Katie Lipson is an artisan through and through. She may have gotten her degree in social work, but this Canadian ex-pat has always had a penchant for the creative.
Lipson is currently the owner, designer and seamstress for Bryar Wolf, a company based out of Bend, Oregon which uses sourced and custom fabrics primarily for pillows, but also clutches, tote bags and backpacks.
Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Lipson has also lived in Quebec, British Columbia, Australia, and Michigan before currently settling in Bend with her husband Ross, who runs a distribution company.
She had a string of eclectic careers from working for a large business after university to teaching yoga. However, it was working in a furniture store was where she began love design. After moving to Oregon, she initially started a candle making company with her husband. She grew increasingly disgusted by the pungent aromas that constantly surrounded her and decided to work with textiles instead.
Lipson ran with the idea. She taught herself to sew and started Bryar Wolf from a small work room in her house. Originally she started the business with her husband, but has since taken over every aspect of it herself. She does the web design and even models items for her website.
I sat down with Lipson and Bubs, her Greater Swiss Mountain Dog puppy on her porch looking over her garden, hammock and chicken pen. At one point we were interrupted by Lala, one of her hens. She was squatting, possibly indicating that she would lay her first egg. I was on the edge of my seat, but unfortunately Lala didn’t end up popping one out at that time.
When did you start your business?
I started Bryar Wolf in March of last year , but it took off very quickly. So I have been doing it for a little over a year now. I started originally doing it out of my friend’s studio in Sisters, Oregon and then moved it back to Bend.
Do you do most of your business out of Bend?
I’m actually in about 80-90 stores across North America and one in Sweden. A couple are in Canada, but mostly I’m in America.
Can you describe a typical work day?
I’m sewing everyday usually from 7:30 am to 530 or 6 pm. I do everything, so if I’m not sewing I’m packaging, updating the website, ordering new fabric, or finding more stuff.
How did you come up with the idea for Bryar Wolf?
I have always been very crafty and loved creating. I’ve always painted and done something creative. My husband and I actually started a candle company together. I started getting sick of doing the candles. Especially the smells. So since I’ve loved textiles my whole life, I thought “Why don’t I start a pillow company?” My husband was in Japan in the time and I called him and was like: “I’m going to start a pillow company!” He just said “Ok!” and that’s how it started. At first I was using fabrics I had, then I found African mud cloth and just fell in love with it. From there it has just grown and I’ve started sourcing fabric from all over the world from Thailand, Japan, and China to Morocco.
Do you travel to where you source your fabrics from?
Sometimes. And other times I have people I know in these countries. In Morocco I have people that I contact. We Skype and they show me what I can buy. I choose fabric that way because it’s just too hard to actually go.
How do you meet your sources from all these different countries?
It varies. Sometimes I get lucky and I meet these people or they introduce me to other people. The fabric world is small once you get into it.
Can you tell me about these fabrics around the world?
A lot of my fabric comes from Mali. African Mud Cloth is really awesome. The men weave the individual panels on a loom out of cotton. Then they stitch it together to make about a 60 x 40 piece. And then the women collect mud from the Niger River and let it ferment in a huge clay pot for about a year. Then they dye the fabric with the fermented mud. To get the colors they’ll put sticks or berries or something to dye the actual mud. It’s pretty cool.
I also get something called Chinese Batik which comes from China. It’s over a hundred years old and they used to use it as bed or mattress covers. They are really unique beautiful fabrics. They use a resist dye technique where they actually put something to paint on the pattern and then they dye the fabric after. Then whatever they painted resists the dye, so that’s what you see.
These fabrics are over a hundred years old?
So they don’t do technique anymore?
They still do, but not as much. A lot of these techniques are stopping in these countries. So with this fabric, I can usually get some, but it’s hard to find. It’s all very unique one-of-a-kind pieces. It is definitely one of the harder fabrics to get.
I also get something called a Chinese Wedding Blanket. Women will make their daughters a blanket when they get married. It usually takes about two years to make one blanket and it’s all hand stitched. Those are also beautiful, but very difficult to find.
Could you tell me about some of the other fabrics?
I’m always looking for new fabrics and expanding what I have.
I have a really cool one from Japan from the1500s. The peasants were so poor they couldn’t afford clothing so they would take little patches and would stitch pieces together to make a piece of fabric. It’s called Japanese Boro. It’s one of my favorites.
I’m getting some things from Morocco. One is called Moroccan cactus silk. They refine the fibers from the cactus into a silk. It’s an amazing feeling, it’s very durable and tough, but soft. The more you use it the softer it gets. It’s a very unique texture.
I have some Guatemalan fabrics. Not too many so I don’t know too much about it…
Her husband Ross enthusiastically pipes up:
It’s Mayan Corte fabric! The Mayans used it for dresses.
–(laughs) That fabric was his choice.
Can you tell me about your design process?
I have patterns made and I use my patterns but I’ll look at the piece of cloth first to see which direction I want the pillow to go. For some reason, I like triangles always pointing up instead of down and I usually look at the fabric and think “Ok I think this would look good as a lumbar”. I’ll check it out and see what I think will be best. And I already have my patterns cut so I just use them.
I do custom orders as well. If someone has fabric that they love, like old shirts, and want to make it into a pillow, I’m happy to do that. I had a friend whose dad was wearing a t-shirt when she was born, a tie-dye with a heart. He doesn’t wear the t-shirt anymore so we took it and turned it into two pillows for him. Now he has his t-shirt in pillow form which is awesome. He never used it and now he can look at it every day. I had another lady contact me who had a huge 1970s trench coat from Africa that she wasn’t wearing anymore. There was so much fabric and it was beautiful so we turned it into twelve pillows.
How do you find your clientele or how do they find you?
I use Etsy wholesale a lot, it’s an amazing platform. I also have a rep and she gets me some stores. I also contact a lot of stores myself. I’ll just email them and send them my line sheet. I actually get a lot like that. I also have individual clients through my website and Instagram.
What are your biggest influences in your work?
Ooo. That’s a good question. I love looking at a design and thinking about people’s home and color choices and that inspires me with what type of fabric and colors I want to go with. Nature is very inspiring. I love patterns and geometric shapes.
What is the most difficult part of your business?
The fact that all my fabric is vintage and handmade. That’s definitely the most challenging part. If a customer wants a certain pattern I can try and get it, but it is sometimes difficult or impossible to find the exact same pattern again. I deal with it by working with the customer and sending them other options, explaining the fabric is vintage or one-of-a-kind. Usually the customers understand, if they don’t, it’s not the right fit for them. But I would say 99% of the time people understand and they are excited to see what else is out there.
In the future Katie Lipson hopes to expand Byar Wolf. She’d like to employ sewers and is adamant about keeping her business, manufacturing and employees, based in the United States.
Before I left Katie, Ross, Bubs and butt-shuffling Lala, I had one pressing question on my mind…
What is your favorite and least favorite candle smell?
My least favorite is definitely vanilla. It was our most popular smell so we made so much of it. Ugh! I cannot smell vanilla again. My favorite…we had one called campfire and it really smells like a campfire. Since Bryar Wolf, we don’t make candles anymore. Unfortunately we had a power outage the other day and we realized we had no candles! We were like, where did they all go?!