On a quiet, unassuming block in central Missoula you’ll find something the city has never seen before within an industrial looking building: textile printing. Partners Kathryn Sanders and Conor Ballantyne are the masterminds behind Western Sensibility, a textile printing studio that brings an entirely new industry to town.
This week’s Thread Talk is a little bit different – I had the opportunity to visit them in person at their studio and now I get to share that experience with you via video.
For Katy, textiles are a family business. An adorably-framed photo of Katy’s grandfather hangs above their printers and many of his old dyes and tools adorn their custom-built meeting and design room. Her family has run textile printing companies in LA for generations, and she’s now brought this technology to Missoula, highlighting many local artists via Western Sensibility’s textiles for the interior design community.
Katy and Conor are passionate about bringing artists’ visions to life, and the role collaboration plays in their business is huge – “we’ve really structured our business it so it’s a true collaboration” says Katy, “it’s not just ‘give us your file and we’ll print it’, we can be as hands on or hands off as you want us to be”. Conor enjoys driving Photoshop and creating things together with many of the artists Western Sensibility works with. “I couldn’t create the stuff they come up with” he shares, “but it’s really rewarding helping them translate it to a product”. These products include throw pillows and drapery.
Their space is a pleasing sequence of offices linked to vaulted-ceiling warehouse space, and sitting in the center of their ecosystem is their calendar – a several thousand pound machine that is responsible for the magic that is sublimation printing. Digital designs are first printed onto a transfer paper, but the heat calendar is where the transfer paper and ink bonds to the fabric via sublimation. AKA the ink becomes a gas so the fabric and art become one.
Installing the calendar was one of the most challenging things Conor and Katy have done in their business. It’s physically massive, so getting it inside the building was a delicate dance of forklifts. Next, supplying power to it turned out to be an education in wiring, as several electricians were stumped by the project, and the industry in general. “I’ve learned a lot more about single phase and three phase power and things of that nature” shares Conor. “signing up for this, I didn’t think that would be something I would learn a lot about”.
Watching these two load fabric and paper on to the machine and gently manage it through its metamorphosis is pretty darn magical. It’s clear that Katy and Conor love the work, the excitement of the process and own their individual roles within Western Sensibility.
In addition to business partners, they’re life partners too. When I asked them what it’s like to work with your significant other, their answers were reassuring and realistic. “we’ve always felt like we’ve had strong communication, and that’s been huge” said Conor, while Katy shared that “the work-life balance all becomes one, so we have to be mindful of when we’re at home and when we’re here.