A Conversation with Designer Paige Lauster of Blue Ridge Stitchery
We recently had the opportunity to spend some time talking with Paige Lauster, the talented designer behind the eye-catching canvases at Blue Ridge Stitchery. Paige shared with us a little bit about her journey from corporate finance to needlepoint design, and what has honed her eye as an artist. It’s a journey that has its roots at the foot of the blue ridge mountains in Charlottesville, Virginia, but which also spans Europe, India, and now her home for the last 20 years, Cleveland, Ohio.
Paige grew up on a cattle farm just outside Charlottesville, VA. She recalls enjoying time spent with her godmother at The Chimney Corner, where there was a stitching and knitting section. After high school, she attended Virginia Tech, studying accounting and finance. She became a CPA, and ultimately obtained her MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Darden is where Paige met her husband Stefan, who is originally from Munich, Germany. The couple lived and worked abroad for many years, first in Munich then in Mumbai, India. They had their first child in Germany and two more children while living in India.
Launching a New Career
After returning to the United States, Paige and her family settled in Cleveland. She spent the next chapter immersed in family life, but always found time to stitch and knit. While not formally trained as an artist, Paige has made things all her life (even as a child, she made Barbie clothes out of newspaper!). In Cleveland, she patronized local needlepoint store, Wool & Willow, so frequently that she became - and still is – an employee. Paige credits the welcoming and inspiring community of Wool & Willow for helping her transition from enthusiast to designer, noting the support of designers like Joanna of The Plum Stitchery, as well as many others who gave pointers as she began to create her own canvases.
Paige noted that there was a heavy concentration of designers in Texas and further west who were creating incredible designs, but that she wasn’t seeing canvases that spoke to her experiences of growing up in the Blue Ridge. She formally launched her business in April 2019 and saw almost immediate success. Interestingly, the growth of Blue Ridge Stitchery has occurred almost exclusively through social media and word of mouth. Facebook and Instagram are the primary streams, and Paige notes that it has all felt very organic.
When asked how it felt to pivot into such a different career path, Paige responds cheerfully, “My superpower is that ‘I think I can.’ What have I got to lose?” This positive attitude has served her well as an entrepreneur and as an artist.
Paige stitches what she loves. It started with reminders of home. She refers to driving over Afton mountain in central Virginia and seeing the sweeping views of the hills and valleys below, saying, “even today, it still gives me goosebumps.” Dogwoods, cardinals, and iconic University of Virginia images all make up her Blue Ridge series. The Munich series, not surprisingly, is inspired by her time in Germany, replete with lederhosen and steins of beer. A hike on the Appalachian Trail for several nights was transformative. Paige says, “getting out there on the ridge line and unplugging was a great way to recharge.” Elements of nature can be found throughout her work. Travels to Hawaii and love of her current “hometown,” Cleveland, also serve as creative inspirations.
Paige’s process is ever evolving. She typically begins by taking lots of photos, trying to capture inspiring images. She uses a digital program to make sketches from the photograph, tinkering until she’s happy with the design. She exports that image to a computer program, makes a black and white outline of the original image, and places that under the canvas. Then she starts again from scratch: mixing paint colors and recreating the design within the constraints of a grid. She makes a master painting on canvas with acrylic paint. This original is what is sent out to painting services for reproduction. Paige observes that many of these services are abroad and the supply chains have been disrupted by Covid-19.
Paige is candid about the benefit of walking away from a piece of work when fresh eyes are needed to assess what’s in process. She states, “Even a little distance can be good. It’s important to learn to sit with the discomfort of a design that isn’t shaping up to what it seemed to be in the mind’s eye. It’s very much a part of the process. There is something good in the work somewhere, and I’m learning that even ‘OK’ designs can grow on me.”
Paige finds that a benefit to working in a needlepoint shop is having an ear to the ground regarding what customers are seeking in the way of new designs. She is available to customers and fellow stitchers and listens to what they do and don’t like, what their interests are, and where there is an unmet need. That said, it’s important for her to stick to her own voice and vision. She tries not to be too influenced by all the fun things that come into the shop, or by social media. It gives her a chance to explore new thread colors and to see what other innovations are happening.
Paige has firm beliefs about the stitcher’s role in her design work. “It’s important to claim each canvas as your own. Don’t feel obliged to follow some rule, don’t worry about insulting the designer. Change color. Experiment. Take license to make each work your own. Each person sees and interprets color differently. It’s totally fine to let your creativity take over once the piece is in your hands.”
When asked about threads, Paige replies that she uses almost everything. She likes pepper pot silk for basic stitching, as well as vineyard silk, silk road straw, and rainbow threads for a touch of sparkle or shine.
Advice for Designers and Stitchers
When it comes to advice for would-be designers and stitchers, Paige invokes her, “what do you have to lose?” mantra. She states, “It’s best not to worry too much. You don’t need all the answers when you start. Get a canvas and some paint and give it a try. Don’t let worry about perfection keep you from the enjoyment of the art. When stitching, don’t worry about the back of the canvas. Be open to the fun and experimentation. Your local shop can help with getting better, and there are tutorials on the internet. It’s also ok to tear things out if you don’t like how they are going. It’s not much fun, but it’s perfectly ok. Stitchers tend to feel bound by rules and code, but no one should judge you and you will improve in time. It’s a process, but in the end, it’s needlepoint, right? It really is all going to be ok.”
Businesses of all types have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, and the needlepoint industry is no exception. The major market shows were canceled this past spring, which prohibited Blue Ridge Stitchery from launching to shops in person. With new stitchers taking off and old stitchers coming out of the woodwork, demand for canvases is very high. There was a virtual market at the end of October and Blue Ridge Stitchery revealed 7 new designs, several of which are now in the shop.
Orange and Blue?
Poppypointe is located in Charlottesville, VA, alongside one of Paige’s alma maters, The University of Virginia. We couldn’t resist asking Paige what she really thinks about the school’s emblematic colors, blue and orange. Paige confessed to having divided loyalties, as her undergraduate work was at UVA rival Virginia Tech (whose colors are maroon and orange). By naming her company after the mountains that run between the two schools, she is spared from having to reveal any preference for one over the other. Clever!
Many thanks to the talented Paige Lauster of Blue Ridge Stitchery for sharing her time and her creative philosophy with us. We love her canvases, and we can barely keep them in stock!