A textile artist in Elkins learns that art and business can work in tandem.
Nellie Rose Davis reads more artist than entrepreneur, more dreamer than utilitarian, more inspired than methodical. Even the creation story of Davis herself sounds magical—she writes in her artist’s statement that as soon as she was born, in Elkins to a pair of textile artists, she was “swaddled in a smooth, silk cloth hand-dyed by my parents in a multitude of colors and patterns.” The creation story of her business, NellieRose Textiles, sounds magical, too, lined in shibori silk, but it’s not all frills and pleated fabrics. That story is lined with pragmatism and common sense as well.
Davis grew up watching her parents work with textiles in their home studio in Elkins—they started the company Shibori West together, and Davis’ father, Michael, still runs it; her mother makes art and runs a store in Virginia. She spent her childhood watching them make things and making things herself, but it wasn’t until she was in college, working toward a degree in Asian Studies and biology, that she realized how important that facet of her life was to her general well-being. “It hit me that I wasn’t going to be my happiest until I was doing something with my hands,” she says. “And the path that I was drawn to was—I don’t want to say fashion, because I was never into trends or anything, but I love how people can animate things,” she says. “The joy of my work is that other people bring it to life and it interacts with their lives.”
As college was winding down she applied for a Fulbright Fellowship that let her spend a year after graduation studying Japanese textiles in Japan. She followed that with a year working and learning from her mom in Virginia. “I said, ‘I’m just going to pick up whatever I can from her,’” Davis says. “And it was a great experience, beautiful.” But her mom wasn’t paying her to work in the store, so Davis started making her own shibori scarves to sell, playing with the traditional process to make it her own. “Eventually I was making not just these standard scarves but I started experimenting and creating this whole line,” she says. The result is a lot of interesting wearables that don’t look quite like anything you’ve ever seen before. Nellie takes the shibori process and turns it on its head, playing not just with color like a traditionalist would, but also with texture. Her scarves are pleated and frilled in wonderful ways, and saturated with color.
Then she was faced with a question: What does she do with all this art she’s making? “I was so lost about what to do, because I had that pull toward wanting to have my own business, wanting to be a textile designer. But then there was another part of me that was like, ‘Oh, no, I want to do health care, I want to be stable,” she says. She heard the statistics about failure among new businesses, she knew how important health insurance can be, and she didn’t want to float through her twenties—or the rest of her life—without stability. But in the end she chose art—and entrepreneurship—anyway. “Eventually I realized it is just not right for a person in my position, who was born into this, apprenticed in Japan, can speak the language—a person like that cannot work behind the counter at a pharmacy,” she says. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just wasn’t meant for it.”
So she drew up a rough business plan—“I did it, I knew it was important, but I didn’t approach it like a homework assignment,”—and started NellieRose Textiles. After a few months she drew the attention of the Tamarack Artisan Foundation and was urged to apply for their Rural to Urban Markets Program. It gives West Virginia artists the resources they need to market their wares to urban consumers, and NellieRose Textiles was a shoo-in. Davis is in the second year of the program now, and her list of wholesale orders from galleries is growing. “It’s going so wonderfully,” she says. “I’m just so ecstatic—I feel more stable than ever, probably because I’m managing my own money. It’s like I’m becoming a real person or something—like I bought a car, which is one of those things I never thought I could do, and I can now.” She did it with art, and on her own terms.
Advice from Nellie Rose
Don’t be Afraid: “There’s this scary thing that’s happening in the world in that there are all these craftsmen, incredible artists, but they are having such trouble passing on those skills to younger folks. I don’t think people realize art can be a viable career option, but it can.”
Make a System: “Once you get a system down for making things, it’s really awesome. I really like to produce, and there’s a lot of fun in figuring out the best way to do that.”
Under Promise, Over Deliver “It was really important for me to do that this year, to not take on too many orders, because I didn’t know what I could produce. This year has been really beautiful as I’m coming to understand my limits. It allows me to create better goals.”
Diversify: “That means not just my income, but also what I’m doing. Wholesale is important because it makes it easier for me and it makes it easier for the buyer—but wholesale can be repetitive. So I do these retail shows like at festivals where I can connect with people and sell them different things.”
Written by Shay Maunz
Photographed by Joel Wolpert