AW21/22
featuring: Sarah Jean Culbreth
photographer: Valeda Beach Stull
interview: Alexa Wilding

Brooklyn, NY
June 2021

Please describe who you are and what you do?
I’m a textile and clothing historian, mainly working in museums and sharing my research in papers and lectures. I also make clothing but this presents a shortcoming of the fashion lexicon: the word dressmaker ignores the fact that I also make pants, accessories, etc. and seamstress implies that I only sew. The reality is that I make garments from beginning to end, from research and design to selecting and washing fabric to patterning and testing samples to sewing and finishing. Nearly all of it happens in my living room but I dream of a studio.

Where are you from and where do you currently reside?
I was born on the East Coast of Florida, just south of where they launch space shuttles. Growing up, my family spent our time off work and school in western North Carolina where my Great-Grandfather and Grandpa built a cabin. My earliest and best memories are on a boat navigating around mangroves and manatees and in the backseat of the car on hairpin turns in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where I have been for almost ten years.



 
What are you working on, interested in at the moment?
My momma, the woman who taught me to sew when I was young, recently sent me over 50 yards of reproduction mid-to-late-nineteenth century printed cotton. This fabric bounty and the work of photographer Lora Webb Nichols inspired a big group of clothing that I just finished up. Some are historically accurate reproductions of things like wrappers, or house dresses, and petticoats. Other pieces I’ve been working on, like Pierrot pants and visored kerchiefs, are just things I have long loved to wear. I’m interested in making clothes that walk the line of theatrical and utilitarian.




 
When do you feel most whole?
As I’ve gotten older, I feel whole all of the time. At risk of sounding mawkish, my intention is to live with conviction, curiosity, and emotion. I feel whole when I’m pursuing this goal.


How do you find your center when you've spiraled out?
I listen to music written by Thomas Tallis.

Is there an interest or desire you’ve been circling around but have yet to explore?
There are so many things I want to do. After years of working on other curators’ projects, I want to curate my own exhibitions. I would love to make costumes for film and theater. Leading sewing workshops, collaborating with friends and family, opening a store: all of these plans run steadily through my head.


Which of Nature’s cycles – the moon, seasons, harvest – do you feel most aligned with and why?
I am undeniably season-driven. My life is organized into wool months and linen months, espadrille months and long-john months. I get so excited about soup season, rose season, crisp apples in the fall, and seeing purple finches in the spring. It means I always have something to look forward to, a reminder of the good to come when I’m feeling down.


Is there an article of clothing from art history -- a painting, sculpture, tapestry, etc. -- you would love to recreate?
Since seeing the Fra Angelico frescoes at the Convent of San Marco, I’ve looked for fabrics that can match those soft and luminous colors. Mauve, cornflower blue, vermillion, even a dusty chartreuse. Eventually I would love to recreate the angels’ clothing.


What does sustainability mean to you in your work and life?
A constant evaluation of what is working and what can be improved upon is essential to my work and life. I am not an impulsive person and I really try to be deliberate about everything I do and consume. Every scrap of fabric is saved and these smaller pieces become the materials for future projects. The tiniest discards end up in quilt blocks, baby clothes I make for friends, and garment facings. It takes foresight and planning. Sustainability, in all senses of the word, is not necessarily easy. But it is worth the challenge. Buy less, treasure more.
I think strides are being made toward a more responsible fashion system but the museum world needs to catch up. Something I have witnessed repeatedly in my years working in museums is the push to create big, splashy exhibitions on tight timelines. I have seen so much waste, of time, resources, and talent. Interns and assistants, art handlers and conservators are usually underpaid and their work is often under appreciated. This is, by definition, unsustainable. If everyone just slowed down to create more deliberate, thoughtful content, we could move toward a sustainable and supportive approach to curatorial work.