A World Of Whimsy & Watercolor

Written by Mary Cirincione

Skidmore alum Betsy Olmsted in making fabric fun with her original hand-painted designs.

For mom-of-two Betsy Olmsted, color is more than just an accent—it’s the backbone of each of her designs. Her watercolors lend wow-factor to blank textiles, resulting in incredibly vivid tea towels, table runners and aprons, even scarves and pillows. Every item in her namesake line bears an original watercolor design imagined, then executed, by Betsy herself. We’re talking cheeky squirrels, foxes, swans and hedgehogs, as well as feathers, florals and pineapples. There are horses, too, for her fellow Saratogians.

Her distinctive wares are available online via her website and at boutiques and retailers across the country. She has been featured in everything from HGTV Magazine to House Beautiful, as well as on Design Sponge and Apartment Therapy. Locally, you can snag some of her top sellers at Red Wolf and the National Museum of Racing.

In your own words, how would you describe yourself and what you do?

There’s something about seeing your artwork put on a textile that seems magical. But I have always loved textiles and fabrics—always. I don’t really know exactly where that came from, but when I was at Skidmore I did a semester abroad in India. The whole idea of auspicious color—there’s color everywhere—I do think influenced how I use color in my work.

Plus, there’s really a huge history to textiles. The idea of cloth, the idea of how to color that cloth and what it’s meant to different cultures and societies, is incredible to me. But the way I’m doing it, it’s definitely a modern, cutting-edge way. Every dye I use is fiber-reactive, and the machines look like wide-format printers connected to tubes of dye. Then the textiles are steamed and washed so they’re really colorfast.

Tell us about how you got started. Are you self-taught or professionally-trained?

I was an art major at Skidmore and from there I worked with architects, and then went to grad school at Philly Textile, part of Philadelphia University, for textile print design. That’s where I had formal old-school training. We had to become experts in dyes and pigments and the way they react to certain fibers and how printing is done. But when I first got there, it was kind of like “What, I have to paint?” but I just started using my painting skills to work out this old way of doing textiles.

Tell us about your process.

As things evolved into my own company, it’s really been watercolors and gouaches that have pushed me to where I am now. Everything I do is produced digitally which is why I’m able to do what I do. I can produce small scale items, one-offs and can produce a big range of color. I can get millions of colors in one design, whereas traditionally if it’s screen-printed it’s usually 18 colors or less.

With watercolors, it’s reverse layering where you start with light colors and work in dark colors, so there’s no highlight adding. I love the way watercolors are reproduced on fabric, because it looks like it’s hand painted.

I have to tell people that painting for a frame is very different than painting for textiles. I can paint different pieces of my design on different pieces of paper or scraps, and I can move it around, change the colors, get rid of pencil lines and tweak it to make it work [digitally]. People want to see them but really, they’re just piles of paper, and if I mess up and drip a blob, I can fix it [in the digital design].

But like I said, this is not a precious, fine art situation. You can be really loose with it so it’s fun. I work out a lot of the composition later, once I get all of the elements painted and I like the way they look. As far as the printing, I don’t print anything on site because I don’t have the equipment for it.

What inspires you, in terms of your craft?

I’ve always enjoyed nature and that’s really what my customers want from me, although I’ve also tried geometrics and some other stuff. But really, they come to me for this sophisticated, whimsical animal and nature story because that’s what everybody likes the best.  It works because I love animals—I don’t know what it is about them but they just make me laugh.

I also look to previous decades for design ideas all the time, like I’ve been painting a lot of mushrooms lately and feathers. It’s kind of like the ’70s have arrived again which is great.

Has Saratoga always been home?

My husband and I both went to Skidmore and got married in Saratoga, but we lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for 13 years.  About one-and-a-half years ago, he got a job in Albany and we moved back to Saratoga and it was like, of all the places we were going to have to move, it’s a great place. We’re downtown in a converted carriage house with attached horse stables, which turned into my studio. Each bay serves a different function—there are three—and they’re all connected but separate, so I can close myself off from all of the daily responsibilities. I can close myself off and go into this other world which is what I try to do every day.

What do you like most about Saratoga Springs, and/or the region?

We love that Saratoga is so densely packed with everything we need — provision shopping, entertainment, museums, bars, restaurants, parks and theaters. We rarely need to leave. Also, we appreciate the philanthropic vibe and the community’s support for arts, history, architecture, and culture. Saratoga is a melting pot of transplants and native Saratogians all bringing the vibrant downtown to life.

What’s next for you and your business?

We are gearing up for the holiday season while at the same time designing the spring collection. We are also preparing for an open studio and textile sale for sometime in November or early December. We’ve got a new turkey design for Thanksgiving, with a turkey runner, turkey tea towels and Christmas stockings which are all completely new. It’s a little strange gearing up for holiday when you’re in the middle of summer, but that’s how it works.

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