Jessica Lewis Stevens | Sugarhouse Workshop
I don’t remember when I first stumbled upon the magical woodland scenes that fill up the instagram account of Jessica Lewis Stevens, but I remember being immediately captivated. Hers was a world I wanted to dive into—and her photos were so evocative, I practically felt like I had. In this interview, Jessica answered my questions about living in a rural place, her connection to commercial goods from the perspective of a small business owner, and her philosophy on kids and their ‘stuff’, among other things.
Erin: Can you tell Reading My Tea Leaves readers a bit about yourself and your work?
Jessica: I live with my husband and young son (with a baby on the way!) in southern Vermont where we tend to our garden and chickens and otherwise work hard to live well. I am the maker behind Sugarhouse Workshop, a small handmade brand that focuses on heirloom-quality quilts made with naturally dyed fibers. I also use natural dyes to make cheerful and useful goods like buntings, play silks, bags, and blankets. The work I make for my home and shop reflects my efforts to make intentional, non-disposable objects and to foster both a meaningful and whimsical connection with the natural world around us.
Erin: You live on a self-described homestead. Have you always lived in a rural place? What are your favorite aspects of living in a secluded spot? What’s a challenge?
Jessica: I grew up in upstate New York and lived for the most part in a rural setting, so it’s certainly where I feel most comfortable. I spent some time during college and grad school in Philadelphia and Buffalo, but my husband and I chose to settle down in Vermont soon after our son arrived. There’s so much to love; we get to be constantly immersed in the changing seasons, we have access to really incredible, thoughtfully produced food, and our children get to spend all the time they want outdoors. The biggest challenge is something I would say has really become another benefit: Living on a mountain miles from town means we just don’t have access to anything in an impulsive (or even convenient) way. But as a result of this, I’ve really deepened my understanding of what our needs are as a family and how to fulfill them in the most conscious way. Instead of ordering take out or running to the store like we could in the city, I’ve learned I have to plan and prepare our meals carefully and therefore I think a lot about what we eat, how it’s made, and where it comes from. The same goes for toiletries and clothing and toys and nearly everything else we use. There’s nowhere easy to get these things, so it gives me the time and motivation to do my research and figure out how best to meet those needs in a sustainable and thoughtful way.
Erin: Glimpses of your life reveal a deeply colorful environment, but lots of that color comes from things found in nature. How would you describe your relationship to the outdoors and how does it impact your life indoors?
Jessica: We spend so much of our time outdoors three seasons of the year, and I find the impact of that especially present in the day to day rhythms with my son Henry, and in my work. In spring, we’re out preparing and planting the garden and bringing in bits of nature that mean winter is finally over. In summer, we spend lots of time in the garden, swimming in the pond, and hunting for edibles and dye plants in the forest. Our indoor life becomes sort of secondary until it’s time to bring in the harvest and we spend time putting food up and turning those plants into teas and dyes. In autumn, there are plenty of dye pots to be simmered, cider-making, baking, and long crunchy walks.
It’s around that time that we all start to feel the pull inwards, and our indoor life becomes more rich with projects and preparations for winter and for me, lots more sewing, quilting, and knitting. The change of each season always feels exciting because it means real shifts in our days both indoors and out.
Erin: As a quilter and crafter, part of your work is to make things for other people to purchase and enjoy. Do you feel like you have a unique relationship to commercial goods? What are your own purchasing habits like, especially living in a remote place?
Jessica: I do feel like my relationship to commercial goods and consumption in general has changed and evolved considerably as I’ve grown into making for a living. As I mentioned earlier, everything we buy is thoroughly considered, and I find myself wanting to buy less and less in general as my understanding of modern manufacturing processes, as well as traditional ways of doing things, increases. This is especially true when it comes to clothing, toys, and our soft goods. I’ve learned with a few tricks and skills there aren’t very many clothes we have to buy, and when we do, we rely on handmade and otherwise small, ethical brands. I’ve learned that when we purchase things that are well-made, have a story, or show the signs of hand-making, we treat them better and they last considerably longer.
Erin: It looks as though you’re always immersed in a new project. As someone who’s so good at making things for yourself, do you ever feel like you end up with more than you need?
Jessica: I find that time and again our needs are really the greatest “muse” to my work; most of what I produce for my shop came first from something I wanted or needed for our home, and then evolved into something I could offer to other folks. Our cabin is tiny, so there’s nowhere for me to keep things we don’t specifically need and use – something I consider a major benefit to living in a small space. For my shop and custom projects, I acquire materials in small amounts so I don’t end up with too much in my small work space, and because of the nature of my collections being very limited and often seasonal, I don’t have any back stock to store. It’s a system that works well for me to limit the “stuff” I have in general, and it allows me to stay on top of what we need without making too much of any one thing.
Erin: When you describe your quilting you write, “ I think children deserve functional, beautiful, and well-made objects in their lives and in their play…”. What do you think are the best ways parents can seek out those kinds of items for our children? Do you have any tips for parents who are hoping to do that?
Jessica: This is an idea that’s really important to me both in what I make and how I collect items for our own home. I think sometimes parents worry that investing more in their children’s toys or bedding isn’t wise because they’ll soon outgrow or tire of it, or they won’t be able to maintain them effectively. In my experience, children are just as capable of appreciating and understanding well-made items as adults. My son gravitates toward toys made from natural materials, and the open-ended nature of those toys (like play silks, wooden figures and blocks, quality art supplies) mean they last long past a particular phase or age group. It also gives us as parents the opportunity to teach them about caring for their belongings in a way that can often be fun for little ones. Henry enjoys polishing his wooden toys with beeswax and coconut oil, or washing his play silks in the sink. When his quilt needs mending, he picks a new color for the patch. It instills a sense of pride in what they own that I think can lay the groundwork for making good purchasing decisions in their own lives.
I think it’s important for parents to consider how a prospective toy or item (or even an item on your child’s shelves already) makes the parent themselves feel. ‘Would you enjoy playing with it? Does it engage the senses and invite you to handle it? Is it made in a way that fits with your values?’ I think answering these questions honestly can give a lot of perspective to parents feeling like they’d like to pare down or change how they buy for their children.
Erin: Based on my own anecdotal experience, there’s a lot of anxiety among parents of young kids about the amount of toys and gifts they’re given. What’s been your approach to kid’s toys so far?
Jessica: Gosh, this is so true. I find the best advice or wisdom I’ve been given when it comes to the amount of toys kids have is that less is always, always more. Children play so much more thoughtfully with open-ended toys that are presented in limited quantities (and they’re easier to put away, too!) I think it’s often hard to tell well-meaning friends and relatives not to buy so much for your child, but it can be freeing as a parent to have that conversation, and most of the time people are very receptive to it. It can help to find a shop you like to buy from and make a wish list there around a birthday or a holiday. Often, folks are happy to oblige but may want some steering in the right direction.
Erin: You live in a small cabin; what’s been your approach to creating spaces for a child (soon children!) in your home so far?
Jessica: Creating spaces for little ones is one of my favorite things to do. We don’t have separate rooms for the children in our cabin, so making small nooks for toys and belongings has become essential. I find when you collect beautiful toys, they’re just as nice to show off on a living room shelf as anything else. I like to consider my son’s comfort in the places he likes to play, making sure they are warm and inviting, and to keep those spaces close to where I do my work or close to the kitchen so we can be engaged with one another throughout the day. I like to change things seasonally and bring lots of natural elements into his spaces – I think it fosters a bit of a sense of magic that children so often love. From a practical perspective, I think it’s essential to provide children with easy access to the things they need and use. A low coat rack for them to hang their own sweaters and jackets, a basket they can reach for hats and mittens, shelves where their art supplies are neatly organized. I think it makes our job as parents easier to foster this independence, and it makes children feel like they really have their own place in the home.
To see Jessica’s beautiful goods, head to her online shop.
To keep abreast of Jessica’s daily adventures, follow @sugarhouseworkshop on Instagram.
The Simple Matters Series is inspired in part by curiosity piqued while writing my book of the same title. I wanted to know what simple matters were for other folks. And why simplicity mattered to them in the first place. My own story came out in January of 2016. It’s available right this way.