Stitching Texture and Connection with Carol Lee Shanks

Written and photographed by Koa Kalish

Carol Lee Shanks has been creating unique sculptural clothing and wearable art since 1983. She curates thoughtful and intimate spaces for people to enter her world within her studio and showroom by appointment, or whenever she debuts a new collection.

In a two-story building on a quiet road in downtown Berkeley, Carol uses the downstairs apartment for her living space and houses her studio/showroom in the upper portion. Walking up the stairs to her studio, one receives the unique sensation of being welcomed into someone’s home as well as entering into a living museum of art. Magical creations hang from the walls, with closets full of hand-sewn treasures. The clothing pieces on display are tastefully and specifically chosen for each of Carol’s guests. The warmth of the handwoven, hand-stitched, hand-sewn pieces matches the warmth of being sheltered inside from the winter’s stormy day. A deep, peaceful silence permeates the space and the art and is immediately calming to the viewer. Safe inside this quiet artist’s sanctuary, lush, round, ruby-ripe persimmons hang on the leafless tree outside, catching rain.

“I love to sew, and always have,” states Carol, definitively. Taught by her mother and aunt when she was a child, sewing is a practice that lives in Carol’s maternal legacy. The first sewing she ever did was on her grandmother’s machine when she was ten. “I have quilts that my mom’s mom made, out of recycled fabrics such as her husband’s old suits. She just made it up as she went along, which is what I like to do,” she says.

As soon as she learned how, Carol would sew all day long. “I still like to sew all day long,” she says with a smile. She’s had her JUKI machine since the mid-90s — “It’s my best friend,” she says.

“Most days, I sew all day. I like the solitude of sewing. It calms me down. It’s a real luxury.” Working in silence, Carol sees sewing not only as a creative practice but as a meditative one. “When I am away from it, I get a little anxious.”

At the beginning of her professional career, Carol went to school studying design. “After school, I didn’t know what to do with myself with a design degree — I wasn’t trained for a job or anything.” She still wanted to keep being able to sew, somehow, so Carol found a job in corporate retail. “Although I felt that I wasn’t cut out for it, I was still able to learn about business,” she reflects. Four years later, she quit that job and started her own business as an independent artist in 1983.

Supported by a group of elder artists, all pioneers of wearable art, and many of whom she met while studying at UC Davis, Carol was guided and given the confidence to create her own clothing. “I am so grateful for their influence, which I still feel today,” she says. “They always have and continue to help and guide me and it’s a pretty cool network to be a part of.”  This network of artists has made it possible for Carol to become who she is.

“I’m always trying to create surfaces,” she explains. With pleats and punctures, using skewers, sticks and going stitch by stitch, Carol manipulates surface textures and is able to make any cloth come alive in ways unseen before. “In some regards, I’m a sculpturist because a lot of the things I make have a lot of body. I work mostly with geometric shapes because I try to use as much cloth as I can.”

Carol’s best friend, Kathryn Alexander, a talented spinner and weaver, would hand over her wovens for Carol to sew into clothing. “I would just study each piece as she gave it to me and then it would finally come to me what I needed to do.” Through this collaboration, Carol found that one of her favorite materials to work with is the handspun yarn which is purposefully overspun. “I think it’s like magic because it has a memory and a springy feeling. You can’t tell its overspun when it’s woven on the loom, but when you take it off, it collapses and then makes all kinds of spontaneous waves and textures. It has a life of its own.” This is just one example of Carol’s unique approach to fiber, texture, and design.

A California native, Carol grew up in Chico, where her great-grandfather planted fruit orchards in 1912. “When I grew up, we grew lemons, oranges, pears, prunes and olives. We used to pack pears in the summer,” she remembers. “I have ‘from the land’ roots,” she says, proudly. That’s why when Carol found out about Fibershed’s Community Supported Cloth made of Climate Beneficial verified Wool, she couldn’t be happier. “I’m excited to have fiber made in California where I grew up. To me, that’s the most amazing thing.”

She’s currently working on creating a new jacket out of the Climate Beneficial cloth, similar to the one she made for Fibershed’s 2017 Climate Beneficial Fashion Gala. “Making that jacket was my first time working with that wool. It was thicker than I was used to but it’s such nice quality wool and it doesn’t itch at all.” For this jacket, Carol is creating a stitched plaid pattern with Twirl yarn from Mary Pettis-Sarley, Merino yarn from Sally Fox, and 4-ply Rambouillet from Lani’s Lana. To begin, she lays the fabric out, draws straight lines with a pencil of where she wants to stitch, then stitches very straightly along the pencil line. Once completed, a simple wash of the wool removes the pencil markings. She then studies the geometry of the cloth, careful not to waste a scrap. Creating solely with local materials is at the center of Carol’s current drive and inspiration.

Climate Beneficial Fashion show dress
For Fibershed’s 2017 Climate Beneficial Fashion Gala, Carol Lee Shanks created her first pieces in Climate Beneficial verified wool: a richly textured jacket and elegant dress (photos by Paige Green).

Carol first worked with Sally Fox’s cotton in the ’90s. And now, she is connected with Sandy Fisher, who is growing flax in her own hometown of Chico. “Sandy’s getting close to being able to make me a piece of linen cloth from the flax she’s growing. I’m so looking forward to that,” she says.

“I’ve always had a community of people who have guided me and supported me from different perspectives,” reflects Carol. Now she wants to take her artistic career into the next phase with a deeper connection to her roots and the environment from which it was all born. “I want to be part of Fibershed because I think it’s important. Throughout my whole career, I’ve been using commercial cloth. Now that I’ve been learning more about the changes we need to be making for the environment, this [Climate Beneficial Wool cloth] is, as far as I know, the only thing available to me to make that happen.”

Carol is most excited about creating wearable art to be sold through the Northern California Fibershed Agricultural Cooperative marketplace. Until then, you can find her work through her art shows, select galleries, or direct sales through her private studio by connecting through her website. Follow along with Carol’s creative process on Instagram @carol_lee_shanks.