North Carolina enjoys a vibrant community of makers, artisans, craftsmen, and artists. At the Our State Store, we travel the state hunting for local artisans who create special, handcrafted goods, and we're giving you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creators of some of our most popular products. Sit a spell with us as we introduce you to some of our favorite North Carolina makers. This month, we caught up with the "Lumina Ladies" in Wilmington.
Shining brightly across the sand and sea, Lumina Pavilion was a beacon of Southern coastal hospitality. Built in 1905 on Wrightsville Beach at the end of the Beach Cars trolley line, the 3-story, 25,000-square-foot dance hall welcomed beachgoers with the light of over a thousand incandescent light bulbs and invited them in to enjoy live music, a movie theater, a bowling alley, and restaurants. Times change, however, and the building slowly deteriorated until finally being demolished in 1973. Today, Lumina’s memory remains bright for Wilmingtonians and is fondly remembered.
To Sarah and Jennifer Tillery, Lumina Pavilion represents the “good ol’ days” when handcrafted Southern products were made to last. Inspired by summers spent on the beach off of Lumina Avenue, Sarah and Jennifer named their handcrafted embroidery business after this beach beacon. The dynamic mother-daughter duo hail from eastern North Carolina, and their creations exude quintessential Southern elegance steeped in family traditions. We caught up with Sarah to learn more about their operation.
Tell us about yourself and your background. Where are you both from? Where do you live now?
We are a mother-daughter duo who were both born and raised in North Carolina. Jennifer (my mom) grew up in Wilson, and I grew up in Wilmington. I attended college at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and then moved to Washington, D.C., for eight years to work in tourism and museums. We both now live in Wilmington again. Jennifer is a retired nurse, expert toy seller, and fantastic grandmother -- a woman of many talents!
What inspires you about Wilmington?
The South in general inspires all of our creations. Growing up in the South, we love classic traditional style. From magnolias to ginger jars, we try to create embroidery that exemplifies this style. When customers receive our items, we want them to feel like they have a piece of Southern history in their homes. Our name is a reference to Lumina Avenue, which is where we went to the beach every summer. We just knew this was the perfect fit when deciding on a name for our shop.
How did you get started?
It all started with my grandmother and grandfather. Gwendolyn Wilson (my maternal grandmother) grew up in the Great Depression, so she was extremely crafty. She learned to sew and hand embroider. This skill was passed down to my mother and then to me. My paternal grandfather, Judge Lynn Tillery, Jr., was strict and orderly in his courtroom, but he was an extremely talented painter and hand embroiderer. We keep many of his pieces of art in our homes as heirlooms. We were always very interested in having an embroidery machine to make our own personalized items but never thought to open a business. At Christmas in 2014, my father took a leap of faith in us and purchased our first embroidery machine that we nicknamed "Ms. Gold." We started with simple projects while learning how to work the machine and how to best use its capabilities. In February 2015, I convinced my mother to start an Etsy shop with me and the rest, as they say, is history. Our passion has turned into an embroidery business that we enjoy and love every day. Customers return to our shop frequently and trust us to create special heirloom-quality items for their family, such as “going home” outfits for newborns. Our business has blossomed, and we have now purchased a large, commercial embroidery machine which has opened up even more opportunities. We are very excited about the future of Lumina!
How do you divide your workload? Is there a creative side and business side, or do both of you do everything?
We both have our individual jobs to keep the shop running. My mother, Jennifer, handles all shipping, financials, keeping our classic items in stock, embroidering with two of our machines (at one time!), sewing our bibs… the list goes on! I create the designs, set up the items to be embroidered, manage orders, and manage marketing and social media. I work full time during the day, while my mom Jennifer is is now semi-retired because she does a lot for Lumina during the day. At night we work until about midnight and then on the weekends as well.
Tell us about your studio. Is it organized chaos, or does everything have its place?
We have a home studio that seems to be growing every day. Since I still work full-time, we will keep the shop in our house. However, our future is a brick-and-mortar store that features our items as well as other handmade items from makers that we have built friendships with. The space in my home was created as just a sewing room, but it has evolved into a real embroidery shop. I call it organized chaos, while Jennifer calls it chaos. I think that as a creative person, it's impossible to keep our shop area completely organized. I am a very visual creator and need the fabrics and miscellanea around me to piece together my ideas. The long term goal is a real shop, one where customers can come and meet us, grab an iced coffee, sit down, and completely customize an item. Our shop would, of course, be dog friendly!
What are your most essential tools? How do you use these to create your designs? Walk us through a piece from start to finish.
Our most essential tools are our embroidery software, machines, materials, and most importantly, the desire to succeed and continue to grow. Each design starts with determining which theme I want to make -- coastal, holiday or what have you. From there, I piece together the design to create the vision in my head. Then, I decide on which item the design will be embroidered. For example, we may choose to feature this design on a linen towel. After ironing the towel, we find its center, hoop it with a backing stabilizer, and then head to the machine. We now have three embroidery machines, ranging in size, quality, and cost, and they are thus nicknamed, Ms. Silver, Ms. Gold, and Ms. Cadillac. The type of design dictates which machine we use.
After transferring the design to the machine, we add in the hooped material and pick out the thread colors. Many times, if I am working on a custom piece, I won't pick all the colors until we have embroidered some of the design already. This allows me to visualize the color combination and pick the right one for the piece. After the embroidery is finished, we take the linen out of the hoop, tear away the stabilizer, cut all the strings and clean up the backing. Then it's on to ironing, picture-taking, and wrapping for shipping!
The two of you have a lot going on. What’s a typical day like?
A typical day -- or shall we say night? -- begins around 6 PM. We prioritize what items need to be done that night to ship the next day. The goal is to have all three machines running at once with three different projects. This allows us to maximize our time. While items are embroidering, we iron, create new designs, email customers, and take care of business.
Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?
We are inspired by the South, by Wilmington, and by classic and traditional style, but with a twist. Embroidery is a Southern tradition, one that my generation is beginning to appreciate. The goal is to keep the tradition going, but add a twist of contemporary to heirloom pieces and reach all ages of customers.
How do you recharge your creativity? Any hobbies?
We both love to read, relax at the pool, and spend time with my brother's children. Brinkley, my maltipoo, is our DEO (dog executive officer) and we just adopted a shop kitty. We also both enjoy needlepoint.
What new skills are you trying to learn?
We are always trying to improve our skills and create even better product than what we already have. Otherwise, I would love to learn how to paint with watercolor, and my mother would love to spend even more time with her grandkids!
What advantage would you say your products have over mass-produced products?
Every piece of embroidery that leaves our shop is created with love and great attention to detail and is inspected at at least five times before leaving the shop. Our business is based on our reputation, and we want our customers to feel that they are receiving products of the highest quality. It's important to us that they know how much we care about the quality of our products.
What advice would you give to yourself of five years ago?
Just breathe, because life is only going to get better. Your path will take a different route, one that has unlimited possibilities.
Do you have a favorite piece? Give me an example of a memorable reaction to your work.
It's hard to narrow that down. But some of my favorites are our classic Southern kids’ clothing. I love it when a customer gives me free range to be creative and embroider what I think would be best! We have one customer who is a good friend of mine with a one-year-old daughter. I enjoy making her daughter unique, timeless monogrammed clothes where I get to be completely creative. The best part is, when I give her the items, she cries in pure joy. She is so thankful and grateful that we want to make items for her daughter, and her reaction and her appreciation means the world to us. It reminds me that even though the machines may act a fool, or we may be dealing with other issues, the meaning of our work is greater than everything else.
Throughout this journey into the embroidery world, I have made some of the best friends in my life. I have built genuine friendships with women who I met when they were customers of our shop. Lumina has changed my life in many positive ways, and that is why we are called "the Lumina Ladies".
You can shop our collection of Lumina Embroidery items here at Our State Store. Find more behind the scenes shots and pretty designs on the Lumina Instagram page.
Images courtesy of Sarah & Jennifer Tillery and Our State Store.