Artist finds purpose in every cloth scrap

Ventresco creates patchwork throws, coffee bean-sack rugs, potholders, throw pillows and other items from discarded material.

ELLSWORTH — Like a lot of makers just starting out, Julia Ventresco didn’t have the money for a professional sewing machine, which can run into the hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars.

She was making do with the inexpensive Singer machine she had, but her projects were getting to be a bit too much for it.

“That thing really was a workhorse and I put it through its paces,” said Ventresco, standing in her shop, onewomanstudio, in The Maine Grind Building on a recent pre-pandemic afternoon. “But I really needed to find something else with a little more power, a little more oomph.”

The $1,000 for a machine “that would really do it,” however, was beyond her reach at the time. One day, mulling over her options, “Something said ‘go to the transfer station,’” recalled Ventresco, who, at the time, had separate piles of metal and wood that she occasionally picked through looking for materials to repurpose.

“I drove up and just took a drive by and there was this machine, sitting on the edge of the metal pile. I kid you not, I swear there was like this beam of light coming through the clouds,” the artist said, resting a hand on the bright teal machine sitting on the edge of the counter, with the word “WHITE” stamped on the side.

“It was on the edge of the metal pile sitting there like it was waiting for me. I took it home and plugged it in and it’s run beautifully since that day on. I didn’t even have to fix it up. It gives me goosebumps right now.”

The provenance of Ventresco’s machine fits, as she noted, “perfectly with what I’m doing — reusing, recycling, repurposing. Not consuming, not buying new things.”

Ventresco, who was born just outside of Boston and raised in Deer Isle, learned to sew from her mother and learned her frugality from her grandparents, Depression-era, second-generation Italians who were meticulous about reusing whatever they could.

“I come from a long line of artists and makers and inventors and reusers,” she said. “My mother gave me a good head start. She always loved to sew. She was such a wonderful seamstress.”

Ventresco thought at first that she might become a painter and moved to Portland to pursue that avenue. But it wasn’t long before she found her way back to Deer Isle, where she attended a few sessions at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, working as a kitchen manager at the WoodenBoat School and at the Blue Hill Food Co-op to support herself.

It was there she found her niche.

“I was a bulk manager at the Co-op,” Ventresco explained, “and I’d been stockpiling the big bags the flour and grain come in, which are so cool, with their graphics. I had stacks of them at home and finally I said I’m going to do something with these or I’ll have to burn them or something.”

She transformed the burlap, lining it with colorful patterned duck cloth, reinforcing the bottom and sewing on heavy duty straps.

“That just blossomed from there,” said Ventresco.

Friends brought by birdseed and grain bags for her to transform, and for many years she did, selling at craft shows and on Etsy.

“I just always had an eye for looking at things in a different way,” she said. “Just developing that eye for seeing trash as something more than just trash. It really sparked something in me, where I find it to be so much more inspiring and creative to start with a material that you don’t know what you’re going to use it for and say ‘What can I make out of this?’ instead of starting at the other end.”

“I think it’s the limitation that helps me be creative,” Ventresco continued. “As counterintuitive as that seems.”

On the third anniversary of opening her own shop, Ventresco has long branched out from making tote bags to using just about any natural textile she can take apart and put back together again, from old T-shirts reworked into skirts to faux leather upcycled wallets.

“It’s fun and it’s just another way to showcase the graphics that a lot of T-shirts have,” said Ventresco, as a woman stopped by to drop off a bag of clothing to be remade.

“I have patterns, very basic, that I’ve made and remade,” she said. And she’s careful about the way she prepares an item for upcycling. Jeans, for instance, don’t just get cut: “I take them apart by the seams. It leaves that different gradient of colors.”

Ventresco also sells some “well-curated second-hand clothing,” often pieces she initially intends on remaking before deciding they’re too lovely as is.

“I always knew I wanted to be an artist or make my living making something,” said Ventresco, although she knows it likely won’t be the source of a large fortune anytime soon.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. You really have to be in it for mostly just the mere making of things because it’s satisfying to make things.”

Ventresco’s shop is located at 192 Main St. in The Maine Grind Building, but you also can find her work online at: or on Etsy:

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]

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