Ulla Johnson: My mother and I are very close. She was an archaeologist and a painter but also a textile junkie. Around the time I was pregnant with my third child — my daughter, Agnes, who is now 10 — my mother moved out of the 900-square-foot Manhattan apartment where I’d grown up. As I helped clear out the collections of textiles and embroideries she’d accumulated over a lifetime, my path became clear: I’d always been meant to produce handmade things. When Agnes was two months old, I traveled with her to Peru to learn about knitting and weaving. We went to a small town north of Cuzco where I ended up working with a community of women, many of whom also had their babies with them. We held each other’s children, and they showed me the things they were doing.
I’ve always used my designs to see myself more truly, and I feel that Raven does that with the written word. In her novel [2020’s “Luster”], she talks about the messiness of being human, the desire to be seen and to see yourself. The story is about unlikely allegiances between women, and that informs my work, too. I was 24 years old when I started this business. At the time, fast fashion was exploding; instead, I chose to work in the language of handicraft, which is incredibly slow and adheres to no schedules. All these things that were counterintuitive ended up really helping me find my voice.
Raven Leilani: My mom was a seamstress. She made much of what I wore as a girl, so a lot of my first experiences with artistry were through clothes. I know that when Ulla makes her pieces, there’s a profound level of care in her craft. And that’s what it’s always about for me: being rigorous with the words I choose.
So much of creating things is not knowing. So much of writing feels like you’re being catapulted forward and you’re like, “God, I hope this works.” One way I get through doubt is knowing that there’s something new on the other side of it.
I’ve been teaching for a couple of years now, and I always feel fed when I’m in a room with other artists, especially those who are receptive to the ebb and flow of that artistic monster. I try to do for them what my teachers did for me, which is to see what they’re attempting — and to help them make that one thing on their terms.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.