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6 Etsy Designers Share Why Vintage Denim Is Their Canvas for Creativity

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Denim is a source of inspiration for artisans and designers, and they’re using Etsy to turn their creative expressions into businesses.

Saving vintage denim from landfills and using deadstock fabric, independent designers are creating pieces—many of which are custom orders—and selling them on the platform. These designers’ slow, handmade production and mindful sourcing practices virtually eliminate inventory and waste—and prove that you don’t have to be a conglomerate to make real sustainable change in the denim industry.

Rivet talked to independent designers on Etsy to learn about their sustainable and creative processes and how the marketplace has given them a platform to sell their goods.

Denim Designs by Lisa

Though she focuses on denim now, designer Lisa Priestap was first inspired by an old sail that a friend was discarding. She used the material to make tote bags, sold them at a local maritime shop and decided to continue the process with denim—a material she considers a favorite for its “soft durability.” Since then, she’s filled her Etsy shop with everything from beach bags and aprons, to pillows and more. Priestap walked us through how she’s been able to more easily source used denim as her store grows.

Rivet: What is your background in fashion?
Lisa Priestap: My grandparents were tailors and seamstresses by trade, and they owned their own shop in Erie, Pa., where I reside. My mother and grandmother sewed a lot of my clothes growing up and I inherited their interest in fashion. I’ve sewn homemade gifts for friends and family ever since.

Rivet: How do you source the unwanted or old denim?
LP: Now that I have been in business for four years, most of my friends and family provide me with their worn denim. I spend nearly every Saturday morning from late spring to early fall scouring local garage sales and Salvation Army. Also, through my exposure at craft shows and other events, I have had many customers offer me bags full of denim they don’t know what to do with.

Six independent designers explain how they source, manufacture and sell upcycled denim, and how Etsy has helped grow their business.

Denim Designs by Lisa

Rivet: What is your design process?
LP: My design process has evolved quite a bit since my beginning and I am sure it will continue to change every year. I began making basic tote bags that were similar to the ones I had previously made from sail cloth. I searched Etsy stores and other web sites to see what colors and styles were trending, and I added other items such as smaller purses and cross-body bags at the suggestions of customers. Because I only work with recycled denim, I usually see what I have in stock and then design from there. For example, after making purses and pillows, there are often small scraps left behind which I’ll piece together to make quilts—and those have been some of my bestsellers to date.

Rivet: How has Etsy given you a platform to sell your goods?
LP: Etsy is one of my favorite platforms, as they make it easy to list and manage my items, and they offer great help when I have questions. I opened my shop in 2015, and the first few years were devoted to adding new products and taking note of what sells and what doesn’t. This past year, I have seen significant growth not only in visitors to my shop, but in sales as well. I have only begun to promote my shop through social media and I plan to increase that exposure this coming year.


Bohémienne Ivy

Jennifer Walker, also known as Ivy, creates a line of embellished denim aptly named “Renaissance Denim Couture” for her Etsy store, Bohémienne Ivy. Featuring upcycled vintage denim and tulle, lace, flowers and sequins, the collection merges gypsy and Americana styles. She turned her passion into a creative project in 2010 and has honed her craft over the past decade.

Rivet: What’s your background in fashion?
Jennifer Walker: My background in fashion began in my early twenties. I couldn’t find clothing that fit me—I’m tall and thin—so I made my own. I also made a lot of clothing for my two young daughters at that time.

Rivet: How do you source the unwanted or old denim?
JW: Most of the denim I use is sourced from eBay, Etsy or in vintage thrift shops. My favorite material to use is vintage denim—specifically Levi’s 501 high-waisted button-fly jeans and acid-washed denim from the ’80s.

Six independent designers explain how they source, manufacture and sell upcycled denim, and how Etsy has helped grow their business.

Bohémienne Ivy

Rivet: What is your design process?
JW: My design process comes from my inner creative spirit. I usually start by taking a pair of jeans and holding up many different types of accent materials—ruffles, lace, velvet, chiffon—until I decide what is best to pair with that particular denim, and then creating from there. Other times, I’ll get custom orders, so I’ll turn it around on the customer and ask them what type of waist and wash they prefer.

Rivet: How has Etsy given you a platform to sell your goods?
JW: Etsy is the perfect platform for artists like me. My business has significantly grown since I opened my shop in 2010.


Sisu Denim Store

Longtime denim fanatic Paulina Kozłowska has been drawn to the material for as long as she can remember. After customizing her own vintage denim and receiving compliments on her pieces, she decided to create her own collection of similar upcycled denim in 2017. She first designed vests and jackets from secondhand high-quality Levi’s and Wrangler and eventually added in high-waisted denim shorts, which she heavily embellishes with spikes, studs and other accents.

Rivet: What’s your background in fashion?
Paulina Kozłowska: I wish I went to fashion school, but unfortunately, I don’t have that background. I am a self-taught designer who learned everything from online tutorials and articles and my own trial and error. Of course, it’s never too late to learn, and there is a possibility I will take more professional courses in fashion, but for now I’m learning new things at my own pace.

Rivet: How do you source the unwanted or old denim?
PK: Most of my pieces are vintage, because I find them most durable. Vintage denim is made with such higher quality than the products of contemporary fashion. I have several suppliers of retro clothing, as I also run my own vintage store, Sisu Vintage. I also frequently visit thrift shops, local secondhand stores and vintage clothing collectors. I’m often amazed what denim treasures I can find while searching private collections.

Six independent designers explain how they source, manufacture and sell upcycled denim, and how Etsy has helped grow their business.

Sisu Denim Store

Rivet: What is your design process?
PK: Sometimes my pieces are just freehand creations. I grab a piece of clothing and I let myself customize it the way I feel in that moment—I’ll make rips or holes, cut off some parts or attach fringe, ribbon and studs. Other times, I’ll sit and draw designs that cross my mind. I list all of my ideas in a notebook and then mix details and supplies and merge different craft methods. This brainstorm helps me a lot.

In the beginning, I used only my hands and scissors to make clothing. Then I invested in sewing and embroidery machines, and that was game-changing as it helped me to see and think broadly. It allowed me to learn new things, develop my craftsmanship skills and do so in a more sustainable way. If I cut off legs from jeans to make shorts, I turn those pieces into a denim backpack or jacket.

Rivet: How has Etsy given you a platform to sell your goods?
PK: I set up my Etsy store in April 2017 with several dozen items and a small budget. I was prepared to struggle to find those first orders. But frankly, in just a matter of two months, I earned enough to live off of. That fast success inspired me to open my vintage store and put my heart into every project and order ever since.


Crooked Seamz

Many denim heads talk about denim as being a material closely tied to emotions—and Shiloh Stone of CrookedSeamz knows this all too well. After recreating a denim quilt she would curl up with as a child, she decided to turn this interest into a business. She uses customers’ old jeans to design new pieces—typically quilts and pillow covers—and loves having the opportunity to “create something deeply personal” for her customers.

Rivet: What’s your background in fashion?
Shiloh Stone: My mother taught me to sew when I was about 12, and I’ve been creating patterns and designs ever since.

Rivet: How do you source the unwanted or old denim?
SS: Many of the pieces that I make are custom quilts created from jeans sent from the client—jeans they’ve saved from childhood, or a specific job, or a loved one. I also have friends and family pass me jeans they’re ready to part ways with. Near us, we have something like a thrift store outlet, where you can purchase items by the pound, so I’ll also go there when I want to buy in bulk. They may have holes, broken zippers or missing belt loops, and I am able to save that denim from the landfill and revitalize it into something heartwarming.

Six independent designers explain how they source, manufacture and sell upcycled denim, and how Etsy has helped grow their business.

Crooked Seamz

Rivet: What is your design process?
SS: I find the color variation in all the blues of denim to be one of the most compelling design factors. As I consider designs, I evaluate the shades I’ll need, and if the pattern will really work well in a monochrome situation.

My second consideration is how the denim adapts to the piecing of the pattern. Denim creates a warm, heavy quilt. However, if your quilt pattern is too small and intricate, that weight quickly becomes oppressive. Along those lines, many quilt patterns are designed for light cotton fabric, and it can be a challenge to adapt the same piece work for the stiffness of denim.

Rivet: How has Etsy given you a platform to sell your goods?
SS: I started my shop in 2012 with a single patchwork style pattern. Since then, I have tried new patterns, backing styles and fabrics, and finishing methods. My business has grown steadily, and I have been able to upgrade my equipment and machines. As I’ve become more efficient in my process, I’ve had some freedom to focus on the creative process of new designs. Etsy has been very helpful because they attract a large amount of traffic that I would struggle to generate on my own. I have also developed some wonderful relationships with other artisans through the platform.


KinsuAtelier

Ariane Brunet-Juteau’s fashion creations were the result of a spiritual experience that opened her eyes to the environmental impact of the industry. The KinsuAtelier founder went on to study fashion and create unique pieces using upcycled denim—and now she’s teaching others how to do the same.

Rivet: What’s your background in fashion?
Ariane Brunet-Juteau: Traveling to Beijing, a city with extreme environmental challenges, opened my eyes to the importance of circular fashion design. Fashion designers need to start designing with the product’s end of life in mind. That inspired me to start my shop and create new ways to wear old jeans.

Rivet: How do you source the unwanted or old denim?
ABJ: I can rarely go anywhere without coming back with a few pairs of jeans. People will often just give them to me after learning that I upcycle old denim. There is a very interesting loop that I create with my customers where they bring me my “raw material.” If I am looking for something more specific, I source denim from local clothes sorting centers, where I can buy jeans by the pound. I also sometimes pull from deadstock fabric.

Six independent designers explain how they source, manufacture and sell upcycled denim, and how Etsy has helped grow their business.

KinsuAtelier

Rivet: What is your design process?
ABJ: It always starts with figuring out what I have available, and which denim pieces would be the best fit for my pattern. Sorting is a major part of the upcycling process, and it takes time. Having the secondhand jeans, scraps, pockets, belt loops and hems well sorted out makes everything much easier. As for cutting, while most of the industry cuts fabric right side in, I cut right side out so I can see all of the details such as the whiskers, holes and fade.

Recently, I’ve focused on commercializing some of my patterns and creating tutorials for customers. I’ve also started leading workshops in schools to promote upcycling in the hopes that by sharing knowledge, I can inspire social and environmental change.

Rivet: How has Etsy given you a platform to sell your goods?
ABJ: Etsy is an amazing marketplace for sourcing, and there are so many talented makers on the platform. It’s a great community.


PieceByPeaceCanadian

Vanessa Jeffs and Stephanie Simpson wanted to ensure their Etsy shop, PieceByPeaceCanadian, was founded on ethos: Not only are all pieces created from upcycled items, but they’re sourced from thrift stores that give proceeds back to the community. Their standout items include a patchwork denim poncho and a reclaimed mid-length denim skirt.

Rivet: What’s your background in fashion?
Vanessa Jeffs and Stephanie Simpson: None, really—just a love for shopping and unique styles.

Rivet: How do you source the unwanted or old denim?
VJ and SS: We buy from thrift stores—primarily community-run stores that are run by volunteers where all money goes back to helping those in need in the community.

Six independent designers explain how they source, manufacture and sell upcycled denim, and how Etsy has helped grow their business.

PieceByPeaceCanadian

Rivet: What is your design process?
VJ and SS: It’s really quite simple: We shop, thoroughly wash all of the items and sort them by size, color and style. When we know which item we want to make, we grab several pairs of jeans, lay them out and decide which colors, fade patterns and fraying will achieve the look we want. Then, we cut and sew. And before we can call the piece complete, we wash it yet again and then tumble dry to ensure the edges fray to give to give it a nice broken-in effect.

Rivet: How has Etsy given you a platform to sell your goods?
VJ and SS: Etsy has opened the door to a whole new experience for us. Millions of customers worldwide can view and purchase our pieces, and Etsy handles the currency exchange and the payment method. They provide us, their retailers, a discount on shipping as well. They make the transaction so seamless and effortless.

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