Main and Mulberry: Grindstone – Lisa Garner, Garner Blue

It began with selling a few handmade scarves to friends and family. Now, Garner Blue is a retail storefront in downtown Franklin, TN. Founder Lisa Garner joins us to explain how she grew her passion for creating woven scarves into an e-commerce business and clothing brand that’s all about the color blue (well, Indigo actually!).


Keith Essary: Welcome to this episode of Main and Mulberry: The Grindstone. Today, I am here with Lisa Garner of Garner Blue in Jackson, Tennessee. How are you doing, Lisa?

Lisa Garner: Doing great. Doing great.

KE: Good. Glad to have you on today. And I know that, I’m putting it together, there’s Lisa Garner and then Garner Blue. So the last name, [I] kind of got that part of it down, but tell me about the blue and kind of go into what you, what you do there.

LG: Yeah, so the blue is Indigo. I die exclusively with Indigo dye and Indigo is actually a plant. So, it actually grows really well in the South. So, some of the Indigo that I get is grown right outside of Nashville by a group called Stony Creek colors. They’re trying to convert a lot of Indigo, actually a lot of tobacco farms into Indigo farms. But yeah, so Indigo is a plant. So what I do is make up a dye vat, and then I can put all sorts of things in there. Basically Indigo works with all natural fibers, so cotton, silk, and I have a lot of different things that I make, but Indigo is kind of the constant. So Garner Blue is Indigo.

KE: Okay. So that makes sense. So everything is kind of, that’s kind of your, your angle, it’s that you use these Indigo plants and everything has an influence there. And so what all are you doing with it? It sounds like clothing and stuff, when you mention cotton. But basically, what all, what all do you have? What do you offer?

LG: Well, it runs the gamut. So I started about seven years ago and the first thing, I actually got into it to teach a group of women about the Indigo-dying process. And it was this event that my friend and I coordinated, where we kind of learned a bunch of different craft methods and ate great food. And it was a really fun time. But through that, I was like, this process is really fun and I like this and I want to keep going. And the first thing I made was a woven cotton scarf. And so I got the scarf and dyed it, and now it’s expanded. I mean, dresses, I don’t know, tea towels, pillow covers, all sorts of things. So I’m not really limited with what I can make, but everything is dyed with Indigo. And kind of the way that I get it out there is through different craft markets that I’ll participate in, obviously in the middle of COVID things are a little bit different this year, but typically I will do, you know, maybe 15 to 20 different craft markets per year. And then I also have a retail shop here in Jackson that I sell through and then a website for Garner Blue that I sell through.

KE: Okay. So are you making inventory for most of these things or are you accepting orders and saying somebody wants a dress and so you make them one or are you making things pre and hanging them on racks?

LG: I definitely make the pieces and then people will buy them. And so, you know, for the market, I’ll come with a full inventory, you know, a full load of Indigo pieces. And then, and sometimes, actually pretty much all the time, I’ve made it and then they’re picking out that piece or something that would be very similar to that piece. So a lot of my e-commerce with Garner Blue specifically is like, they’re getting the item that’s in the photo. And then in the shop, of course they’re picking out the item and then at the market as well. And a lot of that’s just because things can look really different. So depending on the life of a dye vat, which a vat can last anywhere from a week to a month, you can add to it and kind of make it grow and live more. But things can just be really different tones. So some of them can be really, really dark blues to light, kind of grayish blues. And so I just want people to be able to pick out the item that they’re going to get and know what that is.

KE: I know exactly what it is. And I want to hear more about that vat, but before that, I wanted to, some of the reason I was asking about the, whether you make them in advance, is because I know that creating an inventory for someone that is starting a small business, there’s cost involved there, right? And you’ve got travel costs that you’re going, to go into these places. And then now you say you’ve got a store. And so, how did that process work out for you? I mean, is it a, “hey, I saved up or I took a loan,” or what? How did you get started there, I guess? And you can hold back anything you want to hold back. I’m just trying to, kind of, get an idea how you, how you got this thing started. ‘Cause it’s a commitment. A lot of people that listened to us are thinking about starting a small business, so any insights you could give into how you got that capital and how you got that, you know, got it goin’.

LG: Yeah, for sure. So I really started very small, like it was, I said the woven cotton scarf, so I bought, you know, maybe like 20 and was selling them to friends and family. And then basically just kept using that money to put back in and grow it for the first couple of years. So I actually have no debt with the business at all. Even when I started the retail shop, I actually did like a business credit card, which was no interest for a year and then just kind of paid it off. So I’ve had no debt and really not taken any outside capital to start the business, but it just grew really small and really kind of slow. And this is actually probably a great time to mention that I really, this is a side hustle for me. So it’s pretty involved of a, of a side thing, but I do this on the side. And my main thing is actually the executive director at an entrepreneur center and maker space here in Jackson. And I actually do a lot of our small business classes with people, where we’re taking them through the concepts of things that I, kind of, like follow that method, which was to start small and to grow into it. So yeah!

KE: Okay. So that makes sense. So you kind of built it slow along the way. And you had income coming in from working another position then, and luckily, I guess, in your position, it happened to be one of, you know, an incubator type deal where it’s helping to launch businesses and you’re teaching classes there. So it’s kind of a “practice what you preach” type thing, is that you know firsthand knowledge, and so built it that way. That’s, that’s pretty cool. I see businesses starting that way and I love those types of organizations that are helping businesses get started. I think a lot of small businesses don’t even know that that’s available, but more and more coming. And so that’s a, that’s a cool story, and that you’ve grown from a handful of scarfs into, you know, going to these events and now having your own retail store. And I heard you mention e-commerce, I guess. Do you do a lot of your sales online?

LG: So I do, Garner Blue, I kind of view it as like, Garner Blue is the line, and then there’s the retail shop. So the retail shop here in Jackson has Garner Blue, it’s called the Garner Blue shop, but there’s also a lot of other cool handmade items that I’ve sourced for the shop. So those items currently aren’t able to be purchased online, just the Garner Blue line is so, and really I’m kind of growing the e-commerce, figuring that out in a lot of ways, like how do I generate and get more people to the web shop to purchase there. And a lot of those markets that I’m kind of doing all over the U S are one of the ways that I do that, you know, I hand out my info at those. So even if someone’s not buying there, they can go back to my web shop later. But yeah, I would say it’s probably like maybe 10 to 15% of the Garner Blue income currently.

KE: Okay. Gotcha. And was that a hard obstacle for you? Did you have to learn a bunch of technology, or did you get a web developer to help you. How’d you do that?

LG: Yeah, so my background is actually graphic design. So I love the design aspect of a site. I use Squarespace. And currently I use Squarespace, potentially switching. I do love Squarespace, but yeah, I think I’m looking for something that can have the Garner Blue line as well as put more of the garden blue shop online and work with the point of sale system. So kind of exploring some other options there, but really it is so easy to get a website up and running right now, I think with, with, you know, options like Squarespace, there’s templates. I do design some elements of my site. But yeah, I like that part. I actually, you know, just before this, earlier this morning, I was working on updating my shop site with workshops and kind of thinking about how those are changing, but I love that I can just pop in there and edit things and then it’s live to the world. So it wasn’t too much of a learning curve.

KE: That’s cool. So have you kind of taken some of the people that would come into your retail store and announced to them, “hey, i’ve got e-commerce,” or are you advertising that outside of the Jackson area?

LG: It’s more outside of the Jackson area. I do have, as I’m thinking about putting the retail shop with all of the other items, in addition to the Garner Blue line online, I do think that might be some of, like, the Jackson area that would be purchasing from that. Especially if people, you know, are still kind of hesitant about getting out of their house. But for the most part, that site would be more for out of town shoppers.

KE: Okay. That makes sense. And I hear a lot of that, e-commerce is a way to expand out. And I know that, you know, when you have a retail shop, obviously you have frontage, so people see your shop, I guess. Tell me a little bit about the area where your retail shop is. Do you have a lot of foot traffic there or drive by traffic?

LG: We have some foot traffic, yeah. So Jackson downtown, there’s not as much foot traffic as I would like for there to be. But I actually started, it’s been about three years ago, started at what is called “the local,” and it’s something that was created by our downtown development and several of their sponsors. But it’s basically micro retail. So there are three micro retail units that are right across from the Jackson farmer’s market. And they, when I say micro retail, they’re tiny, they’re like 12 by 20 little standalone buildings and it’s very low rent. It’s a one year lease. So very little risk. And I started that about two years ago and kind of was like, “wow, this is, this is great to be able to have a more permanent shop.” I should say I actually started doing popup shops, which happened just seasonally and are so much work to like set up and take down, a lot of fun, but… So then went into the micro retail and now I’m in my shop, which is really just like two blocks away from “the local.” And it’s in a part of our town called the Jackson walk area. So there’s a large, like, “the lift” is a large fitness area and medical kind of clinic, and then there’s some restaurants and some more retail. And so if there is foot traffic downtown, it’s kind of near where we are.

KE: So you’re capitalizing on what, there’s not as much as you want, but you’re capitalizing on what there is. And I know that, so that’s different because, we talk about a lot the road that an e-commerce shop is on is more like Google than it is like whatever avenue, right? You know? So it’s a little bit different of driving traffic, but that’s, you know, I’m really, you know, I love this story because it’s, you’re kind of following a playbook of building this thing from the ground up and not taking on debt and saying, “hey, I’m going to go out, but I’m going to, I’m going to build slowly and I’m going to reinvest, and then I’m going to step it up from popup shops to going to,” you know, like you said, “the local, a place that, that helps facilitate this to getting your own shop.” And so where does, where does it go from here? Do you see the Garner Blue brand in major stores or do you see having multiple locations? Where do you want it to go?

LG: I think that, for me, I love making the actual product. So even having, you know, the space that I do now, the shop, I actually have a studio space is about half of the space. And then the retail is the rest. So I do workshops, but that also means that when I’m not in the shop, the person that I have working is able to help me with some production elements. So whether that means like lint-rolling and ironing, or who knows what, it’s actually helped me to be able to produce more. So that’s something that’s been fun. That space just opened in January. So I’ve just now kind of gotten into realizing like, wow, I can actually make a lot more when someone else is helping me doing some of the elements that, you know, can get a little monotonous. And so, that’s already kind of expanding a little bit of like, “what does it look like to expand Garner Blue into, probably not really big retail (I’m interested in that), but other shops that are similar to mine, but in other places? I kind of see it being more… I love community and I love an artist and maker community, and so I think it’d be really neat to have a larger space. Are you familiar with citizen supply in Atlanta? It’s in Ponce city market? Well, they have this really neat model. It’s a massive shop with retail, but they have like six different artists and makers who have studios around the outside perimeter and they have little retail spaces in there. And I just love that idea of having more studio space and also kind of a combined retail. And so I think that, if I was like dreaming big, that would be something that would be like a next step for what we’re doing.

KE: I’m going to check that out. That’s cool. Yeah. Okay. So, yeah. So when it’s, it’s a, that’s a big thing too. It’s a big step when you say that you’re hands on with making everything and now I’m going to have some help to be making things. And then if I’m going to get bigger, I might lose control of that altogether. And so yeah, I get it. I understand. And so that’s, but it sounds like you’re on a path and it sounds like you’re, some of it is you’re, “hey, I’m kind of taking it, taking it to where it goes,” you know, “and seeing how it goes,” and that, I know, that’s a big piece of it too. And, of course, today, where it goes is probably different than where you thought it was going to go a year from now, because nobody really knew about the pandemic, right? So that’s made a, you know, the word is so overused now, but I have to say it, ‘cause it’s still a good word, but what was the pivot(s) that you had to make for the pandemic?

LG: Yeah, so the physical shop, we actually closed it just about two months after it opened. We had to be closed for, maybe it was a month, maybe a month and a half. And so I started offering more, more things on Instagram, doing like gift baskets and kind of just pulling together collections. I started doing a lot of local delivery where it would just kind of, like, literally drive to someone’s porch and drop something else. And then I started making face masks, which I kind of said initially, like, no, I’m not ‘gonna do that. That’s not for me, that’s for someone who is able to produce so much more than we are. And then, you know, a couple of people kept asking, and I was like, “well, why not? I guess I could find a mask and that I, you know, a pattern I like or make my own.” And so that’s kind of what I did. I just took a few different patterns that were out there and made one that I would be proud-ish of, even though it’s a weird face mask and started producing a lot of those. And those were kind of selling out, like as soon as I would put them online. And so that went pretty steady for maybe two months. And now we’re still selling face masks, definitely not as much, but… And other ways we’re pivoting are, you know, looking at getting more of the retail shop online, so more of the full shop on a website. And then also workshops are a big component of what I had planned for the shop to do this year. And those have, of course, you know, kind of gone away. Like the last one we did was: beginning of March, because it’s, you know, it’s strange thinking about events and kind of coordinating that. And so I’m just now kind of getting to a point where I’m bringing workshops back, but they’re just smaller groups. They’re probably about half the size as they were before. And people are actually booking them, like, with their family and friends. So you’re not going to show up at a workshop with a stranger. You’re going to be with people who you’re already feeling comfortable around. We’ll still wear masks. There will still be plenty of hand sanitizer. But I’m excited about bringing that component back because that’s been something that people have been so excited about with the shop, from the get-go. So yeah, those were a couple of pivots.

KE: Yeah. And, and I can imagine the workshop part is, you know, some people are probably ready to get back into that. They can’t, they can’t sit still any longer. And some people are probably still hesitant, but a couple of questions there. So are your face masks, are they, are they put in the vat as well? Are they Indigo?

LG: So everything, pretty much everything, everything is! But yeah, so I just dye the material and then sew it, so it’s not like the vat, the mask itself goes in. It’s cotton that we’ve dyed and then sewn into the mask.

KE: Okay. So when I’m thinking about a vat, is this like a big 50-gallon drum thing or what, what are we talking about?

LG: No, it’s not that big. It’s like a five-gallon bucket. And then occasionally I’ll put it in like a, more of a rectangular shape depending on what I’m dipping in there, but it’s got to stay closed. You don’t want to allow a lot of oxygen into the vat and that’s a big part of the dying process, is when the oxygen comes into the fabric. So you have to keep the lid closed and, and yeah, so it’s a five-gallon bucket.

KE: Okay. And is that what you’re doing at the workshop, is you’re showing people how to dye things and stuff like that?

LG: So far that’s all we’ve done. I did one, very beginning, like right around Valentine’s day, that was like a paper flower workshop. That was the only non-Indigo one since. And I figured that people would kind of be bored of just Indigo, but we had, I think I did four or five workshops in the span of time that we, before we closed for COVID. And they were filling up, people were excited about Indigo and a lot of people, like I spoke to a woman actually earlier today and she was wanting to book one for her and her, I think daughters and granddaughters. And she was like, “so what’s the workshop going to be?” And I was like, “well, it’s Indigo, you know,” ‘cause she’d come into the shop and seen all the blue things, but she didn’t really understand that we make them there. And that’s what the workshop was. She just knew she wanted to do something fun with her family. So I was telling her about it and she was like, “all right, that sounds cool. Yeah, we’ll learn about that.” So sometimes people are, like, really just kind of want to have fun, learning something creative and leave with something that they made. And then sometimes people are, like, very interested in the textile creation process. So it kind of runs the gamut.

KE: Yeah, it sounds like fun. Yeah. I would like to go to one and I, and one of the things you said earlier, I think it was pretty cool too, that the more things that are out there, like what you’re doing allows places to convert from like tobacco and things like that. So that’s a, you’ve kind of got a cause they’re a little bit too, so yeah. Well, I appreciate you spending time with us and telling us your story. If you would take a second and just tell the audience what your website address is or how to get in touch with you, if they’re interested in buying any of your product.

LG: Yeah, for sure. So, when you go there, you can head to the Garner Blue shop website as well. And then, on Instagram, I actually have two separate Instagram handles, just to make things complicated, but @GarnerBlue or @GarnerBlueshop. So yeah, those are probably the best ways to find out more about what we’re doing.

KE: Okay. And that’s G A R N E R for our listeners, right? Well, I appreciate it. It’s a, I’ll give you the mic. Is there anything else that you’d like to say, while I’ve got you before we, before we close up or did you get… ?

LG: I think the thing I would say, I feel like the audience that’s listening to your podcast is probably already doing this, but – now more than ever – support the businesses that are around you, you know, we need your support. So shop local!

KE: Yeah. Well said, well said. We definitely are a proponent of local. And I think most of our audience does understand that, but the more they hear it from actual local, you know, local businesses that say, “hey, we count on this support,” you know, “and we’ve got unique things that you’re not gonna find in the big box places” and, you know, and so but it, local business, helps so many things and it’s not just about supporting people in your community, but it helps, it helps the whole community and the economics of the community. So appreciate you putting that message out there and appreciate you spending time with us.

LG: For sure! Thank you for having me.

KE: Absolutely. So, for our audience, you can see this at and much other Grindstone interviews and other series are there as well. So stick with us, and we’re glad you’re following us.

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