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Quiet Comforts

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I wanted to be able to say, here’s something you can pass down through your family, that you love for years and years and won’t go out of style.

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What we choose to create often says as much about our values as the way in which we create it. For Mary Wise, designing and producing a collection of hand spun quilts is about reproducing a feeling of home, sending out into the world a soft yet durable symbol of warmth and provision. They are functional and geometrically inspired, echoing her sweetly shy personality and essentialist approach to materialism.

Mary and her husband, Steven, who designs the website and everything outside of quilts for Fieldwell speak about this journey they’ve begun and their values for their burgeoning business.

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When did you become interested in quilting?

Mary: I got into quilting my sophomore year and ended college still doing it, so it was definitely something I was drawn to. Before that I had taken a ceramics class and I was terrible at it, but I loved the building it was in, the energy and creativity that surrounded the medium. The Fibers building was in a renovated schoolhouse; very simple, and mostly women. There was a kind of certain personality that people associated with textiles there, more quiet and all of that. But when I went to the ceramics building it was messy, almost wild. Painting was in the same building. I was really drawn to that but I was so terrible at ceramics. I had always been interested in painting, too, but quilting has become a way of painting for me. I draw a lot of inspiration for my quilts from minimalist painters. It’s a functional way of painting in my mind. That’s another reason I love natural dyes because there is so much variation in the color, and it has this painterly feel to it, so it’s something that I might do again. I teach some natural dye workshops in Portland and it’s a whole new learning process navigating the logistics of doing that because it takes so much space and extra equipment like a heat source and all of that.

The move to Portland seems to be an important part of Fieldwell developing. What brought you there?

Mary: I graduated in 2014 and we lived in Indiana where he was working. He graduated before me. I moved to Indiana after college and lived there for about a year. From there we moved to Portland, drove across the country. It was really fun. Neither of us had really been West, and had never been to Portland. We had a few different options: Austin, San Francisco, Charleston.

Steven: I had done some interviews but didn’t have anything concrete, so it was more just that we had leads in a few different places. We were just trying to decide what city we wanted to experience.

Mary: We decided on Portland and decided to move when our lease was up in May. Three weeks before our lease was up our friends were asking, what are you doing next? And we were like, we don’t know! But then with 2-3 weeks left we decided on Portland. Having lived in a small town, Purdue, it was mostly engineers, tech-driven place. So especially for me being in that environment, especially having just come from SCAD, it was really difficult to fit in creatively. I was really burned out after school anyway, so I think it was good that I had a break from being creative. So we moved to Portland knowing it would offer more opportunity creatively.

What were you doing before starting Fieldwell?

Mary: Before moving to Portland, we were in Lafayette, Indiana. I was doing things like Renegade and I had a little room in our house where I could design and sew things. Moving here I got my own little studio because I was kind of forced to. Our apartment is really not the best place to work. I was working part-time at Madewell and just selling at craft shows. I was just using my name instead of a brand name, and never thought of it as something that could be an income. I really took that year as a transition period because so much was going on. I left Savannah and all of my friends, and then got married and moved away, so I stepped away from being creative. Sometimes I feel like I almost apologize for that time of my life, but looking back I realize how much I really needed that time to set a foundation.

When we first moved to Portland I was working at a shop called Seven Sisters. I was one of the first people hired on to help run the shop so there was a lot of freedom working with her and fun to be around a lot of independently made craft and see how much of that was coming from Seattle and San Francisco and the West Coast in general. That started me thinking that I could actually do that here, too. There are so many people here who are making it work, and that’s really encouraging to see. So that was where it started, along with my background in textiles, and beginning to think about how I could make that work. When I decided to leave Seven Sisters I was also working at an after school program during the week and there on the weekends and trying to work on this in my spare time, so I realized I had to back out of something. The owner at Seven Sisters was so supportive and like, how can I help you? It was such a great transition.

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Let’s back up a second. So you were making quilts at SCAD, but is that always what you wanted to do?

Mary: It was actually just an extra class that I decided to take really only because of the professor who was teaching it. I had taken a class with her before and really loved it. She’s in her 70’s and had purple hair and I took every class I could with her. I was already interested in quilting, especially the stories that are made around the quilt. I had studied Gee’s Bend and was fascinated with this community that was really using that they had. It felt very functional to me. They’re providing warmth for their families.

I also really love textiles because a lot of the processes are so repetitive and so for hours you’re just stitching or printing. I did a lot of natural dyes in school as well which is similar. But to think of these groups of women sitting together and stitching and having this community, I was drawn to that about quilting. I was also thinking about my family a lot when I was in Savannah, whom I’m really close to so it was hard to be away. I was drawing inspiration from them, like my dad would send me old work clothes, like denim pieces. I was really interested in that because it held a specific person in that quilt. What I want to make now are quilts that people will make their own stories with, and hold onto them.

Steven: Also, when we went from living in a three bedroom house in Indiana to such a small space in Portland, there was a big change in how much we were able to store and keep. Downsizing put this big focus on only having what we need, and loving every piece of your wardrobe and loving every item in your house. Every piece of decor had to have some function or meaning to it. In starting this business we were wanting to impart that experience and that mentality to people, to be able to say, here’s something you can pass down through your family that you’ll love for years and won’t go out of style. It will always be around.

Mary: Since moving here, I’ve found that I was really connected with a lot of local artists and I happened to connect with someone who was weaving rugs. Just knowing she lives up the street and knowing that she made this rug we now have, it kind of embodies a season in our life that we’ll be able to carry that with us wherever we go. I hope that I’m able to make those kinds of connections with people, that what I make has that kind of memory attached to it.

Do you have a special quilt that’s been in your family a long time?

Mary: All through college I was dreaming up this vintage quilt in my head of a Grandmother’s Flower quilt. I had seen a few at flea markets but it was never quite the right color or something like that. But one time I was talking to Stephen’s mom about it, and she goes to the back corner of their house and pulls out this Grandmother’s Flower pattern quilt that’s all hand-stitched and perfect and she said my grandmother made this and it’s just sitting in our closet so you can have it. I was like what?! This was the exact quilt I’ve been dreaming of. It was around the time, too, that we were getting married and it was just this incredible symbol of them accepting me and welcoming me into their family history.

With the way that technology moves us so quickly from one trend to the next, how do you feel like that plays into the way you create?

Mary: I’m still trying to figure that out. Drawing inspiration from fashion where they release something new every season, I don’t think that’s appropriate for me to do, so I’m trying to figure out how to do releases and determine when I need to show something new. With this collection I already feel the need to move on a little bit but at the same time it doesn’t feel right to do that yet. So it’s a battle of keeping things interesting without feeling the need to rush things.

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How do you find yourselves spending your time when it comes to the business?

Mary: Definitely the making. For awhile I would be making things for 10 hours a day. I’ve definitely gotten faster but it’s still slow. When I was at SCAD I took a class where we made 3 quilts in 10 weeks, but now I’m so much faster. One week I made 5 in a week, but that was definitely a stretch for me. That doesn’t seem like a lot but it really is a process.

Do you guys feel an attachment to the things that you keep because you love them so dearly that almost makes you not want to use them?

Mary: I definitely do, like when they get stained or there’s a small tear in something. I think you have to take those things that happen, even wearing something out, as those pieces fulfilling their purpose. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how most of us don’t wear “through” our clothes. They either go out of style or decide we don’t like them anymore. I was thinking, too, about the clothes that I have worn out that have holes in them or something. I still think about those things, like the jeans I wore for 4 years that I wore out. Maybe that’s not normal. I want more of those things in my life. I would rather have things like that than the things that I throw away.

Steven: You tend to take better care of them, too. If this is your only pair of shoes, I need to keep them nice because I want them to last a long time. It’s those things that I won’t give away even if they rip or get a stain or don’t look the same anymore. It’s a hard balance, but I would rather take care of the item or spend money maintaining it.

 

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