Artist Interview with Jessica Lewis Stevens of Sugarhouse Workshop
I'm honored to share this interview with artist, quilter, natural dyer, and friend, Jessica Lewis Stevens, of Sugarhouse Workshop. As you might know Jessica and I have been working on a three-part collaboration, Field Study, that will culminate in an opening exhibition at Hawkins NY in Hudson, NY on August 20; a daylong retreat at Whistle Down Farm with Drop, Forge, & Tool on Sunday, August 21; and an ongoing photo documentary sharing our work in-process on Instagram with the tag #fieldstudyfiber.
I wanted to share a conversation with Jessica in honor of the upcoming weekend and all of our work together. But also because Jessica is such an inspiring human and I wanted to highlight some of her creative practice, her studio work, and her seasonal approach to sustainable textiles. Not to mention, her heartbreakingly beautiful quilts made from naturally dyed fabrics and a few cameos of her home.
KR: Hello, Jessica! Thanks for joining me today. I thought it would be nice to share some insight into your work in honor of our upcoming collaboration, Field Study, and our pending exhibition, workshop, and process over on IG. Thank you for agreeing to join me here. I’ve loved your work online for many years and it’s such an honor to join forces for this collaboration. Can you tell us about your creative journey? And maybe share some of the highlights that led you to the work you’re making today?
JLS: Hi Katrina! Thank you so much for having me here. I’m so thrilled to be collaborating on our Field Study project, and to have a chance to share our work together later this month in Hudson.
I feel as though I’ve always been fascinated by artists, makers, and creative folks of all kinds, and I’ve always made room in my life for making. My mother ran a frame shop growing up, and I spent many of my teen years interacting with art and learning to make frames and stretch stitchery and match colors just so. I worked in framing to put myself through college and graduate school, after which I took a position as the Program Director of the Western New York Book Arts Center, a non-profit organization in Buffalo dedicated to the traditions of letterpress printing and making books by hand.
I fell in love with the processes of printing and bookbinding there, and beyond that it greatly inspired my continuing interest in reconnecting with the more analog craft traditions of the past. Once I had made these things the “hard” way and had a chance to see what a remarkable difference the human hand can make, it was hard to ignore the beauty and sense of pride and effort the more modern, automated processes lack. This eventually led me to explore beyond the paper arts to textiles, where I feel as though I found my home in making quilts and soft goods using traditional patterns and techniques.
KR: I love your use of natural dyes and sewing to make beautifully handcrafted objects. Your work ranges from quilts to buntings to project bags to baby goods to thoughtful children’s toys and beyond. Can you talk about your approach to making these objects? And your interest in creating objects with such attention to detail and craftsmanship—dyeing the fabrics by hand with plants from your yard before you begin any construction?
JLS: So many of the objects I create, and how I create them, are tethered to the idea of making a home a home. I have always really enjoyed seeing how others integrate good design and usefulness into their lives. I have shelves of books of interiors and antique quilts and boards and boards on pinterest of objects and homes I love to look at. But so often, these things are either out of reach, or manufactured without the human hand. Both out of necessity and a desire for well-made, thoughtful objects, I started making those things I wanted myself. And I think if you’re going to make something, you should make it well, give it a life beyond its utilitarian value.
For me, that means using the bedstraw root growing in our field to color a changing pad cover for our new baby, or making a bunting for my son’s play space with marigold flowers we grew together last year. It became obvious to me through conversations and feedback on these things I was making that a lot of people want that kind of connection to their objects. Not so much added preciousness or expense, but added care and consideration and authenticity. It’s those values that really drive my shop collections, and the things I make for our household.
KR: Your work is very tied to the land and to place. Perhaps it’s your gorgeously curated Instagram feed but I always see your work as inherent to your surrounding, to your home, to your garden, to your kitchen—can you talk about your relationship to place and how that might influence your projects?
JLS: We live in southern Vermont now, and the landscape here is out of a dream. Every season is so perfectly itself and so completely enchanting. Living in the country forces us to change our lives with the seasons, what we do, what we cook, what I make, and I really love that about making a life here. I can dye fabric all summer when the plants and fresh water and sunshine are abundant, and spend lots of time in winter putting hand stitches into quilts and knitting sweaters for my son when keeping warm becomes a priority. It allows me not to tire of a specific part of the process, and constantly be inspired by the new colors and moods of each season as they come and go.
KR: I love how you so seamlessly tie together your domestic life and your creative life. I love seeing images of your son, Henry, and your baking and glimpses of your home throughout the season next to your creative work in quilting, dyeing, and running your online shop. Your version of domesticity is definitely something I want for myself and my children. It feels chosen. It feels liberating. It feels thoughtful and intentional and meaningful. Can you talk about this overlap and how one might relate to the other? Again, the work seems inspired and tethered by this sense of place.
JLS: I feel like it all feeds into itself in a really fulfilling cycle. In order for me to be home with Henry and our little one on the way and focus on my creative work instead of being employed outside the home, we’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices and really intentional choices about where and how we live. I find often that it’s the stretching of what we have and the need to be creative with our resources that encourage creativity in every part of our lives. From using what we have in the garden to bake and cook, occupying the days with a small child in ways that are meaningful and fun, working slowly on projects that help us to live well, it all requires a great deal of creativity and thoughtfulness and it all feels very connected.
I’m so glad you use the word liberating – I feel sometimes like I never leave the house, but truthfully it’s deeply freeing to need less, to depend on ourselves, and to let each part of our day-to-day be a part of the creative work of building an intentional life.
KR: I noticed that on your website you talk about your work as a natural dyer and a quilter. Did the quilting come first or the dyeing? Or did they evolve alongside one another as your quilts allowed for a use of the naturally dyed fabric and vice versa?
JLS: Quilting came first for me, though dyeing didn’t follow far behind. When I began to learn to quilt, I was less concerned with materials than I was with design and construction. I had stashed fabric for years for various projects, and it was really useful to have those yards around for all the experimentation and mistakes that come with teaching yourself to quilt. Following the birth of my son, my perspective shifted in a major way. I began to really question my practice in terms of what I was buying, what I was wasting, how my fabrics were made and colored. It was no longer enough to make a beautiful-looking quilt, it became important to me to consider my sources.
I had for many years made it a priority to buy clothes second hand, to make what I could, to avoid big box store clothing racks because of the conditions in which these goods are produced (I spent my 16th birthday at a panel talk and protest with former sneaker company sweatshop workers, if it’s any indication of my future priorities) but I realized I hadn’t applied the same ethical standard to my raw materials. At the same time, we had recently moved to the upper Hudson Valley where I became endlessly inspired by the abundance of plants and flowers and produce growing around me.
I began exploring natural dyes as a way to further connect with this abundance and limit my own chemical footprint, experimenting with easy things to find like queen anne’s lace from the roadside and onion skins from my kitchen. Slowly I started integrating these colors into my work until I no longer felt like I needed to buy conventionally dyed fabrics. Because each of these lengths of color felt so precious to me, I saved every scrap, and they eventually became buntings when my son had a birthday coming up or a needlebook to hold my hand-sewing tools, or a bag for my next knitting project.
My own needs have always been a muse; trying to make what we need has a way of inspiring some of my favorite projects. When I launched my shop, I realized other folks might appreciate these slowly made goods and I integrated them into my collections. Your Make/Thrift/Mend project was a big inspiration to me as I was continually trying to make these shifts in my practice – it felt like I had found community in considering these issues and I’m still so inspired by what you do to inspire others to make thoughtful and sustainable choices as a consumer and as an artist.
KR: Back to this idea of place, you also live in rural Vermont, complete with four distinct seasons including a humid summer and very cold, sometimes snowy, winter. How do the seasons influence your work? Do you plan your dyes according to what’s available throughout the year or do you tend to quilt more in the winter when you’re naturally indoors?
JLS: Yes, absolutely. I love the changing of the seasons. I spend a lot of time in summer dyeing. There is an abundance of dye plants growing midsummer, and it feels like there is hardly time to capture them all. But it’s worth the days after days of stirring hot dye pots to have a quilt on your lap or mittens on your kids’ hands in winter that are made from fibers dyed with summer’s colors. It’s easy to forget how cold winter can get in Vermont, but when it does roll around it’s wonderful to have little reminders of summer imbued in the objects we use every day.
I love to change the colors of my shop collections with the seasons too. In summer, I dye a lot with indigo because my vat is healthy and vibrant, and I love to make things that are useful for that season- dyed linen totes for the beach, or bright rainbow buntings. In autumn I like to focus on more subtle shades, and in winter I’m always drawn to the darkest colors and the most pale, neutral ones.
KR: What’s your favorite dye material right now? Could you share one recipe for a dye, mordant, and fabric with our readers? Just one combination you particularly adore.
JLS: Lately I’ve really been enjoying using iron to add some quiet depth to brighter colors. I’ve been dyeing with marigolds from last year’s harvest, and the iron gives a beautiful rusty gold character to it. Like a bridge between summer’s bright color’s and autumn’s rich browns. It’s not too late even in the northeast to plant a patch of marigold seeds if you’ve got even a little space or a big pot, and they yield a lot of beautiful color.
KR: I’m thrilled about our collaboration! When we first began I imagined we’d offer a workshop on natural dyes and stitching; that we’d create an exhibition of 10 collaborative pieces; and that we’d somehow document this process online to include community that might not be able to join in person. But I never imagined the process would feel so intimate! And so vulnerable. We’ve both written in emails to the other about how sharing our work and our thoughts about the work have felt incredibly intimate. Do you think this intimacy is often overlooked online? Or do you think the work is somehow more intimate than our other work and it’s just close to the heart in someway?
JLS: I really couldn’t agree more. I think for me, I’m not often so explicit when talking about my inspirations, what drives my work, why I chose the colors I chose. I often let my small shop collections speak for themselves or hint at the seasonal touches inherent in each object. But with Field Study, we’re really baring those connections that are important to us, sharing more elaborately the ways we’re interacting with our art, and it’s a vulnerable place to be. And a beautiful one!
I do think there can be an intimacy that is often overlooked when we’re constantly sifting through new images online every day. Things can sometimes feel very surface-level. I love knowing more about what inspires a makers work, and I’ve really loved having the chance to do that myself through this project. It has evolved in a way that I think is not only exciting for this project, but will continue to impact my future work in a wonderful way.
KR: Who are some of your biggest inspirations? I know there are so many, but if you could just list 3-5 who would you include that’s particularly inspiring to you today?
JLS: As far as other dyers and quilters, I am always inspired by Maura Ambrose of Folk Fibers. Her work is beautiful and intentional in a way I deeply admire. I tend to draw inspiration mostly from folks who work in a different medium than I do – I love to think about how my quilts might look with someone else’s weaving or pottery or print on the wall, or sometimes a person’s writing style really strikes a chord I keep coming back to.
Some of my favorites include author Ben Hewitt, The Letowskis of North Country Folkware who make beautiful kitchenware, the cooking videos of Aube Giroux. I’ve been collaborating with artist Emily Halbardier on a series of seasonal baking books, and her illustrations are always so inspiring. She captures a playful, folksy sort of feeling so very well.
KR: Lastly, for somebody who might just be starting out with natural dyes what would you recommend? Are there any techniques or approaches you find particularly forgiving? Or any books or websites you adore?
JLS: Work with what you have! If you want to try natural dyeing, don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, or become intimidated by all there is to learn. Start where you are, boil some onion skins or avocado pits, and dip an old t-shirt in the pot. Just go for it. A beautiful book came out last year called The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar from A Verb For Keeping Warm. It’s an amazing resource for the beginner or intermediate dyer, and it’s full of projects for any level of experience.
KR: Thank you so much, Jessica! I cannot wait to teach with you at Whistle Down Farm in August. It feels like something of a dream come true.
JLS: Thank you so much for having me, Katrina! I am so, so looking forward to it.