An interview with Cloud9’s Gina Pantastico and Michelle Engel Bencsko

It’s no secret I am a huge fan of Cloud9, so I was thrilled to get the chance to interview co-founders Gina Pantastico and Michelle Engel Bencsko! Cloud9 is the fastest growing organic fabric company in the business and produces some of the most beautiful, unique and exciting collections on the market.

Read on to find out more about the fabulous designers Cloud9 will be collaborating with in late 2012 and early 2013, learn how this powerhouse team got their start and get a lesson in how organic fabric is manufactured and what that means for our planet. Then head to the shop to browse some gorgeous fabric!

The Village Haberdashery: What is the Cloud9 story – how and when did the two of you decide to embark on this impressive collaboration?

Gina Pantastico: Michelle and I met in 1995. We worked for different companies, but my company supplied Michelle’s company with finished product, hence the close working relationship.  She and I collaborated closely together, creating line after line, product after product, sharing the same continued determination to excel at what we each did and learning along the way. It was clear to both of us, that we had much in common and valued and respected the other’s abilities. After a few years of going in slightly different career directions, we reunited and recognized the need for contemporary designs in the eco-friendly, affordable fabric marketplace. It was apparent that there was a lack of organic cottons with a modern sensibility available to the sewing community. We quickly and confidently began to formulate and develop this joint endeavor that comfortably utilizes each of our talents while encompassing our values.

My Happy Garden, Cloud9's first collection

TVH: You’ve mentioned that there is an increase in demand for sustainable fibres across the garment and textile industries. What trends are you seeing?

GP: When big-box retailers make a commitment to a particular movement you know it will be important and lasting.  At this point many retailers and garment manufacturers are putting programs in place to convert their garment and textile offerings to consist of predominately sustainable fibers.  This is a telling indication as to where this industry is heading.  Sustainable fibers are continually becoming more and more important to retailers in every aspect of the spectrum, from mass market to exclusive boutiques.  Eco-friendly fabrics are not something that are going away, and I can guarantee you, they will become even more important in the years to come.

Cloud9's Maman and Nursery Basics quilts

TVH: You’ve managed to bring the costs of manufacturing down in the past year which means the cost of buying organic fabric is comparable to non-organic. What can you tell us about the way your fabric is produced?

GP: This is one of the things we are most proud of.  We want everyone to be able to afford organic cotton, so to have the ability to offer it at a price point that is not far off from conventional cotton is extremely gratifying.  Cloud9 Fabrics meets the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and/or the OE 100 (Organic Exchange Standard) for farming methods benefiting farmers, processors, Earth, and consumers by using natural, non-toxic means to control crops from seed to harvesting, from milling to finishing. It is grown and harvested by methods that do not use toxic pesticides, herbacides, fertilizers or defoliants. It relies on natural methods which includes (but is not limited to) crop rotation and cow manure for soil fertility; beneficial predator insects; lengthened growing periods for natural defoliation; and hand-picking, which results in less waste. The health benefits of organically grown cotton are clear, as are the environmental aspects: reduced toxins and pollutants which infiltrate both the soil and water systems and consequently all living things. Conventional dyeing and printing uses a myriad of toxins, including heavy metals, benzene, formaldehydes and organochlorides. The process requires large quantities of water to wash out the residues, which is then dumped into the local waters of the mills. Cloud9 Fabrics are printed with low impact dyes, which are petroleum based. Although they are made from a synthetic material, they are considered to be more eco-friendly in comparison to natural dyes for many reasons. One of the interesting benefits of using low impact dyes is they have a higher absorption rate, which means less dyestuff is actually required to adhere to fibers which also results in a lighter, softer fabric. Likewise, low impact dyes don’t require toxic chemical mordants to fix the color to the fabrics as do natural dyes. Low impact dyes are often reclaimed from the liquid waste and the water is recyclable. Another added benefit is that they require less heat which saves energy.

Cloud9's booth at Spring Market 2012

TVH: Your collections are popular among modern-leaning shops and modern quilters. Coming out of Spring Market, what kind of response are you seeing to organic fabrics in more traditional quilt shops and their customers?

GP: We are pleased to say that many traditional quilt shops have embraced our fabrics!  We notice that at each Market we attend we capture the interest of many shops that would be considered more “traditional” in their appeal.  I credit this to several things.  First of all, our price point makes embracing organics easy.  Secondly, the interesting line up of artists that we work with tends to capture the interest of larger audiences. And also, we offer such a variety of collections so there truly is something for everyone!  Whether you are a modern quilter and like clean lines and fresh colors, or if you are putting together a traditional nursery for a baby, or if you prefer working on craft/home décor projects, etc, etc, there will be something in our library of collections that will appeal to you.

Cloud9's Alegria by Geninne D Zlatkis - one of my favourites!

TVH: In what ways do you see the company growing in the next 12-18 months? With so many talented new designers coming on board, do you expect that the number of collections you release will increase?

GP: There is A LOT in the pipeline for 2013.  There are a few things that we really can’t talk about yet, but when we can, you will be one of the first to know!!  However, we can say that we certainly do expect the number of collections that we offer to increase. In our first year we started off with two collections.  We are now releasing 12 collections per year, and expect that number to be somewhere between 15-20 for 2013.  In addition to this we also expect our customer base to grow.  We the release of Ed Emberley’s Happy Drawing we saw a major growth in the number to stores that carry our fabrics, and we are pleased to notice that most of these shops are buying future collections that are being designed by other artists.  We hope this trend continues and that that our customer base continues to grow.

Moments d'attente, a work in progress by Steffie Brocoli

TVH: And speaking of those new designers – tell us about them! From the sounds of things you’ll have some exciting collections to show at Fall Market…

Michelle Engel Bencsko: We have SO many new designers it’s a veritable whirlwind of artwork here in the studio. To start, we have Rob Bancroft slated for November with a collection we’re calling MicroMod. It will be a more masculine collection – but only in color, which will suit the fall season perfectly. This will be our second strictly “pattern” project – loose geometrics with a Mid-Century vibe. After that, in December, we have Rashida Coleman-Hale who’s Washi (from Timeless Treasures) has become a staple for many. We’re thrilled Rashida made the jump over to our cloud! Again, you will see the influence of her youth spent in Japan in theme in an exciting new color palette. Into next year- likely in February, French illustrator Steffie Brocoli will delight us with her folkloric whimsy in very sweet but boldly-colored collection. There are at least 4 new designers we’re still sitting tight on, but hope to announce very soon. Another collection you can look forward to seeing at Fall Market will be another from Ed Emberley – this one is going to be miles away from the Happy Drawing series, but equally as delightful and memorable. We are also planning new collections from 2 designers who have worked with us in the past. Finally, we’ll have another Nursery collection – to coordinate with Nursery Basics – on our Premium sheeting base cloth. So, there’s a lot happening!

Thanks Gina and Michelle!

You can find Cloud9’s blog here and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

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