Meet the Designer: Blake Kahan of SF’s Sunny Textile Shop Willow Ship


Artist Blake Kahan is the one-woman show behind Willow Ship, a pure linen home goods brand, printed and sewn by hand in her SF studio. All-natural and eco-friendy, Willow Ship boasts gorgeous tea towels, dinner napkins, table runners and placemats, plus conversation-starting decorative pillows.

We recently got the chance to chat with Kahan about her inspirations, new projects and putting parenting first. Plus, snag some of her fabulous wares at this weekend’s Renegade Craft Fair in San Francisco.

CH+D: Why did you start creating art?
Kahan: I had a pretty crafty childhood in Southern California, so I guess it all goes back to that, as cliché as it sounds. In addition to Girl Scout camp and lots of time at the beach and water slides, my parents let me go to art day-camp during the summer. We did lots of crafts at home, like painting, papier mache and sun prints. I always admired my mom’s drawing ability and she was excellent at sewing. I never did learn to sew from her (I’m book- and self-taught) but just being in that type of environment probably helped keep the idea of making on my radar. My formal art education is a bachelor’s degree in Art & Design from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where my emphasis was Graphic Design.

How was your company Willow Ship started?
Kahan: Since college, I worked in Graphic Design for about 15 years, for a range of industries. After our son was born in 2008 (and a generous maternity leave), I returned in a part-time fashion to my job as a Senior Art Director at a San Francisco-based children’s toy company, where I was doing packaging and identity design. On my commute, I started sketching ideas for homewares— things that I would love not only to make but to buy, designed for people like me and my friends. I had never designed for that demographic before, and I was itching to work on ideas that I had a strong opinion about. The sketching continued, I started nosing around on Etsy, and at a certain point it all dovetailed with my desire to take more control of my schedule, hopefully putting parenting first, and simply being home more. So, in early 2011, with my supportive husband bravely on board, I left my “real” job and set up a printing and sewing studio in some extra space in our home’s downstairs. I officially started selling Willow Ship goods on Etsy in September 2011.

Outside of Willow Ship, my main job is mothering our 3 year old son and growing him a baby sister, due this October.

What inspires you?
Kahan: Firstly, anyone who gracefully combines family with creative work is my inspiration; it’s hard and I’m still figuring it out. My design inspirations come from vintage textiles, earthy ceramics, natural fibers, quilting, California in the 1970s, Japanese and Scandinavian fabric design, Danish Modern furniture, the amazing makers I follow on Instagram, plus anything with a color palette that stops me in my tracks. More generally, ideas strike while tending the garden, cooking, entertaining, and simply living a rather quiet family life, day to day. I continue to design, print and sew because it’s the perfect marriage of doing stimulating work in a setting that I love: home. Just the chance to continue conducting this business in the way that I choose, and which works for our family, is motivation enough to keep pushing myself and do everything I can to have it succeed.

What is your creative process?
Kahan: My design process is one of absorption and spontaneity. I do a lot of doodles and sketches, collect reference images on Pinterest for color palettes and interesting patterns, and then select a few ideas to work up into printing plates, which I assemble using a free-form, cut-paper-like approach. I spend a lot of time working on the color palette, and each shade I use is custom blended. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in Color Theory class, tweaking and stirring colors at length for just the right effect. It feels pretty full-circle with my college days at times.

What will you be working on next?
Kahan: I’m currently working hard on my goods for the San Francisco Renegade Craft Fair, where I’ll be offering new additions like totes, aprons and clutches. That show is a huge project, so afterwards I’ll be working on the next round of ideas as well as filling orders for wholesale customers. On the horizon, I want to explore natural dying techniques—and perhaps find an assistant!

Catch the Renegade Craft Fair at San Francisco’s Fort Mason this weekend, July 21-22. See more of Willow Ship’s textiles online at Etsy and at Knack. Willow Ship is also currently offered at a few local stores: Heath CeramicsPerch, and Foggy Notion

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