Judi Morales | Tahoe’s Steampunk Seamstress

Judi Sewing
Judi Sewing

“It’s not a fashion statement,” says steampunk fashion designer Judi Morales. “It’s for real.”

Steampunk combines historical elements with anachronistic technology inspired by science fiction to form a world where anything is possible. Think of a time when steam-powered contraptions were at their peak, rooflines were steep and sloped, and dresses were poufy and colorful. Then burn it all down.

Morales’ Truckee Roundhouse Workshops

July 12
2-6 p.m. | Machine Check-Out and Open Studio
5-8 p.m. | Playa Series, Make your Own Upcycled Utility Belt, $45
July 16
5-8 p.m. | Bedsheet Pajama Pants Sewing Workshop, $45
July 19
2-6 p.m. | Machine Check-Out and Open Studio
July 20
4-8 p.m. | Playa Series, MOOP Bag Workshop, free
July 23
5-8 p.m. | Learn to Sew, Zippered Pouch, $45
July 26
2-6 p.m. | Machine Check-Out and Open Studio
Aug. 2
2-6 p.m. | Machine Check-Out and Open Studio
Aug. 9
2-6 p.m. | Machine Check-Out and Open Studio

Beginners are welcome at all workshops.

Going back to the concepts of Leonardo Da Vinci and beyond, there are vast troves of dreamily sketched inventions that never became reality, perhaps, if only because they were surpassed by a more effective mode of technology to accomplish the same ends.

“It’s Wild West plus retro-futurism,” says Morales. “It’s the world the Victorians pictured before the age of electronics. It’s the future that never was.”

This fiery seamstress grew up in Solano County and first discovered steampunk at Burning Man just after the turn of the millennium. When a famous art car called Neverwashaul moved into a garage in her hometown of Vallejo, she had found her tribe.

“To me sewing is maybe the second, most important, post-apocalyptic skill after making fire people,” she says. “People should know how to sew. It puts the madness in perspective. Climate change will not be kind. We’re not going to have fabric stores. You’ll have use what you have. I’m preparing for the future.”

Morales, whose indigenous name is “Runs with Scissors,” serves as the textile lead at Truckee Roundhouse, a community makerspace, where she offers classes in sewing, tinkering and building top hats, utility belts and other useful items with which to survive the infamously wild festival on the remote Black Rock Desert of Northern Nevada — and life in general.

“It’s really rewarding because here’s the thing: sewing is intimidating,” she says. “People have a brand-new sewing machine that’s been in the box for three years. They’ve looked at YouTube. They want to take a sewing class, but it sounds hard and overwhelming.”

To mollify this reality, Morales models herself a self-described guerilla seamstress, meaning she does what she needs to do with whatever materials she has at hand.

“It’s no-tears sewing,” she says. “I share all of my tips and shortcuts. You can avoid pinning. I don’t use patterns. I make my own patterns or copy other things. It’s basically freeform construction. I remind people when they get all worried that my seams aren’t that good either. It’s all about having fun, breaking the rules, making it a little less serious and thinking outside the box.”

According to Morales, most of her clothing resources come from what she refers to as obtainium, an essential element: “These are things you can obtain that are not new that you don’t buy.”

Some of her most popular products include steampunk accessories made from upcycled clothing scraps such as urban bloomers and something she calls: “The utilibustle, a bustle crossed with a utility belt. It has built-in pockets, hooks, grommets and can connect to garters or stockings. The whole utility part comes directly from Burning Man. As a burner, you are on foot or on a bike all day. You have to bring your own supplies and not die. You can carry a backpack, but there are easier ways. It’s part of the steampunk mythology.”

Morales started out making clothes for herself and her friends to wear at Black Rock, figuring she could justify the high cost of the annual pilgrimage if she could pay for it by making costumes. She called her clothing line, “Cinder Garden,” a portmanteau of Cinderella and kindergarten, for which the tag line is: “It’s never too late for a happy childhood.”

“I’m having my second childhood and that started when I went to Burning Man,” she says .“I make play clothes for your inner child.”

Nowadays, Morales prefers to camp just outside of the festival every summer in the nearly ghost town of Gerlach, Nev., where she and friends volunteer for the nonprofit Friends of Black Rock. They work together to run a pop-up supply shop called Last Chance Outpost where she sells more than 10 different types of desert goggles along with her steampunk clothing and iced chai.

“I’m not a delicate flower like I was when I was young,” she says. “I had a lot to learn but Burning Man has really changed my perspective as far as my ethos of being self-reliant. It’s about pulling your own weight and then some and being a generous, creative and productive member of your community.” | cindergardensteampunk.com, truckeeroundhouse.org