Lockhart artist Sara Thompson spent more than two decades as a hairstylist.
“I stood on my feet my entire life,” she says. “It’s kind of shocking that I can sit and do this.”
Thompson is talking to me by phone about her new life as the founder and artist behind Circa 1975, a chain stitch embroidery brand that adds nature-inspired designs to shirts, jackets, pillows, and even custom suits, like the one she made for bluegrass musician and Fiddler’s Green Music Shop owner Jenn Miori Hodges, who wore one of Thompson’s pieces on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville earlier this year.
Thompson grew up on a pig farm in Illinois and moved to Austin in 2000, where she started her career in hair, which she always considered an artform, even if her creations didn’t last for long. Several years before the pandemic, one of her hair clients had bought a chain stitch machine and kept talking about it, so Thompson found her own machine, a 1932 Singer, to try it out. “Anything I can do with my hands, I want to learn how to do,” she says. “That’s how I’ve always been.”
Thompson has long been a maker but learning how to use the nearly 90-year-old machine was like learning a musical instrument. It took Thompson “a good four months to get OK and then another year to get decent,” she says, adding that she was spending 20 to 30 hours a week developing her skills on the machine.
After moving in 2017 to Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin on US 183, Thompson continued to commute to the capital city several days a week for her hair clients. When the COVID lockdown started, however, she stopped going to the salon altogether and spent all her time on the machine. “All I was doing was chain stitching,” she says. “It was all I wanted to do.”
Chain stitching, as a hand embroidery stitch, has been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the first chain stitching machines allowed seamstresses to quickly add names to workwear and, later, designs on heavy fabrics used to make suits, jackets, and vests.
By the 1960s, famed Western wear designers Nudie Cohn and Viola Grae were adding elaborate chain stitch designs to flashy suits worn by everyone from Elvis to Gram Parsons.
Cohn’s “Nudie suits” sparked a chain stitch craze that lasted into the 1980s, but the machines fell out of favor until a recent revival by artists like Austin-based Fort Lonesome and Thompson, whose designs are often inspired by the vast landscapes of West Texas—cacti, roadrunners, sunsets over the mountains. “I didn’t set out to have a certain aesthetic, but I like it with the nature vibe, and I’m personally drawn to anything that’s desert,” Thompson says.
She’s also influenced by her years working on hair. “I mainly did short haircuts, and the foundation of doing short haircuts was looking at it more like architecture, not just cutting hair,” she explains. “You create strong shapes with strong lines, so I use a lot of that in the designs that I do.”
Circa 1975 has already grown into a bigger endeavor than Thompson could ever have imagined. She recently had to move out of the living room where it all started and into a spare bedroom that is now her studio just to keep up with the online orders. Thompson is always working on several pieces at a time. Some, she can finish in a few hours; others can take weeks. She also sells at Webb’s Fair & Square in Fort Davis out in West Texas and at pop-up markets around Central Texas, as well as the first weekend of the upcoming Austin Studio Tour (Nov. 4-5) and at Preacher Gallery in Austin on Nov. 18-19.
And although she sells completed pieces through her Etsy page, many customers send her their favorite jacket or shirt that they already know fits exactly to their body. She believes her years listening to clients in the salon makes her particularly good at hearing what people are asking for in her studio. (“I have this level of communication with people that’s rare,” she says. “There’s no question about what they are asking for.”) By adding one of her bright, bold designs, that piece of clothing isn’t just something they’ll wear, it’s something they’ll keep.
Such a situation occurred ahead of a recent Stevie Nicks concert in Austin. Thompson got an order from a woman to make custom jackets for four of her grandkids. “They are going to make memories in those jackets and hopefully hold onto them forever,” Thompson says. “It’s neat to think about these things outlasting me.”