Stuff We Like: Handmade in the USA

Here is a great article we found in Textile View Magazine, June 2007. Below is an excerpt…link at the bottom to check out the entire article (PDF). “Our DIY revolution is a continuation of what the counterculture started in the 60s and 70s, embracing the resources at hand and making things that are more heartfelt and precious.” – Sam Trout, artist

Excerpt from Handmade in the USA:

Industrial Revolution In 1968 the Whole Earth Catalog was published out of San Francisco, California, and launched a do-it-yourself revolution. Encouraging an alternative to big business through an awareness of ecology and access to simple tools, the hefty catalog inspired a counterculture movement to take responsibility for the planet and empower individual creativity. And despite the go-go-go pace of 21st-century Americans, a revival of the book’s manifesto is afoot, with a renewed interest in slow-down activities such as yoga, meditation, hiking, and bicycling, and what was once known as “women’s work”: knitting, needlepoint, felting, and other crafts. On the West Coast, a dichotomy between high- and low-tech lifestyles is evident: A computer programmer spends ten hours coding numbers and then races home to meet her weekly knitting group. A hedge-fund manager juggles billions of dollars a day and bikes home to cook an organic, vegetarian meal. An appreciation for process and the artistry behind everyday products, combined with growing ethical, socially conscious, and ecological concerns, has consumers asking everything from who is making my T-shirt to where did the beef in this cheeseburger come from?

“People in this town go out of their way to frequent the mom and pop coffee shop and support the struggling farmer and artist,” says Portland, Oregon, fashion designer Holly Stalder, whose boutique, Seaplane, exclusively sells handmade clothing from independent designers. “They don’t always understand the work that goes into each piece, but they like the individuality and local factor.”

Craft artists, such as potter Kristin Nelson, owner of Kri Kri Studio in Seattle, Washington, are finding success while balancing a busy working life with a rich personal one. Her handmade ceramic dinnerware and vases are in demand at Barneys New York in Japan, and celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Whoopie Goldberg have scooped up her work in Los Angeles. “I’ve worked hard to have a business that allows me to express myself and still spend time kayaking with my husband,” Nelson says.

The Internet has made the world more accessible and, some might argue, more impersonal, but the social effects are surprising. Rather than causing consumers to stay indoors and purchase a glut of less-expensive factory-made jeans and sweatshirts online, the resources on the Internet have inspired many people to look closer to home to find, for instance, organic, bamboo-fiber jeans made not only in the U.S.A., but in their own neighborhood, like the ones Carol Young produces in the Los Feliz area of east Los Angeles for her label, Undesigned.

“My customers want to have a connection to the designer,” says Young, whose line of women’s wear is made from eco-friendly and recycled cottons, bamboo, and soy fibers. She describes her customers as “extremely loyal,” partly due to her earth-friendly materials and green production methods. Like a growing number of West Coast designers, particularly in Los Angeles, Young outsources nothing overseas, producing everything locally.

“The fact that my customers know where everything is coming from is an added bonus for them,” she says.

Handbag designer Kim White struck gold when she uncovered a stash of vintage car upholstery in an old warehouse outside of Los Angeles in 2003. She modified her nascent handbag line to showcase the textiles and became an instant success, with flattering coverage in fashion magazines and orders from boutiques around the world. Her most popular bag retails for around $200, but White doesn’t save money by outsourcing labor overseas. Intead, she contracts work to artisans in the Los Angeles area. It’s a network that grew from family to family, starting with the first woman she hired to sew her debut line of bags, and includes a husband and wife metalworking team, a couple that exclusively does all her studding, and a number of seamstresses. “I still use only about six different contacts,” White says, “and we have genuine relationships. We are all very close and friendly.” White personally drops off materials to each contract employee, discussing design options and solutions, and shuttles her bags to and fro. “I’m a one-man show,” she says, “and a hippie at heart. I don’t advertise and I don’t give free bags to celebrities. I want everything to grow organically.” She admits the cost of producing her purses locally is more expensive, but says the payoff is an increase in quality and control.

Also in Los Angeles, Christina Kim’s 25-year-old clothing line, Dosa, emphasizes process over product with beautiful results: organic, handmade pieces that are elegant and relaxed. Her 40 employees work in a serene loft-like downtown environment, with lots of natural light, a big kitchen for cooking lunches from scratch, and walls of inspiring imagery from the designer’s travels around the world. Fifty percent of her mostly handmade line is produced in Los Angeles while the other half utilizes the skills of overseas craftspeople. “It isn’t just about paying low wages and having low prices,’” Kim says of outsourcing. “It’s about utilizing amazing skills and allowing for a larger employment base.” Dosa clothing is expensive, but not outrageously so, defying the idea that eco-friendly equals pricey—or ugly.

Locally made clothing isn’t attainable only in higher-end markets, though. An anti-sweatshop movement, led by the efforts of Dov Charney, the founder of fashion retailer American Apparel in Los Angeles, is slowly bringing affordable, locally produced clothing to middle-income consumers. American Apparel’s “industrial revolution” manifesto—a vertically integrated business plan that consolidates all stages of production into its downtown factory, from cutting fabric to advertising, and offers a generous salary and benefits package to all its employees—resonates with young independent designers operating on a much smaller scale. A new wave of self-employed artists and designers—often boasting a punk-rock, DIY aesthetic—are crafting clothing, housewares, artwork, and accessories by hand with sustainable materials and eschewing overseas outsourcing.

“The 90s was the rise of the independent music label. I think now we’re seeing the rise of the independent fashion label,” says Sam Trout, a Seattle-based graphic designer with an eponymous clothing line. “It’s hippie, it’s punk, it’s taking apart the system and empowering artists to work outside the corporate model.” Trout, a fixture in Seattle’s hipster scene, made his mark promoting the wildly successful I Heart Rummage, a six-year-old monthly afternoon craft fair that hawks cutting-edge pop-art and handmade clothing in a downtown rock club. As an antidote to the macramé owls and tie-dye leggings seen at traditional craft fairs, the event has spawned dozens of like-minded bazaars across the country, where pierced and tattooed twenty- somethings in designer jeans and ironic vintage T-shirts push chic handbags crafted from warped record albums, retro-fitted hoodies and palm-sized oil paintings. An online version, Etsy.com, launched in 2005, and today features more than 45,000 vendors peddling mostly handmade clothing and tchotkes. “Our DIY revolution is a continuation of what the counterculture started in the 60s and 70s,” Trout says. “We’re embracing the resources at hand and making things that are more heartfelt and precious.”

To that end, the personalized service—as well as personalized style—consumers get from buying directly from artists becomes a mark of luxury. READ MORE (download article PDF)…