THE FABULOUS FIFTIES
Sheila Melhado Stewart, Textile Design ’56

Part of a 1984 collection of motorcycle designs for home furnishings.

Part of a 1984 collection of motorcycle designs for home furnishings.

Talk about a coincidence.
For the spring 2015 cover of Hue, to commemorate FIT’s 70th anniversary, we chose one yearbook photo per graduating class, to show at a glance how student style has changed since the college was founded in 1944. We unwittingly included renowned textile designer Sheila Stewart. Her husband, Lee Stewart, who has taught Textile/Surface Design at FIT since 1976, saw the photo and got in touch.

The Stewart's portrait was taken by Ton Looman in 1980 for the Dutch fashion newspaper Cover.

The Stewart’s portrait was taken by Ton Looman in 1980 for the Dutch fashion newspaper Cover.

The Stewarts designed textiles for decades in New York and Amsterdam. Sheila served as vice president of the FIT Alumni Association in the ’90s and won the Mortimer C. Ritter Award in 1985 and the Textile/Surface Design Department Award in 1993 for her accomplishments. Lee still teaches, and Sheila is now retired.
They found success through innovation. They made prints with cyanotype, Zip-A-Tone, airbrushes, photocopiers, and early computers, tools that architects and graphic designers, but not textile designers, were using. “They probably look primitive now,” Sheila says,“but we thought they were hot stuff, and our customers were amazed.”

Stewart’s yearbook photo.

Stewart’s yearbook photo.

Her memories of the Garment Center reveal just how much things have changed. “There were about 2,000 fabric converters [companies that dye and finish fabric] in the area. If you stood on the corner at lunchtime and told someone you weren’t happy with your job, somebody would overhear you and say, ‘Are you looking for a job? Call this person.’ You’d have a new job by the next day.”

A tropical-inspired pattern.

A tropical-inspired pattern.

Her first salary, at Marcus Brothers, a converter, was $40 a week. On Fridays, she would lunch with her former FIT classmates. “We’d check our portfolios in a subway locker—at that time there were lockers in the subway station on 40th and Seventh—and we’d meet at Horn & Hardart, or Schrafft’s, or Chock Full o’ Nuts and catch up about our jobs.”

 

Featured Photo: The Stewarts created this ribbon design for the swimwear division of Henry Glass, Inc., in 1984.