Mixed Color - Stitch Wish
I've known and adored Christi Johnson and her work for years and am consistently inspired by her commitment to craftsmanship, materials, and sustainability. Moving from LA to NYC, and eventually settling in rural NY, Christi has experienced the gamut of climates and work cultures and has made creations in a variety of mediums from embroidery to quilting to natural dying and much more. Christi has created wearable and gallery art in nearly every fiber medium with a distinct style: mystical shapes, earth and gem tones, graceful silhouettes, and a deep infusion of handmade magic.
Christi's line Mixed Color is wearable art made with natural dyes, reconstructed denims, and embroidery that she has produced since 2014. Last year, she introduced a new interactive project called Stitch Wish, a collection of hand-stitched patches designed for ritual that the buyer can sew to any of their own garments. By offering her artwork in a form of DIY that collaborates with its owner, Stitch Wish embodies the sacred intention, handiwork, sustainability, and education by example that defines Christi's work. It makes us ask: Why buy another piece of clothing when we can embellish our existing garments with special, intentional features? Stitch Wish feels like a generous extension of the instructional work Christi does through her workshops, zines, and free downloads that offers craft tips and techniques.
One of the most defining aspects of Christ's process is her commitment to sustainable approaches to textiles in a world where the industry standard is one of the most wasteful and toxic. Through the years, we have had so many conversations, venting, sharing, and brainstorming on the dilemma of making handmade garments/accessories with quality materials in a fast fashion world where standard pricing is based on indentured servant labor and plastic-based materials. I feel that Christi is the perfect artist to delve into this conversation publicly because her inspiring approach to to her craft is uplifting and her voice is so needed the conversation we have as a culture and a community of makers.
Describe your journey working in fiber through the concepts, mediums, & techniques you've explored
I was essentially born into a pile of fabric scraps, swaddled with infinite spools of yarn and fed the liberating creative expansion of 70's and 80's craft books from the local library (thanks mom!!). My earliest memory of creating art is hot gluing fabric scraps onto dolls, so it's basically been a lifetime obsession with clothing and other forms of textile adornment, expression through these malleable forms of fiber.
I've always made clothes for myself, so I chose to study fashion because it seemed like a reasonable "career" option. I can't stand seeing things go to waste, so I was regularly digging through the trash cans on the cutting room floor, collecting scraps of fabric. This hodgepodge of materials made quilting a natural option for me, and while I rarely make actual "quilts" I still use the techniques.
Embroidery became a heavy focus of mine after a chance interaction with a drill press and some scrap plywood got me stitching onto wooden panels. This was one of those rare times I worked backwards in materials to return to fiber, instead of the other way around. I have more recently become obsessed with the idea of embroidery as a metaphor for spiritual evolution, this slow progression of a story in stitches, and the way it transforms the base fabric as well as its history of sharing religious stories (ex: Bayoux tapestry, Miao storytelling in China).
Currently, my work is a layered combination of these various techniques, and the materials used are generally what's on hand, pulling from my vast collection of textiles hoarded over many decades of rescuing fibers from the trash!
You’ve worked masterfully in so many mediums, from quilting to embroidery to garment construction to natural dying and more. What determines which mediums you focus on at a given time? For example, your mood, logistics of resources or space, client demands, etc
Aw thanks! I'm almost always driven by the materials on hand.
What do I have an excess of? What is being considered waste in the world around me, and how can I turn that back into something valuable? For example, right now I'm staring at a pile of brand new flat-brim hats left over from a friends niece's sweet sixteen party, because she was going to throw them out and I said "wait - i think i can embroider on those!".
There's also a strong connection to the seasons - for example, I'm not doing much dyeing in the Winter because I can't be outside (and very few things are growing above the frozen ground) but in the middle of summer, I'll have the hotplate on the patio with a pot of goldenrod I just weeded out of the garden. Embroidery can happen any time of year - I love to stitch by the fire, but if it's 80 degrees and sunny out I'll be sitting in the middle of the yard soaking up rays, and less likely to be sitting at the sewing machine (unless I've grabbed the extension cord and a card table and brought it out in the yard with me) .
What are some indispensable resources for you as a creator? These may be tools, information resources, community programs, material sources/stores, people, etc
Old books are my absolute favorite. The 50's - 70's were an era of creative gold in the arena of craft books. There's this assumption that comes through these DIY books that you can basically do whatever you want (you can), and also an assumption that you have all the time in the world (you do).
I also find thrift stores a great source of both old craft books and garments to re-create, though the influx of cheap "fast-fashion" and the overuse of heavily scented detergents has got me turning to these stores less and less.
You are so creative and also find yourself running your own business; your work spans gallery art to retail products available in clothing shops. Sometimes those modes of thinking seem incompatible, and it can be hard to feel like we’re thriving in both creativity and business savvy at the same time. How does art and business intersect for you?
They intersect in an ongoing argument about who's most important in the back of my head all day!
While I know at my core that the transformative quality of the creative act is most important to my body and soul, I also am constantly faced with the reality that I can't do any of that if I don't have money to buy food or pay bills and buy firewood. I have not yet figured out a way to integrate these two concepts, so basically I yo-yo back and forth between intense and fulfilling periods of artistic exploration, and periods of frantically trying to figure out how to monetize whatever was created during these periods.
I never feel like I'm thriving at both simultaneously, but I do get better and better at bringing the two into the same room more often. I sometimes feel a little regret at having made my art my business, but I also understand how lucky I am to be able to spend so much of my time in a creative zone.
They speak to different parts of what I'm trying to share. When I started as a self-employed artist, I thought what I really wanted was to create a collection of clothing (called Mixed Color) that was entirely handmade, outside of the manufacturing arena that made me so sad. What ended up happening was I found myself turning into a one person manufacturing unit and that made me really, REALLY sad. So I decided to spend more time on the skill-sharing aspects of textiles, leading workshops and writing zines. I could basically talk about textile arts all day long, but the public speaking involved with teaching workshops can be a little draining, so I'm always trying to figure out new ways to share my skills and support other artists and creatives who'd like to develop their own artistic practice using similar materials and techniques.
So Mixed Color has evolved into a space for that to happen, while Stitch Wish is an on-going project, an extension of my personal artwork that also acts as an invitation for others to use textile techniques in their spiritual lives. They are hand-embroidered talismans that are designed to be hand-sewn onto a garment or other personal textile as a reminder of a specific intention, and are sold with a needle and thread. Sewing this into your clothes is an act that most anyone at any level of textile experience can perform, and I'm hoping that's a little bit of a gate-way-drug to maybe having a little more confidence in the ability to sew something bigger!
You moved from LA to NY several years ago and that shift in climate etc can cause a dramatic change in lifestyle. Has the natural environment, culture, or weather where you live now shaped or influenced the work you’re making?
One hundred percent. It brings me inspiration for the 'why' of my work, it dictates the flow of my work, it makes demands on where I work... there is no way in hell I can stay inside on a hot spring day! and all winter long, no way in hell I can spend any time outside. I also spend much more time alone, which has its perks and its downside.
As far as how it shows up in my work goes, the longer nights of winter and isolation create a pull inward that previously only happened during more extreme external events, and is basically inescapable. This forces me to spend a LOT more time staring into the shadows, sitting in the dark cold night and facing the sadness and melancholy that come along with it. As a naturally bright and cheerful person, this is way out of my element, and has caused much discomfort. It's also allowed me to see what I've been shoving under the rug or not dealing with in some way, and this naturally finds itself coming out in the greater themes in my artwork, themes of transformation, of plunging into darkness, and of developing forms of personal protection.
What are some characteristics you see as defining slow fashion? How could concepts of sustainability, zero-waste, or organic materials be incorporated into a design, making, or administrative/packaging process?
I'm personally in conflict with the idea of slow fashion - it seems like almost an oxymoron to me. I feel like most who start in slow fashion do so as a reaction to the current model of the fashion industry, much like I did, so there's generally an approach to it where you take the traditional model of fashion and you apply sustainable practices and materials to it, which is a GREAT alternative but... I feel like this doesn't solve the problems of personal sustainability - can we create businesses that are not straining on us mentally or physically? Can we develop models that allow us to thrive? That allow every human and piece of earth that are touched on the chain of a garments evolution thrive? That don't require ANY more resources to be tapped into? These are concepts I'm constantly grappling with, and I have no answers to these questions, but I hope some brave souls will try!
What interests me more is the transformation of our interaction with fashion. I'm all about re-designing what we already own, re-defining our existing wardrobes and being in conversation with our communities about how we can learn to design for ourselves, and why we feel the need to replace the perfectly good items already in our closets. At the very least, if we still need to make new clothes, can't we do it with the millions of bolts of unused fabrics sitting in factories across the globe? And for the love of everything holy, can we just STOP wrapping everything in plastic? It's fabric for gods sake, not tissue paper. It will not fall apart when wet. If it got wet in transit, just wash the damn thing.
Often, people see fiber art and wish it was translated into something wearable or purchase wearable pieces and display them like art when they arent wearing them. The clothing items you create are such beautifully intentional pieces, they feel like works of art, but also very easy and wearable. How does your conceptualization or process for designing clothing and wall art differ?
After the conceptual and design phase, I usually mock up a piece with pinned together or drawn on fabric, and then either try it on (for clothes) or hang it in my house somewhere (for art) and often times I'll also try on the art, or hang a piece of clothing on the wall for a while. I find it hard to separate the two, and have cut a hole in the middle of a quilt and called it a poncho once or twice.