(Editor’s note: The article has been updated to correct the name of the owner of downtown Truckee shop Bespoke + Atelier, Heather River.)
During any given session of Judi Morales-Meyer’s sewing classes at Truckee’s Roundhouse — a hub for the public to access all kinds of artistic mediums — students can be seen working on something colorful and one of a kind, with no two pieces alike.
Like many women of Generation X, she was taught to sew by her mother who learned from her grandmother. They passed on the classical version of the art form: how to iron perfectly straight lines into fabric and cut and pin intricately designed patterns.
Today, Meyer instead teaches “guerrilla sewing,” sharing tips and tricks she’s learned from over the years like how to replicate an item without a pattern, how to make your own pattern, and how to augment clothes that don’t fit.
Her garment and upcycling business, Cinder Garden Designs, was born 17 years ago after she’d started attending Burning Man and begun sewing her own costumes.
DESIGNING WOMEN: Judi Morales-Meyer’s Cinder Garden Designs came to be after she started going to Burning Man and began sewing her own costumes. While many of her designs have a steampunk influence, they all focus on upcycling and putting older textiles to new use, left. At right, Meghan Litchfield’s RedThread Collection uses software-based technology to create clothing designed to perfectly fit each customer’s unique body shape. Photos by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink
“I [had] made outfits for my husband, myself, and my infant son [and] then I started sewing garments to vend to pay for our Burning Man trip. I was making mostly furry stuff because that’s what people wanted, but then I saw the Neverwas Haul (a steampunk art car). I had already kind of discovered steampunk on my own, but then I started making [steampunk] clothes for him, me, and our crew, and doing steampunk shows,” she recalled.
For Meyer, exploring “steampunk” and the close-knit concept of “upcycling” changed everything.
“Steampunk is ‘Victorian science fiction,’” she explained. “At the beginning of the industrial age everything was steam and gear powered. This is the future that the Victorians envisioned happening, had we not started the industrial revolution. It’s a cosplay genre in books, art, music, and fashion. My style is like street-urchin-meets-Oliver-Twist … I am a worker bee, so I make myself utility belts, bloomers with cargo pockets … ”
Upcycling means reusing something in a way that makes it better or adds value. The concept ties into steampunk because it encourages the idea that in the fictional post-apocalyptic world, a person could make anything with what they have. But it’s important in the real world too. Imagine a future where if the supply chain breaks down people can sew their own tents, sleeping bags, clothing, or shade structures, from any material they can find, she suggests.
Though she still does a few makers markets, Meyer’s focus has turned to the educational part of her work. This is in her sixth year teaching at the Roundhouse and sewing there with donated fabric sent in by members of the community.
“My goal is to not only teach people how to sew and make their own things, but to use what they have,” she said. “I always tell folks, if you need a piece of fabric for a project, go to the thrift store first. Go straight to the home linens and you’ll find something really cheap. There’s already so much fabric on the planet and every year the percentage of textiles in our landfills goes up. I’m hoping my influence will get people to switch from being more consumer driven to more maker driven.”
Another Truckee local, Meghan Litchfield, is also approaching textiles from a more sustainable perspective. Her company, RedThread Collection, was born out of frustration with finding clothes that fit her and her peers’ bodies, and from witnessing the amount of waste generated by the industry.
“I had worked in fashion for many years at Banana Republic and I remember how we used to do the fittings,” she said. “We’d find one fit model and fit everything to her. I’m a huge supporter of body positivity. Every time you put on something that doesn’t fit you there’s a small part of you that thinks there’s something wrong with you.”
Her research revealed the history of sizing dating back to World War II when companies started creating sizes to make it more efficient to produce clothing.
“This is more efficient on the front end but what no one tells you is about half of the pieces end up in a landfill and don’t get used. I saw that firsthand working in fashion,” Litchfield said. “We basically realized that when you look at body data, custom fit was only way to get the perfect fit for each unique body. But how do you make it fast, easy, and affordable?”
She turned to technology, creating a team of people who were masters in imaging software, design, and pattern making, and came up with the solution: custom fit clothing from two photos, shipped straight to your door.
When a customer orders a piece, a link is texted to his or her phone. She sends in two photos and AI software does the rest of the work. The image is cross-referenced with over 2 million human data points along with physics equations that help determine your phone angle and distance from the phone. The picture is automatically converted into a set of datapoints, but the visual itself is deleted.
Last summer, Litchfield moved the San Francisco-born business to Truckee, along with her husband and two children, one girl and one boy, then ages 10 and 7.
“I think I learned there was a lot of people that knew how to sew and create in the Tahoe/Reno area. There’s a big creative maker community in Truckee [and that] is what really attracted us to this area,” she said.
Like her, Meyer also agrees there is something about the people of the area.
“I think the people that are attracted to living here are crafty,” she said. “There is so much creativity. I think creative people are drawn to places like this because the nature we live in is an inspiration. There’s an archetype that lives here — there’s definitely a hands-on creative [thing].”
Litchfield also suggests that the region’s people are drawn to one another.
“I really believe that creatives want to be around other creatives. There are a lot of other cities that don’t have a creative spirit to them. I do feel like Truckee and Reno have that creative spirit and the idea of sustainability,” she said.
There are several points to ensuring sustainability in Litchfield’s brand: making high-quality, timeless pieces, utilizing on-demand manufacturing so nothing is over produced, and supporting more sustainable production of fabrics.
RedThread Collection’s goal is to become the most sustainable apparel company in the world, she said.
So what is it about textiles that draws people to create? Owner of the downtown Truckee shop Bespoke + Atelier Heather River has run her textile-oriented businesses locally for over 10 years.
“Fabric and fiber parallels human civilization,” River said. “To create something with your hands is very paramount to being human. Especially coming out of a pandemic. So many of the things were stripped away — so you come back to these fundamental ways of being human, which is to create with your hands.”
Asked about the local presence of creative-type businesses, River said that “Truckee is the land of opportunity — there’s less of the outside world’s distractions. So, owning a business [may be easier] to access.” She hopes to see the region continue to be more supportive of businesses entering the maker market in the future.
“For me, I wonder, What are the opportunities we can open up and channels we can create from a sustainable perspective to draw in the next generation of [creative] people?” she said. “We’re not just looking at having kids here and hoping they stay. What are the other assets that somebody needs to build a creative life? You need stable and affordable housing, creative workspace, and you need to change the culture from a place where art is thought of as a secondary pastime and instead a fundamental human need.”
With the California Arts Council’s 2017 designation of Truckee as a California Cultural District, River hopes that the presence of creatives and the support for local art will only continue to broaden over time.