Pressing Onward: How Kristen Ley's Joy-Filled Design Led Her to Wellness
Words By: Ashley Locke
Photos By: Andrew Welch
In 2012, Kristen Ley started Thimblepress, a design, print, and gift shop based in Jackson, Mississippi. By 2015, the company expanded to more than 1,500 retailers across the globe. “To the world, Thimblepress was a success. To customers, we were a success. To anyone working with us, we were a success—but I never said, ‘How are you, Kristen? Are you giving yourself time to breathe? Are you giving yourself time to get back to God?’”
Kristen always knew she wanted to be a graphic designer, even before she understood what graphic design was. A passion for art ran through her veins, and when she left Jackson to enter into the Graphic Design program at Mississippi State University, she felt right at home.
After graduating in 2007, she and a friend started a design studio in Charleston, but it wasn’t long until she returned to Jackson. “I was the person running away from Mississippi,” Kristen said. “I was determined to leave, but I felt God leading me back.”
She got a marketing job at her old high school, Jackson Academy, but she kept doing design work on the side. Everything changed when she found an old letterpress for sale in Kentucky. She borrowed her father’s old truck, and $800 later, she was hauling the 900-pound letterpress back home to Mississippi.
At the time, Kristen shared a garage with her roommate. Her roommate’s half of the garage was for her car, and Kristen’s half was for the letterpress. After a full workday, she spent evenings and nights in the garage, designing and printing. On the weekends, she traveled with her colorful cards and prints to trade shows in Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta. “It was bananas,” said Kristen. “Looking back, I don’t know where that energy came from.”
As busy as she was, there was no slowing down. She signed a lease for a brick-and-mortar space in downtown Jackson in January 2013, then she went to her first wholesale show at Chicago Gift Market shortly after. There, she was discovered by Paper Source. After that successful weekend, her agent convinced her to set up a booth at the National Stationery Show in New York City. “I went to New York by myself, and I left feeling totally exhausted,” she said. “It was incredibly busy—I got bathroom breaks only because of the grace of my booth neighbors—but that was my first big taste of what success could be.”
Eventually, Kristen started making more money from her side job designing than she did at her full-time marketing job. When it was time to renew the contract for her job, Kristen knew she had a big decision to make—keep working full-time at Jackson Academy, or take the risk and devote herself to Thimblepress. “My mom said, ‘You have to be open to opportunity for God to show you where he wants you to be.’ A position above mine opened at Jackson Academy, and I knew I could be successful in it,” she said. “So I put myself up for the Marketing Director position at my full-time job—and didn’t get it. I saw that as my answer.”
It was a scary leap to make, but Kristen felt confident about her decision. “The whole time I was having these conversations with God: ‘I don’t want to start this business if this is not something You want me to do.’ God put stone after stone in front of my feet. He opened door after door.” All she had to do was say yes.
She began submitting her designs to magazines, and her company kept growing. By 2015, she had more than 20 employees. “It was a lot, and it was amazing,” she said. “We started working with Hallmark and getting our work in stores across the country, such as Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters.”
In November of 2015, she got an email from Target. “It said, ‘We’d love to work with your brand. Do you have time to chat?’ I thought it was fake, but it wasn’t!”
By 2017, Kristen had been in overdrive for years. Her company was featured on Good Morning America and in numerous magazines. She kept creating new partnerships and collaborations. She was going full speed ahead with little sleep and no breaks. She traded in her old hobbies—running and attending church—for more time to focus on growing her business. “If I wasn’t achieving something every week, getting X number of sales or announcing new collaborations, then I felt like a failure,” she said.
That April, her collaboration with Target debuted. “We had a Target endcap in every Target in the world,” she said. “It was the biggest career success I’d ever had.”
By May, the celebration came to a screeching halt. “I was on the way to visit a friend in Carmel, California, when I got a phone call,” she said. “We had been hacked, and someone swindled thousands and thousands of dollars away from my company.” In regular communication with her vendors, she realized that email hackers had switched the names on the payments she made to them and diverted the money into their own accounts.
Kristen was left scrambling to come up with more money to get the shipment to her studio so business could continue. But from Carmel, there wasn’t much else she could do. “God said, ‘I’m about to bring the hammer down on your life, and you’re not going to be able to do anything about it,’” she said.
“I believe he put me in Carmel because he knew that if I was in Jackson, I would go straight back to work. I think God had been trying to get my attention for a long time, and out there, I was forced to pause and listen.”
She was never able to recover the money, and it left her feeling embarrassed and ashamed. “I was so angry with God. I was wondering why he would bring the company to such a low point if he wanted me to be there,” she said. “I was spinning out so much.
After about four months, I said to Him, ‘Alright, I’m yours. I’m putty in your hands.’”