is a part of. We take people under our wing; we’re like an incubator. We’re a studio space that tries really hard to stay affordable and gives all of our makers lots of opportunities for networking and income. I really enjoyed having Daughter as a starting point to be able to talk to women, especially people like my interns, about the beauty of being a woman and using our talents to beautify our spaces and encourage the people around us.
With that very interpersonal aspect in mind, how has your business changed during the pandemic and what have you experienced so far?
Right before COVID hit, I was already trying to gear myself up towards moving into wholesale and direct sales from my site. I was not planning on doing a lot of markets in 2020 which ended up being good, because essentially no markets ended up happening. I was able to use all of the preparation that I had already started for moving online, and push that even further to meet people, as they started coming online as well.
What part of markets or the in-person element did you miss during 2020? Or did you really find it to be a great opportunity to focus on your work?
[Physical] markets are so nice, because you get to show people your product and talk about it right then and there while they have it in their hands. They get to feel how soft the fabrics actually are and I get to respond to their comments live. I definitely missed the face-to-face of being at markets but through some social media, I’ve been able to gain a bit of that back, if differently, at least. Then of course, being at Abode, I’m not stuck, alone at home, secluded. I’m still very much a part of a community and the larger community through our retail space so I get to have a lot of conversations with customers.
I know from looking at your website you had a section on a DIY pegboard display. Can you talk about how that started? I think it’s such a cool and unique idea.
In doing so many markets, I was constantly changing my display. Either because products would change or I just wasn’t happy with it. Because my product is such a luxury item in a sense, it really needs to have an elevated space to surround it. A pegboard was a great way to be able to have a display that constantly could change. My husband and I got together and figured out what I really wanted for my display and how we were going to make it. A lot of people were interested in where I got it and if I could make them one. My husband was able to kind of put a step-by-step together on how to build your own pegboard display wall since it’s pretty cost prohibitive for us to make it for people (because then you’re thinking of shipping 4-by-4 pieces of heavy wood). It was a lot easier to give them the tools and instructions to build their own and it’s really smart to have passive income as a businessperson.
How has the community at Abode helped you in your creative process, your business, or what have you been able to learn through others in the space?
We have about 10 makers now that rent from us at Abode, and they’re all different. We have a fine art gallery that rents from us, we have an illustrator, painter, graphic designer, herbalist, and jewelry maker who does copper electroforming. We have an animator and a branding management company. Everybody has their own style and their own way of doing and looking at things. Anytime I run into a question of, “Does this actually look how I think it looks?”, or “What do you think of this color combination?”, I have all of these artists around me that I can talk to and be inspired by. Anytime anybody needs any weird, random tool, somebody around here has it, which is really fun. So it’s kind of like being back in art school in that way when you just have your room full of people who are all doing something creative.
When someone comes to the shop or market, how do you communicate the concept behind your work?
When I was starting my business, I knew that I wanted to weave home decor items. I really started Daughter because I could do it out of my home and it was something I was setting my own hours for. I was newly married and wanted something that, if we started a family, I could be at home and still run my business. That all is wrapped up in this love for connecting with women and promoting the idea that womanhood, taking care of your home, and the intimate side of homemaking isn’t weak, it isn’t wrong, and isn’t bad. It doesn’t make you less of a strong woman to do those things and to enjoy them. A lot of my initial push for Daughter was to highlight the beauty of femininity, and especially femininity in the domestic sense. I think a lot of people assume Christians believe women should stay quiet and that they should have this very subdued role. There’s a verse in Proverbs, however, that talks about a woman who is strong and an entrepreneur. She sees what she makes as profitable so she goes to the market and sells it. She sees land that she knows will benefit her family and she buys it. As a woman who loves being feminine and taking care of the home, it doesn’t mean that I’m a doormat, it doesn’t mean that I’m weak, or that I don’t believe women have worth. It’s quite the opposite. A lot of Daughter Handwovens is surrounded by that, proving that what we as women, no matter what we do, are valuable and worthy of praise, love, and respect. We can be strong, we can be entrepreneurs, and we can benefit our homes, families, and our friends in lots of ways.
Conversations with J Wheaton & Cholong Kim. Written by J Wheaton. Edited by Eugenia Macias.