Amber Kemp-Gerstel has been crafting to her heart’s content for as long as she can remember. From the ugly Christmas sweaters she made as a kid — “No, really. They were hideous.” — to the friendship bracelet business she tried launching when she was little (and even to her pursuit of knitting through graduate school), Amber has never tired of making and creating. It’s a part of who she is.
That couldn’t be ignored when Amber came to a crossroads of too much stuff occupying her life: motherhood, her psychology career, and blogging on her crafting blog, Damask Love. She chose to leave her Ph.D.-backed psychologist career behind to pursue blogging full-time, a leap she couldn’t have made without the support of her husband and son.
Her bold, colorful projects on Damask Love soon garnered her an enthusiastic following of makers and the likes of NBC’s new crafting competition show, Making It. The six-episode series debuts tonight (!) at 10/9 Central, and is hosted by executive producers Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman.
We’re so thrilled to talk with Amber today about her lifelong love of crafting, her scary jump into a career switch, combatting the lack of visibility for people of color in the crafting industry, and more. And yes, we couldn’t help but ask Amber what three things she’d bring with her to craft on a desert island — and her answer is hilarious! —Kelli
Making it photography by Paul Drinkwater for NBC | Project shots courtesy of Amber Kemp-Gerstel
Image above: A project from Amber’s blog, Damask Love.
At what age did you realize that you were a creative type?
I’m a child of the 80s, which means sticker collections, friendship bracelets, puffy paints and loom weaving were the defining elements of my younger years. When I was about eight years old, I asked for a pottery wheel and around that same age I convinced my mom that my allowance should be paid in stationery and Mary Engelbreit stickers. Needless to say, crafting and creativity have been running through my veins for a VERY long time.
What creative outlets did you use as a child?
My childhood was a revolving door of craft projects. There was the Christmas I used puffy paints to make holiday sweatshirts for the entire family – imagine an “ugly Christmas sweater” before “ugly Christmas sweaters” were cool. There was the summer I decided to start a friendship bracelet business. I quickly realized the difficulty of turning a profit when it takes four days to make a single bracelet. As a kid, I tried my hand at countless crafts. Stamping, calligraphy, face painting – the list is long. My passion for creativity followed me as I grew up. I was editor of my high school yearbook and in graduate school I took up knitting (all because of a shawl I saw on Jessica Simpson). I guess when it comes to crafting, I’ll take it however I can get it – even if it involves ugly Christmas sweaters. No, really. They were hideous.
You left a career in psychology to pursue a creative path - was there a lightbulb moment when you realized you wanted to make a change? If so, what was it?
Entrepreneurship never occurred to me as a career option. I was raised to think that traditional career paths (with traditional paychecks and insurance plans!) – were the way to go. For that reason, I had no idyllic notions about leaving my job to pursue crafting. To the contrary, I was nervous as hell about the idea of leaving my secure job as a psychologist. It was a necessary move, though. After years of practicing psychology and working in an academic setting, the stress of full-time work coupled with blogging and motherhood became overwhelming. I had to give up something, and I wasn’t ready to give up my passion for crafting … but would my passion pay the bills?! I decided to stash away one years’ salary and leave my psychology career. This way I had a safety net in the event I failed miserably. For me, the switch had to be gradual – it had to feel safe.
Image above: A project from Amber’s blog, Damask Love.
What has been the greatest lesson you've learned in switching careers? Would you have done anything differently along the way?
When you own a business, the lessons never stop coming. Every day, I learn something new about my capabilities. I never envisioned myself as an “entrepreneur” – I reserved that title for women who were smarter and savvier. Now that I find myself in the same club with those women, I’ve learned that there are very few things I cannot do. I welcome most challenges, knowing that I can take them on – even if there are some tough patches along the way. Had I remained in my career as a psychologist I would not approach each day with nearly the same drive and purpose as I do now. That said, I don’t think I would forgo the experience and education it took for me to earn my Ph.D. I truly believe that all the lessons I learned through my formal education make me a better, more effective influencer today.
Image above: A project from Amber’s blog, Damask Love.
What other crafters or creative types do you look up to or seek inspiration from?
This question regularly stumps me because I find inspiration from so many places beyond crafting. Ironically, crafting is a small part of what I do. When you really get down to it, Damask Love is about inspiring, encouraging and communicating with a community who have a shared interest. In my case, that shared interest is making – but I often find inspiration from those outside of the crafting world. Rachel Hollis has impacted lives and built [a wonderfully] engaged family of followers through her honesty and wit. Myleik Teele serves consistent style, confidence and always brings words of encouragement that you didn’t know you needed to hear. Melissa McCarthy, who you probably know as an actress, had her beginnings as a textile and fashion designer. Her approach to color and pattern has inspired me for years. And if we want to talk about my ultimate inspiration, there’s Tracee Ellis Ross — actress, activist, comedian, motivator, style icon. Surely she needs to no introduction. (Full disclosure: I include Tracee’s name in every interview with the hope that she reads it and we finally fulfill our destiny as long lost best friends. [Out there]? Yes. Will I stop? Nope.)
Image above: (Clockwise) Contestants Jemma Olson, Amber Kemp-Gerstel, Khiem Nguyen, Jeff Rudell, Nicole Sweeney, Robert Mahar, Jo Gick, and Billy Kheel
There's a lack of visibility of women of color in the world of crafting - how do you make your voice heard despite this? What are ways the creative community can better uplift crafters of color?
Mine is a pretty loud voice (literally), so I rarely have concerns about being heard. Instead, my concern lies with young girls who look like me but don’t see their own likeness in the world of creative entrepreneurship. I feel passionately that we should all see ourselves in the world around us. Not only does this make us more inclusive, but also allows us to better envision our own potential. When a little Black girl sees a Black woman achieving success in the world of crafting, she can envision herself doing the same. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how increased diversity in creative fields can ultimately change the landscape of all creative industries. There is such a beauty in our rainbow of skin tones and nothing makes me happier than seeing them all represented.
Recently, I’ve talked a lot about the need for representation in paper crafting and DIY supplies – it’s even in the Damask Love Manifesto. Nothing ruffles my feathers like a piece of scrapbook paper featuring a bevy of Caucasian mermaids or princesses with blond hair and peachy cheeks. As adorable as those mermaids and princesses are, my first thought is always – “what about the girl with freckles… or dark hair… or brown skin?” Thankfully, there’s been a shift in the world of crafting where diversity is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Collections like “Girl Squad” by American Crafts and “Squad Goals” from The Happy Planner are just two of the many companies who are uplifting and recognizing the diversity of our crafting community.
Image above: (Clockwise) Jeff, Amber, Billy, Robert, Jemma, Khiem, Nicole, Jo
What was it like shooting "Making It?" Were you nervous to craft on a national platform like a TV show?
Crafting on television is something I’ve done before – lots of times. I’ve crafted while being interviewed, I’ve crafted on live television, I even crafted as part of a competition on Hallmark’s Home and Family show. Making It, however, was a different ballgame. The challenges were timed and the projects were unlike any other projects I’ve ever tackled. While I had no nerves about all the cameras, there were certainly nerves about bringing my very best creative ideas to each project. Each day on set was filled with crafting and interviews, so there wasn’t too much time for me to get caught up in the magnitude of the production. Fast forward to now, when we’re just days from the premiere, there are definitely some butterflies in my stomach! Millions of people are going to watch this show and I’m fortunate enough to be one of the makers. My only hope is that seasoned crafters feel that Making It does justice to our love of making, and that novices sense our passion for creativity and leave feeling inspired to tap into their own inner crafter.
Image above: Executive producers and hosts Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman
What advice would you give someone who wants to try their hand at crafting/making more, but thinks they aren't creative enough?
I suppose this is my chance for a shameless plug – so here we go!
Few things excite me more than welcoming a newbie into the sisterhood of crafting. There is a sense of pride and empowerment that comes with making something with your hands. Even the simplest handmade card will make you feel like you’ve dominated the world of crafting and given Martha a run for her money. On Damask Love, I strive to provide doable and approachable projects that are clearly presented so anyone can follow along. On the Damask Love Instagram and Instagram Stories, I do the same, but with more personal face-to-face interaction with my followers. I’d love to think of Damask Love as a great first stop for anyone jonesing for a bit more crafting and creativity in their life.
If you were stranded on an island and could only bring 3 tools to craft with, what would they be?
Well first of all, how the heck did I get on this island?! Who put me here?! Is there electricity?! So many questions.
Assuming this is your run of the mill, no-electricity-middle-of-nowhere-island, I’m reaching for the basics. Paper, scissors and glue. These are the tools that got me started as a crafter, back when I made handmade cards. It’s pretty impressive what you can do with simple supplies like these, but in the case of my deserted islander scenario, I’d probably pass the time by making a giant, beautifully embellished banner that says “HELP!”
Image above: Amber at the MAKING IT Etsy HQ Event (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)