If you happened by the Wellfleet Farmers Market this past summer, you might have seen Beth Donovan’s handiwork along your stroll. Her handmade quilts, aprons, masks, and totes consist almost entirely of upcycled fabrics.
Donovan has been sewing all her life. In her seventh-grade home economics class, in West Islip, N.Y., she was so far ahead of the other students that she got the best sewing machine in the classroom. She would take clothing apart to better understand how it was put together — a technique she still uses today.
Donovan became a teacher — of both young children and high schoolers — in Oneonta, N.Y. Once her own kids went off to college, she began working summers at her cousin’s Provincetown restaurant, Dalla Cucina, where Strangers & Saints is now. When she retired in 2014, she decided it would be here.
Donovan’s creative process begins with designing her own patterns. To prevent “the paralysis of analysis,” she says, she limits herself to just a few fabrics, keeping the elements simplified. She likens it to a painter choosing from hundreds of different paints. Minimalism serves not only a creative purpose, she says, but also ensures that her projects don’t take endless amounts of time to finish.
A visit to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla., many years ago taught her a time-saving lesson that she now applies to her own work. The museum docent told the group that Hemingway had a habit of leaving his writing in progress for the next day. That way, he always knew where to begin. Donovan uses this same technique in her sewing, so as to easily fall back into the creative rhythm. “I’m going to leave myself here — so that tomorrow, this is where I start,” she says.
With an affinity for fabrics, Donovan has amassed an extensive collection of scraps and clothing that she uses in her creations. She hunts around thrift stores, visits Mass Appeal, and often receives clothing from clients and friends. “There is a certain level of comfort in giving something away that will be used,” Donovan says. Her work allows these items to live on in a new way.
Bins and bins (and more bins) are organized by color or type. They are overflowing with shirts, jean jackets, sweaters. How does Donovan find anything? She keeps it all organized in her mind, mentally searching for the perfect item.
When the coronavirus hit in early spring, Donovan started making masks from her storehouse of fabric. In March, she began mailing them anywhere they might be needed. She sent them to hospitals and nursing homes, and handed them out in grocery stores.
Donovan spent the summer as a vendor at the Wellfleet Farmers Market and is now working with clients on custom orders. Over the past few months, she has noted that people have been more thoughtful about gift-giving.
She recently designed a pillow that uses strips of fabric to create a landscape of sea, sand, and sky. The graphic pattern was time-consuming, and sewing on a curve is no easy task. Donovan cuts the fabric a special way, then coaxes the pieces through her machine, transforming the many strips into a single piece, a new creation.
Her sewing machine has remained busy throughout the pandemic. Now, she says, “I can’t imagine not sewing.”