Jane Sisco is an artist who finds transcendence in the mundane – in a certain slant of light that falls on the water towers on New York City rooftops, the movement of an edgy pigeon, the exuberance of radicchio on a plate.
As a designer of both textiles and fashion, she captures the ephemeral not on artist’s canvas but on bolts of linen fabric. She translates her visual impressions into printed fabric and creates clothing that can “wear” her prints well.
An article of Ms. Sisco’s wearable art is like a mobile gallery, showcasing her artwork and her understanding of the body.
Ms. Sisco’s artistic sensibility is grounded in the realities of production and industry. Even if it begins as an abstract concept (as did her “Moment” and “Gratitude” collections), each finished piece of clothing reflects the kind of hands-on skills – weaving, coloring and printing – implied in the word “craft.”
She works with linen woven in Belgium in a mill dating from 1858 and has her designs silk-screened by hand, one bolt at a time, on 150-foot-long tables in a 19th-century Rhode Island mill.
Ms. Sisco sells exclusively at a small number of craft shows across the country, including the American Craft Expo at Northwestern University each August. It took a long time for Ms. Sisco to turn her talents to clothing design. But her interest in textiles – especially patterned textiles – is a thread that runs through her life. Even as a child, she remembers being fascinated by fabric. Recalling that she had “a desire to be different,” she says she learned to sew and loved “putting colors together.”
She grew up near Boston with her mother as her mentor and sartorial guide. “My best conversations with my mother were about pattern and what to put with what,” she says. Her mother’s taste for “simple, classic, quality clothing,” she says, informs her collections.
In college she fell in love with silk screening. After graduation she entered the wider realm of design, working around architects and city planners at the Harvard School of Design.
Married and at home with two small children, she took up quilting in the mid-70s, creating “non-functional, non-traditional” quilts and quilted vests on commission. Besides merging her passions for design and fabric, quilting was something she “could work on with little kids,” she says.
As though anticipating her future fashion career, she says she always “talked to people about how they wanted to feel in the clothing.” Then as now, she says, her designs “always connected with nature.”
After 15 years of quilting “on and off,” she says she realized she still loved designing but found the quilting process “was not spontaneous enough.” She had kept in touch with design through several moves and a divorce, in part by finding employment with textile manufacturers.
But she says it was a confession by her father that “he’d have done some things differently” that was the impetus for the bold step she took at age 50. He had urged her to follow her dreams; at his memorial service Ms. Sisco decided she would apply to Rhode Island School of Design to study textile design. She spent the next year building a portfolio, undeterred even when her former employer, Jack Larsen, told her, “Americans don’t like prints.”
A RISD class in surface design reaffirmed her love of textile printing. “There’s nothing on the fabric. Then the squeegee, and there is something,” she says. The RISD textile program “was not conceptual,” she says. “It was about textiles for industry.” She says she “liked the idea of doing apparel – of designing fabric for the body and then seeing it in motion.”
Her master’s thesis was the “Moment Collection.” She had just finished a class in Japanese esthetics and created a textile design by hanging a brush in a tree. When the wind blew, the brush made marks on the paper. “These are marks made in a moment,” she explains, “and the moment will never come again.”
The design became the fabric for her first dress, “Wind,” a simple tunic inspired by a trip to India.
The dress was the same front and back, which required her to think about what part of the design fell on what part of the dress. She calls the fabric created for such clothing an “engineered print.” Creating such a garment is an exacting – and expensive – process that requires printing the front of the dress and one sleeve together, then the back and the other sleeve.
“Wind” became the foundation of the business she launched from the second bedroom of her New York apartment in 2002. She dedicated the business to her mother, her first muse and inspiration.
There were other clothes in the line, of course, all simple enough to accommodate her imaginative prints. She created “Stamp” by painting on plastic she then inverted to use as a stamp and “Thread” by printing with a thread dipped in ink. She engineered these two so the back of the dress was the opposite of the front.
Her second collection reflects New York and her challenge to herself “to find inspiration in mundane things.” Some of the results will be for sale this weekend: “Gum,” as seen on subway platforms; “Weed” after the weeds straggling up through the cracks in city pavement; “Pigeon,” a thin-lined design (“I made it nervous,” she says); and “Tower,” with its sunlit stripes.
Her current collection is called “Gratitude.” With it, the designer expresses her appreciation for a humble lettuce on a plate as well as for her favorite part of her business: “Meeting women,” she says, “makes it all meaningful.”
Jane Sisco is hosting an open studio and sale on June 7 (4-9 p.m.), June 8 (12-6 p.m.) and June 9 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) guests will find her spare, timeless clothing marked 20 to 40 percent below the usual retail price of $295 per dress and $145 for pants or a skirt. 1234 Sherman, Suite 109.