When Jackson printing enthusiast Kristen Ley was trying to come up with a name for her vintage printing and design startup, she thought of thimbles.
The Mississippi State University graphic design graduate remembered traveling around the country with her family as a child and collecting sewing thimbles from gas stations and gift shops in each new state they visited. “You know the ones with the horrible graphics,” she says.
As the sole owner and designer for Thimblepress Design & Letterpress, Ley works with many materials from fabric, canvas and wood to textiles, spray paint and archival inks.
“I’m such a busy bee. I always feel like I need to be doing something,” Ley says. Her designs appear on stationary, birthday cards, coasters and apparel.
Ley says she “came out of the womb drawing” and has always loved printing and painting, drawing inspiration from the likes of Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney as well as Mississippi artists Walter Anderson and Wyatt Waters.
After college, Ley moved briefly to Charleston, S.C. where she opened a design studio in the midst of the city’s underground creative art scene.
Inspired by a letterpress class she took at a contemporary art center, Ley drove to Kentucky to buy a 900-pound 1925 Chandler & Price letterpress and with mentoring from fellow Jackson printer Ed Inman got to work back in Mississippi reviving a lost art.
Pioneered by Johann Gutenberg in the 15th century, letterpress originally used wood and metal plates to print ink reliefs for Bibles and other books.
“At one point in time the letterpress was the height of printing technology,” Ley says. The process became more mechanical by the Industrial Age but in a new age of digital and 3D printing, letterpress is more of a hobby.
The process is labor intensive. Ley says her garage has become a treasure trove of old type, advertising cuts and images. Inks of every color, vintage maps and mason jars filled with buttons and bobbins line the shelves. Because she can only print one image at a time and is constantly readjusting, Ley has stayed up sometimes all night just to finish an order.
A different kind of technology is helping Thimblepress turn a profit amid a recovering economy. Ley gets her name out predominantly through the Etsy.com online marketplace. She can also manage her taxes, print shipping labels and boost her international marketing by using her profile and mobile applications. An email from a national boutique chain recently asked her to send them samples.
Attention to detail and customer service are hallmarks of Thimblepress. Ley takes the time to write thank you notes to each customer no matter how big or small their order. She also keeps her name out there with events like Fondren Unwrapped and other creative mixers.
A consummate creative, Ley doesn’t take custom orders. “Anything I print has to be my design,” she says. “I would love to see my designs and products in retail stores all over the country.”
As far as letterpress, it is making a comeback with graphic designers and Ley says her dream is to own her own workshop along with a warehouse of different art mediums so she can teach printing and painting to the community.
Ley considers art to be therapy where she can reflect on the past and ponder the future. While letterpress printing may be tedious at first glance, there’s an orderly and efficient process that she is mastering better every day, a process that she ranks above any modern instant gratification.
“My Epson gets a cat hair in it and has an error,” she says. “There is so much beauty in a single letter. Knowing it has been pressing against paper for possibly longer than I have been alive is amazing.”