IAP Grantee Highlight: Cynthia McGuire Thiel

The Arts Partnership awards grants to artists working in any artistic genre and at any career stage, and earlier this fall, we announced our 2017-2018 Individual Arts Partnership (IAP) grantees. Over the next year, TAP will highlight the artists in a series of blogs so that our readers can learn more about their artistic process, and next up is “sewist” Cynthia McGuire Thiel!

Cynthia McGuire Thiel is a clothing creator and garment sewer residing in Fargo, ND. Her sewing education began at the age of 3 under the instruction of her mother, a professional seamstress. This lifelong passion has grown to focus on classic, colorful designs with creative touches and attention to fine construction details.

She has been costumer designer and creator for Liberty Middle School Drama since 2013.  She received both her BA and MA from Jamestown College.

1. Beyond other sewists, what sources inspire your work?

Several years ago, I read Elizabeth Cline’s book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” which details the extreme waste in the fast fashion industry. I later watched a documentary called “The True Cost” that investigates some of the humanitarian crises created by mass clothing production. These sources really changed my mindset about shopping and clothing. I’m not a minimalist by any stretch of the word, so I decided to put my love of clothing together with my hobby to make beautiful clothing that would last, yet still be creative and classic.

2. What is your daily creative work schedule?

I work full time as a middle school teacher, so my evenings are for sewing. If I don’t get at least a few minutes each night, I get twitchy. It creeps into my thoughts until I can’t concentrate on anything else. I also cross-stitch and crochet, which are more portable projects. On the weekends or holidays, I’ll sew for several hours at a stretch.

3. How do you approach the beginning of a project?

It’s pretty uncreative – sewing prep is very utilitarian! There’s a lot of background information to take into account, and every bit adds a variable to the formula. Body shapes, measurements, personal style, and fit preferences are all important. Then there’s pattern preparation – tracing or redrafting alterations and style changes. The kind of fabric makes a difference, too. The type of clothing dictates what fibers and weaves will be appropriate, and vice versa. A printed fabric may be directional or unbalanced, so where to place those design elements on the garment can be very important. All of that has to be planned before the fabric even gets cut!

4. What is your greatest fear/challenge when facing a new project?

To keep the sewing clutter at bay, I don’t allow myself to buy new fabric unless it immediately speaks to me. In that sense, everything I purchase is a bit precious! I am a true “knowledge is power” person, and can research a new technique to death before I try it. If I find I’m hesitant, I’ll practice on scraps before cutting into the good stuff. One of the great things about fabric is that, if I do make a mistake, the stitches can be ripped out and fixed. I sometimes have to remind myself that very few things are irreparable, and that I’m pretty resourceful.

5. What do you do when you get stuck?

Walk away. Eventually, my brain resets and the enthusiasm comes back. I don’t create well when stressed, and I’m not one to impose it on myself.

6. How does having a community of artists benefit your work?

I grew up in a small town and started sewing as a small child because my mother did. That was a fantastic base, but I was desensitized to how special it was. Finding the FM Modern Sewing Guild several years ago showed me that I actually possessed talent and skill that could be shared. Discovering an international sewing community through social media has boosted my confidence even more. Connecting with The Arts Partnership has been instrumental in promoting myself, and having a group of talented people get excited about what I create is priceless.

7. What advice would you give someone starting out in the field?

I think many people have poor first experiences with sewing because they are using tools that are outdated or need maintenance. A smoothly functioning machine, sharp pins and scissors, and quality fabric are necessities. A good iron is essential, too: proper pressing can hide a multitude of sins!

8. If you had a chance to do it all over again, how would you do things differently?

I don’t think I would! Since sewing has always been a hobby, there hasn’t ever been any pressure on it. Nobody was telling me what I needed to learn next. My work wasn’t being critiqued unless I asked for help. There wasn’t any pressure to succeed in a traditional way; I wasn’t at the mercy of an instructor, boss, or clients. My next steps have always been up to me as a way to recharge. That kind of freedom is really broadening.

9. What is the one question you never have been asked regarding your creative process?

Being new to the artist community, I’ve not gotten any questions at about my creative process – these are the first!

10. What was the most discouraging feedback you ever got?

Sewing is such an unknown skill to so many people; they’re completely unfamiliar with the work and creativity that goes into a garment. The idea that clothing can be art is still a very strange concept for a lot of the general public. Sewing gets devalued because it was utilitarian for so long, and is still often seen as “women’s work.” It saddens me that some people don’t see the value in well-made clothing and someone with the expertise to make it. I have had several people tell me that I’d have to do a lot of work for free before anyone would pay for it!

11. What was the most encouraging feedback you ever got?

People’s awestruck reactions when they find out that I’ve made my clothing still surprises me, and the past 4 months have been incredibly validating. I’ve had a dress accepted into an art show, a magazine feature, and won a TAP grant.

12. What would you be if you couldn’t be an artist?

That’s unthinkable.

Thank you, Cynthia! Be on the lookout for a Forum Feature on Cynthia McGuire Thiel in the near-future. 🙂

All photos are courtesy of Cynthia McGuire Thiel’s website, cmtsews.com.


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