Colleen is one of our stitchers, an avid seamstress, and our youngest worker at 19 years old. Here, Liz interviews her on patternmaking and life in Providence.
The high school you attended prior to coming here was very hands-on and artistically focused. How did your education lead up to and prepare you for what you’re doing now at Lotuff?
Even though I started sewing when I was younger, at around eight years old, it was only at school that I started to really establish a lot of my skills training as far as sewing goes. During my junior and senior years, I had a great sewing teacher who also worked at the Steel Yard. She was able to really help refine what I already knew, and there were only two other people in her class besides me, so it felt very individualized.
Even after I graduated, I continued to sew with that teacher for a little bit. Then, I started to sew for other people for money and on commission. That started about two years ago, when a woman who worked with my dad heard I was making curtains and asked me to make a set for her. I’m very close with her now, and six months ago, she asked me to do another set. Around that time, I also ended up sewing a bunch of things for a massage therapist who needed some hard-to-find pieces made, and now I have a handful of customers thanks to word getting out from those two original people.
I did take a hiatus from sewing when I briefly moved to Savannah, Georgia. After that I came back here to Providence, where I'm originally from, and started working at Lotuff. My education definitely prepared me well for this as far as being able to understand stitching and a lot of the different techniques that go into it. But I had never worked with leather before this, and the sewing machines I was previously using were not industrial ones, so Lotuff is a different world for me. I do understand certain stitching nuances, though- there are things I already knew how to do when I began working here that I didn’t have to be trained in, which saved a lot of time starting out.
As you mentioned, you left Providence to spend time living in Savannah, then came back and very quickly picked up your position here at Lotuff. Can you speak a bit more about that timeline of events?
Well, my best friend of almost seven years went to Savannah College of Art and Design and had an apartment down in Savannah. The breaks between their semesters are really long, so I moved down to live with her during one of them and found a job. Once the break ended I was very much ready to return to Providence. My partner is here doing glassblowing at Rhode Island School of Design, and I was hoping to establish some local career ties of my own.
After coming back, though, I couldn’t find many job opportunities, and I thought about leaving again. Lindy happened to reach out to me at this time and said Lotuff was looking for a stitcher. I went in for the interview but still even said to myself: “If I don’t get this job, I’m going to leave.”
Then I did end up getting a call back. Given the position Lotuff has offered me and the way they’ve talked about my potential growth, I think I really would like to grow my career here. With the commission work that I do and the space I have at home to sew, it would be ideal if I could split my work between Lotuff and there. I’m also trying to get into a master seamstress certificate program at URI, and I want to take a couple of business classes too.
You almost went into automotive repair instead of sewing and design. At first glance, those are two very different things- are you still hoping to pursue both at some point?
I definitely see them as really different. I never thought I was going to sew professionally. I just thought I was going to do a lot of different things in life with sewing being one of them and as more of a pastime. But in the end, sewing is the thing that comes the most naturally to me, and I couldn’t ignore that. I just don’t have to think about it as much as anything else.
I still love cars and still want to learn how to fix basic issues with them, but I’ve realized that it’s more of a hobby than a career choice for me, and that I don’t want to go to school for basic mechanics. I really think a big part of my liking cars is that I enjoy things that are hands-on. I like when people can show me how to do something physically- right in front of me. I like things where there’s an end product, where you can see what you've done. To me, cars (like any finished product) fit into that category.
What are your personal ambitions for your sewing career and your future?
In the next few years, I’d love to open a place in Providence where I can sell basic fabric to the public and also use the space as my studio. There are pretty much zero fabric stores around here, and I know a lot of RISD students wish there were. I’d like to fill that space.
I’ve realized that I like sewing clothes for myself and for people I’m close to, but I think it would be very expensive and very time-consuming to extend that to a larger crowd. My goal is mostly to do home decor (out of everything I make, what everybody seems to always want is curtains) with the occasional article of clothing and simple alterations. I’d like to do pillow covers, floor cushions, and to learn how to do reupholstering. Upholstering is hard to learn, but if I’m able to get the hang of it, I could do car interiors. That, to me, would be really cool.
Because you’re starting to learn patternmaking on your own time, has working here been helpful in familiarizing yourself with that process?
I’m definitely proficient at using patterns. That’s a skill I learned to refine a lot better in high school, and lately I’ve been trying to work through books and online tutorials for creating fitted patterns. I’m trying to sew custom pieces for me and for other people. It’s one of those things where the first time I custom-made something for myself and tried it on, it looked strange and a lot different on than I was expecting. Patternmaking takes a lot of refining, and that’s why a lot of people don’t do it. It’s a patient venture for sure, and a very different way of sewing.
I think the way in which Lotuff has helped me the most is with establishing that sense of patience. Leather can be kind of unforgiving as a material and so I’ve had to go more slowly and pace myself, something I’ve never had to do with sewing before. If something turned out wrong in the past, I just got frustrated and started over. But when there’s somebody waiting on you for a piece that you're preparing for their next step of the process, it’s like, “Oh- I really have to do this right the first time.” It’s different, and it’s good.