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Calls to action

Hand-lettered illustration from the book "Dead Feminists: Historical Heroines in Living Color" by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

One of the biggest challenges of turning the Dead Feminists into a book was figuring out a way to tie all our broadsides together in a way that was engaging for the reader. Aside from the size and format of each broadside, our prints had little in common with one another. Our feminists were a diverse group without much of an underlying thread—even the style of illustration was different for each one.

Hand-lettered illustration from the book "Dead Feminists: Historical Heroines in Living Color" by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

Jessica came up with the solution: using action verbs to tell our story. After all, our aim with the series was to use the literal and figurative power of the press to change the world around us. The women we featured had also created change—they were active, not passive. So we divided our 24 feminists among eight action words, choosing for each chapter a trio of women who shared qualities or deeds with that particular verb. And since we’re so close to the release of the book (just two weeks!), we thought we’d share a few of those words with you.

Hand-lettered illustration from the book "Dead Feminists: Historical Heroines in Living Color" by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

The best part for me, of course, was being able to make more hand-lettered illustrations! Each chapter’s verb is done in a different style, and elements of that illustration are carried throughout the rest of the chapter.

Hand-lettered illustration from the book "Dead Feminists: Historical Heroines in Living Color" by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

Of course, shoe-horning each feminist into one of the eight action themes was sometimes a convoluted business, but we got there in the end. We’re super pleased with how it all turned out—and hopeful that it might inspire more women and girls to take the lead with some action of their own.

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Just our type

Process photo for "Veil of Knowledge" broadside by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring.

Jessica has our new broadside on press as I type this, lining up the colors and doing one last check for typos. But this week also holds another kind of “typo” for us, the kind we actually encourage: typophiles.

While our schedules prevent us from actually being there in person, I’m happy to announce that many of our Dead Feminist broadsides will be exhibited this week as part of TypeCon 2014 in Washington, DC. Since it began in 1998, TypeCon has been a major gathering point for designers, typographers and letterers—as well as a nexus for typography as an art form. So we’re incredibly excited and honored to have our work featured among so many talented artists. So if you happen to be attending TypeCon this week, stop by the gallery and take a gander—and tell everyone hi for us!

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Hedge trimmings

Hand-lettered "Hedge" alphabet by Chandler O'Leary

Look! I made an alphabet!

It’s funny—I almost never design an entire alphabet. In general, lettering projects just don’t really work like that. Most of the time, a letterer(erer) designs only the letterforms required for the word or phrase they’re lettering. That’s really the best way to create letter styles (which are not the same as fonts!) that really fit what the text is trying to “say.” You’re not designing an alphabet and then making it work for a bit of text—you’re taking that bit of text and giving it a voice.

Detail of hand-lettered "Hedge" alphabet by Chandler O'Leary

But this time, I did things differently. I wanted to create some botanical lettering, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to use it for—so I went whole hog and started with the entire alphabet.

Process detail of hand-lettered "Hedge" alphabet by Chandler O'Leary

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work with a new (to me) medium: acrylic ink. It’s what I used to create the You’ll Like Tacoma and Love Birds series. What I love about acrylic ink is that unlike watercolor, it’s opaque—and infinitely easier to wrangle than the more traditional opaque medium of gouache.

When you work with watercolor alone, you have to start with the lightest colors first, and build up darker ones in layers. Whites are the white of your paper, and once you add pigment to an area, you can never return back to that pristine white. It teaches you to think in a subtractive sense, where you sort of “cordon off” the areas you want to stay white, and carefully build everything else up around them. I love working with watercolor, but it takes years and years of practice to feel proficient at it, and it’s not a medium that’s forgiving of mistakes.

I find opaque media to be far more freeing, and the look more crisp. (I also like to combine acrylic ink with watercolor in the same painting—the best of both worlds!) But what I love best about it is that I don’t have to work from light-to-dark—I can go in reverse! Many of the mid-century illustrators I admire (Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Walt Peregoy, Ralph Hulett, etc.) painted with opaque media, so I looked at a lot of landscape paintings done for animation backgrounds for clues on technique. That’s when I figured it out: dark-to-light, not light-to-dark.

For my alphabet, I started with a black hedge silhouette, and added leaves (above) in increasingly lighter greens and blues. I think by the end there were 9 or 10 layers of paint in the finished lettering.

Hand-painted lettering by Chandler O'Leary

I was so grateful for the epiphanies Earle and Hulett had given me that suddenly, what I wanted to do with the alphabet became clear: thank-you cards!

To hedge my bets (sorry) I’ve packaged them up both individually and in pretty little box sets of 8. You can find yours in the shop!

Hand-lettered "Hedge" thank-you cards by Chandler O'Leary


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Fabric Feminists, part two

"Women's Work" series of hand-stitched textile broadsides by Chandler O'Leary

By now you’ve figured out that I have a thing for stitched lettering; and since I’ve already rambled on ad nauseum in the last post, I can keep this one a little shorter.

And anyway, I somehow neglected to take any process photos for two of these. Oops.

"Hope Chest" hand-appliqued textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

The knitted broadside was such a success that I decided to try branching out into other textile media. For Broadside No. 4, I took a shot at appliqué—something I’d never done before. Hand-sewing all those fiddly little pieces of fabric ended up being just as daunting as cutting a steek.

The hard work was oddly fitting for the concept: historically, a traditional wedding trousseau would have been sewn by a girl or young woman, in hopes of one day becoming a married woman with a home of her own. By the time she reached young adulthood, a woman would have spent years creating dozens of hand-sewn garments, household linens and other useful textiles, all gathered and stored in her “hope chest,” awaiting the day she would become a bride.

Detail of "Hope Chest" hand-appliqued textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

The thing is, back in the days when women couldn’t vote, or own property, or head a household, marriage was a woman’s only shot at independence or social status. (Hence the snark.)

"Eye Chart" hand-embroidered textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

For the others, I turned to the original, old-school ancestor of fabric paint: embroidery. The method fit the madness this time, too, as I spent what seemed like a century hunched over and squinting, hand-stitching an eye chart…

Detail of "Eye Chart" hand-embroidered textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

…complete with something to read between the lines.

This one gets personal. As a glasses-wearing gal myself, I happen to disagree with the statement—but I’ve actually heard these very words spoken by a woman. She wasn’t wearing glasses.

"Seamstress" hand-embroidered textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

Last of all, I got to thinking about how men who sew for a living are called tailors—and women who do the same are called seamstresses. And how the two terms don’t quite add up to the same meaning.

Process photo of "Seamstress" hand-embroidered textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

Despite what the scornful quipping of the text might indicate, I had the most gleeful fun with this one. Unlike knitting, which confines the designer to a grid, or appliqué, which can only push the detailing so far, embroidery has almost limitless possibilities. So I went nuts with the tails and ligatures  and dingbats, simply because I could. I love that about embroidery—it’s as flexible as I need it to be, and as fluid and crisp as the printed page.

Process photo of "Seamstress" hand-embroidered textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

All that was required was the patience to work each letter by hand. But it didn’t feel like patience—it felt like meditation.

Detail of "Seamstress" hand-embroidered textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

It’s surprising how easy it is for embroidery to mimic letterpress. And watching “wood” type pop up from the fabric, rather than punch into paper, is a mighty satisfying sight.

Detail of "Seamstress" hand-embroidered textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

Uppity notions aside (no pun intended), the Women’s Work broadsides are a fun way to slow down and take a break from what I normally do in the studio. But as I wrap up each one, I find myself hankering to get back into the print shop. By comparison, setting type and drawing letters suddenly seems like speedy work!

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Fabric Feminists, part one

"Feminist Wiles" exhibition featuring work by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

While I’ve been hiding away, wrangling my 900-pound gorilla, Jessica has been cooking up something pretty great.

"Feminist Wiles" exhibition featuring work by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

Thanks to her hard work and the wonderful Brian Hutcheson‘s invitation, we are pleased as punch to announce our first-ever dual exhibition!

Feminist Wiles: Jessica Spring and Chandler O’Leary
Now through November 5
Ted Sanford Gallery, Charles Wright Academy
7723 Chambers Creek Rd. W
Tacoma, Washington
Open 8 to 5, Monday through Friday

It seems weird that after more than two years of collaborating, giving lectures and printing in the street, we’ve never had an honest-to-goodness show together.

"Feminist Wiles" exhibition featuring work by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

But when Brian offered us a cavernous space, his help with installation, and the chance to indoctrinate the innocent introduce our series to the kids at Charles Wright—well, we’d be nuts to pass that up.

"Feminist Wiles" exhibition featuring work by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

For the first time, all nine (and-a-half) Dead Feminist broadsides to date, plus our two steamroller gals, are on display together.

"Feminist Wiles" exhibition featuring work by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

We also have a little mini-exhibit about our process,

"Feminist Wiles" exhibition featuring work by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

and lots of little goodies to introduce people to letterpress.

"Do You Feel Pretty" broadside series by Jessica Spring

Jessica and I have rounded out the collection with solo work that complements the theme of the show. Jessica’s half consists of Do You Feel Beautiful?, a series of broadsides featuring famous aphorisms on beauty. Here’s the thing that blows my mind into tiny pieces every time I think of it: the quotes are letterpress printed on the pages of a Braille edition of Seventeen magazine. Whoa.

I contributed Women’s Work, an ongoing series of broadsides created in hand-sewn textiles rather than my usual letterpress.

Now, I get a ton of questions about these things whenever I show them, so I thought I’d outline the ideas and process behind them here.

"Women's Work" series of hand-stitched textile broadsides by Chandler O'Leary

The Tailor first sparked the idea for the series; as you know, he makes his own clothing (hence the nickname). This is a feat that never ceases to amaze me, and I’m not the only one—he gets a lot of comments, usually along the lines of “Wow, you made that?” He’s always a little surprised by these comments, because where he grew up, a lot of people (including his family) wore homemade clothing. That got me thinking, though. The people who do all that sewing in the Tailor’s hometown are women—mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, wives. We’re all surrounded and preceded by generations of women who sew clothing, or knit sweaters, or draft patterns from scratch, without any rave reviews—or any comment at all. But every male knitter or quilter I’ve known, every rare and wonderful man who ever picked up a needle, is either looked at like he’s nuts, or treated with reverent awe. It strikes me as a little strange that depending on who made it, and who’s looking at it, a pair of pants can be a work of art—and an actual work of art can be completely ignored.

If you go further back, like, I dunno, throughout the entirety of human history—you’ll find that both men and women have been responsible for creating textile goods in nearly every culture on earth. Yet in almost every case, when men made textiles it was as part of some sort of guild craft or other professional setting. When women made textiles, it was as part of the home front. This is true in every part of the globe, in pretty much every era, going back to the advent of textile technology.

No matter who does the stitching, there’s an enormous amount of technical skill and design sensibility required to make a garment or textile object. So instead of creating divisions and pigeonholes—instead of separating into Art and Not Art, into Man-made and Woman-made, what if we started seeing the inherent worth in the objects themselves? And what happens when we take a handmade textile and stick it in a gallery? Does its perception change?

Based on what I’ve seen so far with these broadsides, I’d say it does. It’s been an interesting experiment, for sure.

So the Women’s Work series is a bit of an indictment of the double standard, and while the snark is aimed at a wider target, I wrote them as if I were speaking to a woman. Each one is completely made/knitted/sewn/pieced/embroidered/etc. by hand, from design to pattern to construction. The text reads in the voice of a disapproving female role model (or the insidious voice inside our own heads)—in the tone of the backhanded compliment, the cheerful put-down. Each is also designed in the style of a traditional letterpress broadside, to put the typography within the context of an art form centered around mass communication.

"Museum Quality" hand-knitted textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

This guy requires a little more of an explanation for folks who aren’t already into wool.

Detail of "Museum Quality" hand-knitted textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

This piece, made almost three years ago now, is hand-knitted with Shetland wool, using the traditional Fair Isle knitting technique. Fair Isle—a method practiced since the nineteenth century on the tiny island of the same name, halfway between Scotland and Norway—is a tricky, rather ingenious thing. Traditional Fair Isle pieces are knit with two colors of yarn at the same time; the resulting fabric is durable, extremely warm, and great for any chilly, foggy, wet climate (like, hello, here). Beyond its über-practicality, Fair Isle knitting is simply gorgeous (take a gander at Google). By nature the double-thick fabric is dense and flat, making it an ideal ground for complex patterns and designs—it’s the perfect mix of function and fancy.

Process photo of "Museum Quality" hand-knitted textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

Here’s how it works: even though the piece is knitted with two different colors of yarn at once, only one strand at a time ever passes through the needles. The unused strand of yarn is carried loosely, or “floated,” behind the work—which creates a reversed-out image of the design on the back of the piece. It’s the floats that give structure to the fabric, and make it so cozy-warm.

If you were to create a plain ol’ piece of ordinary knitting, you’d proceed from one end to the other of a row, flip the piece over, and work back the other direction. Rinse and repeat. If you tried that with a piece of Fair Isle knitting, working the “wrong” side would be extremely difficult, since the floats would now be facing you and covering your stitches. Now comes the tricky, smarty-pants part. Flat Fair Isle pieces are first knitted up into a big round tube, and then cut to lie flat. When you knit in the round, you never encounter the wrong side of the work. You just spiral around and around on the right side, happily knitting away and floating the unused color behind you as you go.

Process photo of "Museum Quality" hand-knitted textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

So in this case, once I had drafted my design into a gridded stitch pattern, I just pretended I was knitting one really big sleeve (or a neck warmer for a giraffe) with really teeny needles.

Ah, but remember the operative words above: you have to cut the piece to finish it. I had never done this before, and let me tell you, there’s an awful, terrifying finality to the idea. Torn sweaters unravel. Snagged socks fall apart. Who in their right mind would cut a piece of knitting on purpose? And even if you could do it, what happens if you make a mistake? Once you make that cut, you’re done.

Process photo of "Museum Quality" hand-knitted textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

This is where the true brilliance of the technique hit me like a ton of bricks. The Scotswomen of Fair Isle are a breed apart—and so are their sheep. Shetland wool, the material traditionally used in Fair Isle knitting, has a magical property that makes this crazy notion work: each wool fiber is covered with microscopic scales that attach to one another. Because the wool sticks to itself, the stitches become slightly matted as you knit. So following the Fair Isle method, you work a little buffer zone called a steek (see the checkerboard strip above?) into your design, and then cut right down the center of the steek. If you use trusty Shetland wool, your stitches won’t unravel when you cut them.

At least, that was the theory. I didn’t quite believe it at the time. But I’d come this far—I didn’t want to lose faith. (If you’re looking to try Fair Isle knitting yourself, I find a glass of wine helps.) So I took a steadying swig, held my breath, and cut.

Process photo of "Museum Quality" hand-knitted textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

And then I exhaled. And blinked. I had a flat piece. Gingerly I tested the cut edge—and was amazed. Even with a fair bit of tugging, the stitches refused to unravel.

I will never question a Scotswoman again.

My favorite thing about all of this, beyond the magic of Fair Isle itself, is that knitting really lends itself well to letterforms. Even though the pattern is drafted out on a grid, the forgiving nature of knitted stitches turns every square on the grid into a slightly curved, irregular shape. So when you zoom out and look at the piece from a distance, those grid “pixels” turn into nice little serifs, curves and curlicues.

The rest of the broadsides in the series are made using other types of needlework (more on that in the next post), but the knitted piece is still my favorite. I think I need another dose of that Fair Isle magic in my life—maybe next year you’ll find me up to my knees in wool again.

(Read about the rest of the “Women’s Work” broadsides in part two.)

Process photo of "Museum Quality" hand-knitted textile broadside by Chandler O'Leary

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Sugar serifs

What with a string of out-of-town visitors and deadlines to distract us,  the Tailor and I let our first anniversary slide by without much fanfare. This week, however, we remembered the nostalgic, circa-early-1980s, licensed-character Wilton cake pans we borrowed from his parents last winter, and decided a belated, totally un-wedding-like anniversary cake was in order. (Sane people just go out for a nice dinner.)

When I was a kid I loved the weird, hairy-looking frosting on those Cookie Monster and Pac Man cakes, but I don’t remember actually having one at any of my birthdays (I usually requested pumpkin pie, still my favorite). So this was my chance to both relive and rewrite my childhood—and to try my hand at creating that bizarre, strangely satisfying frosting texture.

The Tailor found a white cake recipe in our favorite cook book (we have three copies!), and we modified an icing recipe to include only butter, sugar, vanilla and cream (about the only thing you’ll ever see me using shortening for is cleaning letterpress equipment). Then I noticed that the cake mold left room to write a message in icing—and my eyes strayed to my decorating tip, which was shaped curiously like a calligraphy pen nib. So I couldn’t resist attempting a little edible typography. The cake wasn’t large enough to write “Happy Anniversary” with any typographic flair—and that’s not my style anyway. So I went with something a little more down-to-earth, and, well, appropriate to the medium:


(We did. Most joyfully. My edible kerning needs some work, though…)