At home and at work in Texas with Folk Fibers.
BY RAMONA FLUME
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOSH GOLEMAN
Maura Grace Ambrose knows the difference between simple and easy.
“I’ve always loved working with indigo. I thought of it as my passion plant when I started—so easy to grow and harvest,” says the founder of Folk Fibers, the line of handmade quilts notorious for an extremely meticulous, hand-dyed, hand-stitched production process. “But really, indigo work requires a lifetime to develop into its full potential.”
Maura started quilting and studying its American folklore at Savannah College of Art & Design, where she graduated with a degree in textile design and fiber arts. She’d go on to land corporate creative gigs at Urban Outfitters, teach at preschools, and hone an organic gardening education with apprenticeships at sustainable farms and greenhouses. Yet in 2011, Maura found herself unsettled and seeking to reconnect with her artistic roots.
Thus, a four-month sojourn crisscrossing the back roads of America with her husband in a 1970 Volkswagen van began. (“The camper literally couldn’t run on highways so we had to take the long way.”) Throughout the trip, Maura worked on her first lap-stitched quilt, documenting her progress and mileage on social media. The adventure along the Mississippi and across the Appalachians lit a fre within the Ambroses and from then Maura resolved to pursue quilt making full time. Within months, she amassed a huge online following and attracted influential collaborators, like Levi’s who commissioned the first batch of Folk Fibers quilts for their flagship stores and nationwide Makers campaign.
“It’s crazy to think how things took off,” she says about the momentum of the brand’s early days. Rooted in the slow art of natural dyeing and abstract Americana and Amish designs of the 19th century, Folk Fibers seemed to catch a resurgent wave of modern craftsmanship.
In 2013, they were one of 10 businesses honored with a coveted Martha Stewart American Made award. The next year, Folk Fibers made record sales and Maura and Chap welcomed their first child, Ada Mae. The couple bought their family’s first home in the Texas Hill Country soon after and relocated the Folk Fibers headquarters there, about 30 minutes outside of Austin.
The 10-acre homestead occupies a beautiful tract of hilltop property with sweeping views of neighboring forests, farmland, and cattle pastures. Ada, almost two years old now, runs between the raised beds of their new organic garden where I stand with Maura, talking about how indigofera tentoria is different from her other dye plants.
From the beginning, Folk Fibers was built on a foundation of “quality over quantity” and Maura has wanted her daily life to embody that same intention. Since having Ada, she’s learned to trust that instinct even more in order to preserve the richness of both her family life and brand, especially as they blossom in tandem. She suspended wholesale and commission orders, yet refuses both to enroll Ada in daycare or sacrifice her artistic standards. What that means, practically, is that Maura now works with a few other stitchers to complete her works and completes only four limited edition quilts (70x90 inch) each year. “We might take the harder route in terms of time and labor,” she says, “but the rewards are greater.”
At any given time, Maura is sketching watercolor inspirations for her next quilt patterns, foraging dye materials, harvesting crops of madder root, churning dyes in the 60- and 120-quart pots on her back porch, or line-drying vintage linen in between dips in the dye baths. You can see the work in every acre to clear, every fence to pitch, every seed of woad to plant. “There’s something to do every day—and I’ve come to a peace with that,” Maura says. “I learned it was OK to ask for and receive help. Only strong people can do that. There’s still a beauty in going slow.”
She describes the payoff in loose terms, like her ability to strike out whenever she pleases into the countryside to forage dye materials: the yellow leaves of Mexican plum trees, juniper berries and the cochineal insects, the inner bark off collapsed black oak trees, or the mustang grapes she waits for every July.
“Harvesting is just one wonder of it all,” she says. “To think that instead of buying a dye online, I can go into the woods with Ada and find an osage orange tree, hike home, and use the heartwood to create a beautiful yellow dye in our backyard. It’s just magic to me. When the story is rich, the process feels rich.”
Ada darts ahead of us, showing off a pair of puddle-splashed sneakers and throwing back her hay colored curls in a ft of giggles. A wind whips up from the hillside, lifting up a fresh breeze from the tops of trees and wildflowers that only Maura could identify. The setting is idyllic, almost anachronistic in its beauty, like one of her hand-stitched heirlooms—and just as deceptive in its appearance.
Simple, but not easy.