If the Shibaguyz, Shannon and Jason Mullett-Bowlsby, traveled back in time, they probably would land in The Renaissance. Not because they are classical painters and sculptors (although, who knows what is to come?), but because they are curious about and explore absolutely EVERYTHING that sparks them creatively. Working as a team, their current creative deep dive is into Boro and Sashiko – the ancient Japanese hand stitching arts currently enjoying a resurgence. Passionate about encouraging creativity and sharing their knowledge, the Shibaguyz have jumped into virtual teaching platforms with all four feet. (Ten feet if their dogs tag along.)
Were you always artists, or was there a “moment” for each of you?
Actually, we became artists after we were bitten by a radioactive spider and… wait… no… that’s not us. We became artists while we were working on a space station and a radioactive storm passed through our… wait… that’s not us either. There was an accident in our lab and… nope… that wasn’t us either. Okay, the truth: one night we were sleeping and the tooth fairy… what? No?
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Bottom line: artistic ability or the desire to become an “artist” is such a subjective thing. Nature AND nurture, time availability, financial assets, life circumstances. Imagine how many artistic influences we might have if nobody ever had to work three jobs to pay their bills or feed themselves. Right?
That said, we were both raised in creative households. From music and dance to theatre, woodworking, quilting, sewing, painting… and everything in-between, we learned that all the arts were something to be explored and that they were something that were integral to everyday life. There were times in both of our lives that were very utilitarian with regards to our jobs and daily life: get up, go to work, come home, sleep, get up, go to work… etc… We consider ourselves fortunate to be among those who count the creative arts as their career. We do not take that fortune lightly and are grateful every day for the opportunities we have.
Further, we both agree that one artform informs another and are always exploring our own creative fields as well as those we might never have encountered before. So, whether we are working on some hand stitching, or baking bread, or taking an afternoon at the aquarium, we are experiencing artistic moments; moments that inspire other moments.
How did your company, “the Shibaguyz”, come to be? What were some of the challenges? What has been most satisfying? How does being parents to the Shibakidz impact your creative lives?
The Shibaguyz started off as a small space gardening business where we taught people to grow their own food and shop, cook, and eat locally. From there I’m sure you can see the easy connection to crochet, quilting and, sewing… right?? Actually, it wasn’t that big of a leap… we called what we taught heritage skills; common skills that had skipped a generation (or two). So yeah, growing tomatoes in a small, backyard garden, sewing on a button, shortening the hem on a pair of pants, how to bake bread, and how to make a killer red sauce from scratch. It all fits.
Honestly, we are always looking for open windows and doors to take us in another wonderful direction, and there was a pivotal moment that we both remember. It was some time around Christmas in 2007 that Shannon was sitting around making a pair of socks and Jason’s mother, Kay, visiting from Wyoming, said something to the tune of “Boy, I’d buy that!” Her words triggered an avalanche of “what-if” thoughts in Shannon’s brain (brain avalanches are a common occurrence in our household), and we started looking into what it would take to really make it as full-time crochet and knitwear designers.
It took a few years of study and practice, but the Shibaguyz first published design landed on the cover of a magazine and that was it. In 2009 Shannon left their day-job and took the opportunity to run with this “be a designer” dream. Jason, the other half of the Shibaguyz design brain, would join in working full time from home a few years later as a graphic artist and photographer providing the charts, layout, and photographs for their patterns and books.
The most satisfying part of this adventure has been the ability to work from home for ourselves… also the most challenging. There are days we get to take off early and take the Shibakidz to our favorite park by Puget Sound… those are the best! Other days, we are in a screaming my-hair’s-on-fire-and-there-isn’t-any-water-to-put-it-out rush from the moment we wake till after midnight just to make deadlines. But we get to do it all together, and there is enough flexibility and balance to make it all worthwhile in the end.
You have your hands in lots of creative pots. Tell us a bit about your interests.
We made our professional debut as crochet and knit designers, then photography, graphic design, and book layout. From there we went on to explore the hand stitching world with hand piecing, quilting, EPP, and, currently, boro and sashiko – the subject of our new book from C&T Publishing! WOOHOO!! We both come from sewing backgrounds where we made garments and quilts. Jason is also a talented yarn hand spinner and we both love the culinary arts…
At this point it is easier to list the things we DON’T do. Currently we do not make jewelry… check back later this year for an update on that… just sayin’…
As we said earlier, we believe all creative endeavors and art forms inform one other. We are always looking for opportunities to spark something new in our brains or to try something that looks interesting. Heck, this whole deep dive into boro and sashiko started with researching crazy quilts. 183 browser windows later… a book and a series of live and recorded workshops and lectures. One just never knows where the next spark of joy is going to come from that leads to some new creative detail. Or, ya know, an entirely new career direction.
How did you score the privilege of taking a deep dive into the Seattle Art Museum’s archives? Asking for a friend. 🙂
Honestly, long story short: We asked. They said yes.
Now, keep in mind that both of us were qualified museum researchers in our past lives. Shannon worked as a low-level research assistant in the University of Wyoming museum in paleontology, and Jason was an archeology researcher. So, we knew our way around a museum and protocols for research and artifacts.
We sent an email to a couple of folx at the Seattle Art Museum about our interest in sashiko and boro along with our personal histories and dropped the name of our publisher… that always helps… We asked to see a few pieces that were not on display at the time but were visible in the online gallery. We were also very specific about what we were hoping to accomplish with our research and that we were authoring a book that would educate about the context of the subject of boro and sashiko and not just a DIY book.
For us, visual confirmation of these textiles and the techniques that created them was vital to our ability to write this book with any degree of authority on the subject matter. Without the context for the content, we felt like our book would be just a glorified opinion blog post. And that’s not what we wanted to create.
That request was forwarded to one of the head curators for the Seattle Asian Art Museum who, lucky for us, is adamant that knowledge cannot be boxed up. A few emails and phone calls later, and a very thorough review on protocols and procedures, and she brought out around 20 items for our supervised study. To be honest, it was – and still is – one of the most thrilling experiences of our career as fiber and textile artists.
We have a full 90-minute talk about the series of “rabbit holes” that led us down this road. If your readers are interested in hearing about it they can check out our Classes page on Shibaguyz.com and look for the lecture titled “183 Browser Windows”.
You are enthusiastic instructors. What do you most enjoy about teaching?
It is such an honor to be a teacher. Folx come to us and trust us to give them the knowledge they want and need for their own creative endeavors. That is a huge honor for us. And, yes, we love it all! From seeing the light go on in someone’s eyes when they “get it,” to introducing folx to a whole new art form, it’s exciting to be a part of every step of that process. We derive so much joy from what we do, and we feel fortunate to have the opportunity to pass even a piece of that on to someone else.
How have you adapted your teaching platforms to comply with social distancing guidelines?
Not to make light of it too much, COVID did the majority of the work for us. All of the shows where we would normally teach in person have gone fully virtual; and, despite the horrific circumstances that brought it on, we love teaching virtually.
Teaching virtual is different than live, but in many ways, we are able to reach students that otherwise we would never have seen in class. There are folx who just couldn’t take off time from work or time away from family to attend an entire weekend event. Also, attending these events is not inexpensive. Hotels, airfare, hotel food (ugh) all add up. For some folx, spending money on attending events just can’t be a priority for them. Then there are folx with medical issues that prevent them from traveling. We’ve met several of our social media followers now in virtual classrooms who were never able to come to a live show before. Virtual events mean access for these folx for whom attending a live event was just not possible in the past.
Most of the workshops we teach involve close hand work so another huge bonus to teaching online for us and for our students is that we can get our cameras in tight so everyone gets a front row seat. That’s something that can’t happen at a live show, even with a projector and screen. There’s no substitute for being able to see fine stitch techniques in big, bold 4K streaming right in your face.
Now, we did have to spend a bit to upgrade the studio for virtual classes: 5 new cameras for correct angles, professional microphones, switcher equipment. All were necessary for us to pivot to virtual presentations, but it has been worth it and then some… and we think our students love the setup that allows them a unique experience like we’ve just never been able to give them at an in-person show.
How did you become interested in Sashiko and Boro?
That is a story all of its own. It started with an article about an exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia that we found while doing background research for a potential crazy quilts class… and ended with total immersion into sashiko and publication our book.
Again, we have a full 90-minute talk about the series of “rabbit holes” that led us down this road. If your readers are interested in hearing about it they can check out our Classes page on Shibaguyz.com and look for the class titled “183 Browser Windows”.
What advice would you have for beginner stitchers?
First, in our book and in our handwork classes, we have folx recite the stitcher’s pledge:
I (insert your name here) do promise to be patient with myself and to give myself the grace to learn. I promise to remind myself of the FACT that every new skill has a learning curve that everyone must go through regardless of how accomplished they are at other skills.
We are all coming from different backgrounds and have different influences from our past and current pressures that affect how we learn. And those can change from day to day. Heck, they can change in a matter of minutes! The thing that we all have to remember is that, even though we are good at other things in our lives, this is going to be something new and we are going to go through a learning process that might be very different from anything we’ve encountered before. So be patient. Give yourself the grace to learn without the harsh Judgey McJudgeypants voice in the back of our heads. You will get there. You will.
What are your must-have supplies for your sashiko projects?
Sashiko is unique in that in that it has a specific set of tools. Some you will recognize, others not so much.
- Sashiko needles
- Adjustable ring thimble with palm plate
- Kuroha thread snips
- Aurifil 12 wt cotton thread for hitomezashi and moyouzashi
- Aurifl 12 wt cotton and Aurifil Floss for Kogin-zashi
Incidentally, we have our own collections of thread from Aurifil. One, The Mighty Ten Hand Sewing Essentials Collection is for hand and machine sewing and the other, the FAB Sashiko Essentials Collection is for sashiko and quilting. We use both of these in the book because we have found them to be the best threads to do the job correctly.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
We do both, depending on the work we are doing. Some stitching must be planned out in advance. Like the Kimono Inspired Long jacket from the book. Each of those stitch patterns and motifs were totally thought out in advance and drawn onto the cut pieces. For other projects, like the Boro Pillows, we just look at how things are going and add stitches where we think they are necessary.
For these and other projects, how we plan them depends on when the inspiration strikes us. Notes apps, texts, photos, and voice memos are where a lot of our ideas live until we are ready to bring them into the physical realm. Since we are teachers, designers and authors, we do tend to keep track of our process from beginning to end so that it may be duplicated. One never knows when that goofy idea might turn into the next big project.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
Wait, our studio is supposed to be organized? Crap… we knew there was something we forgot to put on the calendar…
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Silence – Check
Music – Check
Audiobooks – Check
Podcasts – Check
Movies – Check
We have different tastes in music, so Shannon has a wide variety of music that plays while they work. Jason likes music while working too, but a lot of his work (graphic design, photography) calls for a lot of focus. So he likes silence for that.
Shannon will sometimes listen to audiobooks when sewing or quilting. Jason gets focused on the handwork he’s stitching; then he forgets to listen and often finds himself 4 chapters in with no idea what is going on in the story.…
When we work on the sofa at night it’s a little of everything. Movies are often on the agenda.
When you travel (we remember travel, don’t we?), do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
Nope. When we travel, we like to focus on the trip and then on the students, not our personal stitching. We are at the event to work. That includes the trip to and from the event, so we leave the stitching at home and pick it back up when we come back home. (This probably has something to do with the organization question you asked earlier, huh?)
What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
Right now, we are really into Sashiko and Boro. The ease of hand stitching in general is of great interest, but tomorrow who knows? We might find ourselves enamored with some other form of quilting or stitching or painting… maybe hand thrown pottery? We look at our overall curiosity as being like one of those toy cars that drives until it hits something; then it backs up and forward until it can go around the barrier. If it hits a full-on wall, it just turns and goes a completely different direction.
We never confine ourselves to just one genre or just one form of creating. That feels constrictive and counter-productive to us. As long as we are excited and interested, we are going to move forward and keep developing a form or skill. Even if we do take interest in something else, we draw from past experiences and skills. They inform our new endeavors. It’s very circular for us… probably even more like a web. But that’s probably because of the radioactive spider bite that… what? Still not us? Dang it…
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Yes and no… creativity is something that we are all born with. As we get older, we are taught that there are “proper” ways to express our creativity (“do you think these colors go together?”); so we forget how to be that creative.
Give a child 100 crayons and they will draw a picture using all 100, but most adults will use the minimum they can get away with mostly because they feel some sort of constraint in their hearts or minds. Then there are the extreme pressures of “gender norms” impressed on us from a very young age that say we are supposed to do things and conduct ourselves in certain ways because of the gender we were assigned at birth.
Social constructs of all types are the death of creativity. Allowing creativity to come to the surface and be seen is both exciting and terrifying.
Skills can certainly be learned… that’s part of what we do for a living: teach skills. One can learn the skill to crochet a throw or knit a sweater, but it’s the act of taking those skills and jumping off into the void with them that turns them into creativity. So you have to be open to being creative. Silence the negative voices in your life or your head and keep playing and exploring – that’s the essence of creativity.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
Shibaguyz.com is like a roadside attraction. A stopping off point for lots of cool things. Patterns, supplies, tutorials and of course a full accounting of where you will find us teaching are just a few of the things to find there. We have our latest books, crochet, knitting, and sewing patterns, tutorials, recipes, how-to articles, and our branded products from Aurifil and Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabric. So, yeah, a little bit of everything for creative folx. Stop by and start clicking!
Browse through more sashiko projects and inspiration on Create Whimsy.