Meet Sam, The Person Responsible For The Golden Threads On Your New Apron
Hey friends! It’s been a minute since I shared an interview here. I’m so excited to share this one with you because it’s with a collaborator on a future project. Samantha Saavedra is a chainstitch embroidery artist and we are so excited to be partnering to make your apron, your work, and your quarantine life more fun and enjoyable. Here goes! I hope you get as much from this deep dive as I did.
Geana: When you were a kid, what did you think you would do when you grew up?
Sam: I wanted to be a chef. I love cooking. I didn't see myself buried in books. I was always creative in the kitchen until I found out my junior year in high school that you can go to school for art. I had no idea! And that's when I started looking more into art schools my senior year.
G: What was your path to chainstitch embroidery?
S: So I wanted to go to art school for painting. And I thought, how can I make this into a career? In the end I decided to go to school for fashion design. My mom was super supportive, whatever I wanted to do. My thinking was that as a designer I could make art, but not all artists can jump into clothing making. You gotta learn some stuff to be a designer. After I was done, I just kinda found my way to embroidery. Really, it was the embroidery machine that attracted me to this craft.
I had a coworker that got a part time job at the Levi's tailor shop in downtown San Francisco. She told me about the job, but I wasn't really interested. I was like, “oh, that's cool, good for you.” It wasn’t until she came to work with a patch, and she was like, look what I did at work!” I had just recently started doing chainstitch by hand. I found it fun, but it took a long time–it was really time consuming. I don't have too much patience, you know? So I was like, “wow, how long did that take you to do? That's really cool! I'm sure it took you hours. I just started doing this kind of stuff." And she was like, “no, they have this 100 year old machine that you control.” I loved the idea that it was a machine and I love tattoos–embroidery work feels like a similar art to tattooing.
The next day, I went downtown. I never go downtown. I went downtown and went straight to the store, saw the machine, and fell in love. I was thinking, “how do I get a job here? I need to be able to use that machine right there on the other side of that counter.” It took a few months. Nobody really quits that team–it was a really tight knit team of tailors. But my friend helped me get in after about six months. I had to pay my dues. I had to sew a bunch of tapers and hems before they even let me sit on the chair. It wasn't until a day when the two main tailors weren’t there and something needed to get done that I got a chance. My boss called me and was like “Sam this is the day you are going to make something for a client." I haven't stopped since. Eventually I got my own machine. And here we are now, like four, five years later in my own studio.
G: That's cool! I’ve seen those machines. I've never used one though. But, I totally understand what you mean with how you fell in love when you saw it. Could you describe it for people who have never seen one, how it works and kind of how weird it is to use it?
S: So the machines are about 100 years old. They’re put on new tables with a motor so it goes faster and they have a crank handle on the bottom of the machines that moves in a circle motion. The crank handle controls where the needle goes–it’s like drawing with a circular moving handle underneath the table. So instead of having a pencil, I have this handle. By controlling the speed with my feet and this handle, I’m able to draw and write. With writing, outlines, and fillers, that's how these images come to life. For each color, the thread needs to be changed. Everything is really manual. I'm constantly changing the tension. A lot of us that do chainstitch still say that it's handmade because it’s so manual. But it is made through this really old machine.
G: The reason I ask you to describe it is because even though it's done by machine, it's not like a digital machine. It takes a lot of craft.
S: Yeah, definitely! And practice. I can go really fast now because I've been doing this for four years but it is detailed, it takes control and coordination from your foot, to your hand, to your body. It takes a lot to be able to have that beautiful cursive.
G: Changing gears a little bit. How do you typically answer the question, where are you from? And is that a straightforward question to answer for you?
S: I'm from Peru. My mom, my dad, my brother, my whole family is in Peru. I grew up there. However, I was born in Arizona. When I was born, my family was living in Arizona so I'm the only one of my family that has papers since I was born in the US. But when I was three, my mom took us back. So I grew up in Peru. I moved back to the US at the age of 20 and feel like I was able to discover and become this whole other human living in San Francisco, but my roots are definitely in Peru. I'm always going to be Peruvian. I'm American on paper.
G: So you mentioned your mom a little bit. How did your parents shape who you are today from a business perspective? You mentioned that your mom was really supportive. Are there other ways that they've shaped the path you chose for the kind of work you do?
S: So my mom raised me as a single mom. She had a casting agency in Lima, one of the biggest casting agencies, for like 15 years. I saw her hustle and be the boss. She was so hard working. I learned that from her. Tell me what to do, I’ll do it. Even if I don't know how, I’ll figure it out. Definitely becoming my own company and my own boss was a little scary. But I just knew that by being organized and just focusing, that I could do it.
My mom took me out of Catholic school, which was so normal–all of my cousins were in Catholic school–and put me in this really artistic, alternative kind of hippie school in Lima. They really focused on your artistic side or exploring your potential. I was always creating, making stuff with my own hands. That's always something I was really good at, where I could find myself. My mom was never like “you have to be a lawyer” or “you have to be this or that.” She was like, “do whatever you want to do, and if you do your best, put all your effort and your love into it, I will support you no matter what.” Any project that I ever do she's always trying to put herself into being a business partner, somehow. That's something that allowed me to think that I could do this even with all the fears that come along with life. It gives me the courage, the strength to keep going. That's kind of rare for a Latina mom because so many want you to have a career and be in the office working at a desk. I thought that’s what I had to do, but no, she always wanted me to do what made me happy.
G: Talking about the pandemic for a second. What's been the hardest aspect of it for you?
S: Um, I have no social life. No, I’m kidding. I don't know if this is going to answer your question, but December totally destroyed my soul when it comes to my craft. I did a bunch of events back to back, every other day bringing my machine, writing so many names. It was really hard to say no to people. So I said yes to everyone and definitely overworked myself. I didn’t want to be in my studio after that. All of January and February, I wasn't taking orders. What the pandemic did was push me back in. While the world was freaking out the first few weeks that we were sheltered in place, I was able to go from my house to my studio and work for two weeks on one project that was finally for me. It was something that nobody paid me for, nobody asked me to make for them. It was something that I wanted to do and doing that fired me into getting back into the studio and more inspired. I hope that answers your question.
G: It does. That’s a good reminder that the pandemic affects people differently. And it totally makes sense that if you were burned out from December, that you might be feeling like this is an opportunity to take a step back. I've heard a lot of people say that, like people who are pushing too hard and can't seem to give themselves a break. The pandemic forced them to, and led them to question what the hell they were working so hard for in the first place.
S: I was doing a little bit of catering on the side and then all of January and February I was like, “give me all the days.” I didn’t want to be in the studio. I was happy working on catering and making some money. When shelter in place happened in March, they laid us off. That’s what led to a restart for me. I was supposed to go to Peru, too. I thought, “Okay, I don't have this month-long trip anymore. What do I do now? Well, I have this studio. Let's go back into it.” Because life wasn't happening, right? There was no “Oh, I have to go to the show” or “I have to do this dinner.” Nothing was happening. It was the perfect time for me to turn around and get back into my craft and re-enjoy what I do.
G: Was there ever a time when you thought you would quit doing embroidery and try something else?
S: Sometimes the financial insecurity comes in, and then the doubt comes in, “what am I doing, maybe I should get a full-time job.” Every time those thoughts come, it's always after a big project when I’m afraid I'm never gonna get another big project like that. “What happens if I don't get one in the next two months?” And every time, like a few days after all those thoughts, literally not letting me sleep, I get an email for another job. And then I remind myself that I'm doing the right thing–that I am where I'm supposed to be. I have to believe that there’s something taking care of me–that if I do my best and I put all my passion into this, everything will work out. And it has so far.
G: On your instagram bio, it says support your local embroidery artist. I love that. I love the idea that maybe we hadn't even thought that we might have a local embroidery artist. I also love the sense of community. It invites people to discover this form of art wherever they are and that maybe there are other forms of art that people can discover and support.
S: Thank you! Do people read bios? That’s actually one of my favorite parts of my bio.
Sometimes I'm on instagram on the hashtag #chainstitchembroidery and I can see who just started and who's been doing this for a while, so definitely there are chainstitch embroidery artists popping up everywhere. That's kind of what I meant.
G: It’s great and I totally read bios! In general and on a personal level, what's the most challenging thing about running a small creative business? I feel like maybe you already answered that, but if you have something to add, go for it.
S: Still, for me it is to love and respect the value of my work. In the beginning, when I first left Levi’s, my prices were really low just because I was worried about whether customers would pay for it. With time, I've been more confident and secure to charge what I think this should cost. People have responded really well because it is hand made and it does takes a lot of time. I’ve had to learn to not let big companies walk all over me too. In the beginning, I would make my quote, come up with the total and feel like it was too much. But it's too much for me, for them it’s just change. I would bring the price so low and then they would be like, “okay, yeah, let's do it. That sounds great.” One day I finally said to myself, "oh, that's really cheap. What? Why? Why are you bringing yourself down, Samantha? Just throw the number that you want out there and you can always bring it down.” So I think that I learned the way loosing money. Now I'm more confident and can decide if I want to go lower if it's a local company instead of a huge tech company that should be paying artists more.
Money has always been a weird thing to me. Eventually you get to a point where you're more confident to have those tough money conversations.
G: Yeah, money's a hard one. I think it's hard in a culture that doesn’t really value craft very much, to get yourself to believe that it is actually worth what you say it's worth. It's such a hard journey.
What inner resources or skills help you through these hard moments?
S: I had to let go of a lot of things that I can’t control. I had to learn that I can't control everything around me. I can’t control the client that is gonna want to set my quote. I meditate a lot. That was something that I've never done before. That’s something that brings me back to center and focus. I have to believe that I can't control everything around me. Knowing the difference between the things that I can control and the things that I can’t, has been a big thing. It takes me out of the dark hole that you can go into when you believe you have control.
And then my friends–I have a really solid group of friends. If I feel insecure about a quote or the email that I need to send, they're always so willing to be there and help me. My friends and my family are my biggest support. Sometimes I don't even see it in myself, but they see it in me. Having people like that helps for sure.
G: Looking onward from today, what is the rest of 2020 look like for you? What are you most excited about?
S: I’m making more of my own art so there’s more of my own work on the way! Also I'm working with somebody on a website. I’ll have better communication with clients that want to order, and it’ll give me a platform to post my work for sale.
G: That’s super exciting! I can’t wait to see more of your own work. I saw on instagram that you’re making masks.
S: Yes! I’m working on some really, really cute ones right now. I'm excited. I was trying to play with it a little. Like no elastic. More ribbons. Maybe a little more cutesy and fashionable.
G: Awesome! Since lipstick is pretty pointless these days, maybe a color pop of embroidery is what the world actually needs.
I just want to wrap up by saying that I’m honored to work with my local embroidery artists. And I hope that this collaboration is a success. I’m really looking forward to it. Thank you!
Thank you Sam for sharing your story and Lindsey for the beautiful photography!
Stay in touch with Sam @sweetchainstitch! And don’t wait to order an embroidered apron from us. The success of the first few weeks will dictate whether we continue offering chainstitch embroidery.