Textile arts and sewing have always been a way of life for Sarah Lillegard. The Doyle, California-based artist hails from a family of craftspeople. Her grandmother, aunt, and mother all quilt, and Lillegard herself learned to sew from both parents. Her father worked for a small backpacking company in California as a teenager and was just as handy with a needle as his wife.

“Working with textiles — sewing and embroidery and handiwork — has just been part of what we all did out of necessity,” she says, adding that she only jumped into quilting for the first time about five years ago when she decided to make a quilt for her partner, potter Casey Clark. “It ended up taking me a year longer than I expected; my mom’s really good about precise sewing, so there was a lot of seam ripping and redoing, which at the time felt like a struggle, but in hindsight was really helpful for me to learn.”

The experience revealed the versatility of quilts, how they are a perfect marriage of form and function, as well as the importance of perspective in pattern making. 

“When you’re sewing, you’re working pretty close up, but then when you hold that pattern or quilt block away from you, there an image and pattern and contrast that appears, and when that quilt block is added, there’s an even bigger conversation happening, so there are multiple levels of viewing,” she explains, adding that the pattern becomes even more involved when you consider the regional and historical influences on patterns, how colors and certain fabrics represent origins, culture, or ideas. “There are infinite possibilities.” 

Sarah’s first foray into quilting involved a lot of trial and error and left her with a set of precision sewing skills that she uses often when making items like her New Moon Clutch.

Prior to this work, she had been making art in other ways — primarily through assemblage, a medium in which collections of paper and other materials are used to create collages. “It’s a similar idea to quilting,” she says, “the constraints of paper, receipts, ephemera I found and what I could communicate with them, what narrative or feelings could be evoked by assembling them together.”

Assemblage was the subject of her first exhibit as an undergraduate student at Walla Walla University in Washington in 2008. Then she began incorporating photography into her work, mostly Polaroid, followed by more soft forms and sculpture work, the subject of her Master of Fine Arts, which she earned at Sierra Nevada University in Incline Village. But as the years have passed, her interest has turned to functional goods, items that can be carried, worn, and used, rather than simply hanging on a wall.

Many of Sarah’s creations, like this Indigo Bag with cyanotype images, incorporate quilting techniques.

“At this point, I no longer refer to it as art making,” she says. “I say I’m a seamstress or sewist. I guess the differentiation is because I’m no longer invested or interested in making gallery work. I want to make things that serve some sort of function and purpose for daily life, not just a metaphor in a white box.”

Lillegard says she began this work with “an obsession with jackets, how it’s this garment that has a universal appeal and can be worn by a group, say a rancher, and fit within a language of clothing. It can be worn by a DJ in a city or by a bowling league or Future Farmers of America, and it becomes a signifier of groups that they belong. So I started there and quilted on jackets with this idea of, ‘What group do you belong to?’ and ‘How you make a visual code with a jacket.’” 

There are at least two concepts at play in this garment design: How do we use jackets to represent identity? Which Great Basin flora yield wearable colors when they’re used to make natural dyes?

Bags have been another area of growing interest, out of the idea that everyone has their own idiosyncratic needs from a bag — jobs it needs to perform, where they like the pockets to be for what, how the weight should be distributed, whether it should be associated with gender or not. She incorporates her quilting and pattern making skill to make and adorn her designs.

She’s managed to stitch together a career in textile arts in recent years, with a “trifecta” of activities comprising her income sources: selling her textile goods, such as bags or jackets, online under her own Thrive & Thicken label; teaching craft-based workshops in subjects like embroidery, natural dyes, and quiltmaking; and shearing small flocks of sheep, llamas, goats, and alpacas. 

“I’m passionate about the uses of wool and the sort of magic that animals can turn vegetation into this product that gets renewed each year,” she says. “They grow it, it comes off, they grow it again … So I pursued going to shearing school and found out that there’s actually a gap in this area for small-flock shearers, or those people who shear flocks of one to 30 animals. Once I started to learn the skill set, I found out there was demand, so I wanted to be able to help people with those animals.”

The shearing service, she says, does not contribute to her own textile work; she isn’t yet using any sheared wool in her own work, though down the line she would love to explore how to take wool from shearing to finished product in a cost-efficient way. Currently, her fabrics are virgin material that is mostly surplus or end-of-bolt scraps sourced from millers, as way to eliminate or avoid waste. “I also use a lot of material left over from my own sewing projects, like scraps from quilting,” she says. “That’s the language of quilting. There’s a rich history of reusing and saving fabric pieces, paper bags, things like that, so you’re extending the life of the material as much as possible.”

Sarah’s palette is often informed by the natural dye materials she collects locally.

Using what’s available and focusing on natural products is what led Lillegard to explore making natural dyes with elements found in the Great Basin. She explains that she has had a lifelong obsession with the palette of the Great Basin and high desert — the curly dock that transitions from rich green to a burgundy-brown when it goes to seed, the purples of Russian sage, the yellow of rabbit brush — and how they change with the seasons. “People from a different bio-region, like the Pacific Northwest, where there’s a lot of chartreuse, will come to the desert and say, ‘There’s no color here.’ But it’s a subtle color, and I think when you’re around it more you really recognize the diversity to it.”

Utilizing these elements found her natural surroundings, Lillegard steeps them in water, like tea, to create vibrant natural dyes that are easily accessible. It’s this ease and approachability for even the most inexperienced of amateur crafters that has led her to teach this skill in workshops.

“It’s meant to be something that’s highly accessible, that families can do together, that doesn’t take much money besides having a glass jar to make the dye in,” she says. “That access point is something I’m really passionate about because if you give someone an entry point, they then feel empowered to experiment and explore as much as they want from there.”

You can find more of Sarah Lillegard’s work on Instagram and her Thrive & Thicken website. Her upcoming workshops include:

  • Wonder of Nature: Finding Dye Plants in Your Garden, presented by Nevada Humanities, 4-5 p.m. May 26 on Zoom. Free. Register here.
  • Intro to Pocket Embroidery, 4:30-6:30 p.m. May 28 at Atelier in Reno, $65. Registaton info here
  • Intro to Natural Dyeing: Socks, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., June 12 at Atelier in Reno, $65. Registration info here.
  • Intro to Mending, 5-7 p.m., June 18 at at Atelier in Reno, $65. Registration info here

Photos courtesy of Sarah Lillegard. Cover photo by Mike Okimoto.

Posted by Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina is a freelance writer and editor who has been covering the arts and culture scene in the Reno area for nearly two decades. See more of her work at www.jessicasantina.com.