Fiber and Water
Adaptation, flexibility, and the grit and elbow grease to get the job done: these qualities are important, or perhaps more accurately, necessary, to be a successful in business. But something else that many entrepreneurs maybe don’t consider when it comes to success, is being able to carve that success into something tailor-fit to you and your personal desires and dreams.
That is exactly what Miles and April Perry have managed to do with their screen printing business, Fiber and Water.
Makers Journal got together with them on a sunny June morning at their home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, which is also Fiber and Water’s headquarters. Their early 20th century split-level is exactly that: they split the house between the upstairs, where they live, and the entire lower level, including the garage, which is a dedicated workspace. But this decision, to have their work and home fully integrated, was not by necessity; it was a purposeful choice.
Sitting on their back deck, enjoying the cool breeze and the company of their sweet golden retriever (and unofficial Fiber and Water mascot) Berlin, Miles freely admits, “I think right now is my favorite time with the business.”
April fully agrees, “It’s the perfect balance.” She adds, “We did everything backwards. We went into it knowing business. We’re full- throttle business. And then we’re like: ‘Wait a minute: we want to be creative too!’ Like, that’s part of our business. So that’s where the creativity is taking more play now, which is fun.”
This idea of “doing things backwards” comes up a few times, and a lack of convention may describe a lot of what Miles and April have done, both professionally and personally. They met in 2010, and moved in together after having only known each other for a few days. On one of their first dates, Miles suggested they make some graffiti-style tee shirts together. True entrepreneurs at heart, they started several businesses: April made and sold flower hair clips, and they dreamed up and launched a successful Mexican food truck in Portland. They also began screen printing on burlap, which led to the creation of Fiber and Water. The rest is history.
Their designs run the gamut from every day objects and homey-images like mason jars and antique bicycles, to detailed maps of the boroughs of Boston, to anecdotal sayings and quotes, to famous local landmarks like the Portland Headlight. They’re printed on both natural brown burlap and ivory burlap, and there’s something about them that truly appeal to their diverse, New England customer base, most specifically, in Boston, where they got their start in selling.
“I don’t think we could have started or have as much success as we’ve had anywhere else,” April says. “We’ve tried the LA market, and I honestly don’t believe we could have done, live this life, anywhere else. And that’s like, the support from the community purchasing our work, you know, just embracing it.”
Their prints have a lived-in feel to them in their carefully chosen subjects and details. They also offer custom services.
“Especially this time of year, we get a lot of wedding custom requests,” Miles says. “And I’ve also done, you know, a custom one of a couple. They sent me a picture, and I brought it through illustrator, and made it a sketch, and then I screenprinted it on the burlap. And I’ve done the same with dogs and cats and stuff like that, too.”
After selling their work at SoWa for a few months, they met a buyer from One King’s Lane, and began selling their work wholesale to stores like Wayfair, Nordstrom, and L.L. Bean. And then, things really took off.
“When we first started, we didn’t have a business plan,” Miles explains. “I just wanted to grow as big as possible. I was reaching out to everybody. And we went from [our] studio [apartment]. After about six months we got a 500-square-foot space and one employee. And then after a year there, we outgrew that space, and then went into a 1500 square-foot warehouse, with like 20 foot ceilings. Actually we had a loft, so it was technically 1800 square feet. And then I went to four, full time employees.”
But this rapid growth came with a trade-off for April and Miles. Part of the reason they began their business was so that they could have autonomy and control over their work and schedules. But with their success and the necessary scaling and hirings they had to make, came the need for stricter structure and production that pushed them to the limit.
“I was basically just doing marketing and emails,” Miles says. “I wasn’t designing a lot because there was so much wholesale, so much invoicing, all that, and I got burnt out. I’m still recuperating where I don’t even want to look at a computer.”
And so, they returned to their roots. April came on full time, and they laid off their other full time employees.
It was a difficult process. “It was really good to cut that all back,” Miles says. “It took a while. It was hard to do.” To which April adds: “It’s hard to lay people off. I mean, they’re still our friends, you know, so that’s good.”
But this shift has allowed them to put more intentionality behind their philosophy as a family-run business. “Now I think going through that whole process, our lives are very balanced,” April says. “We’re so lucky we’ve kind of found that and we love Maine. When we work in Boston (selling at the markets), and when we come home it’s just...it’s perfect.”
Finding joy in their business is apparent when talking to Miles and April about their work and what they’re able to focus and spend time on.
“I love the shows,” April says. “I like when people really appreciate what you do. Or the people who come back. They say: ‘I have, like, four of these!’ ‘I buy one for everybody for Christmas!’”
This level of comfort with their work-life balance is something they’ve settled into more recently, and it’s drawn out aspects of their business they didn’t realize had been missing before. For one, Miles no longer has to deal with some of the excruciating details of billing stores for wholesale orders. He has also become less of a perfectionist when it comes to the product and when it gets shipped out. Instead, he’s has begun to embrace the artistic and creative side of his work.
“I was definitely focused on the business side of it for the first few years. I didn’t call myself an artist or even feel like an artist. I just felt like a businessman, or something, just trying to run a business I guess. And actually within the last year, now I’m like, ‘Wow, I actually am an artist!’ I can say, ‘I am an artist!’ I just feel like it. And that’s, you know, it’s been fun.”
Photography by: Rusty Kinnunen