Yolotli of napa makes handmade art and apparel from fabric

High on the back wall of the newly relocated Napa Bookmine book store is a textile design, the shape reminiscent of birds’ wings. The thick teal fabric is patterned in an intricate design. The piece was designed and fabricated by Napa business Yolotli.

“It’s 100% wool felt,” said textile designer Nicole Kelly, owner of Yolotli. “It’s made by tacking, smocking and folding the material. My designs, such as my embroidered samplers, had always been small, and I’d wanted to go large. Bookmine owner Naomi (Chamblin) had asked me about a 3-D design that would be sound dampening. I’d like to do more pieces like that.”

Perhaps known locally more for her minimalistic clothing line, Kelly said, “I can’t stop making things.”

The name Yolotli means “heart,” and comes from the Nahuatl, a native language of Mexico. Since her first visit to Mexico in 2003, she has felt a deep connection with the country itself and culture. Her work is even carried by the Carla Fernández Flagship Store in Mexico City, Mexico.

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Kelly grew up in the Black Forest region of Germany, playing with Waldorf dolls, a simple cloth doll with minimal facial features, made with only natural fiber such as wool, cotton or linen, from their stuffing to their hair.

“A large part of the German curriculum is crafting,” said Kelly. “My mom also handmade a lot of things. I sewed, knitted and crocheted. I was the only child in school who did knitting homework by myself. The others had their grandmothers or mothers help or do it for them. Mom had a closet full of linens. Textiles and traditional costumes, famous internationally, interested me.”

“I like everything about hand embroidery. I also do hand pull, a technique that dates to Medieval times, which is deconstructing fabric by drawing out thread in a pattern Once the fabric is prepped and counted, I can just sit and embroider for hours.”

“In Germany, it’s more ridged in what you should do. My sister was artistic and became a master wood crafter. She now does huge restorations in (European) churches. It was made clear to me that she was the artist in the family. I studied business management. When I came to America, I saw there was room here to reinvent yourself.”

Kelly has lived and worked on and off in Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala and the U.S. She settled in Napa after meeting her husband, Mikey, when they both worked for the Gordon Huether Studio in Napa.

Her first crafts show was the Renegade Craft Show in 2014 at Fort Mason.

“I sold my pieces and got excited. I started with hand-knit merino wool hats; one of my bestsellers still today. Then, fascinated by the pattern, I started making Japanese denim aprons for children.”

She also worked with a factory in San Francisco.

“At the end of their denim production, they would have a lot of leftover pieces. These were high-end jeans, and the factory had one to two years’ worth of fabric in their basement.”

“I got a business license. People fell in love with my designs. My adult aprons were used in SHED, an upscale restaurant in Healdsburg. For these, I sourced Japanese denim.”

Japanese denim is considered the best in the world due to its construction and the expert craft needed in the denim fabrication. The dyeing process, along with tight weaving, makes Japanese denim a refined art.

She branched out into simple, classic women’s wear, blouses, tops, totes and dresses, along with unisex chore coats. All have clean lines, and most are monochromatic colors, black, natural and white. Like the Waldorf dolls she had as a child, the fabrics are linen, cotton and wool.

“I only use natural materials in my work. The cotton I use is locally made by Sally Fox. Sally is very well known. She developed Foxfibre cotton, a naturally colored organic heirloom cotton, and has a company called Vreseis Ltd. Her colors are timeless and minimal in natural-based tones.”

All was going well in the large studio she shared with her husband, artist Mikey Kelly, until 2019.

“That’s when I had my daughter and at about the same time, COVID hit. It all fell apart. Stores closed, the factory had to dial down production and couldn’t keep its workers. Because of my daughter, I didn’t have time to create.”

With the characteristic determination that propelled her to start fresh in America and become an artist, she and her husband left their spacious studio and built two small studios in their backyard.

“My studio is 12’ by 10’ with only enough room for my sewing machine and a little table. I focus on slow, small batch production. My work is carried by Carter & Co. and Station Helena, both in St. Helena and Good Gray in Penngrove, along with the Carla Fernández store in Mexico City. I do pop-ups at the St. Helena Farmers’ Market and do a few craft shows a year.”

“I believe in minimal pieces that last and can be repaired. That’s added value. I try to sew without zippers and buttons, so that everything can decompose if it must. (As a result) most of my designs have ties or are wraps. We should do everything possible not to use plastic. I don’t want to leave a trace.”

“Natural materials should be on our bodies. There is so much toxicity in landfills, it’s not good for our bodies. The minimal pieces I make last and can be fixed and passed down. It can become a heritage piece that’s loved.”

To that end, she will repair certain clothes.

“I offer a mending service for favorite jeans or shirts. The method I use is called Sashiko, a Japanese way of mending. It’s a nice layer of stitching.”

Sashiko is a form of sustainable embroidery to strengthen fabric that’s been around since the 1600’s. It is an example of “mottainai,” the Japanese philosophy of not wasting anything.

What is her advice to anyone starting out?

“Trust your gut. I’m 50, and I took a long time to find the way. Creativity is so important. My work is everything that led up to this point to put the pieces together. Don’t be shy. Visualize and appreciate the effort to try it yourself. It takes a lifetime of learning, experiencing and experimenting.”

These two mini horses, Poppy and Rosie, got the zoomies after a vet visit. Watch them go!

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