What I strive for with my students is living in the moment.
Sandra Lee Chandler
Textiles Artist and Sewing Instructor
My grandmother sewed but my mother does not at all. Up until the age of middle school, I saw my grandmother sewing but I really didn’t take much interest. When I got to seventh grade home economics, I started sewing and I was the worst one in the class. Clearly, I did not know what I was doing, didn’t understand anything, had never touched a needle and thread, any of that – but I loved it. It was instant love and I can’t explain what I loved about it, I just loved it. I made projects, which were horrible: my first dress, the zipper broke by the time I got the zipper in the dress so when I say there was a learning curve, there was truly a learning curve! After that, I got the bug. I just kept sewing and sewing and by the time I left middle school, I started sewing clothing for myself to wear.
I continued sewing and learning and I was gifted a quilting class at our local quilt shop, so I learned how to sew garments and quilts at the same time. Back then when you did quilting, it was done with scissors and you made these templates and it was very very hard because we didn’t have a rotary cutter, we didn’t have mats, we didn’t have all the modern gadgets, quarter inch foot, we didn’t have all that. Really, it was a skill. I loved quilting even though it was all older ladies, and I remember the fabric store. I remember sitting in that store with the fabrics and the colors and the smell… it was amazing.
I was a good student in high school and got ready to go to college and I’m like, “Well, the only thing I know is that I love fabric.” After high school I went on to Arizona State where I got a degree; I have a bachelor of science in home economics, specialty in textiles and marketing. Which means everything from how to grow a plant which turns into a fiber (also manmade, which is like polyester or anything like that), and then how do you refine it down, spin it down, weave it into a garment or whatever the end use is: like carpet, or there’s a fiber lining in the streets that holds the asphalt together. Anything that you can think about that’s fiber-oriented, that’s what I learned.
Got out of college, graduated, and I became a buyer for a major department store. I bought women’s dresses. At the same time, I started teaching quilting classes in our local community immediately after I graduated from college. I’m still teaching but now I’m teaching through the junior colleges for their noncredit classes. I started that 25 years ago, teaching quilting and sewing classes to ladies and men through the community colleges.
When I decided to go out to the internet and see what other people were doing, I was like, “I’m just going to post my stuff.” I just would post what I was making, what I was doing, what I was feeling, what was inspiring me… and people started following me. I started getting a name for myself. And then a group asked me to speak for them, so I started speaking; about nine years ago I started doing lectures and workshops. I’ve been able to do lectures and workshops at conferences in the United States and internationally for the last seven years. I taught in the UK, I taught six classes at their largest quilting conference two years ago. This past year, I taught four classes over the internet to a group in Israel. I’ll be teaching at the largest conference in Canada next summer.
What I’m known for is denim: repurposing, creating designs with denim. What I like to do is deconstruct jeans, clothing, what have you, and then create it as an art piece and for you to see it as an art piece first, and then you would see that it’s made out of repurposed denim. When I researched the history, when creators used denim, usually you were like, “Oh, those were jeans, she made it into a purse.” I want the reverse – I want you to see the art piece as it is and then see that it was repurposed.
I’m also known for my hand stitching, some people call it “big stitch,” so you’ll notice I will hand stitch on denim and people are like, “How do you do that, isn’t it hard?” There are techniques, there’s certain needles you use, thread you use, thimbles that I use, so I learned through the school of hard knocks what works and what doesn’t work. I really enjoy denim. There’s a lot to enjoy about it. When I’m working with denim I look at it as a fabric line, so every pair of jeans is a little different, but they still have similarities. They could be similar in weight, but they could be different in color. Men’s jeans have a heavier thread count, women’s jeans tend to be a lighter thread count, and so I look at that. I really like to work with what makes it similar and what makes it different and how can I construct a piece that’s going to show the beauty of the denim but also what I’m focusing on as far as what was my inspiration.
The other thing that I’m known for is wearable art. We’ve all seen the people with the jackets that have the pumpkins or Christmas trees, and I was like, “How can I make wearable art ‘in’ again, hip?” What I do is I take vintage quilts and I make them into garments. I made a pair of pants out of a quilt. They’re fabulous! I’ve made blazer jackets, and I teach that class. I have a bomber jacket that I made out of quilts. I have a new line coming out, a contemporary, modern twist to the bomber jackets that I’ve made for young people, men. I have two of them that hit my social media and it blew up, people were like, “Oh my god, this is fabulous!” I’m always thinking about how can I push the envelope, what’s new, what’s fresh, what hasn’t been done, with a twist. But I still consider myself a traditional quilter because my roots are in traditional quilt design. I haven’t done a dress yet, so that’s my next one, is to do a dress out of a quilt. In 2022, I want to do a dress out of a quilt, I’m going to continue doing the men’s jackets – I have about six of them that will be coming out in 2022, and I want to continue pushing that envelope of what can I do that hasn’t been done in fashion.
What I like about denim… first of all, I like the color. I think blue is just amazing. It’s calming, it can be exciting, it’s fresh, all of that. Denim is layers, so you have the white that runs underneath and that’s what makes it denim. What I love about denim is it’s tough. I want you to fit here and I want to manipulate you here and how am I going to do that and still keep the denim’s body and not abuse it? I want the denim to still be denim, but I want it the way I want it. So, it’s very challenging to me. When I use quilting cotton, I almost feel like it’s so boring! Like, you cut it, you stitch it together, boom! But with denim, some of your denim is woven tighter than other denim, it’s thicker, so you’re working with all those elements to try to get them to work, and it’s challenging. And sometimes, you have to let it go. Sometimes, I’m like, “Denim, you won today.” It’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to be the way I wanted it to be, but it is the way it’s supposed to be.
As a designer – I try to teach my students this – as a designer, we’re a vessel. I may have a design and I may think I know what I want but until I put it together… that’s what the reality is. So, my sketch is just an outline. What it ends up being, that’s what it is and what it truly was supposed to be. I have a quilt that was a tribute to Maya Angelou and that quilt, when I put it together, it was going to a museum to be in an exhibition. I didn’t read the instructions very closely and once I put it together I realized it was a foot too long. The museums have these measurements because they know how many pieces they want, how big the show is going to be. I ended up cutting off a foot of it because it was too long. Then the curator called me and she wanted me to make some other changes to it. I had no idea how I was going to do those changes, so I went back to the drawing board, did some of her changes, finished it up, and once I was finished with it, I believe it’s better than the piece that I originally had. So my theory is, when you’re creating, especially if you’re not using a pattern – or even if you are using a pattern – create, but give yourself the liberty to go with what the creation unfolds to be. And so many people don’t!
If I design a pattern, I’m designing a pattern based off of my life, how my hands work, my history, my eyes. If I give you that same pattern and you try to make it exactly like mine, you’re never going to make the bulls-eye. But if you take that same pattern and you take your life and your hands and how you do it, and you say, “This is just a guideline,” that pattern is going to represent you and you’re always going to hit the mark. What I tell my students, and I tell myself when I’m creating something, first of all: good enough. Since I’ve been doing this, I have yet to have somebody come up to me and say, “You know what, Sandra? See right there? That stitch is a little crooked!” Or, “Did you realize you made a mistake here?” There are quilts that I made and I ran out of one color of thread and I just picked up the next color. One time I had all this red thread and I did embroidered words, but I ran out of one thread and I picked up the next red thread. The reds are different, different weights, nobody has ever noticed it! My whole goal is to have it finished and for it to move somebody. If it moves me, I want it to move others. That’s why, when people come to hear me and see me and what I talk about, it’s not so much how you do this. This is what I do and this is how I do it… be you, do you, be the best that you can be. Live in your truth, live in your lane and you’ll aspire, you’ll be great.
Take a class, find a teacher that you believe in. The way she teaches and her philosophy, and learn under that person. Because not every teacher’s for everyone. I know my teaching style… some people cringe because I’m not very black and white. I’m like, “Do you like it? You like it. I like it. Let’s go.” I feel like I look at it more as an artistic form and so for the art purposes it doesn’t have to be perfect. You’re not going to be perfect when you first start out at anything. I would recommend students keep the inspiration and keep going and finish something, than having them do it over and over and over until that [star] point is perfect and then they’ve lost that drive, they’ve lost that inspiration, they hate the project, they did it five times to get that one perfect point and they’ve got eight more points to do. And they put it in their drawer at home. My thing is, that point’s fine. I don’t care if it’s not a point, let’s go on, let’s do those other eight, maybe you’ll get one of the eight. Let’s keep the energy going. That’s my philosophy, but other teachers are like, “I want you to master this one skill,” so if that works for you then that’s the teacher for you. What I strive for with my students is living in the moment.
I have some pieces where people have inspired me; I have a piece inspired by Mahalia Jackson who was the first gospel singer and there are some scriptures on there because she grew up singing in the churches. She got kicked out and was not able to sing in the churches because in those days, her style of singing, she moved. They called it gyrating; that was known to be a sin. I grew up like that: if you’re in church, you sang and you stood very still. You can clap your hands but you didn’t pop your fingers, you didn’t sway, and that was the age that she grew up in. She actually was not able to sing in the churches because they felt that her style was sacrilegious. She had a lot of struggles in her life, like anyone does.
I have a quilt that was inspired by Sojourner Truth who was the first Black woman, a freed slave, to win a court case in the United States; she won her son’s freedom back. She was a slave, she ran away, she was from upstate New York and she actually spoke Dutch because her owners were Dutch. She ran away and was waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation because during that time, you weren’t allowed to sell your slaves, you had to keep everybody where they were because the slave owners and the government were trying to figure out, if we let these slaves go, how’s our economy going to run because we’re used to having free labor. Once the slaves were freed, she went back to her plantation where her son was, and he had been sold during that time. The people who had helped her become a freed slave went and did all the paperwork for her and she took the slave owner to court and he had to go get the son and bring him back. But that’s not the amazing part about her life. The amazing part about her life for me is that she had two books, autobiographies, written about her. She was definitely into civil rights. But she was illiterate. She ended up living with one of her kids, with no money, basically she was homeless; it’s such a rags to riches to rags story.
My newest quilt is Clara Brown. She was a pioneer. There were many African Americans that were pioneers; we always talk about the pioneers that went west, but we never talk about the Black pioneers that went west or went to the oil fields. She was one of those. She went to Denver and she helped the freed slaved to mine the gold mines. After a certain time, she went back to the mid-west to finish out her life. Going into 2022, my pieces are going to be inspired by people, things, and what’s happening in the world, so they’ll all have some sort of focus.
The fourth quarter of the year, I don’t start any new projects. I wrap up projects that I had started throughout the year and I start thinking about a theme, a word, fabrications, and then I start charting out: in the next year, how many quilts do I think I can make, how many garments do I think I can make, how many accessories do I think I can make? Then I start writing down what I want to make so when opportunities come up, I then have to take something off that list. Because is this opportunity better? Do I want to make this versus what I wanted to make? I was having anxiety back in the old days because something would come up and I’d go, “Oh, I want to do that!” and then I’d try to shove it in and at the end of the year I was like, “Did I really do what I wanted to do?” This way, you do end up making and doing and creating what you truly wanted to. It’s easy to say, “Nope, that’s not better than this…” so put it aside. Not even just orders, but sometimes I’ll come up with an idea and I’m like, “That idea’s not better than this idea. I like this one better I’m going to go with this one.” I’m very creative, but I have this logical side that likes things in order. That’s where I feel like it gives me a balance – going to college and having the business classes behind me. My whole thing is profitability. You could do this and not be profitable, easily.
I have an assistant now, which has been amazing, she does my bookings and does my contracts and books my flights and all that type of thing. But in order to have an assistant, I have to make XYZ dollars to pay for her, and would I book that without her? She booked that because she had the time to communicate with that person. And it also puts my name out there in a professional way. My e-mails look right, my social media looks the way I want it to, I’m producing what I want to… because again, another class I took in college was like, “You can be the creative person in a business but you can’t be the bookkeeper, you can’t be the janitor. Yeah, you could do them, but will you be best in all those areas?” Maybe you should hire an accountant. Maybe you should hire a marketing person. You’re great with the idea and putting the idea through.
Understanding that, I have ladies that write the directions of my patterns. I design my patterns and these ladies write the directions for me. Because they’re great at it! For me, I’m tactile and designing is one thing; I could write directions but they’re much better at it. That’s their wheelhouse. I developed a team around me. I have a photographer that shoots a lot of my pictures. She does it so much better than me. I can do little stuff but if I want something really done well or for a book… twice a year she shoots my stuff for me. You’re only as good as the people around you. I get really good people around me.
In the past before COVID, we would have meet-the-teachers and we would go and do three-minute talks in different locations. With zoom now, there’s an organization called the Global Quilt Connection and last year, that’s where I got all of my work from. We were able to do three-minute commercials and all the guilds from all over the world would watch those commercials. That’s how I ended up teaching in Canada, that’s how I ended up teaching in Israel, West Africa. Along with Instagram. Instagram has been my biggest supporter. I get a lot of my sponsorship from Instagram. I have Hoffman Fabrics that is always willing to give me fabric if I want to develop something. I’ve been a Bernina ambassador for Bernina sewing machines. Aurifil Thread, I’ve been a designer for them. I post what I do, talk about what’s happening in my world and how I’m creating, inspiring others to create. And I have an article coming out about me in Threads Magazine, which is THE magazine about clothing construction and sewing. I’m excited.
It was very hard for me to let go and let the public see my body of work. Because it was my body of work, and it’s personal and what if they don’t like it? What if they say something about it? I literally had to be like, “Sandra, you’re good. Who cares if they don’t like it? You like it, it’s fine.” There are times when I’m like, “People want to sign up for my class? What do I have to teach somebody?” It’s very humbling to think that people would want to hear me talk! It really is very scary at times. When I’m getting ready to do a talk, or the day before I do a talk or a workshop, I feel nauseous almost. I get in this zone like, “Why didn’t you just stay in your studio and create? Why are you pushing yourself?” Because I’m really an introvert. I love my space, I love one friend, two friends. I’m not a big crowd person.
For 2022, my goal is to start YouTube channels. I’ll have one for hand stitching, one for denim, and one for wearable art, and it will all be under my Sandra Lee Design. That’s what’s coming up, I’ll be doing YouTubes once a month and they’ll be like little conversations in your living room. Look what I’m working with, it’ll be about tools… and I’ll be honest! “This tool did not work!” Or, “The tool worked, and I sucked!” It’ll be about techniques, fabrics, this pattern or this color and what do you think about this. Little segments, kind of like a journey. We’ll see what happens.