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Keep Them in Stitches

By Rory Evans
Photos by Jennifer Causey
The splurge purchase of a specialized sewing machine was the auspicious beginning of Coral & Tusk, Stephanie Housley's embroidered world of wit and whimsy.

Stephanie Housley, founder of Coral & Tusk, describes the birth of her Brooklyn, New York, textiles company in 2007 as "a business by accident." While hand-embroidering 26 (!) sets of matching panels for a sea-themed memory game to give to a friend's baby -- an endeavor that required about five hours per panel -- she realized there must be a machine to do some of the work. A textile designer working mostly with jacquards for interiors, she researched New York companies specializing in custom embroidery. "But unless I was ordering 4,000 shirts with the Chili's logo on them," she says, "I wasn't worth their while." What might work on a smaller scale without compromising any detail? As she wondered, she saw a photo in Martha Stewart Living of Martha's own crafts room -- and her embroidery machine.

Housley tracked down the same one, a Husqvarna Viking Designer SE, which "draws with thread," as she describes it, yielding a hand-stitched look.

The total price: $10,000, with 36-month financing. "I am a frugal person from a poor Appalachian upbringing," Housley says. "So immediately after I bought it, I was like, 'Oh, my god. What have I done?' "

To justify the indulgence, she started selling onesies, t-shirts, and games at a local weekend flea market. In 2008, through a series of highly serendipitous encounters with friends (and their friends), she landed her first big account, with John Derian's home-furnishings store in New York City. At this point, she had expanded her line to include her now nearly iconic pillows, stitched on untreated Belgian linen.

By 2009, with more orders than her single machine could handle, Housley found a factory in India that could machine-embroider in bulk. In October 2012, she left her day job and moved Coral & Tusk into a sunny showroom overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge. Occupying a place of honor in the new studio is her trusty Husqvarna Viking -- which has long since paid for itself.

Stephanie Housley with her husband and business partner, Chris Lacinak, and their dog, Paco, in the Coral & Tusk studio and showroom, designed by her friend Amy Lipkin; the shelves were made by Brooklyn woodworker Tim Miller.
Each of Housley's designs starts as a drawing on paper. Then it's scanned into her computer and saved on a flash drive to program her embroidery machine.
Housley uses a variety of embroidered feathers to embellish small and large throw pillows.

“I love the feel of drawing with thread. I enjoy the tactile experience of it.”
Stephanie Housley




Stitch in Time:
Ideas and Inspiration

"I love the feel of drawing with thread," Housley says. "I enjoy the tactile experience of it." She gets inspired by everything from the resourceful, creative women in her family ("My grandmothers tatted or made their own dolls or nutty puppets") to illustration plates in books such as Amazing Rare Things (Yale University, 2007), right, to "punishment samplers" -- think Hester Prynne's scarlet A -- stitched by schoolgirls in the early 1800s. "When I do botanical things in embroidery, it's easy for it to look corny," she says. "I'm always very cognizant of keeping it so it looks my own, so it still feels really special." She gravitates toward subjects that are not only colorful on their own, such as birds and feathers, but also naturally textured, such as beetles and moths, so she can replicate those textures with different kinds of stitching.

Make It Yourself

Housley provided templates for some of her spring collection to Martha Stewart Living readers. She gave each pattern a paint-by-numbers treatment and says you need little more than needles, floss, a hoop, and intuition.

"For all the embroidery I've done, I still don't know the terminology," she says, laughing. Even so, outlines on the designs here can be done with a backstitch, and colors can be filled in with a satin stitch or a long-and-short stitch. For how-tos as well as other instructions on transferring the pattern to fabric, download the template, see below.

Coral & Tusk Template