BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // It’s an honor to share the work of talented printmaker, fiber artist and surface designer Jen Hewett in this week’s interview. I adore Jen’s use of color and shape in her bold and wildly inspired prints but I was also smitten with her Print, Pattern, Sew project where she printed her own fabric to make into garments. This allowed her to fuse her abilities as a surface designer and a sewer — rendering her garments unique and also imprinting her aesthetic not just in the silhouettes or combination of color and fibers, but in the bold and beautiful graphics of the garments, too.
I’ve known Jen for several years through the San Francisco Bay Area arts community, and while I loved her work from the very beginning, I always appreciated her candor, commitment and critical eye, too. Also, several years ago she brought champagne to my birthday brunch with a silver spoon because it’s known to keep the bubbly from going flat, and I fell for her then and there. Who knew silver spoons keep champagne from going flat? Jen did.
It’s that grace, humor and thoughtful nature that she brings to her work and her community. Watching Jen continue to push herself in her prints and in her technical skill is something that makes my heart race — she’s always inventing new projects, experimenting with new color palettes, and pushing outside of her comfort zone to make work that is simultaneously refined and absolutely alive. Welcome, Jen!
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Your printmaking work is sublime. I adore your graphic prints, choice of fabrics, and the particular way you combine shapes and color to create bold and beautiful prints. Can you talk about what inspired you to start printmaking?
I’ve always been creative, and had started a stationery company in my twenties. I ran that until 2004 when, carrying a lot of credit card debt from the business, I sold the stationery company and started working a corporate job. My job was very uncreative (although I worked with a lot of designers and writers), but it allowed me to pay off my debt, and it gave me the time to figure out what to do next.
I needed a creative outlet, so I took a screenprinting class on a whim in – I think – January 2007. I was quickly hooked, and spent a lot of my free time in the screenprinting studio. I was laid off from my corporate job in December 2008, at the peak of the Great Recession. No one was hiring. I went to the studio as often as I could, and began selling my prints. My art career grew from there.
I remember when you launched your Print, Pattern, Sew project and it was thrilling to see your printmaking work applied to your wardrobe. This was a beautiful moment in slow fashion when your craft was transferred to your wardrobe and resulted in unique and meaningful garments. What led you to start Print, Pattern, Sew?
In 2014 I had a weekly project called 52 Weeks of Printmaking. Every week I’d create a different print, and would share it on my blog and social media. Halfway through the year I decided I wanted to do something more complex in 2015.
I took Jess Swift’s class, Pattern Camp, which is an online class about creating digital repeat patterns. It wasn’t much of a leap to figure out how to do this manually. At that point, I had been sewing my own clothes for a couple of years, and thought it would be fun to merge my love of sewing (and clothing) with my love of printmaking.
Every month in 2015, I hand printed yardage, then sewed that fabric into a different garment using either a self-drafted pattern or one from an independent pattern designer. At the end of the year, I had twelve truly custom garments, as well as a book proposal based on the project.
So many folks are intimidated to begin making their own clothing. Fear of imperfection, clothes that won’t fit, poor craftsmanship or somehow getting it wrong. Of course, we all have to start somewhere but were there any specific classes, patterns or tutorials you adored when you first started making your own garments?
As a working artist, I’m used to starting things that are just beyond my abilities and then figuring out solutions along the way. I approach sewing in this manner, too. Of course, I started with simple garments – April Rhodes’ Staple Dress was the first garment I sewed, quickly followed by Sonya Philip’s Dress No.1 and Dress No.2. None of those garments were perfect. Nothing I sew now is perfect.
Really, the best advice I can give anyone is “practice.” You can spend a lot of money on a good machine and nice fabric, but none of those things will make up for lack of skill. The only way to build your skills is to work on increasingly more complex garments, learning from (and fixing) your mistakes along the way.
Printing your own clothing is really a beautiful act in reclaiming fashion and making the garment truly your own. Designers talk about emotional attachment or why we keep certain garments forever even if they might be more sentimental than practical — the wedding dress is the typical example. Your printed clothing has the added emotional attachment of being designed and printed by you. Do you feel a certain attachment to these garments that you haven’t experienced in a store bought garment? Would you think twice before sending one to the Goodwill?
I don’t really treat any of my clothes as precious. I believe that clothes are meant to be worn, and not to be stored away in a closet for a special occasion (except for true special-occasion clothing). Wearing a garment regularly means honoring the time and money that went into its creation. And I tend to wear my clothes until they fall apart, so that by the time I’m ready to discard an item, I feel that I’ve gotten full use from it.
I probably won’t ever discard garments made with my hand-printed fabric, though. I do have an archive of my printed fabric, and will likely just add the garments to that archive.
It seems we’re craving connection and that’s one driving force in Slow Fashion. We’re exhausted by mass production and want something special or something valuable that can’t be so easily replicated in fast fashion. We often equate value with money but it’s also that triad of money, time and craftsmanship. Do you think making your garments for Print, Pattern, Sew altered your concept of the value of your garments?
I have always valued quality over quantity when it comes to clothing. I grew up wearing a uniform to school. I had five white blouses, two skirts, a sweater and a blazer. I got two pairs of school shoes each year, and they were meant to last the year. These were unexciting but durable clothes, and I had to take good care of them. But because I didn’t have to have a different outfit every day, my parents allowed me to splurge a bit on non-school clothes, buying a few pieces of well-made clothing that would hold up under repeated wearing. I didn’t have a lot of “free dress” clothes, but what I did have was of a good quality.
Sewing has changed how I shop for clothes, though, breaking my occasional impulse shopping habit. I rarely go to the mall or shop in boutiques anymore, unless I have a very specific purchase in mind. But the real excitement for me in making clothing is less a desire to opt out of fast fashion (partly because I never really bought into it in the first place, except for a couple of years in college) and more in the ability to create something that fits me and my style.
Any tips you might have for someone just starting to sew their own garments? Maybe tools you particularly love or something else that you learned through your project that inspired you to continue?
Always make a muslin when you’re trying a new pattern. It may seem like extra work to do so, but it saves so much work down the line. From my muslins, I’ve figured out that I’ve cut the wrong size, or that I need to make bust or dart adjustments. It’s much better to discover this before you’ve cut into your good fabric and have started sewing.
Also, buy good fabric. Your garment is only as good as the time and materials you put into it. Why spend all that time making something with shoddy fabric?
And finally, invest in a serger and an invisible zipper foot. I spent so much time making French seams before I had a serger. That was time I could have spent on something else! And I used to avoid anything that required an invisible zipper because I found them so intimidating. Once I had an invisible zipper foot, a whole new world of sewing opened up to me.
Lastly, your first book is underway. Congratulations! When can we expect it to be published? And could you tell us maybe just one thing about the book that you’re particularly excited about?
My book, Print, Pattern, Sew, will be published by Roost Books in May 2018. I’ve just reviewed the final, pre-press layouts. I think it’s such a beautiful book. I worked with the best team, and I’m excited for us to finally have it in our hands. I’ve been teaching some of the practices that are included in the book both in person and through my online classes, and I’m also thrilled that I’ll be able to reach so many more people through this book!
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Kristine Vejar
Photos © Jen Hewett, used with permission