My Victorian Roots
I grew up in the Heritage District of Vallejo, California, a historic maritime community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Surrounded by Victorian homes, our Craftsman had hardwood floors, glass door knobs, and locks with skeleton keys. I love anthropological artifacts and believe they are energetically imprinted by the people who owned them.
I was a theater kid, so my mom made costumes and taught me to sew on her 1949 treadle Singer sewing machine, which I still have. As a teen, I was a chorus girl in a traveling show resembling Lawrence Welk, Broadway, and the Rockettes.
My First Turning Point
My childhood-bestie and Spirit Animal, Sam, introduced me to counter-culture, punk rock, and indie fashion. He inspired me to celebrate my uniqueness. After years of trying to blend in, I was free to be myself. My fear of judgment diminished, and my confidence grew.
I got serious about sewing when my mom and I took a theatrical costume design class. My first project was making custom-fitted unitards for the Stray Cat Strut number I had choreographed. At 19, I began a costume business out of my apartment. When I joined Arts Benicia, I made funky jewelry out of found objects, vintage buttons, and skeleton keys.
At 33, I quit my corporate-retail job in Berkeley to lead surf trips in Mexico, moved to Amsterdam, got married, and became pregnant. For a year, I commuted from Amsterdam to Puerto Vallarta every few weeks, up until my seventh month of pregnancy.
The contrast of colors and textures between Europe and Mexico profoundly influenced my color palette. Europe had centuries-old buildings with beautiful patinas from age and decay, cobblestone, bricks, ancient ironwork, and gray skies. Mexico had brightly painted cinder-block homes with Robinson Crusoe features and the Pacific Ocean in the front yard. That’s when I made friends with blue.
I moved back to Benicia before baby Dexter was born, and for two years after, I worked as a journalist and event coordinator, made jewelry, and practiced Mehndi Body Art with my baby on my hip.
I returned to Burning Man with 16-month old Dexter. I describe it as a Cirque du Soleil summer camp set in a harsh desert environment. It’s a commerce-free art community, where gifting is the norm, and the attendees make the magic happen.
I created an interactive camp for families, a sock-monkey workshop in the Kidsville Village. Kids and adults would stay for hours, hand-sewing a monkey from donated socks, yarn, and buttons, before the term upcycling existed. For many, it was their first time sewing.
Burning Man is like Fashion Week in an alternate universe, with oodles of distinctive styles like Barbarella, furries, fairies, circus, hippy, Mad Max, retro, futuristic, marching band, Viking, khaki-ranger, and Steampunk. Desert camping requires survival gear, so I’m drawn to post-apocalyptic-styles. To finance for our annual trip, I made functional clothing with pockets and clips for gear, and Cinder Garden Designs was born.
After my first marriage ended, I attended alone and joined the Earth Guardians Department, where I met Eli Meyer, an environmentalist, photographer, and maker from Tahoe. We dressed up as leopards, romped, and played, and began our second childhood together. We’ve since married.
After 14 years, I’ve become really good at problem-solving, sometimes by breaking the rules. The creativity, ingenuity, and generosity of the community nourish my faith in humanity and give me hope for the future.
Yep, I’m Steampunk
Steampunk is a fictional genre of cosplay, books, music, and design. It’s retro-futurism, the Victorians’ vision of future technology that never happened, with an ethos of turning old things into new. That is so me! It combines anthropology, upcycling, costumes, and fashion.
I began making upcycled Steampunk clothing for women and men, play clothes for your inner child. I define my style as Urban Steam; funktional (funky + functional) with an Oliver Twist flavor, all made from upcycled textiles, because there are no new fabrics in my fictitious Steampunk world. For a few years, I vended my collection at Bay Area events out of our vintage travel-trailer, Betty Dawn.
Obtainium: Upcycled materials that can be easily obtained for free or at minimal cost when compared to their value as raw materials or as manufactured products.
Built by Obtainium Works, the Neverwas Haul art car, a self-propelled three-story drivable Victorian house on wheels, is an icon in the Burning Man, Steampunk, and Maker communities. In 2012, the crew relocated their art car factory to Vallejo, so I invited them to my first event, Steampunk in the Trunk. Eli and I joined the crew that weekend.
We still travel down to Vallejo for annual events; the Obtainium Cup Contraptors Rally, the Mad Hatter Holiday Parade, and the occasional Little Rascals-style theater productions. Of course, I make costumes.
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” — Tom Robbins
Truckee Roundhouse Makerspace
A week after moving to Tahoe full-time, I became the Textile Shop Lead at the new makerspace. I designed my dream shop … with all the tools, 8-foot cutting tables, a fleet of machines, sergers, and industrials, plus a huge collection of donated fabric. I manage our resources by creating workshops based on the materials we have, so students rarely have to purchase fabric.
Sewing is becoming a lost art, so I love getting people excited about it. My teaching style is non-intimidating, no-tears learning with radical problem-solving solutions, time-saving tricks, and excellent music. I teach fun project-based workshops, so students learn to sew while making an actual thing. My favorite part is, I ask students how they feel about their sewing skills at the beginning of class and again at the end. It’s amazing to witness their self-empowerment.
Why I Upcycle
Cheap Fast Fashion is a real problem. Over the past 15 years, clothing sales doubled from 100 to 200 billion units a year, according to Earth.org. Globally, we produce 13 million tons of textile waste annually, 95% of which could be reused or recycled.
I learned my thrift-hunting skills from my mom. Most of my wardrobe is second-hand, which I mod by adding pockets, length, and edging. Thrift stores have an abundance of affordable clothing and home linens. I make bedsheet bloomers, upholstery-sample utility belts, and winter knits from sweaters. For Etsy orders, I make reusable mail pouches out of Trader Joe’s ziplock bags.
Upcycled Hand Sweaters
When my fibromyalgia pain flairs, I step away from my machine and hand-sew. I make hand, leg, and neck warmers out of lightweight natural fiber and synthetic sweaters with soft textures and rich colors. I buy used cashmere in bulk, called cutters sweaters on eBay. I sped up the process with the use of a serger and now teach it as a 3-hour workshop.
My style is bohemian and whimsical, inspired by the hand-stitched red cloak in the post-apocalyptic film City of Ember. I do hand-stitching and show the serge stitch to emphasize that it’s hand-made.
My Home Studio
Our home is less than 800 square feet, cozy for three adults, a Pitty, and two bossy indoor cats. I store my yarn collection suspended from the ceiling, out of claw’s reach. My studio is built around mom’s vintage desk, a 6′ × 6′ space in our tiny living room. I’ve created storage out of my obtainium wooden boxes and jars. I store large bins of fabric elsewhere and rotate as my projects change.
I sort sweaters into color palettes to create collections. I love natural mountain colors like greens, tans, grays, and blues but try to integrate bright colors, too. I make black and gray things for the color-shy.
With a rotary cutter and ruler, I cut the sweaters into 2″ × 8″ strips and the cashmere into rectangle liners.
With mixed thread colors on the serger and my cut strips laid before me like crayons in a box, I serge strips together. I marry the piece to the cashmere on the serger, then close them up, leaving a thumbhole opening.
I use all parts of the sweater. The ribbed edge and curved shoulders become beanies. Leftover strips are made into neck warmers, which are lined with cashmere. For leg warmers, I cut heavy sweaters and hand-knit scarves into strips. I serge the cut edges and then hand-sew the strips together with yarn.
My Next Act
In 2020, Eli left his day job and joined me at Cinder Garden. We’re a wife-husband team, focusing on teaching others how to utilize obtainium in imaginative and unconventional ways. I focus on sewing, home design, gardening, and youth programs. Eli does architectural design, engineering, deconstruction reclamation, and animatronics.
Last December, we built a remote-controlled 8-foot robot out of an old mobility scooter, a bust form, and remnant curtain fabric for the Mad Hatter Parade. It was Obtainium’s first event since the pandemic began. We hope to grow the robot project into a youth program.
Hopefully, I can inspire others to learn maker skills, break the rules, and make fun things out of Obtainium.