It’s time for another Grantee Highlight! Our Grantee Highlight series is our monthly initiative to get to know our current Individual Arts Partnership and Jade Presents Arts Partnership grantees. This year we have several repeat Grantees, including our featured artist for April: sewist Cynthia McGuire Thiel!
Cynthia McGuire Thiel is a clothing creator and garment sewist residing in Fargo. Her sewing education began at the age of 3 under the instruction of her mother, a professional seamstress. This lifelong passion has grown to focus on classic, colorful designs with creative touches and attention to fine construction details.
Cynthia received an $800 Individual Arts Partnership grant to purchase a more advanced sewing machine with expanded and faster stitching capabilities. Congrats, Cynthia! Enjoy our Q&A with the talented sewist below.
Beyond other sewists, what sources inspire your work?
Seeking inspiration from other media does not come naturally or easily to me. I think that’s one of my great creative weaknesses – not realizing how to incorporate outside sources into my work. I’ve always felt mentally inferior whenever designers talk about being influenced by music or places or other non-clothing items because I didn’t understand it. I’ve never looked at a building or a painting and thought, “Wow, that detail would look great on a garment!” I attended a talk by couturier Kenneth King, who talked about how he was able to demystify the creative process through his years of work and how he takes ideas from other non-sewing sources. It was helpful and I hope that I’ll be able to figure out some less linear ways of thinking.
What is your daily creative work schedule?
I work full time as a classroom teacher. Sewing is how I decompress after school, so my sewing time is limited to evenings and weekends, and is very unstructured. Sometimes I get a few minutes; other days, hours and hours. I’m lucky to have a studio in my basement where I can leave things out, mid-process, to come and go as I am able.
How do you approach the beginning of a project?
I usually do a lot of research if it’s something high risk like expensive materials, an unfamiliar technique, a new pattern, or a large time commitment. I like to be as informed as possible when I’m faced with a new challenge so I can mitigate or avoid common problems.
What is your greatest fear/challenge when facing a new project?
There’s a poster in my school building that says, “If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything!” It’s become a sort of mantra for me, so I don’t really have many sewing fears. If I’d probably be more afraid if sewing was riskier, but most things can be fixed. I grew up around fabric and sewing and have come to realize that I have the brain and resources to figure out pretty much anything. I know what my strengths are, and what weaknesses I need to practice before I get to the actual creating.
What do you do when you get stuck?
I walk away. I don’t like having incomplete garments around, but if something isn’t fun anymore, I’ll hang it in the closet until inspiration or motivation returns. It’s supposed to be enjoyable.
How does having a community of artists benefit your work?
For most of my creative life, my community was my immediate family but there’s always that little nagging sense that they “have to” like what you do because they live with you. It’s really broadening and validating to have a group of people for encouragement.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the field?
You’re not going to learn it all in a day, a semester, or a year. Creativity is a lifelong practice and pursuit. Keep learning from others, whether it’s from taking classes, reading books, or watching YouTube videos.
If you had a chance to do it all over again, how would you do things differently?
I don’t know that I would. Sewing has always been a hobby and a joy for me, versus a necessity (other than needing it for mental satisfaction). Because of that, I’ve never had any pressure from it, which is very freeing. I’ve certainly bitten off more than I could chew, and have been frustrated and stressed by projects, but they were things I chose to do. I think if I had pursued sewing as a formal career, it could have been very stressful and may have ruined the experience. But who really knows? If I had pursued fashion school right out of high school, maybe I’d be a couturier by now!
What is the one question you have never been asked regarding your creative process?
“Why sewing?” I was a pretty artistic kid – I liked to draw, and have always been a maker. I took ballet lessons and play the flute. My mom is a professional seamstress. If she’d been a painter or a potter, I may have gravitated to those media instead. There are lots of artists around, but very few sewists. Quilting is much more popular than garment sewing here. I think that’s one of the reasons I like it so much – it’s rare.
What was the most discouraging feedback you ever got?
Nobody has ever put down me or my creations, but it is discouraging that people sometimes equate “I sew custom clothing” to “I will mend/make anything cheaply or for free.” It’s like the cliché of asking Michelangelo to paint your garage. I consider my sewing to be an art, not utilitarian. I don’t offer production sewing or repair services because they aren’t something I enjoy doing, and art should be enjoyable. A lot of it is easy for me because I’ve been practicing for the last 35 years! If it’s not easy, I have a lifetime of work to draw from and figure it out. That experience isn’t something I’m going to give away.
What was the most encouraging feedback you ever got?
This fall, I took a sewing class to learn how to draft patterns from measurements. There was a woman who told me that I had what it takes to really do great things in the sewing world. She had worked as a professional seamstress for many years in large cities, and it was heartening to hear that from someone who knows the industry.
What would you be if you couldn’t be an artist?
I would probably be someone who throws herself into her day job and go into academia. I’d be a master teacher and a professional student who collects degrees like trading cards. The arts are the only way I know how to be myself and they always have been. I honestly cannot fathom being unable to create – losing that would be my worst nightmare.