Casey Droege and Jennie Canning sell their hand-made clothing lines at Handmade Arcade in Shadyside in mid-December. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)
Under the sweeping arches of the Hunt Armory in Shadyside in early December, Northside textile artists Jennie Canning and Casey Droege sold a table full of screen-printed T-shirts, hats and jewelry to the Pittsburgh hipster elite.
Although the two friends, who met at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in 2006, use many of the same art techniques and mediums, they explore very different themes in their products.
Droege, who is working toward a master of fine art degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, produces a line of cycling hats and apparel that utilizes bicycle-themed designs like tire tracks and gears.
Canning, on the other hand, makes a line of T-shirts and jewelry with changing themes and designs. She teaches digital art in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and fashion at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
“I generally work very thematically,” Canning said. “For any one season [my clothing line is] generally telling a story.”
One of her recent lines, called “Missing You,” focused on imagery from Egypt printed in layers of color and pattern. Canning got the idea from some postcards from Egypt, which she always wanted to visit but never has.
“I’ll get stuck on an idea and push it in as many different directions as possible,” Canning said.
Droege, on the other hand, typically produces two designs per year and puts them on her Spoke Punchers line of hats, sweatshirts and T-shirts. It’s been easy for Droege to market her work because she can target cycle shops, but her narrow focus is limiting.
“This work is sort of done for me,” she said. “I’m sort of stuck in the cycling world.”
Of course, that’s not necessarily a problem for someone who’s selling hats in bike shops across the world, as Droege does.
Spoke Punchers also benefits from being the only line of commercial-quality, custom printed hats that’s widely available.
Droege is able to offer high-quality because of a partnership with Pace Sportswear, Inc. Pace sells plain hats to her in normal sizes, and also makes a larger size exclusively for Spoke Punchers.
While Droege’s line focuses on cycling culture, Canning’s speaks more to their hometown and appeals to a wider demographic. Diondega, the name she uses for her clothing, is an old Seneca Indian word for Pittsburgh.
Another recent Diondega design is a yellow shirt printed with the Steelers logo and the words “Be Steel My Heart.”
Canning is no stranger to international sales, either. In the past, she had designs mass-produced and sold to shops within and without the United States, and had a storefront and studio on Western Avenue.
Once she decided to teach in order to be on the same schedule as her 9-year-old son, Blaise, she gave up the mass-production and storefront and scaled back on Diondega.
Now, she focuses on her “roots,” or custom, hand-printed T-shirts, but said she would like to get back in touch with some of her old vendors and start producing regularly again.
Even though both women have had their own successes, finding time for their clothing lines can be tough between school and other obligations.
“I have a really hard time balancing it,” Canning said.
Droege said, “I think it’s really common for artists, especially of our generation, to make work, have a business aspect … and we tend to teach to pay bills.”
Even with attending an art school, Droege said there was a difference between learning how to become a better artist and running Spoke Punchers, and that one doesn’t make the other any easier.
“It’s always good to have a show come up because then you know you have a deadline,” Canning said.
For Canning, Handmade Arcade provided that deadline and forced her to start making clothing again.
“The goal is to make enough doing the creative part that we don’t have to do all the other stuff. It’s good that we both enjoy teaching,” said Droege, who teaches at the Carnegie Museums and the Society for Contemporary Crafts.
Both Spoke Punchers and Diondega grew from collaborative efforts into one-man shows. Droege and a friend had the idea to make custom cycling hats, but she wound up doing most of the work, so she took over the project.
Likewise, Canning had been working with a friend making custom T-shirts, and when he lost interest, she took over the name and continued production.
The two have worked together on successful larger projects, such as custom tablecloth sets. They weren’t able to continue working on that project because of space issues.
When they both worked at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, they had access to professional-grade studios and were able to make larger products. Canning said it also gave them a larger network of artists to work with.
She would often work with photographers, who would take photos of her latest apparel in exchange for help on other projects. Now that she no longer has access to those resources, photographing her work and maintaining a website has become harder.
But even with the difficulty of balancing art, work and business and finding the space to work, the two Northsiders have at least one thing going for them.
“I don’t think there are a lot of native Pittsburghers who left, became trained in our field and then came back,” Droege said.
To see more of Canning’s and Droege’s work, check out the Diondega website at www.diondega.com and the Spoke Punchers website at www.spokepunchers.com.