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Erin Flett, like many artists, feels driven to create. But unlike many artists, the graphic designer also has a concrete vision of where creativity can take her.
Erin Flett Textiles & Home has grown from an after-hours sideline in the basement to a national brand that sells to more than 200 wholesalers. Customers range from local boutiques to large retailers like L.L.Bean and Plow & Hearth, as well trade customers, like hotels and interior designers.
Flett’s firm manufactures bags, pillows, wallpaper and other textiles using her hand-printed designs.
A recent customer is the new 300-room Catalina Island Resort hotel in California, which is using her accent pillows.
“One pillow on every bed,” she says. “It’s the last detail for them, but the first detail people see when they walk into the room.”
It’s gratifying, Flett says, that her products can pull a room together and be a necessary finishing touch. “That’s what brings me joy.”
She was a busy freelance graphic designer in 2007, with two small children, when she felt the need to “put patterns on fabric.”
Her husband, a carpenter, built equipment for her in the basement. While she started small, selling bags and other textiles on the maker website Etsy, “I knew I wanted to do wholesale.”
Accompanying her artist’s drive is a businesswoman’s vision.
As a freelancer, she saw that what she wanted to create wasn’t something others would produce.
“They’re going to do what’s safe, what’s selling,” she says. “I wasn’t concerned about what was selling, I just needed to get it out of my brain and on the fabric. It wasn’t a want, it was a necessity.”
She didn’t intend at first to give up her “very demanding” freelance career.
But in less than two years, Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine ran a full-page feature on her products, and that gave Flett the confidence to take the business to the next level.
One last freelance job paid enough to cover the first year’s rent on space in Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill, and she gave herself that year to see if she could make it. She never looked back.
More magazine writeups followed, she connected with retailers — Daytrip Society in Kennebunkport and Blanch & MiMi in Portland were the first — and she doubled sales every year for the next five years.
Flett attributes the popularity of her products to unique hand-printing, they’re made in-house and in Maine and materials are carefully sourced.
As a graphic designer, she also understood the importance of branding. “I created a brand out of the gate,” she says.
Flett moved out of the Dana Warp Mill early last year and into a 3,900-square-foot historic building at 2 Main St., in Gorham, which she leases from Great Falls Construction. The building has a retail showroom and doubled her space for manufacturing and shipping.
The move was exciting. “I finally get to play in a larger space,” she says.
Despite a walk-in slowdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the showroom has been a success, Flett says. Visitors, many who follow the firm’s Instagram account, have come from as far as North Carolina and Texas.
In April, Flett and L.L.Bean announced a partnership on custom-made totes sold exclusively in Bean’s stores and on its website.
“When we visited Erin in her studio last year, we fell in love with her passion, talent, approach and integrity,” the iconic Freeport retailer said on Facebook when it announced the partnership.
In June, Flett won the “Greenlight Maine” $100,000 grand prize in a field of 25 contestants.
Her collaborations “are a big part of what makes a brand work,” judge Corky Ellis, founder of Kepware Technologies, said in the series finale. “I have to give her a lot of credit for putting the foundation in place for that.”
Flett says collaborations, both big and small, have been her business education.
“I feel like a lot of the shops my products are sold in have been my mentors,” she says. Retailers have guided her on price, what colors are popular, and more. “The key to success is listening to the customer.”
Manufacturing too, Flett says, “isn’t something you go to school to learn.” Much of what she’s learned, has been out of necessity and through collaborations
Natasha Durham, owner of Rough & Tumble Design, has played a large role in that education. The two have known each other for years. “She gets it, and we can feed off each other,” Flett says.
Durham, who calls Flett her “comrade, confidante and inspiration,” says Flett also has that extra something.
“Erin is driven in a way that vindicates my own drive when it feels crazy and over the top,” Durham says. “She has grace under pressure, and never wavers from the challenge of succeeding, while rewarding and honoring all the ones that hold you up.”
Flett started out at the University of Kansas as a journalism major, but a chance meeting with a graphic designer led her to graphic design. She didn’t realize textile design existed until she came across it after college.
Mentoring goes both ways, and she wants to encourage Maine’s high school and college students to look at the field, including the trades end of it. She hires several interns a year and is looking for other ways to make young people aware of the options in graphic design, including trades like stitching.
She employs 18 people, about half of whom are stitchers, and good ones are hard to find.
“There are so many people in Maine making things,” she says. “If you know how to sew, there are a lot of options.”
She also has a bigger message. While it’s important to listen to advice, young people should follow their heart.
“There are a lot of voices out there,” she says. Many with the message that something can’t be done. She’s heard them herself.
“At the end of the day, I only listen to myself,” she says. “I won’t take no for an answer, and if it’s no, I’ll find someone who says yes.”