Photos by Paul Flessland and additional photos provided by Burlap Rustic Chic Boutique
What many consider a lost art, Kristi Sailer of Horace, North Dakota, has mastered. Sewing gorgeous pillows and repurposing furniture for the past 20 years, Sailer’s talents have become a hot commodity at a time when the words hand-stitched and homemade sound like music to our ears. We’ll take you inside her rural studio to see where her meticulous craft of sewing meshes seamlessly with repurposing.
With television shows such as “Fixer Upper” and an entire network devoted to DIY, an interest in all things repurposed has spread like wildfire. Many antique stores now offer booth spaces for selling repurposed items and stores like Burlap Rustic Chic Boutique sell handcrafted items likes Sailer’s linen pillows. Though some claim this to be a recent decorating trend, people like Kristi Sailer know that this trend has not simply appeared, but evolved.
Stitch by Stitch
Sailer grew up watching her mom and aunt sew clothing for the family, teaching her the basics of sewing. After college, Sailer branched out into home decor sewing when it was not a trend, but born out of a necessity to create things in a more cost efficient way.
For Sailer, her story began with a friend asking for help with her new baby’s nursery. After the project was completed, the friend suggested Sailer create a career out of it. Finishing school and expecting her first child, Sailer decided to give this path a chance if it meant being able to stay home and raise her children. The years to come would mean working long hours sewing and repurposing furniture late into the night a er her kids were asleep. This would become a career path that never felt like work.
“It feeds my creative,” said Sailer. “Every day is different for me and I’m never working on the same thing, which I really like.”
Four years ago, Sailer and her family moved from Downtown Fargo to their rural home in Horace, where she now has a basement studio. Half of her space is devoted to repurposing furniture while the other half is inhabited by sewing machines, walls of fabric, pillows, thread and buttons.
“I usually have a fabric or upholstery piece that I’m working on and some painted pieces at the same time,” said Sailer. To keep the process moving seamlessly, Sailer rotates between projects to allow for paint to dry and fabric to arrive.
Pioneering the Process
Her love of repurposing furniture came along with her love of antiques. “We once owned an old home so we were always picking up furniture,” said Sailer. “Part of it was that I enjoyed doing it and part of it was that it was more economical to fix and repair, re-stain and refinish things ourselves. I’m a sucker for old-style furniture, especially if you can take an old piece, maybe a family member’s, repurpose it and use it in your home. If it’s still around, it’s probably well made.”
Much of Sailer’s decorating, sewing and upholstery skills were self-taught, although she did do a short apprenticeship for upholstery. To learn how to make slip-covers, Sailer accepted the challenge given by a friend who wanted one made for a wingback chair she had just purchased.
“I told her, ‘If you buy the fabric, I’ll make the slip-cover.’ So, it started with trial and error,” said Sailer. “Most fabric isn’t very expensive so you can try something and if you don’t like it, just like paint, you can do it over again.”
Searching out the best fabrics begins online for Sailer. She once relied on Mill End Textiles, but since it’s closing, these days, she prefers to shop online or travel to Minneapolis for the best selections. “Right now. I’m working with a lot of twills and linens with the trend of white on white that comes from (HGTV’s “Fixer Upper”) Joanna Gaines,” said Sailer. “But, I like the old brocades, tone on tones, especially with older furniture pieces. Burlap is really fun to work with just because it’s a utility type fabric, but it’s a neat texture and there are a lot of ways that people are using it now that it wasn’t intended to be used for. It’s just a really cool fabric and it’s super cheap.”
As far as linen goes, Sailer thinks this trend is here to stay because of its timeless and classic appeal. “You’re never going to go wrong with linen drapes and slipcovers, especially in the lakes area,” said Sailer. “I think slipcovers in twills and linens, anything washable is so practical. I don’t think this trend is going anywhere. But, I also see a return to more traditional, maybe less grays and more color in fabrics and furniture.”
The pillows Sailer makes are sold at Burlap Rustic Chic Boutique in South Fargo and are always a high- quality, synthetic-down pillow form that you can’t find elsewhere locally. “It’s a wholesale dealer that I use, so it’s a much nicer pillow than what you’ll find at fabric stores,” explained Sailer.
Her studio employs an antique refrigerator cabinet with refashioned drawers Sailer found at a local antique shop. Each drawer is designated to accommodate an array of thread options, zippers, buttons and various other sewing necessities.
If you want advice from Sailer, she will tell you to buy only what you love and recreate it to fit your space. “These chairs were an Ethan Allen chair in a cherry finish,” Sailer explains, pointing at the painting side of her studio. “Most people wouldn’t even consider them because they were outdated, but they’re rock-solid chairs and the design is funky and cool. Nobody was going to give them a second look with that cherry finish, but if you do a more modern and updated finish, all that furniture is reusable.”
Sailer explains that some furniture pieces are just more difficult, but if you’re a DIYer and really want to try something with not much experience, she encourages it. “Start on something easy like a dining room chair cushion. There won’t be much to tear down or put back together,” said Sailer. “What’s nice about starting with a chair is that you’ll learn a lot by taking it apart. Having the right tools are essential, too. A lot of people, if it’s a first-time project, don’t know what tools to use.”
With a decline in the number of people who have sewing abilities, Sailer’s craft is nearing status as a lost art. “Even with the apprenticeship I did on upholstery, just to find somebody that was doing it and willing to share was not easy,” said Sailer. To those interested, Sailer recommends trying basic upholstery classes at Mac’s in Fargo, books or online tutorials.
Sailer admits that there are rules to decorating and fabric, but for a successful project, buyers just need to remember that it’s their space and they should do what they love. “Sometimes you find something that you love and you might not have a purpose for it right away, but you might find that along the way.”
As she gives us the quick tour of her kitchen, it’s obvious that Sailer lives what she says. The rules of her design are just as she pleases, made out of any material that she finds beautiful–mixed metals, repurposed materials and beautiful antiques.
Business has definitely picked up for Sailer, not only because of her high-quality finished products, but also due to the change in times. Many of the known upholsterers in town are retiring, and her craft has become even more of a rarity.
“There’s a lot of talent in this town. Even when you see what’s at Burlap and what people can do, it’s not just the physical skill that these people have, it’s the intellectual creativity that comes into as well,” said Sailer. “I do it because I love it. It’s just part of me. I’m just lucky that I get to do a job that I love and it doesn’t feel like work every day. Anybody can try things. It can be a self-taught skill, you just have to learn along the way.”
Find Sailer’s work:
Most of the work Sailer does is custom work for clients on referrals. She manages these by appointment and usually goes on-site to the homes to gauge the extent of the project. Her hand-sewn pillows and repurposed furniture can be found at Burlap Rustic Chic Boutique in South Fargo.
3401 University Dr. South, Fargo