Meet your merchant: Lost art of hand-sewing custom lampshades alive and well in Nevada City |

Meet your merchant: Lost art of hand-sewing custom lampshades alive and well in Nevada City

As a child growing up in Michigan, Mahna Freeborn loved to watch her grandmother sew.

The handmade creations that emerged from her sewing room were always made with a splash of color and close attention was paid to even the smallest of details. This was where Freeborn says her love for textiles was born.

While she went on to pursue a career in special education, in the late 1970s she was forced to take an extended leave from her Santa Barbara school due to an injury. To pass the time, she revisited some of the creative passions she had cultivated as a child.

"I got involved in spinning and dyeing wool for weaving," she said. "I bought a loom and began weaving rugs and fabrics for pillows. I became completely immersed in the world of textiles and fascinated by the rich heritage of the industry."

This marked a new direction for Freeborn's life, and she decided to pursue a master's degree in fiber arts. She and her husband Bob moved to the Bay Area so Freeborn could attend the California College of the Arts in Oakland. Once there, she landed a job at an antique store, where she worked restoring rugs and lampshades. She loved the work and realized she'd found a niche.

"I became intrigued with the idea of becoming a custom lampshade maker — I wanted to start a cottage industry," she said. "I saw that it would allow me to indulge my passions in a direct and marketable way."

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Needless to say, Freeborn never returned to school, but she was embarking on a career that has since taken her far. Once she and Bob were back in Santa Barbara, Freeborn opened her first custom lampshade shop and has never looked back. Her exquisite taste and masterful craftsmanship caught the attention of designers, and soon her lamps could be found in the homes of celebrities the likes of Michael Douglas and Carol Burnett. Her work was featured in Oprah Winfrey's "O" magazine and her custom work was sought after for prestigious projects at The Getty Center in Los Angeles, Hearst Castle and The Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Finally, after running a successful "atelier" in Montecito for more than 15 years, Freeborn and her husband were ready to "slow life down," and the couple moved to Nevada County in 2016. In July of 2017, they opened a small shop, Belle Lumière, in the heart of downtown Nevada City.

Roughly 80 percent of Freeborn's business is comprised of custom shade orders, from both in and out of the area.

"What I do is specialized," she said. "When it comes to lampshades, few people are still doing the actual sewing. It's a niche. Most have gone off shore to China. It's a little more prevalent in Europe and on the East Coast."

Located on South Pine Street, Freeborn said she "did her best" to replicate an atelier one might find in Venice or Paris, complete with the full line of the famed, hand-painted fabric by Fortuny, an Italian family-owned company that dates back generations.

"People who love fabrics and color and home décor have often said that they feel like a kid in a candy store when they step into our shop," said Freeborn.

There are oodles of sample books, private label silks and linens, as well as designer trims and fabrics, with hundreds of samples on site. Other well-known lines include Brunschwig & Fils, Jim Thompson Silk, Manuel Canovas, Colfax & Fowler, Schumacher, Pierre Frey, Osborne & Little, Quadrille, Scalamandré, Perennials, Kravat, Soane Britain, Romo, Raoul Textiles, Lee Jofa, Décor de Paris and Samuel & Sons.

Most fabrics and trims are special ordered for custom lampshades, pillows, footstools or other projects. A sampling of Freeborn's treasured items include her stash of vintage 1920s trim discovered at a Paris flea market, Simon Pearce hand blown glass lamp bases, vintage gem earrings and a lampshade from the set of the 1942 Hollywood classic, "Casablanca." She's also recently started a new line of Indian block print lampshades.

"There are very few people in the U.S. doing custom lampshades created in the traditional manner anymore, which is our specialty," she said. "Ours are completely hand-sewn, with true silk linings and meticulous attention to detail."

While Freeborn is known for her high end work in the designer world, an increasing number of locals are now coming to realize that there is a unique and truly talented artist in their midst.

"People are slowly finding me — it's mainly word of mouth," said Freeborn. "I'm incredibly grateful. Customers tend to come back. One recently came to me for her ninth lampshade. Light is the finishing touch in any space. You can do everything right in a room, but if the lighting isn't right, it's all for naught."

Throughout the month of November, Belle Lumière will be having a sale in celebration of 40 years in business.

"The most rewarding part of this business has been connecting with people," said Freeborn. "There is real joy in being able to contribute to the beauty of someone's home."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

Belle Lumière

Custom home accessories

115 Pine St. Suite C, Nevada City

530-470-6177” target=”_blank”>Text”>

Hours: Noon to 5 p.m., Thurs. through Sat. and by appointment.

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