Time-Honored Textiles with Sarah Nsikak

Sarah Nsikak, photographed by Jessica Antola

Textile artist and designer Sarah Nsikak first learned to sew from her grandmother, an esteemed seamstress in her local village of Oyo, Nigeria. Quilting and textile art became beloved passions of hers—but she’d never focused on either as a career until 2020, when, for the first time in years, she found herself without a full-time job. “ I had a lot of time to create something from an honest place,” she says. Inspired by traditional African modalities of textile art, Sarah created her first capsule collection of patchwork dresses, made from recycled fabric scraps she’d collected over the years. Her line of one-of-a-kind hand-quilted silhouettes crafted exclusively from deadstock, vintage, and recycled materials, La Réunionnamed after the island off the coast of Madagascar—was born soon after. Now a new mother to twelve-month-old Maleigha, Sarah lives and works in Brooklyn—where her Bushwick studio brims with colorful fabric scraps awaiting transformation into her signature patchwork garments and large-scale art pieces. We visited Sarah at her studio for a closer look at the inspiration behind her work—and how she continues to honor her upbringing as she raises her young daughter.

What led you to create La Réunion?

Africa is where so many brilliant modalities of fiber art began, spanning the spectrum of form and function, and I wanted to create a project that would pay tribute to that. I wanted to be very intentional about producing garments—I didn't want to do it just because I knew how, or because it was expected of me. Fashion has this transportive property that can make you feel you're somewhere else or someone else, even on the bleakest days. That’s why I knew I wanted to make something I could wear.

After years of working in the fashion industry, what inspired the shift towards focusing on your own art?

The modern-day path to carving out a career as an artist is nuanced and complex. The rise of the Internet and social media has made it possible to build something meaningful, and to do so in a multidimensional way. I have always felt that art was at the center of my work, no matter what form it takes—and maybe I'll always oscillate between designing wearable art and making large scale art pieces as the center of my work. I feel the most in touch with who I am as an individual and my creative voice when I'm making tapestry art pieces.

“Fashion has this transportive property—that’s why I knew I wanted to make something I could wear.”

Tell us a bit about how your studies in Art Therapy have influenced your creative process.

Mending, upcycling, and repurposing all have healing and redemptive properties. I'm grateful that I had the natural inclination to lean into the slower and more restorative processes when I started this project, and that likely comes from my graduate program studies. One of my professors taught about collaging, and what the subconscious can reveal in the process. I think about this a lot in my own work and the work of others—what led to the choices, and why? But other times, it’s just relaxing, gratifying work.

What role does sustainability play in your work and life?

Textile waste is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, and negatively affects black and brown countries before anywhere else. Years ago, I read about a thirty-foot mountain of textile waste rotting in beautiful Ghana, and I've thought about it often ever since.

I want to spread awareness about this as much as I can, because it's the consumption of fast fashion that perpetuates these disparities. There is a lack of big-picture thinking and understanding when it comes to buying clothing. I know my garments will not be accessible to everyone, but what is most important to me is that people are inspired to consider supporting their local designers and local thrift stores versus their local fast fashion shop.

How would you describe your personal style? What kinds of silhouettes do you gravitate towards?

I like to pair an African vintage football jersey with a tiered skirt and loafers. I love to play with the energy of masculine and feminine: I’ll wear a chunky sweater over a patchwork dress or a delicate blouse with overalls. Playfulness with lines—like a huge chunky sweater over my patchworked dress—or baggy painter pants with a cardigan and ballet flats.

Has becoming a mother influenced the way you approach your designs?

Motherhood has unlocked a connection to the softer side of my sensibilities. I know this sense of softness may have been there, but I really wasn’t giving it permission to be a defining main character. I feel softness is so important when moving through the world with my daughter. Not because she’s a girl; because she’s a human. Because the world is hard and tough and sees her as something before she even knows how to speak the beginnings of who she actually is. Softness gives her a constant landing pad and a safety that is literally a part of her, coming from the person that made her: the person that truly has no idea what could be more life-preserving than this armor of softness.

Motherhood has unlocked a connection to the softer side of my sensibilities.”

Sarah wears the Amaya Top with the Walker Pant

Sarah wears the Sebastiane Skirt with the Petra Cardigan (for a similar look, try the Anisa Cardigan) and one of her own hand-quilted jackets