'I don't do square'

McLouth fabric artist borrows quilting techniques, not geometry, to stitch wearable art garments

Sunday, August 31, 2003

— Sherry Leftwich borrows techniques from quilters. And her garments bear echoes of the time-honored patchworks.

But her artistic impulses have guided her down a more winding path.

"I keep telling everybody at the quilt guild, 'I don't do square,'" she says matter-of-factly while sitting at her sewing machine in the rural McLouth home she shares with her husband, a retired Pan Am pilot.

The curvy swaths of fabric in the jackets and vests Leftwich creates in her basement workspace are reminiscent of the shapes one might spy from an airplane window, each separated by a fabric roadway.

Her materials -- cotton blends, wool, polyester, heavy tapestry, lace, denim, silk, old linens, neckties -- almost always started life in someone's closet or as a sample someone might choose to upholster a couch. Leftwich's friends bring her stacks of sweaters they'll never wear again because they're outdated or were shrunk in the wash. Garage-saling friends share their bargains. And Leftwich occasionally scavenges in thrift stores to supplement the fabric she's accumulated through the years.

"Almost everything I do is a form of recycling -- recycling with things other people would throw away," she says.

She gives the recyclables new life in the form of wearable art and sells them through her business, Thimble Boutique.

Custom fit

Leftwich started working with recyclables about a decade ago. She quickly filled her own closet with jackets, vests and other garments, but her creative impulse continued. So she started stitching clothing to sell at boutiques and galleries.


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photos

Sherry Leftwich, McLouth, has a great view from her walkout basement, where she creates wearable art for her business, Thimble Boutique. Leftwich uses recyclables, such as blue jean denim, neckties and old sweaters to make her one-of-a-kind garments.

Today, she has enough regular customers to keep her busy a good part of the year. She spends afternoons during the winter and summer months in her basement, stocking up for her fall open house and two shows she does each fall. She also spends time on the road, doing trunk shows and classes in the Lawrence area and throughout the region.

Leftwich discovered early on that patterns she could buy in the store for jackets and vests didn't fit women's bodies. The armholes were too loose on vests, or the one-size-fits-all approach most wearable artists employ didn't, in fact, fit all.

So developed her own patterns -- she's up to eight -- that she sells for $10 to people who ask "How did you do that?" Her garments come in sizes small to 2X.

For a sweater jacket, Leftwich starts by cutting the pattern out of lining material. She then cuts out each piece for the sweater front from a stack of recycled sweaters she's grouped together according to color. Each piece is machine sewn to the liner, and the seams are masked with a narrow length of fabric.

Each garment takes six to 14 hours -- sometimes more -- to complete. Prices range from $45 to as much as $225 for her very intricate Java Jackets (the only pattern in her repertoire that she didn't create.)

Fabric artist Sherry Leftwich will have a Thimble Boutique open house Thursday through Saturday at her McLouth home. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at 18865 U.S. Highway 16/92. Call (913) 796-6562 or e-mail Leftwich at thimbo@myvine.com for directions.Leftwich also will have wearable art for sale Oct. 18-19 at Baldwin's Maple Leaf Festival quilt show and Nov. 6-8 with Ladies of Charity in Overland Park.Leftwich also does commissioned work. Contact her for more information.


What elevates Leftwich's work to art, she says, is her motivation.

"I see a pile of fabrics, and I just can't stand it until I put them together," she says. "I primarily do what I do because I enjoy the combination of colors and textures.

"My work is constantly evolving. If you were to come back next year, you'd see a difference. I think anyone who does it for the sake of creativity, their work's always changing."


These vests are the creations of McLouth fabric artist Sherry Leftwich, who makes wearable art garments from items people would normally throw away, such as old sweaters, neckties and blue jean denim. Leftwich will sell the clothing at an open house Thursday through Saturday at her home.

Leftwich, who grew up on a farm in south-central Iowa, learned to sew in 4-H. She has belonged to Lawrence's Kaw Valley Quilter's Guild for the past 12 years.

She works in a walkout basement sewing room that has a 180-degree view of the McLouth countryside. Two sergers -- one set up with dark thread, the other with light -- sit next to a brand new Bernina sewing machine at an L-shaped table. (Leftwich just replaced her last Bernina after 15 years).

Though her business is named after a recognizable tool of the thread trade, Leftwich admits she doesn't use a thimble. Still, the callous at the base of her right thumb -- worn thick from cutting out patterns -- gives away her die-hard mentality.

"I'm addicted to what I do," she says. "I can't stop."