By Ellie Thomas
Photos by Mary Fehr & Contributed

Last year’s quarantine gave rise to creative skill sets and enterprises for these student artisans.

The Embroiderer

It’s easy to walk past embroidered items in clothing stores with no thought about the process behind them and simply admire the intricacy of the design. Zooming in on these items, you see each individual stitch woven through the fabric. The process behind it involves needling step by step and inch by inch without going over the lines or undoing the design’s precision.

And that’s just what Margo Belden does. The fashion and art connoisseur and senior at Mountain Brook High School creates embroidered clothing, following the latest trends by her top tier favorite designer brands. Her newfound passion began in March 2020 during the COVID-19 quarantine. “Growing up, I have had many entrepreneurial adventures starting with sewing and selling recorder cases in fourth grade,” she says. “I saw the quarantine as a perfect opportunity to launch a new business that combines my love for design and sewing.”

But the embroidery she began selling was not entirely unfamiliar to her, as she learned to sew at a young age. Margo says her grandmother “made me passionate about sewing and led me to doing my own thing.” The women around her also inspire her designs. “I love building them up and contributing to women empowerment,” she says.

Margo’s embroidery Instagram account @xomargo showcases crewnecks with bright stars in practically every color of the rainbow, hoodies uniquely stitched with red hearts or lively yellow smiley faces, and even special designs with college logos, which happen to be Margo’s favorite of the items she has made. Each piece of clothing takes her around three hours to complete without interruption, and she reserves an hour or two each night to work on them.

She’s gotten creative beyond basic embroidery too by tie-dying shirts and blouses with the similar pastels of her other sweatshirts, and she wants to learn how to sew more and create her own patterns. Down the road she also would like to start her own website with clothes she has created from scratch.

To anyone thinking about turning their passion into a business, Margo says to go for it. “Don’t worry about others and do what you think is right because if you have confidence in it, there will be a market for it,” she says.

The Baker

Upon first inspection, it is simply a butterfly cake. Look closer, though, and you’ll see thousands of microdots piped by hand, ranging in shades of blue that come together to make an alluring creation. On another cake, unique combinations of pastel shapes are outlined by shimmering gold icing.

These details appeal equally to eyes and taste buds, and the mastermind behind them is Ella Kampakis, a senior at Mountain Brook High School. On her Instagram feed @bakingwithellak you’ll find vibrant colors of pink, red, orange and different shades of blue to catch your eye. “It’s super fun, and you are able to make it your own with no guidelines,” she says.

For Ella, her cake journey all started during the quarantine in March of 2020 too when her love of baking prompted her to make a cake for her grandmother’s birthday, and then one for her friend who had jaw surgery. From there more friends started asking for cakes, and eventually people began offering to pay for her creations. And quarantine gave her extra time to learn to put her own twist on her designs—like one of a silhouette of a woman’s face, highlighted with pops of colorful flowers intricately woven together. Another cake close to Ella’s heart is one that reflects her Greek heritage. It’s detailed with the ocean-blue colors commonly found in Santorini and a yellow sun setting into a subdued sky.

Her ideas for these cakes come from a variety of sources, including other Instagram accounts, YouTube, TikTok and her imagination. “Whenever I’m bored or can’t sleep, I am always brainstorming about which cake I should make next,” Ella says. Many of them end up in a binder where she keeps her design ideas.

Designs often take “an embarrassingly long time to decorate,” Ella says. For instance, the butterfly cake described at the top of this story took close to eight hours. Now that she has to plan around her school schedule, Ella typically bakes her cakes three days in advance and decorates them the night before they are needed. For the most complex of cakes, she has learned to pipe details with smaller icing bags and the importance of smoothing a cake over using a turntable. She’s also learned by trial and error not to, say, leave a cake in front of a window too long lest it collapse. “I definitely don’t recommend placing your cake by heat overnight,” she says.

Ella emphasizes that her community and beyond has been extremely supportive of her creations, and she knows that others will be encouraging with whatever design she produces. Ella is not sure what the future holds for her, but getting to explore her creativity through her cake business makes her sure that artistry will definitely be part of whatever lies ahead.

The Clothing Print Designer

When Lily Cochrane’s brother came home with a handful of T-shirts and transfer paper in March 2020, she had no idea it would lead into her very own dive into the world of artistic business. She ended up taking her brother’s transfer paper when curiosity got the best of her and creating clothing prints.

The Wofford College freshman didn’t have starting a business in mind, she simply loved printing clothing designs as a hobby. But then her friends started asking her to make items for them and encouraged her to create an Instagram account. Today her Instagram @lilymadethese is filled with pastel tie-dye combinations, hot pink lightning bolts and bright yellow smiley faces.

Some of Lily’s favorite pieces are her skull T-shirts filled with the bright colors of magenta, neon yellow or red. Another distinctive design of hers is a hot pink sweatshirt featuring a teal eye patch embossed with texturized sequins, and still another a tie-dye shirt with a pink skull surrounded by multicolored pastel butterflies.

As to the process behind them, “Finding the design definitely takes the longest,” Lily says. “I look around on Pinterest, and if there is something I can draw myself, I will do that because it makes the creation much more unique.” After finding her design, Lily uses a special kind of paper and printer for the design and makes her items in bulk, about seven pieces at a time, which can take over two hours.

When she first started college last fall, she decided not to bring her supplies with all the transitions to come, but she soon came to realize that she needed this form of creativity in her life, especially with the stress of meeting new people at a new school and encountering a change of pace. As to the future, Lily has thought about opening an online store to allow for certain items to be available for a prolonged period of time instead of just selling them once. “At first it was just a hobby, and then I realized that one day I wanted to have my own store, consisting of items I have made and items made by others,” she says.

Through all her work, Lily emphasizes the importance of venturing out of your comfort zone and exploring your creative side. For her that not only happens through clothing designs but also through the paintings she has begun creating. These range in boldness—giant silhouettes of hearts to fiery quotes—all proving that expressiveness is unlimited. “Just find something you like—it doesn’t really matter what it is—and go for it,” she says of her advice to others. “Who cares what people think? If you like it, then that’s good enough.”