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Episode 81

This Long Thread with Jen Hewett

Sarai and Haley talk with Jen about how she wove data and narrative together for her book This Long thread, to create a collection of stories, interviews, and essays that reflect the everyday crafts of BIPOC in a way that honors individuality.

Jen Hewett is a printmaker, surface designer, textile artist, and author. Her work combines her love of loud prints, 1970s maximalism, and saturated colors with the textures and light of the landscapes that surround her. In addition to creating her own products, Jen designs fabric for the quilting and home sewing market, and home collections for national retailers. She is the author of the books Print, Pattern, Sew, and This Long Thread: Women of Color on Craft, Community and Connection.

In this episode of Seamwork Radio, Sarai and Haley sit down with Jen to discuss her latest book. Jen gives a peak at how she wove data and narrative together to create a collection of stories, interviews, and essays that reflect the everyday crafts of BIPOC in a way that honors individuality.


Podcast Transcript

Sarai
Welcome back to Seamwork Radio. Today we’re talking to Jen Hewett. Jen Hewett is a printmaker surface designer, designer, textile artist, and author based in the Hudson Valley. Jen’s work combines her love of loud prints, 1970s maximalism, and saturated colors with the textures and light of the landscapes that surround her. In addition to creating her own products, Jendesigns fabric for the quilting and home sewing market and home collections for national retailers. She’s the author of Print, Pattern, Sew, and This Long Thread: Women of Color on Craft, Community and Connection.

In this conversation today, we talk about how she became a successful artist and designer, why Jen feels it’s so important to have hobbies, how and why stories and personal narratives are so powerful— particularly for people who are marginalized —why sewing is so powerful and so subversive, and her new book, this Long Thread. I think you’ll really love hearing Jen’s unique experience in creating this book and the insights that came from it.

Hi, Jen. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re so happy to have you.

Jen
Yay. Thanks so much for hosting me.

Sarai
Yeah, we’re really happy to have you on and to talk about your new book. So we always start with an ice breaker for each episode. Jen, you can start us off today. Our ice breaker for today is what is your creative high and low from this last year?

Jen
Oh, my gosh. That’s a big question. I know. Okay, so my creative high has actually nothing to do with work work. I designed wallpaper, which is actually behind me, so I designed wallpaper for my use only, and that was so exciting to design something for a completely new application.

Sarai

Wow.

Jen
Yeah. So that was fun. And my creative low, I don’t know. It’s 2021 and 2022. So far, I’ve been kind of in a slump, and it’s been hard to motivate myself to do the creative work. So I’m thinking, actually, I know I’m going to take the rest of February off just to do the things that I want to do and work on the projects I want to work on. And if that means sewing quilts all day, then I sew quilts all day. But I need to get out of this slump that I’ve been in now for, I don’t know, a year, 18 months.

Sarai
Yeah. I really feel that because I think my creative low was right before the holidays. For the last two weeks of December, we always closed the office and give everybody the last couple of weeks off. So that also means we kind of have to do a lot of stuff leading up to that in order to take those couple of weeks off. I think most of December was just kind of a blur to me, and that was probably my most stressed out period of the year. But then taking off those two weeks was just like a complete reset and I came back feeling so much more refreshed and ready to do things. And ever since then, I felt like a hundred times better. So that was definitely my creative low.

I think my creative high last year was probably not at all sewing related, but my garden, I think just doing all the work, planning the new garden has been so creatively, fulfilling and fun, and it’s a lot like sewing and that you have all these constraints and very specific things that you need to work with. And there’s a lot of flow and a lot of change that happens along the way. And there’s this process of design, and then there’s this process of actually constructing the thing, actually getting out there and making raised beds and installing them and doing all these things. And it’s just been really fun. I’ve enjoyed the design of it and the execution part of it so much. So I think that’s been my high for the last year. What about you, Haley?

Haley
I think I’ll start with my low. I think my creative low has just been, I think when you have a creative job and you’re not able to creatively energize yourself, and the way that I do that is like being out in the world and seeing things and touching things and being present in the world. The last couple of years, we haven’t really been able to do that as much. And so I feel like my creativity has just been, like coming from, like a deep well inside of me that’s not being replenished. So that’s probably my creative low, which I’m working on this year, adding little drops here and there, too. I think my creative high was I was able I do the art direction and also organization for all of our photo shoots that we do at Seamwork. And for a long time because of COVID, I was doing them kind of like, in a bubble, mostly on my own with, like, just a photographer. And we were able to invite other people back into the team to help me with that. And working collaboratively really energizes me and brings me so much joy to see everybody’s different visions and talents come together to create something beautiful.

And that was like a real creative high for me is to be able to create with other people again, those long winded. Those are big questions, though.

Sarai
Yeah. So many things all of us have gone through the last couple of years that I think affect us in different ways, but there’s a lot we have in common, at least in terms of the lows, it seems like.

Haley
Yeah.

Sarai
So if you have an ice breaker that you want us to ask on a future episode, you can actually submit them. You can go to seamwork.com/go/icebreakers and let us know a question that you want us to use for a future icebreaker. So with that, we want to get into your story, Jen, and talking about you and your work. So maybe you could start just by telling us how you became an artist and a designer.

Jen
Well, I didn’t study art in school. I have a degree in English literature from Berkeley. And when I graduated from school, there were no jobs. So I ended up working in education and educational nonprofits for a few years, which I loved. And when all of my friends were starting to go to work for startups, this is during what they called the dot com boom, in the late 90s, I decided that I really wanted to explore being an artist and I was going to start my own business. I started a stationary business, like everybody’s going to work for tech and I’m working for creating a paper company. And I ran that into the ground, not because I wasn’t good at the creative side, but because I was not good at the business side. So I jumped back into corporate world, working in corporate education and did that for a number of years and just was completely bored by doing business operations. And I really wanted to do something creative again. So I took a screen printing class on a Whim as a New Year’s resolution just to get out there and do something. And that very first time I pulled a print, I thought, oh, this is it, this is what I want to do for a living.

It just came up to me like, this is it, this is how I want to make my living, this is how I want to focus my life. And so I would spend all of my free time at the studio. And at the end of 2008, the company I was working for folded as many businesses did during that time. And I was laid off and I couldn’t find a job for almost two years. So I went to the studio all the time and got way better at printing and was selling my work and experimented with printing on fabric. It was the early days of Etsy and blogs and so I was getting a lot of traction from that and it just really took off. And I’ve kind of done everything you possibly can as a print maker. I’ve made prints, I’ve sold prints, I’ve printed on fabric. I now licensed work. But I started doing this in 2007. And so now I’ve officially been doing this for 15 years, which is kind of bonkers to me. And it’s really only been in the last five or six years that I’ve been able to support myself full time as an artist.

I always had a side job whenever I could.

Sarai
Still, 15 years as an artist is such an accomplishment. I’m curious because you said you didn’t feel like you were good at business earlier on and then you were sort of bored by your business operations job. So I wonder, do you still feel like you’re not good at business or do you feel like that’s changed over that time that you’ve been doing this?

Jen
It’s completely changed because I was working doing operations for a larger company. I became really good at business, and I was always good at everybody else’s business. I was not good at mine. But now I actually think I’m fantastic at business. And part of my longevity is that the second time around, I approached making art as part of an overall business plan that I couldn’t just sell the things that I screen printed. I mean, I did for a while, and I threw out my back, and I realized I had to just start looking at all the other options. And how could I diversify the kinds of things that I offered so that I wasn’t breaking myself physically in order to make a living.

Sarai
Yeah. Finding all those ways that people pieced together a living as an artist from all these various components that you put together, it seems like a lot of people have that journey as artists.

Jen
And I think I tell people that making money as an artist is actually an act of creativity because you’re trying to figure out how to make all these different pieces fit so you can continue to work, and also you’re making things that bring you revenue. So as an artist, I think it’s actually you’re doing yourself a disservice by distancing yourself from the money aspect of it, because that is just another creative act.

Sarai
Yeah, I feel the same way. And I think that’s probably true of a lot of small businesses finding ways to take this one idea or this one concept or this one thing that you want to bring to the world and all the different tentacles, all different ways that it can reach people. How would you describe your work itself?

Jen
Well, I often say that I have a weird color sense, and part of that comes from growing up in California, where you’re living essentially in a desert next to an ocean. So you’ve got these amazing skies and brown Earth and then the blue of the ocean right next to you. I also am a child of the 70s and 80s when colors were just wacky. Lately I’ve been really leaning heavily into the 70s with browns and oranges and avocado greens, but also because I work with fabric. My career really took off when I started printing on fabric that a lot of my work is just really tactile. It is often a flat medium, but I add a lot of texture into my work through block printing, through scanning the block printing, through working with embroidery. Just trying to make something that normally would be flat has some texture in it. And a lot of my work is inspired by nature. Again, because I grew up in California.

Sarai
That makes me wonder, were you always attracted to print in particular as an artist?

Jen
Yes. Print and pattern.

Sarai
Yeah.

Jen
I was a very anxious child, and so I would try to find the patterns and everything. So like the tile and the bathroom at my elementary school and disrupted patterns would upset me. How could I find hopscotch patterns on the sidewalk? So that order really does something to soothe my brain.

Sarai
Yeah.

Jen
And then print. I love the idea of drawing one thing and being able to replicate it multiple times.

Sarai
I read an interview you gave where you talked about hobbies and how important you think it is to have Hobbies. And you mentioned in that interview that you think it’s especially important to have ones that you aren’t paid for and that aren’t your business, your livelihood. And I wonder if you could expand on that and why you think that’s so important today.

Jen
Well, I think there’s this force right now to monetize all your spare time, to monetize your Instagram, to sell the things that you make, to rent out a room on Airbnb, to use your spare time to drive for Uber or Lyft. And we should just be allowed to rest and have fun and not have to think about all the ways we could monetize the things that we’re doing. Like, you and I were talking about your garden. You wouldn’t want to monetize your garden, but you get something really deep and fulfilling out of it, and it feels like a really creative activity. There are so many things I do that I don’t want to monetize, certainly all of my quilting. I’m never going to sell a quilt, trust me. All the amount of time that goes into making a quilt, no way. But it’s something that I find deeply soothing and relaxing. And it’s a way for me to shut off the anxious part of my brain and really be completely in an activity and completely present. And I don’t think you get that when you commodify all your activities.

Sarai
Yes, I think you’re right that that’s a particular push in modern society because it wasn’t always the case that time and money were considered interchangeable in the way that they are now. I think that’s really came to fruition in the Industrial Revolution. This idea of your time is worth something monetarily, and that every hour you spend not working is an hour you’re somehow wasting. That puts us in a bad position, I think, as far as rest and leisure.

Jen
And I think it makes us deeply uncreative and unable to imagine anything different. Right. Like unable to imagine a different future, unable to imagine different circumstances for ourselves. It’s just important to be rested and to be in a creative frame of mind.

Haley
I think that there’s something about when you are on this hamster wheel of always pursuing profit that it puts you into this place of kind of survival mode in a way.

Jen
I moved across the country this summer, and I took six weeks off to pack and move and unpack and get set up. And I had never taken six weeks off consecutively. And it was amazing. And I remember going back to work, I think, in mid-August and thinking, I don’t want to go back to work. You know, I love what I do, but I was ready just to continue to not work. And when I was in college, I lived in France for a little bit. And the joke always was that after the French would come back from a long vacation, they would go on strike because they just didn’t want to go back to work. That’s actually how the French have such good social benefits and job benefits. It’s because the economy has been shut down, and then it’s time to go back to work, and they don’t go back to work. And they hold the government and their employers to task and ask for additional things, and they get them because they’re not working. And I totally got it. It wasn’t until I had taken six weeks off that I really understood what happens when you get that much time off, which I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons we as Americans don’t get time off is if we did, we got a lot of time off.

We would be striking every September 1.

Haley
By design.

Sarai
Yeah. That’s so interesting. I was hoping in 2020, I was hoping to take a bit of a sabbatical during the summer and take basically a long vacation, like maybe four weeks off or maybe even longer. And then the pandemic hit in March. Well, that’s not happening.

Jen
No, two years later.

Sarai
It’s still not happening, unfortunately. But I think we’ve kind of gotten a little bit of a taste for that with the pandemic. I think there’s this great resignation they’re saying happening right now. A lot of people are leaving their jobs, and I think a big part of that is just maybe not having the time off, but just having this huge shift in your life that causes you to see work in a completely different way.

Jen
Well, even at the other end of the spectrum, because I think the great resignation has mainly been white collar workers, is you’re seeing a lot of folks organizing in the workplaces that you’re starting to see a lot more Labor Union movement than we’ve seen, I think, in my lifetime.

Sarai
Yes. At least in Portland here it’s a lot of service workers as well. That’s been a big thing here. Yeah. So we wanted to talk about your book because it was fascinating. So we have a lot of questions about it. Do you want to start, Haley?

Haley
I sure do. I thought that the approach to this book was so interesting, and I love the way that the data —because I’m such a nerd and data person —and the narrative were kind of blended together to tell this great story. What was the genesis of your new book, this long thread? Can you tell us the story of how it came to be?

Jen
Yes, I’ve pitched the book twice. And the first time was right after my first book, Print Block Pattern came out. And I felt really tired of seeing the same people over and over again as representatives of the craft world. And I felt like I was one of very few women of color, definitely one of very few Black women who were somewhat prominent and represented within the industry in terms of exposure. And I knew from my own experience that it’s actually a fairly diverse world, that there are a lot of us doing this work, not just the handful that are regularly represented. And so I pitched a book that would be this lush photography coffee table book featuring a handful of people. And my publisher came back and said, that sounds like a very expensive book to do because I would have to travel all around the country and have these photo shoots and do these interviews. And so I tabled it for a little bit while I figured out how I could revamp it. And then in 2000, I don’t remember 20, 18, 20, 19, discussions around discrimination, racism, exclusivity in the knitting world, and then it started spilling over into other craft worlds, really exploded on the scene.

And people were focusing on one or two people, one or two companies as problematic when in reality, I wanted to challenge folks to say this lack of diversity in the craft world, in the publicly visible craft world, is not the responsibility of one or two people. It’s this entire ecosystem of who gets representation. Yeah. Who gets hired. And instead of a coffee table book, which would have to highlight to be honest, it makes sense that the budget would have to highlight the prominent folks who could help me sell books. I wanted to now interview and speak with a whole wide range of folks. So folks who maybe aren’t on social media, people who don’t have big followings, who do this for a hobby, who don’t want to monetize, who are not even really part of the industry, they just craft. And when I say just craft, I don’t mean just craft. I mean, they’re just not participating in the industry in any huge way other than as maybe a consumer or the occasional retreat goer or craft class consumer. And in order to do that, I didn’t know how I would go about it. Right.

And at the same time, I started rereading Women in Clothes, which I don’t know if either of you have read that book. Yeah, it’s a fantastic book. It’s even bigger than my book. I think it’s 600 pages in a really small typeface. But that originated as a series of questions online that people would respond to women in particular about their experience with clothing, about style, about making clothes, about wearing clothes. I mean, this huge range. And there were also interviews and essays and illustrations and photos. And I thought that’s it. That’s what I want to do. I want to do something along those lines so that I can hear from more voices than I alone can find. So I put out a survey, and I think it went up in like a Thursday. And I thought, well, if I can have 100 responses to the survey by the end of the month or six weeks that I have it up, I’ll be really happy with that. By the end of that first weekend, I had over 100 responses, and I ended up with almost 300 in total. And I probably could have kept going. And so those survey responses really form the basis of where I was going with the book, that there were certain threads that kept reappearing similar experiences across state, across age range, across craft that I wanted to discuss.

And then there were a few people who responded to the survey who either I included their entire survey in the book or I interviewed them separately. And then I also wanted to interview folks, and I think I settled on 19 or 20. Honestly, if I’d had more time, I would have interviewed another 19 or 20. But my book was already really long, and my editor made me cut it down anyway. And so what I felt like I was capturing was the snapshot of time. I was also getting personal narratives from folks like their oral histories. I commissioned a few essays where I felt like there were conversations going on that maybe hadn’t been discussed in the survey answers or other things that started coming up that I thought needed someone not me to talk about. And then I presented it all to my editor, and it was 500,000 words. And she said, no, too many words got to cut it down. And then my second editor helped me figure out how to weave in the survey questions, how I could write in my own voice about my own experiences, and tie that into all the other information that I was getting.

And I talk a lot in this book about how it takes a community. And this book was definitely a community effort. It wasn’t just me. It was 300 people who were interviewed for the book, who responded to the survey responses, plus my editor plus my agent. It just took this whole world of people to get this book out there.

Haley
I love how the data provides this context and the narrative really provides the heart, and it paints, I think, a very beautiful whole picture that I truly enjoyed. You said you had 300 or over 300 respondents. How did you choose between all of the options that were laid in front of you?

Jen
Well, I think I had, at the end of the day, 269 responses. I had to throw out a few responses because they were from white women, and that was not, they were not the data set for this book. I think I had about a dozen of those. It was hard. So I had all of the responses printed out and bound into a book. And I sat down and I read through every single response, and there was some responses like some people said the same things. I could cluster when have you felt like an other that was definitely very many similar responses. And some people honestly just wrote a lot more than others. Some just wanted to put the data in, didn’t really want to respond to the questions. And I was fine with that. Whatever people were willing to contribute, I was happy to have. But really, it was who had the most compelling, well thought out, seemingly honest responses, and it was fine if they didn’t fit within the larger narrative, if everybody’s experience is valid and important. And I wanted to include that. But there’s certainly where, for example, Lisa Wolfwork of Black Women’s Ditch is also a professor of English literature at University of Virginia.

So, of course, her survey responses would be amazing. So when I read that, I thought, oh, yeah, I need to include this. Right. Which also means that there’s a certain amount of educational privilege, I think, that goes along with this, that the people whose responses were especially well done were people who were highly educated and who had the time to sit down and write really thoughtful, long responses. So I want to say that this isn’t a complete overview of a community because definitely it was in English. So you had to be a fairly fluent English speaker to respond. You had to be comfortable enough with technology to fill out a Google form. There are all these different things that mean that it skews, maybe more middle class, more educated, but at the same time, it’s more than what has existed in the past. It’s a lot more than what’s existed in the past.

Haley
Yes. Were there any findings from your research that you were most surprised by?

Jen
Yes. The Barbie doll questions answered. So the question was, I think what was the first thing you remember making? And a pretty significant chunk, like, I can’t remember maybe a little bit over 10% of the respondents said the first thing they remember making were clothes for their Barbie dolls. And if you think about who the audience for this book is, who was responding to the survey? It is mostly women of color. We have some nonbinary people of color, too, responding to the survey. Barbie doesn’t look like them. I mean, Barbie doesn’t look like most women, but Barbie especially does not look like you if you are not a white person. And so that shocked me. And it shocked me also because my parents wouldn’t let me have Barbie for a variety of reasons. And so I just thought that I was kind of the norm in that way. As much as I wanted Barbie, I thought everybody else’s parents were saying no. But yeah, I was shocked.

Sarai
So funny because we were both talking about that when we were writing the questions for this interview. We were talking about, oh, we’ve got to bring up Barbie. We have to talk about Barbie because we thought that was so interesting. It reminded me of this Margaret Atwood’s short story that I read when I was probably in high school. And if I can remember it correctly, it’s like two kind of upper middle-class parents arguing about whether their daughter should be playing with Barbie because of all that she represents and it’s sexist and all of these things. And then the daughter comes to the top of the stairs and just, like, launches her Barbie like a grenade down the stairs and the hair is all cut off and she’s all painted. The experience of the child playing with Barbie can be completely different from the what adults see in Barbie. That’s what your story reminded me of a little bit. I’m curious about the storytelling aspect of the book. I have some background as a researcher myself, and I’ve done a lot of qualitative research in the past. And one of the things that I think really intrigues me about qualitative research is that a lot of people in the business world at least kind of I wouldn’t say they boo it, but they sort of don’t trust it as much as quantitative research.

And what I believe and what I found is that hearing individual experiences and individual stories in their own words is so powerful because it brings up all of these things that you wouldn’t find otherwise that you wouldn’t recognize otherwise. So I was really curious about why you kind of focus so much on those individual narratives and whether you feel like that in particular, that medium, why it’s such an important force in bringing forth a book like this.

Jen
I’m not a statistician. I’m not a data scientist. So I felt like relying too heavily on a survey when I don’t have those kinds of survey skills would do the book disservice. So that’s the first thing. The second is that as an English major, I just love storytelling. I love hearing people’s stories. And one of the classes that I took in college that had the most impact on me was a class on African American literature taught by the late Barbara Christian. Dr. Barbara Christian was the founder of the African American Studies program at Berkeley, where I went to school. And she taught a class that was about black women in American literature, starting with the slave narrative and the profundity of hearing somebody’s story. And just now, granted, these enslaved people were not writing their own stories. They were telling their stories to someone else. So there definitely is a point of view that maybe isn’t explicit. But if you look for it, it’s there because the people who were taking the stories were coming from point of view of slavery must be abolished. That’s a whole other story. But to hear the day to day lived life of someone who is not a fictional character, who lived through things that I would not ever want to live through.

But there is validity in their story was really powerful for me. And so fast forward to many years later. One of the jobs I had after college was working in admissions at a high school. And I used to tell the kids that there’s no such thing as a bad interview because I’m only going to ask you about yourself, and so just tell me about yourself. You can’t go wrong with that. And then when I was doing operations, I was also doing HR. And I did HR for a number of years. And I never wanted to be a bad interviewer. I wanted to be the person who had a conversation with people and would find out about their skills, about their interests, about their experience through a conversation rather than a back and forth of questions. And what it revealed to me was that people are so rarely asked to talk about themselves in a conversational way, they’re asked to package themselves. Everybody is a brand, right? That’s the whole thing of the last 20 years. And speaking to people of color who we are often not asked to tell our own stories. We are often not asked to talk about our lives, especially in a way that is not about suffering or triumph.

There are those two ends of the spectrum that are celebrated. And what I really wanted to get at was everybody’s live day to day experience with their craft and what it means to them, regardless of whether they’re amazing at it or terrible at it, or they’ve been doing it for 40 years or they’re complete beginner. I was really interested in their experience and that you can’t get from a survey, you can get a number from it. And of course, the survey is never unbiased. It’s very hard to write an unbiased survey. Just even what you’re asking can influence the answer. So I wanted people to tell me in their own words what they thought was important to them, and I wasn’t going to pull out or tease out that information. I wanted them to talk about it. I felt like I didn’t have a single bad interview. And even following up with people after the fact, they talked about how much fun it was to just talk because I had no agenda. I just wanted to listen.

Sarai
It’s interesting that you say that. It is, I think, a rare experience for people. And like you’re saying, I think in this day and age, especially to have people genuinely curious about their experience, genuine curiosity. There was a story in the book that I was hoping you would retell our audience about when you went to a pattern drafting class and you were sort of treated as if you were a proxy for every person of color in the world. And I wonder if you’d tell us about that experience and how that contrasts with your decision to create this book that’s really about individual experiences and individual stories.

Jen
Oh, that’s a great question. I think about that experience a lot. I’ve told that in person many times before I put it on paper. I was in a sewing class or pattern drafting class, and I only was going to take a couple of days of class, not the whole series, because I had other things going on. But on my last day of the class, I had been talking about this book that I was working on, and one of the participants in the class was perfectly lovely, asked me, well, one of my disappointments is that we have this, I think, quilting guild or sewing guild, and it’s all white women, and she was white. And even though we’re in a very diverse area and I don’t know why we can’t get any women of color to come join this group. Is it because women of color don’t join groups like this? And I thought, wait a minute. Or it’s not in their culture to join groups. And I thought, well, first of all, women of color is like a really broad thing. I say women of color in the book because people of color in the book because I want to encompass non-white folks.

Right. But I could maybe speak to the Black experience. And I say, I’m a Black woman. You know, I can maybe speak to the Asian American experience because I am also Asian American. But that was, for one thing, a very broad question. The second thing was that from all the survey responses I was reading, because I was already in the survey section of this survey phase of this book writing process, it was absolutely not that people did not want to join these groups. It was that they were made to feel so incredibly unwelcome. Maybe not overtly sometimes. Overtly, yes. But the microaggressions, the condescension, the judgment, the gatekeeping were all super strong in these groups. And so people of color just weren’t joining the groups. And so I was trying to explain that and she wasn’t getting it. And then she said, you know, but I guess our group isn’t like that because what’s really important to me is the skill. And I just knew she was going there. I knew she was going to say it, and she said, I don’t see color. And she said, actually, I do see color. But you know what I mean?

I see the skill first. And I was like, oh, my God. Okay, well, this is all the things in a conversation, right? These are all the things that we have been actually, I’ve been trying to tell you, are the microaggressions through this conversation, and you can’t help yourself. And I was done with my work for that class. So I left. I just stopped by to say goodbye, and I’m going to go get some ice cream now. And I was just very upset after that. But what ended up happening because it was a small group and because actually everybody was really kind of thoughtful as the conversation went on without me, which is what I actually want. I don’t want people of color to be harmed in this process. I actually want the conversations to happen outside and for folks to figure out like, oh, wait, everything Jen was saying, I just did. And this was deeply uncomfortable, and I don’t like feeling this way. And I feel really bad. And I’d like to apologize to Jen, but I don’t want to put her through this. And actually now I’m really thinking about this group. That was the best possible outcome, but I was also very frustrated by it.

I just wish it hadn’t happened. But sometimes somebody’s got to say the quiet thing out loud, and I got to walk away. I felt really fortunate that I just got to walk away and that people figured it out without me.

Sarai
One of the things that your book made me think of, and reading all of these stories really made me think of was just the prevalence of defensiveness and how that is such a block to really the kind of reflection that you’re talking about, you’re reflecting on your own behavior and how it might be harming somebody else.

Jen
Yeah, I think we’re all defensive. There are moments where I have to take a deep breath and just before I respond to an email or I just need to walk away from an Instagram comment. Those are fairly low stakes things for the most part. And I think about there’s this push right now in the industry to diversify craft spaces, to diversify the industry. And I’ve definitely seen a lot better representation in terms of, say, models and also in terms of who is asked to participate, whose patterns are being released and featured. That’s a huge deal. I’m really glad to see that. But a lot of that is just window dressing. And so for the bigger changes to happen, the defensiveness has to just dissipate. You have to acknowledge your defensiveness. And when you are called out on something, called out on a microaggression. And let me tell you, as the person on the receiving end of the microaggression, it is exhausting to have to respond to it all the time. But I’ve gotten to the point where I respond to it just because I feel like I have nothing to lose anymore in terms of the industry.

But yeah, the defensiveness, it needs to break down. And I can’t be the one to break that down. People of color, women of color are not the ones. It’s not their job to break that down. If it’s not a problem we created, it’s not ours to fix.

Sarai
Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I think just reading these stories can be so powerful for all people because there are different types of defensiveness that are described in your book. In the stories, there’s very overt offensiveness like you described, or the folks in the book described experiences of posting things online and just having people argue back with their own experience about it, that more over defensiveness. But there are other forms of defensiveness that I think people might not even realize they’re engaging in until they read stories like this and understand somebody else’s perspective. Right in the book, as I was thinking about these stories and these narratives is, do you think that craft itself and the way that the respondents in the book engaged in craft is also a form of storytelling and also a form of sharing their lived experience that maybe is overlooked?

Jen
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think certain forms of craft just aren’t super narrative in any way or the ways that people practice their craft aren’t necessarily narrative. But I also think that the ways in which we practice our craft are not neutral at all. We make choices about, for one thing, the craft. I know there’s a lot of tension or friction between crocheters and knitters that I didn’t want to get into.

Sarai
I didn’t even know that existed.

Jen
Oh, my God. I have theories about it. I don’t want to get too much into it. But if you think about who practices crochet and who knits and the kinds of climates that crochet makes sense in and the kinds of climates that knitting makes sense in, you will start to understand what I’m talking about. But even the choice of what yarn you’re using, whether you’re using stuff from the big box store that’s acrylic, or you’re using wool, whether you’re using quilting cotton, that is like, I design really nice quilting cotton that you can only find in indie stores or whether you’re going to the big box stores to buy your quilting cotton, what kinds of fabric you’re using for your garments, like the linen versus polyester crew you’re making all these choices that actually reveal a lot about not reveal, but that have implications in terms of the environment that also say about something about your maybe income level or education level or your race. There are a lot of things that are just going on there that are not neutral. And so is there a story behind that? Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of judging us about using acrylic, using polyester.

I totally get that. There’s judging us about using crochet, there’s judging us in the quilting world over, you know, over skill and over craft level. There are all these gatekeepers and there are all these different things that go on behind the scenes that I think are part of the story. But I don’t know necessarily that there is as clear of a story in craft in people’s individual crafts as there is in having folks tell their own words, tell their own stories, and say using their own words.

Sarai
I noticed that there were several interviews in the book that talked about several years ago, people getting into craft through things like Flickr and the wardrobe remix group, which I remember very well, and craft blogs and things like that. And you also talked about this in your own stories. And I wondered if you think that social media and the landscape of social media today has really changed craft online and the idea of creating this diverse, quote unquote community online when so much of it is now controlled by Facebook, basically controlled by a large corporation and its algorithms. So I wonder if you think there’s been change there and how so?

Jen
Yeah, absolutely. I think about the old days of Flicker where you would upload, like, all your photos of you wearing an outfit. It would be like 20 photos of you in the same outfit, whereas now it would be distilled into one perfect photo. It’s one perfect, perfectly shot, well lit, nicely posed photo of yourself and how that actually changes in many ways perception that, for example, blogs. I used to do a lot of sew alongs when I first started sewing. And the photos were never great. They were, like, blurry a little bit, especially when you’re doing a close up of the machine. You would have to use contrast thread, which would be kind of funky given the color of the fabric. Like all of this stuff going on. There was this room for imperfection and this room for experimentation that was shown. We could all see what was going on, and now you’re only seeing the finished product. And so what does that say? You know, like the work that’s gone into it behind the scenes, the choices that were made that’s not shared at all. My brother and my dad and I are all tinkerers.

And when I was a kid, my brother and I would just take things apart. And my dad learned electronics through taking things apart. Probably my grandmother wasn’t happy about that, but that’s what he did. And if you think about the technology that we use now, we mostly use a phone, an iPhone or a smartphone. If you’re using a desktop, maybe you’re using a Mac, an Imac. You can’t tinker with that anymore. There’s no behind the scenes. It is like this seamless device where you have to take it to a specialist to get fixed because you can’t open it up and look at it. Right. That’s just representative. So much of how the world operates now, how social media operates now is you can’t really take apart the device. You have the finished device, you’re not seeing what goes into it, what’s behind the scenes. Even when we talk about garments, sewing, I was kind of surprised the number of people who thought that clothes were sewn by machines. And I was like, no, all clothes are handmade like, literally everything is handmade because nobody sees the back end of that anymore unless you’re a hobbyist and you sell your clothes and you’re like, oh, wait, there’s no way that this could ever be automated.

Jen
Right. You can’t adjust the tension. Like the needle is suddenly a little bit dull. So you need to know, do you change the needle? Do you adjust the tension? Is there something wrong with the thread? Like, what are all the things that are wrong right now and how do I fix it that can’t be automated? But yeah, I think that we’re in this stage of the world right now, at least in the US, where we’ve just forgotten that there is a hand behind almost everything that we consume.

Sarai
Yeah. I remember telling a friend of mine back in San Francisco that every piece of clothing is made by hand, and that totally blew his mind. And, like, years later, he came back to me and I was like, I remember when you told me that every piece of clothing is made by hand and how that completely blew my mind. And it’s surprising that people don’t know that.

Jen
Well, in the Industrial Revolution was actually, I think the beginnings of it had to do with textile production. Right. So it had to do with picking cotton. It had to do with separating cotton, the fiber from the west, rest of it. I don’t know what that is exactly. Looms even sewing machines. And so they can replicate all of the stuff that people used to do, but they can’t replicate the actual person sewing human. Yeah. Or even cutting. They can’t do that.

Haley
Yeah. I was reading that recently. They finally came up with a way that a machine, a computer that could automate sewing a simple T-shirt on its own. But it was so wildly expensive and had so many issues that it just would never work out to make sense at scale. I have had this conversation with so many people and people who try to argue with me about it. No, everything can be automated. They make cars that way. You’re telling me they can’t make clothing that way. I’ve been to a factory, my friend. I’ve been to a few in my time, and I’m here to tell you. No.

Jen
Right. Exactly. No. And even if you could, let’s be honest, the labor involved and skill involved in sewing a T shirt. First of all, sewing a T shirt is probably the easiest thing to sew. Right. Because it’s a knit. It doesn’t have to fit perfectly if you’re selling it. If you’re making an inexpensive one, there’s a lot of room for error. And T shirts are made in places where labor is really cheap. So you got to raise the price of labor in order for the machine to make any sense. And to be honest, I don’t know that that’s going to happen right away. So it’s probably cheaper to pay someone pennies to sew a T shirt than it is to pay the upfront cost of a machine that might break down in six months to a year.

Haley
Anyway, it’s really interesting to me. There’s a quote from the book. It was Sonia Phillip 100 Days of Sewing, and she was talking about how she sees this kind of the goal of sewing for so many people is to erase the presence of the human hand. And that was something that just was like an arrow to my heart. I see it so much. And I think that’s part of the kind of magic of the early Flickr days that we’ve lost is because there was something really subversive that we were doing then. And as the sewing community, at least the garment sewing community, which is the part I participate in, most often, has evolved. There’s been this push to replicate what’s made and ready to wear.

Jen
There was this time where wardrobe remix, you could just put on whatever you had, and it would be great. Right. Because you were trying something, you were just putting yourself out there, and now you have, like, everything must be perfectly styled. Right. You need to hide the flaws. That is, the cost of participating in certain communities is you’ve got to follow the gatekeepers guidelines in order to be a part of the community. Now, the flip side of that is that you can also just do your own thing and be on social media.

You can exist outside of that. You don’t have to want to be a part of that group. And quite frankly, as a Black woman, I’ve never really wanted to just fit into these mainstream groups. I quilt, but I’ve just started quilting. But I don’t really want to be a part of the quilting world because there’s a lot of judging us on that. Right. I’m happy to make my beautiful fabric, and that is the skill that I contribute to this world. But I don’t really want anyone commenting on my wonky points on my quilt. I’m doing this for fun.

I do want to get better, and I have definitely become a much better sewist over the years just by doing it a lot. But that’s something that’s internally driven, and it’s not someone can’t come into me and saying, this is unacceptable, right?

Sarai
Yeah.

Jen
Because I don’t care. I’m just going to go ahead and do my own thing outside of the gatekeepers and evoke that wardrobe remix thing where it’s like you do you. And that’s completely fine.

Sarai
Yeah. I think social media today really promotes homogeneity because I think a lot of the points that you raise that people get that one perfect photo to post on Instagram, and then they know that they’re going to get more likes if it looks a certain way that kind of fits this Instagram look versus back in the day when maybe it was just about experimentation and having fun. It’s really interesting the motivations are different, I think, now for sharing than maybe they were back then.

I wanted to go back to one more thing. I know we’re going kind of long, but there’s so much I wanted to talk to you about. I just wanted to go back to one more thing that you mentioned, which you talked about tinkering and the fact that you can’t open up these tools and use them in the way that maybe people did in the past. And I think that’s a really insightful point, because I think today we don’t have as much access to tools as we did in the past tools for directly affecting our environment. And so much is in the hands of maybe companies or large groups that we’re not a part of.

And a lot of power has been taken away from people due to a lack of access to tools. I wonder what you think about that in terms of things like crafting and sewing, where you have this very direct relationship with your tools and you are able to affect things in a very close and personal way. And if you feel like that in itself is a form of taking back power.

Jen
Oh, absolutely. I think, too, that sewing is often because it’s seen as, quote unquote, women’s work. It’s kind of denigrated. Like, people are like, that’s cute, that’s a granny craft. But I think so much about sewing and math and geometry. It’s the one place that I use all of these skills that I learned in school that actually sewing a garment, taking something that’s flat and giving it dimension and making it fit on a body is an amazing feat of engineering. And I don’t think we talk about that often enough. As someone who makes fabric and also makes clothes, it still astonishes me to this day that I can cut out a few shapes and sew them together, and it fits or even pattern drafting. Like, I can take my measurements. The first time I was able to make a T-shirt that fit me perfectly using my measurements, I freaked out. Like, who knew? And it’s really just some simple math. If you’re into math like I am. But it’s not even complicated math because you can use a ruler. And so you’ve got that visual thing going on along with the conceptual stuff. I just think that’s super empowering, right, that we learn how to write when we were in school and we use it for the rest of our lives, and then we get to these higher concepts, and we don’t think we’re ever going to use them again.

But actually we’re using them for these really practical reasons and these also very creative reasons. So, yes, not just engaging with the tool, but engaging with the medium. It fascinates me. I’m not a knitter. One day I will finally learn how to knit. But that also astonishes me that you’re taking this length of thread length of yarn and using two needles. And suddenly you’ve created something that’s going to keep you warm, something that has dimension, something that interlocks that to me, is fascinating. And I don’t think we give it enough of its due because we see it as women’s work, like somebody’s going to go out and build a car or build a computer. Okay, fine. But have you ever taken a piece of thread, a piece of yarn and made something for someone or made a sweater to fit you perfectly like that’s? Also pretty impressive.

Sarai
Yeah.

Haley
Yeah. Regardless of at what level you do it, it’s an impressive thing to make something with your own hands in a world that gives you lots of other options.

Sarai
All right. Thank you so much, Jen. This is like such an amazing conversation. We appreciate you so much for coming on and talking with us today. So where can people find you if they want to find you?

Jen
I’m all over the place. So I have a website, Jenhewett.com. And I also have a shop where I sell scarves that I’ve designed, sign copies of my book, hopefully soon, my fabric if it lands soon, and a whole bunch of other goodies. And then also on social media at Jen Hewett on Instagram and not on Facebook much. So don’t look for me on Facebook. I never do it. And I also have collections coming out for Moda fabrics. So I’ve got a line of quilting cotton, my first with Moda fabrics, my second fabric collection altogether coming out in the next few weeks. I also have collections with Anthropologie and World Market of home goods and bedding and rugs and all the things awesome.

Sarai
And your book, you want to plug your book one more time?

Jen
Oh, yes. Okay. It’s called This Long Thread, Women of Color on Craft, Community and Connection. It came out in November of 2021, and I interviewed 19 people, surveyed almost 300, and commissioned essays from folks, and it’s a delight of a book. It was a pleasure to write, and I’ve heard. It’s a pleasure to read.

Sarai
It is.

Haley
It really is.

Jen
Thank you.

Sarai
Yeah, it was a great read. All right. Well, thank you so much, Jen.

Jen
Thank you, Sarai and Haley.

Sarai
Seamwork Radio is brought to you by the team at Seamwork. Seamwork is an online community that supports you in creating a wardrobe that feels right for you. When you join us at Seamwork, you become part of our private community of makers, and you also get access to monthly sew along classes, a library of over 200 sewing patterns, and tons of great resources to help guide you through the sewing adventure that you choose. Podcast listeners can get half off the Seamwork Unlimited membership, which means you can download as many of those 200 plus patterns as you want at any time, and our community will be there to guide and support you. If you’d like to join us for half off just visit seamwork.com. Gopodcast 50 you can also find us on Instagram at Seamwork or visit our YouTube channel which is called Seamwork video. We love hearing from you so let us know if there’s a topic or a personal story that you’d like us to cover. Thanks for listening to Seamwork radio.

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