Elyse is one of our favorite Michiganders — a true gem of a human. She carries positivity and creativity everywhere she goes and we were so excited to stock her retail location with some of our favorites, and also to witness how her life works as a maker. She and her husband are both using leather to make the world more functional and playful. We stopped by her workbench to see her in action and chat about the maker lifestyle.
Tell us a little bit about your story. How did you get where you are today?
I started my first business as a leatherworker, Littlewings Designs, as my senior capstone project for my BFA in Accessories Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I attended SCAD to pursue a fashion degree, but ended up going a bit more specific with my work as I got into school and discovered leather working.
After graduating, I worked at Anthropologie’s photo studios at their HQ in Philly, as a photo stylist. Essentially, that’s where I learned how to make pretty pictures to sell things on the internet. It was during my time in Philly that I put my leatherwork up on Etsy, and it took off from there. The following year I moved back home to Grand Rapids, and went full time with Littlewings Designs.
In the Spring of 2013, I got my first storefront and dubbed it “Parliament”, which was a play off my logo. (My logo is an owl, and a flock of owls is called a parliament.)
The storefront project definitely grew, morphed, and evolved into its own business, and has taken its own path. We rebranded last year to be called “Gemini Handmade”, which is much easier to spell, and is based on mine and my husband Jake’s birth sign. Gemini Handmade carries and sell our own goods from our lines, as well as the work of about 30 other local artists, including Conscious Clothing. It also serves as our studio and production facility for all our products from our respective leather brands. Gemini Handmade also produces gift, private label, and wholesale goods for other businesses, events, and entities; so essentially, a customer can walk into our shop, fall in love with a wallet or mug wrap, and order 12 of them for their wedding party, or 200 of them for corporate gifts for their marketing firm.
What does a typical day in the life look like?
No two days look alike! Sometimes, it’s all business_ I’m paying the artists, answering emails, updating the website, etc. Other days, I get to come in and really get into a work flow producing bags. Those days really are my favorite.
Where do you get your inspiration?
It really depends, but the majority of it comes from my own adventures/needs in life. There are also lots of ideas that come in from customers — requests for something specific or custom out of leather that turn out to be a sellable good idea, so I keep making them.
Tell us about your craft. What tools do you use? What is your process? How long does it take to complete a piece?
Leathercraft is an interesting craft in that it falls somewhere between sewing, woodworking, and jewelry making. So depending on what you’re making, it might involve sewing machines, awls or bevels or corner cutters, and even presses for punching leather pieces, punching out holes, and setting hardware. The time it takes to make a piece varies drastically, but there is a response from the artists’ world that I love for this question_ it’s taken my whole life. Everything I’ve learned over the years as an artist and makers has impacted how I create a piece of my work, what techniques go into making it the best it can be, and the time in between has all been practice logged into the "10,000 hours” they say it takes to become a Master of your craft.
Describe your space. How does it work for you? Are there any challenges?
I work out of my storefront, and have been doing so for the last almost 6 years. It works well for me because people love to have the chance to get a behind the scenes look at how their products and goods are created. It creates a relationship and experience that our fans love and come back for. The biggest challenge is being pulled in so many directions at once! Sometimes, I do miss working in solitude and not having constant disruptions to my work process.
What do you usually wear to work on your craft? What makes a garment function well for you? How do you interact with your clothes while working?
Leatherworking is hard on clothes! It involves a lot of glue, messy tools, leaning against work tables, and hefting around huge rolls of leather. For me, comfortable, breathable, and well-made garments are my go-to, like Conscious Clothing! I’m always wanting clothes that I can layer, as well as clothes with pockets for all my essentials_ work tools, cell phone, pencils, pens, all that good stuff!
How do you balance the behind the scenes part of your job with running your storefront?
The biggest thing that helps maintain the balance is carefully managing expectations from everyone involved with the business, whether it’s my husband, employees, or customers. Since it’s just Jake and I, along with some freelance help for our production, being open and transparent about our lead times is really critical. I also have to demand some “silent” hours, since I do most of the management of Gemini Handmade, so there’s times that I either stay at home to do the mental heavy lifting (like filing taxes and paperwork) or I hide out in the office and we pretend that I’m not even at the shop so that I can do things without interruption.
As you know, Conscious Clothing is all about being conscious about our consumption and how we interact with the earth. How do you incorporate eco-conscious or sustainable practices into your life?
For my line Littlewings Designs, I produce in very small batches or on a made-to-order basis, in order to minimize waste. I use each bit of scrap to make smaller and smaller things_ my earrings and small goods are all made from reclaimed leather scraps from producing bags and wallets. I also naturally dye the organic hemp muslin and canvas that I incorporate into the outers and linings of my bags.
For Gemini Handmade on the whole, we also create lots of goods from reclaimed scrap from regional footwear and furniture manufacturing. We have a lot of connections throughout the region with these types of manufacturing facilities, where they would otherwise throw away their scrap and swatch leather, and we turn it into everything from coasters to keychains for our store and our wholesale accounts.
You are a fellow West Michigander. Do you have any favorite places or things to do in Michigan?
Ooooh, that’s tough! One of my favorites places to go is Lake Michigan in the Saugatuck area. If I’m headed up North, then I love to camp in the Munising area near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. If you’re coming to Michigan in the summer, my overall recommendation is to get outside! There’s nothing like Michigan’s climate anywhere in the world, and you can experience everything from farm to beach to city to virgin forest, all within a few hours’ drive.
What are your favorite pieces in the Conscious Clothing collection?
My favorite pieces are the Riva Jumpsuit, the Surplus Jumpsuit, and the Brook Dress. I also have a couple of the hemp fleece styles of dresses that I love for winter wear — so cozy!
All images by the fabulous Leigh Ann Cobb