Through her business, Avlea Folk Embroidery, Krista West is bringing Greek folk embroidery designs to the US market through kits and patterns.
Photos courtesy of Krista West
Growing up in a blue-collar family and getting married at 18, Krista West didn’t have any role models to show that she could make a living being creative, but that’s just what she has done. As founder of and designer for Avlea Folk Embroidery, West uses traditional Eastern Mediterranean motifs to create cross-stitch designs for the modern world.
West’s path from young bride to successful business owner is both familiar and unique. She wanted her children to have more than she had growing up. She credits her success to this focus on what she was doing and why she was doing it.
A Custom-Tailored Background
As a young woman, West loved anything to do with textiles. She considered a career in library science or art history, but she spent all her spare time sewing. She worked to put her husband through school, and in their early 20’s, they discovered the Greek Orthodox church. Part of what appealed to her about the church was the rich vestment tradition.
Liturgical Greek Orthodox vestments (garments worn by bishops, priests and deacons) are custom tailored for each wearer. The outer garments are elaborate and decorative. As West says, “more is more”.
West’s husband went on to seminary to become a Greek Orthodox priest. When he needed his own vestments, there was a delivery delay because the tailor had lost her assistant. West took a few days off work, went to Connecticut, and started an apprenticeship with that tailor.
During a three-year apprenticeship, West learned historic garment construction. She spent 30-60 hours a week sewing on an industrial machine. (A Greek cassock has 36 pieces; a very fast, experienced seamstress can do it in seven hours.) After a few years, she learned pattern drafting, turning two-dimensional patterns into three-dimensional garments. In 1999, she launched Krista West Vestments, an ecclesiastical tailoring business focusing on the Greek Orthodox style.
She thought it would be a side hustle, but the business exploded, growing by 40% every year for five years. She had to learn about business on the fly as there weren’t a lot of online resources at that time. She hired some sewing subcontractors, but was doing all the cut and fit herself. West says that it is crucial that she is organized and systematic in her approach to keep the business running smoothly.
Left: The Byzantine Band Sampler. Right: Krista West in her studio.
Greek Folk Embroidery
Because of her tailoring work, West takes regular trips to Greece to source materials and do research. On one of her trips, she discovered Greek folk embroidery. She was smitten. She started her first piece on the plane ride home.
Friends started asking where she got her unique patterns, and she realized that there might be some interest in these traditional designs. Taking advantage of that idea, she started Avlea Folk Embroidery in 2018 with only three kits.
Avlea (pronounced Ahv-LE-ah) means “courtyard” in Greek. It’s where the women would have gathered to stitch. Inspired by historic pieces and often working from grainy photos or fabric fragments, she tries to create designs that are as close as possible to the original.
West realized that most stitchers wanted a curated kit experience with the traditional Greek fabrics, so she began importing the special fabrics from Greece and making kits. The ground cloth is high-quality even weave.
While the fabric is not the Aida cloth that many people associate with cross-stitch, the stitches themselves are just that: “plain” cross stitch and occasional back stitch. This means that the techniques used are accessible to new stitchers, as well as more experienced ones. Her customer demographic runs from teens to seniors. She finds that younger stitchers are discovering folk embroidery.
While the stitching is appealing, what do customers do with a piece of embroidery? West says that how-to finishing instructions are critical. She calls herself the “Queen of the how-to finishing video.” She created the Avlea Folk Embroidery app (an extra that Wix offered her) to make it easy for stitchers to find her instructional videos right at their fingertips. Many customers find her by searching YouTube for how to finish cross stitch. She sells cushion back kits in multiple fabrics to make it easy to turn the embroidery into a cushion cover.
Now the line has over 100 products. Understanding the differences between active, scalable, and passive income has been key to business growth. PDF pattern downloads are passive income, requiring no additional work on her part. Physical kits are scalable based on sales demand. She is currently trying to figure out the ins and outs of wholesale; her products are currently for sale in 120 shops in the United States.
A close-up of the stitches on an Avlea pattern. The stitches are all very basic making Avlea’s kits and patterns accessible to beginners and more advanced stitchers alike.
Opening the Door for Others
While she does her own social media and marketing to maintain her authenticity and voice, West realizes she can’t do it all herself. She recently hired a neighbor as a shop assistant to put together kits and help develop new colorways. She says it helps having someone else around to try out new ideas.
West negotiated with Wix to run her credit card processing. That got her a website rep she meets with once a month, as well as extra services which help streamline and enhance the business. She still does all the design work and about 80% of the sample stitching. Her husband, now retired, helps with back office work and on the home front, where they still have a child at home. He will be starting to help with the tailoring business soon, as well.
In conversation, West is very open about the struggles of managing all the things involved in running two businesses, raising three children, and maintaining a family life with a husband who was on call 24/7 serving a parish. To have the freedom to create, she had to have the support of financial resources. Luckily, she and her husband are both frugal and have never gone into business debt.
She called the years that she was traveling, writing a book, and had both a preschooler and teenagers at home the most challenging of her life. She was the only one of her friends who worked from home, and at the time the idea of in-home childcare didn’t seem to be an option. Negotiating that line between stay-at-home parent and working parent is tough. Now, she “gives all the love” to mothers who are in that place right now.
West points out that time and money are both resources. She advises that it is important to figure out where you are giving away “free” resources (yourself). Consider where you are putting those resources to prioritize your family’s financial well-being. West says, “It’s OK to say ‘no’ to stuff. Be confident enough to assess your life and make choices that are best for your life. There is no right answer for everyone.”
Edie Eckman is a knit and crochet author, designer, teacher, blogger and technical editor. Since Covid-19 has kept us home, she has successfully made the transition to online teaching. Find her at edieeckman.com.