Montreal artist uses upcycled cashmere to help cushion grieving hearts

Often people give Jane Adams sweaters that were worn by loved ones who died. She sews transforms them into pillows, creating “a pleasant memory.”

Article content

Montreal artist and designer Jane Adams has found a way to bring a measure of comfort to those who have lost loved ones: She designs and makes pillows for them from cashmere sweaters their loved ones once wore.

What she likes is “that feeling of a really nice memory,” she said.

Article content

“It’s a pleasant memory, it’s soft, it’s something they wore — and it appealed to my sense of creating. I love to sew, more than anything.”

Advertisement 2

Article content

For the 70-something Saskatoon native who grew up in and around Toronto before moving to Montreal in the late 1970s, sewing is part of her DNA.

“I have sewn since I was a kid, when my mother would give me drapery lining that I would cut and sew into something for myself that I thought was very stylish,” she recalled.

The skill has served her well.

After earning a degree in textiles and design from what is today Toronto Metropolitan University, Adams had a successful career in the textile, fabric and design industries in Toronto and later in Montreal, where she married.

In 2000, her mother, who had been a painter, handed over her paints and brushes and said: “You’ll figure it out.”

For years Adams painted, favouring an abstract style. “Then I hit a wall and, to advance, I knew I needed further studies.”

In her mid-60s, Adams enrolled at Concordia University and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Montreal’s Shayne Gallery began to carry her paintings and sculptures four years ago; she expanded to Galerie 203, where she recently had a solo exhibition.

“Both galleries have been so very good to me,” she said. “It’s funny how everything comes together.”

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

The idea for the cashmere pillows grew out of Adams’s experience as a longtime volunteer at Chez Doris, a Montreal organization that helps vulnerable women.

A woman cuts fabric at a sewing table in an office.
“I have sewn since I was a kid, when my mother would give me drapery lining that I would cut and sew into something for myself that I thought was very stylish,” artist Jane Adams recalls. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

She had been serving breakfast at the organization’s downtown day centre, stepping back when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and it suspended some services. She was also caring for her husband, whose health had declined. He died in the spring of 2020.

As she resumed serving meals at Chez Doris, Adams was asked for a resumé; when volunteer co-ordinators saw she had considerable experience with sewing, fabric and design, they asked if she’d help another longtime volunteer, Tina Donolo, with the sewing group she had started for clients several years earlier.

The sewing group takes cashmere sweaters donated to Chez Doris and upcycles them into mittens, slippers and scarves that are sold at local fall and Christmas craft fairs as fundraisers. The sewing group, made up of about 12 Chez Doris clients, meets weekly from May through late fall.

Donolo taught Adams to wash and “felt” the sweaters, agitating and shrinking the fibres, and then to cut them apart to remove the seams and bands at the neck, cuffs and waist. The prepared cashmere is then lined with fleece and the material is fashioned into products sold at the fairs.

Advertisement 4

Article content

“The women are very proud of the designs they make,” Adams said.

“Tina has done an incredible job developing the program, and taught me a whole new skill.”

Adams says her volunteer work is deeply gratifying. “Chez Doris has done more for me than I could ever do for them,” she said. “Serving meals, sewing with these women and hearing about their difficulties very much moves me.”

Having observed that some of the sweaters they worked with were sufficiently large to yield enough fabric for small pillows, Adams and the group fashioned pillows to test out different designs.

“I raided my own closet, making pillows from sweaters I wasn’t wearing. Friends starting bringing me sweaters they weren’t wearing and we made pillows from those.”

A woman stands with her arms crossed behind a row of colourful pillows.
The idea for the cashmere pillows grew out of Jane Adams’s experience as a longtime volunteer at Chez Doris, a Montreal organization that helps vulnerable women. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Adams designed a line of 12-by-12-inch and 9-by-16-inch fleece-backed pillows filled with polyester batting; they sold for the first time at last fall’s craft fairs, priced at $25. “They were beautiful and sold well,” she said.

“And then I thought: ‘Why not larger pillows for someone who wanted to remember someone?’”

And so an idea was born — one that brings together her skills and talent as an artist, a designer and someone who loves to sew.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Working in her downtown studio, Adams lays the pieces of upcycled cashmere flat on her large work table to gauge their size and to figure out how to “engineer them into a good design.”

As in her painting, she favours clean, minimalistic lines; she likes broad stripes and contrasting colours in the same pillow; argyle or other patterns also make attractive pillows. Cashmere shawls or wide scarves can also be used. If clients wish, a monogram is included.

Adams uses cashmere for both the front and back of the pillows, which are square (22 by 22 inches) or rectangular (14-16 by 20-22 inches), feature zippers and down inserts and incorporate both machine and hand sewing. They sell for $250.

“I wish I had thought of this when I still had my husband’s sweaters,” Adams said, “but I gave them all away.”

Montrealer Laurie Samuelson recently commissioned Adams to make pillows using two cashmere sweaters and two cashmere scarves that her late husband, Richard, had worn. Richard Samuelson was for years the co-president of luxury menswear manufacturer Samuelsohn Ltd.

“I had four beautiful pillows made — two for me and one each for my son and daughter,” Laurie said. “We felt we wanted to have a long-lasting memory of Richard’s personality and his fondness for high-quality clothing.”

In addition to pillows Adams makes from clients’ cashmere, she is creating a designer line of down-filled pillows featuring silks, cashmere and fine wools. She paints such shapes as wide stripes and circles on the fabrics, using metallic paints in tones that complement them: pewter on grey flannel, for instance, or bronze on chocolate brown silk. Prices range from $300 to $600, based on material, design complexity and the extent of hand painting.

For more information, contact Jane Adams at [email protected].

[email protected]

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 6

Article content

Article content