The outside of Western Sensibility is like so many warehouses north of Missoula’s Riverside neighborhood with its unassuming, functional metal siding. Inside the entry room, however, the wall is draped in rich fabric designs showcasing lush illustrations and patterns as diverse as an artists’ gallery. Kathryn and her business partner founded the textile printing studio two years ago, and she runs the day-to-day operations with her husband, Conor. The building features a cozy meeting room that also showcases the studio's textiles, including pillows, and vintage textile textbooks. More expansive rooms house the printing operation. It’s a beautiful, well-curated space in which Kathryn seems at home, though once upon a time, this was not her dream.
“I wasn't planning on doing this at all,” she says. “It's still a delightful surprise for me.”
Kathryn comes from a family of textile manufacturers, but she never imagined herself carrying on the tradition. Her grandfather ran Cal-Pacific Dyeing and Finishing in the South Bay of Los Angles County—it’s his textile textbooks that now reside on Western Sensibility’s showroom wall. Kathryn’s father—“a quintessential California surfer”—went on to work in the same industry, helping to launch surf brands in the late 1970s and 1980s, such as Gotcha, OP, and Stussy. When Kathryn was old enough to pursue a career, she enrolled at the University of Montana to study archeology. She had fallen in love with Missoula and imagined herself in academia. Even if she had wanted to get into the textile business, there was plenty of reason not to: In the early 2000s, the industry took a nosedive because companies could no longer compete with overseas manufacturing. Many of them moved offshore.
“It was completely devastating,” Kathryn says. “Really sad.”
And that would have been the end of it for textiles in her family if not for a few key events. For one, Kathryn’s dad was an early adapter to new technologies. He saw the changes happening in the industry and started developing textiles for digital printing along with Kathryn’s uncle. The other event was Kathryn’s decision to move back to LA for a while. She had met Conor at UM. And though she was in love with Montana, a job opportunity for him to work as a journalist for the NFL network in California led them back to Kathryn’s old stomping grounds.
“And so I was kind of looking for my next thing,” Kathryn says. When her uncle passed unexpectedly, Kathryn jumped in to help her dad. In her mind, it was temporary. But it turned into her calling. She worked for another company to develop textiles for digital printing and then spent time at an LA studio prototyping for fashion houses and learning the art of printing. By the time Kathryn and Conor moved back to Missoula–during the pandemic–Sanders was all in on the textiles world and ready to push it into the future.
“For me, it wasn't necessarily the textiles that hooked me,” she says. “It was learning about digital textile printing technology. And I just kind of became obsessed. I saw the potential for what it could be. And I started to really learn that it was being underutilized.”
Kathryn says the conventional analog way of printing textiles is still how about 95% of textiles are still printed worldwide. Those machines can take up whole city blocks, requiring enormous infrastructure and lots of equipment. They have also historically—and still—create pollution and waste in terms of water-use, water contamination, and the waste of leftover textile materials.
Western Sensibility currently has the only digital textile printer of its kind in Montana, and even across the world, it’s a cutting-edge technology.
“In our process, there's zero water in the process,” Kathryn says. “Our inks are water based, but we use non toxic disperse dyes and far less electricity than the traditional methods.”
Western Sensibility offers a variety of services, including creating designs or helping clients design their own prints. The printing technology is flexible. WS created textile interiors for Missoula’s Brasserie Porte Rouge, for instance, where they were able to echo a single pattern on different scales across the interior—something that, in traditional manufacturing, would have required a costly, time-consuming process of switching out different sized screens.
One of the most exciting offerings is their collection of designs from artists, many of them well-known Missoula artists. And what the digital printing technology allows artists and designers to do creatively is different than the analog process. Analog printers can only get so detailed. The digital printer, on the other hand, can create images that look like a medium—prints created by local painters like Mickey Haldi look like they have literally been splattered with paint. Textiles created from artist Stella Nall, look like beadwork because the printer can recreate the shadowing of 3D mediums. And because the digital printer has a low minimum order requirement, Western Sensibility doesn’t have to do bulk orders, allowing customers to request one-of-a-kind pieces.
For Kathryn and Conor, being able to support local and independent artists in the town they love is the sweetest thing. It's also kind of a big deal.
“The fact that we can have a textile company here—rather than LA or New York—is really revolutionary,” Kathryn says. “Digital printing really democratizes the industry, which is really incredible. That's definitely a core value for us.”
Textiles have always been seen as more of a commodity, she says, and print studios have always been very transactional. The digital printing technology has opened up the door to textiles as an art.
Textiles are so tactile. It really does take on a life of its own,” she says. “We really look at printing as an artistic medium, which we want to make more accessible to artists and designers.”
“Digital printing really democratizes the industry, which is really incredible. That's definitely a core value for us.”