Interview by Daniela Sweet-Coll
Images by Gaby Figueroa
Gaby Figueroa is a self-taught artist from Los Angeles, CA. She transferred to Wesleyan in her sophomore year, and started embroidering at the start of the pandemic. She now runs her own small business, Strings Attached, where she sells custom-embroidered hoodies.
All of your work is customized to the client, from the hoodie and embroidery colors to the design and placement of the stitching itself. It seems like such an intimate creative process, and I’m curious what that’s like for you as the creator. Do you do any non-custom work, or do you prefer that one-on-one dynamic?
I’ve done a few (non-customs)! I did one that was a dinosaur on a skateboard, and a few Avatar ones. For those ones that I design on my own I’m fine with repeating them if someone asks for the same design in a different color. As for the custom pieces, I get a lot of people who see one of the customs and are like “oh I want that too!” but I don’t like to repeat designs because it’s unique to the person who designed it and I don’t want to try to duplicate that. I’m open to doing the same character twice, as long as the source images are unique.
Your customization process is very thoughtful, and embroidery seems really painstaking. How long does it take you to make each piece?
[laughs] It’s a long time! Depending on the design, size and if I’m filling it in or not, it takes anywhere from five to fifteen hours.
Damn! That’s a long time. How do you set your prices given the labor each piece entails?
I honestly don’t really factor that in! I sell them for $60-75 each.
That’s so low, is that including your materials costs?
[laughs] Everyone tells me that! That’s the total price I charge for custom work, including materials. I guess I want the hoodies to be accessible to all students. I love making them for people and I love seeing people wearing them, and I really don’t want them to be this exclusive thing. It’s gotten to the point where I have so many orders that it is a bit stressful, but I want to eventually start doing 4-5 orders a month. It’s something I really enjoy and it’s an outlet for me, so I don’t really mind. I want as many people to be able to have one as possible! Were I accounting for my labor each piece would definitely cost a lot more, but part of the reward is seeing people wearing their hoodies and having this unique piece for themselves.
Did you teach yourself how to embroider?
I did, at the beginning of quarantine. I had always wanted to try it and had just never actually started, and when I mentioned my interest in it to one of my brothers’ friends he said “me too, let’s start learning together tomorrow!” I was like “I’m not ready, I really don’t know what I’m doing” and he was like “no, we’re starting!” I think having someone else to thrust me into it was really helpful.
I guess I was nervous to start the hoodie business because I felt like “what if I’m not good enough at this?” and then I saw this quote somewhere that said “if you don’t think you’re ready, that means it’s time to start,” so I was like “ok, I’ll do it!” Through this business I’ve gotten so much better at embroidery and had to learn so many new stitches and styles based on what people want. It’s been the best way for me to learn.
It’s clear that you really love this work – to the point that you’re undercharging people! – and I’m curious what about it drew you in so much? How does embroidering make you feel?
My favorite element of doing the hoodies is that I’m working with someone else to create something. I love talking to them about what they want to see, and it’s always super special when they tell me “oh, this is a gift for someone” or “this image that I want is a symbol that means something special for me and my brother.” Them letting me in on that is really special, so that’s something I really love about doing the hoodies.
I think embroidery in general is just really fun. It’s honestly kind of therapeutic in an ASMR type of way, with the feel of the fabric and the thread. It’s kind of like coloring, just filling in spaces, and it’s really satisfying to see it come to life.
My favorite part of my work is when I deliver them and people get to see their design, it’s so fun to see people smile and wear this thing that they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise!