Modern manufacturing isn’t what you think it is, and no company better illustrates that than Spoonflower. I was able to spend some time in their facility during Manufacturing Week last week.

If you spend your free time sewing, designing, or even collecting ideas for home decorating on Pinterest, then you probably already know all about Spoonflower. The Durham-based manufacturer of custom textiles and paper products calls itself “web-to-print,” meaning that its customers select designs from an online catalogue, or upload their own designs, to be printed on wallpaper, gift wrap or any of seventeen different kinds of fabric. There are millions of different designs in the company’s catalogue, and more than a million people belong to the Spoonflower community. The company prints 3000 yards of fabric per day, all of it made-on-demand.

Over the past two years, Spoonflower has truly flourished. At the company’s Manufacturing Day event, Co-Founder Gart Davis remarked that he’ll be traveling to Berlin, where the company is opening a second facility to better accommodate its growing base of international customers.

How did this company come to be, and what can we learn from Spoonflower’s success?

Quite simply, Spoonflower capitalized on an unmet need in the marketplace, and leveraged some key resources in the community to better position itself for growth.

Davis, along with Co-Founder Stephen Fraser, are veterans of the print-on-demand book industry. The idea for Spoonflower was sparked when Fraser’s wife was unable to find a specific fabric that she wanted–one with yellow polka dots. To meet that need initially, Spoonflower hacked paper printers, and then turned to NC State University College of Textiles faculty, Drs. Trevor Little and Lisa Chapman, for advice on meeting demand and sustaining growth while producing high-quality products. Now, the company employs large-format fabric printers and is working toward more sustainable methods of printing that use less water and produce less waste.

The success of Spoonflower proves that North Carolina’s textile industry is not only alive and kicking, but truly leads the pack in terms of innovation and growth potential. Our state is full of entrepreneurs like these who are fundamentally changing their industries; in our own backyard, the Technology Incubator fosters the development of game-changing advancements in communications, biological sciences, pharmaceuticals, and many other industries.

After Spoonflower’s kickoff event, I traveled to Mertek’s Sanford facility, where students from Lee County Schools took tours and saw how machines for test and assembly are made. After leaving Mertek, I headed over to the Innovation Center at Central Carolina Community College for a manufacturing event for middle and high school curriculum teachers and their students. Highlights included a tour of the Innovation Center and a manufacturing expo.

Representatives from local industries were on-site to showcase their company/products and help increase manufacturing awareness. They included: AMP-Cherokee, Arauco, Caterpillar, Coty, Edelbrock, Floorazzo Tile, Frontier Spinning Mills, GKN Driveline, Gould and Goodrich, Heatmaster, International Precast, Magneti Marelli Powertrain USA, Mertek Solutions, Olympic Steel, Red Wolf, Russell Manufacturing, This End Up Furniture and Warren Oil.

We hope that the students who attended all three of these stellar events were as inspired as we were, and will choose to lead the next generation of modern manufacturers.

Dr. Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff

Dr. Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff is the Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement at North Carolina State University and Executive Director of the NC State IES. She holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from N.C. State, earned an M.B.A. from Duke University as a Fuqua Scholar and her Ph.D. is in public administration, also from N.C. State.