Jessica Luca Stevens | Breathing new life into used sails

Jessica Luca Stevens with her handmade bags from used sailcloth. | Kayla Anderson

Hanging on a rack are sturdy, brightly colored beach bags made of 100 percent post-consumer reclaimed material. A tag on one of the bags reads tells you that the fabric came from sailcloth from Rubicon Bay and Tahoma and even Newfound Lake in New Hampshire.

As her husband and son are out standup paddleboarding, founder and owner Jessica Luca Stevens tells the story of how Mountain Water Canvas came about. It all started in 2003, when Stevens moved to the Tahoe Sierra from the East Coast to become a ski patroller. There was only one problem: She came in the beginning of summer.

Looking for a job to pass the time before the snow came, Stevens was hired by West Shore Canvas by then-owner Matt Clark to make custom boat covers. Clark taught her how to sew and she learned everything about the business. Stevens sewed boat covers in the summer and patrolled the slopes of Northstar California in the winter. She did that for a few years before moving back to New Hampshire and opening her own shop called Mountain Water Canvas, specializing in custom boat covers. During that time, she also started using the scraps to make her own bags on the side.

“Growing up on the ocean, water has always been a unifying theme in my work,” she says.

Stevens and her husband came back to the Truckee-Tahoe area to raise their son and she got a job at an architecture firm while also making large-scale wall art out of reclaimed sailcloth and canvas for some of the nicer homes in the area. However, when Stevens got laid off in May 2018, she started making more bags as she tried to figure out what to do next. But in a small place like Tahoe, the bags she made for friends started circulating and word spread quickly of the quality of the recycled, handstitched, functional art. Bespoke in Truckee started carrying Mountain Water Canvas bags and engagement on Instagram took off.

Stevens collects her sailcloth from marinas, yard sales and whenever she gets a head’s up when people are throwing them away.

“Finding the sails is like a treasure hunt,” she says.

She will also trade custom-made bags for the sails she uses to make her bags. People tend to get attached to their sails because of the memories of their good times on the water. Stevens gives the sails a new life. She says that there is so much sailcloth being thrown away that she hasn’t had a problem sourcing it so far. Right now, she’s just trying to keep as much as she can of it out of the landfill.

“There’s an entire coastline that runs the entire length of the country, hundreds of bays in the area,” Stevens says about the amount of sailcloth possibly out there.

Along with the support of Tahoe Canvas Co. and West Shore Canvas, Stevens is able to dedicate more time to making the bags. It has, in fact, become her full-time job.

Stevens adds a unique and modern twist to her collections and designs, using 100 percent post-consumer and post-manufactured sailcloth and marine canvas. She enjoys playing with color and appreciates the stitching done by former artists who stitched the original sails by hand.

“I like pulling it together and showcasing other craftsmanship and sail makers. The history is sewn in — at least three different sewing machines were used to make this piece,” Stevens says, running her fingers over a seam. “You don’t have to be a sailor to appreciate it. It’s funny how one summer of making bags can turn into my trade. I’m just so grateful to be welcomed back into the community. When we were thinking about where to raise our son, there was no question that it would be in Tahoe.”

She’s excited to be able to pursue Mountain Water Canvas full-time in an area with talented craftspeople in an emerging maker culture with consumers who appreciate and support her work.

“[My business] has had great reception,” Stevens says. “I love meeting people who care about what they buy and I think that consumers are looking for something authentic and connected to the place.”

Mountain Water Canvas bags are sold at Bespoke Stuff & Things in Truckee, Waterman’s Landing in Carnelian Bay, and online starting in November. | mountainwatercanvas.com