As a girl, the fabric store held Julia Nieves’ daydreams; a place she yearned she’d one day have her pick of colors and textures from the reams of fibers that lined the walls.
Still, she sewed. Nieves’ mother – who taught her to sew well enough by fourth grade to win a blue ribbon at the county fair for her tiered, ruffled blue calico print skirt with satin ribbon trim – provided the material: old tablecloths and napkins, bedspreads and curtains, and skirts, shirts and pants.
“Whatever it was, I would take those things, I would make new things, and I would wear them to school,” she said, noting it all led to extra cash in high school and college. “Students would hire me to make things for them.”
Though her joy of making things gave way, as life often commands, to work and motherhood, “we all kind of come to a place where we come back,” said Nieves, 40, a New York native whose career included education and continued nonprofit work. “I missed it.”
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For Nieves, it was a matter of going back to her mother’s lessons, which were the beginning of a lifelong “journey in earth-conscious living, upcycling and art” or “sharing with others and respecting the earth at the same time.”
Yes, these days, Nieves, who settled in Raleigh just last month, has a wall in her home studio stacked with fabric all her own – and a collection of uniquely designed, always reversible, always one-of-a-kind hats. Her specialties: Rasta crowns, and kufi hats and skull caps, for men and women. Prices: From $40 to $65.
Each one is handmade of repurposed, upcycled materials. There’s hemp, leather, cotton, linen, silk, wool and other natural fabrics. Some have pockets and button holes. Others command attention with color and texture, everything from mud cloth to hemp and upholstery. Nieves also creates a variety of oversized handbags.
Nieves’ creations, now under her Creator’s Blessing business banner, started as a dare from her husband, Maurice Small, who moved his family here from Ohio for his work managing the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Urban Agriculture Program.
After years of searching in vain for unique, well-fitting hats to cover Small’s more than 10-year-old dread locks that were suitable for farming and gardening, Small cajoled, “Why don’t you make me one,” Nieves recalls.
“I’m on hat No. 25 now,” she said.
Per Small’s request, the first hat was made out of a pair of his old coveralls.
“He really enjoys them and now, I’ve gotten it down to a more producible kind of thing,” Nieves said. “We have never seen anything that looks quite like my hats.”
That’s what caught my attention earlier this month. Small was at work sporting a Creator’s Blessing Rasta crown, and I was helping my church’s food ministry. As I noticed Small’s hat, I heard my fellow parishioner, Almeta Revis, asking Smalls, “Hey, where’d you get that hat?”
The rest, of course, is well, herein.
Like the first Rasta crown she made for her husband, Nieves especially enjoys requests for custom hats. One she made for a friend back in Ohio was fashioned out of cloth that held special meaning to the couple.
“Just being able to take things and reuse them really means a lot to me,” Nieves said. “I don’t need to go out and buy new fabric. I can enjoy taking things and giving them a second, or third, life.
“I ask, ‘How can I create without taking more?’ ”
It’s no mere hobby for Nieves. It’s a lifestyle for her family, which includes Ife, 12, and Jabari, 3. Whether recycling to reuse, or upcycling for art, they embrace connections between sustainability and creativity.
A garden greets visitors to their home just a short drive from the State Farmers Market. And evidence of composting is as clear in the front yard as rows of white, rainwater-catching buckets positioned in the family’s backyard. It’s the very water that washes the materials Nieves repurposes.
“One of the things we’re committed to is respecting the earth as much as we can and learning how to do it more and more,” Nieves said. “Our kids need it and their kids will need it.”
Nieves will tell you too that earth consciousness is “constant process,” fueled by attempts to transform the way we do things by focusing on living more simply and more graciously for our offspring and future generations.
As a new neighbor, Nieves said she’s already excited to know she’s making her new home amongst other artists who also connect earth-conscious living and art.
“There are a lot of people doing wonderful work like this here; repurposing, trying to transform the economy and our paradigm about how we look at and think about things,” she said. “I’m really excited to be in this region.”