Design & Style, Made In The Prairies

Made in the Prairies: Tony Chestnut

Jill Sawatzky vibrates with excitement when she talks about making clothes for people.

“Meeting people and making them clothes, it’s totally the ticket for me. I just love it.”

Jill is the petite, white blonde, pixie haired (she’ll have you know, she’s had this hair since before Miley Cyrus was born) woman behind Winnipeg’s Tony Chestnut. She describes Tony Chestnut’s aesthetic as marriage of artistic expression and utilitarianism.

“I’m not fashioney; I can’t tell you what trends are up and coming. If I can dress a girl in something beautiful that allows her to express herself in whatever her day brings, be it painting or hauling around a three year old, then I feel good.”

Jill creates her distinct and unique pieces using natural fabrics by hand dyeing and painting on cotton, wool and canvas. She says she imagines her Mennonite great-great-great grandparents using the same fabrics when they sewed out of necessity, something she draws inspiration from. Always drawn to a more androgynous, at times masculine look, Jill pictures her clothing paired with other, seemingly unusual pieces.

“I always think of my stuff being paired with something else. I love the look of a really skinny jean with an overly boxy, oversized top or something like that.”

Jill has always been creative, but didn’t grow up sewing. While going nowhere trying to get an English Lit degree, she decided to switch directions and look for a new path. She knew she wanted to do something creative, and she knew she wanted to move to go to school. After a little research, she came across the Fashion Design program at Blanche Macdonald Centre in Vancouver, and that was it.

“I uprooted my husband and we moved to Vancouver. It was a two year program, and I did it in 12 months. It was insane, but it showed me that I’m the kind of person that if I’m going to do something, I’m really going to do it”

It was during her last semester at school, where students had to create and market a line that Tony Chestnut came to be.

“I know it’s sort of an unusual name, but I wanted something to do partially with nature and androgyny.”

Since moving back to Winnipeg in 2006, Jill’s sold her pieces at the now defunct F&Q boutique, through her website, through word of mouth, and she regularly holds trunk sales which are beautiful collaborations between herself and her circle of talented, creative friends.

Working for herself has been challenging, but it has also allowed her the creative freedom she needs.

“I have the freedom to change, whether for my own desires, or for what someone wants, and that’s invaluable.”

It’s also confirmed that she’s on the right path.

“It completely confirmed to myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. If I didn’t want to do this I would have had no motivation to sew with a newborn in the next room.”

That newborn, Rollin, is now three, and being a mom has changed the way Jill looks at clothing.

“I really look at functionality now. You need pockets to jam your shit into!”

Working in Winnipeg has been challenging, but those challenges have forced Jill to really think about her lines.

“Winnipeg forces me to be creative with price point. In some cases, Winnipeg has a chip on its shoulder for spending money. I’ve had people tell me that I could take a rack of my stuff to Toronto and sell if for twice as much. I don’t mind it though, because it does give me parameters to work within, which isn’t always a bad thing.”

The lack of fabric choice is another obstacle that Jill deals with in her own way.

“We don’t have the best fabric selection, so I need to get creative. If I can’t find the colours I want, I paint them.”

For better or for worse, Jill wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I do what I do because I have the drive to be creative. Tony Chestnut created a good platform for me to be creative and to meet people, which is tops.”


Sara is in a committed relationship with Winnipeg. They fight, and sometimes need to take a break, but they always come back to each other. She doesn’t tweet, but she does have a blog: