Chelsey Arno expresses herself as “a self-taught seamstress.” She’s always been interested in fashion, but for clothing that is cute and functional with Alaska features. This led to the start of her local material craft business, Skinny Owlz, about five years ago.
Arno works with wool she collects and felts with time available into smaller sizes as she can.
“Originally, I made skirts for myself and people started asking where I got them or if I sold them when they saw me wearing one,” she said. “Eventually, I started thinking maybe I could sell them.”
Now, Arno markets her skirts in Homer and other places on the Kenai Peninsula as feasible — at Ptarmigan Arts, a local artist cooperative, and at craft fairs such as the Nutcracker Fair, the Seward Music Festival, the Girdwood Forest Fair, the Alaska Women’s Show and SalmonFest in Ninilchik. She is also looking to expand.
“I am getting a box ready to ship to a small shop in Indiana, of all places,” she said. “I hope by next year to be on Etsy, an online marketplace. I think that will be a good way to branch out more.”
Her skirts are made of recycled sweaters that Arno finds — “hordes, really,” she said — from thrift stores in Homer.
“I am basically a hunter of wool,” she said, laughing. “I do use other material, because I’ve learned since I started this that some people are allergic to wool and are more interested in other fabric.”
Looking through the full rack of skirts at Ptarmigan Arts, Arno points out a few specific techniques of her process. On this particular rack, the skirts with the multi-layers seem to be popular — they’re the ones that are mostly gone.
“Sometimes I try to layer patterns or phrases,” she said. “I take a resemblance in one piece of fabric, like an image of the sun, and then put a whale on top of it — that’s what I mean by layering.”
The simplest styles are what some people want — plainer colors, no imagery at all. Arno’s production process is noteworthy because skirts are not made one at a time; it’s a routine of material assemblage by matching color schemes together.
“I never know at the start what the size will be, if I start with a large sweater, I shrink and felt the material in heavy duty hot water,” she said. “Then, I have another collection of designs. I like flowers — and pair them with the skirt and thread shades. I do like semi-quirky combinations; it’s fun.”
Skirts function as a conversation starter. There are many different themes available: general maritime motifs, fish, boats, jelly fish, mermaids to butterflies, birds, flowers — anything, really. Sometimes Arno says she will just find a T-shirt with a particular design on it — a cartoon character, for example — and attach that as the primary decoration for the skirt.
“You never know who is going to like what particular color combination or what embellishment will appeal, so I mix all the arrangements up,” she said.
Arno recalls a skirt with an old-style sunbonnet that she thought no one would ever want.
“One woman came across it and she was over the moon,” Arno said. “She told me she would take the skirt to travel all over Europe; I was so glad she found it.”
People sometimes ask Arno to make something from a sweater that belonged to a deceased loved one.
“One of my favorite projects is when somebody sends me the sweater of someone who has passed, and they don’t necessarily like the fit of the sweater itself,” she said. “I once had a customer give me a family sweater; I added the pattern of birch trees and included the person’s initials. I like that because the customer can keep an article of clothing as a memory of a friend or relative, but also keep it functional.”
Often, when customers order, she will make more than one style and let the customer choose the product he or she prefers.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get the sweater to fit the body type, so I offer more than one option,” she said. “You never know how the finished product will turn out. It depends on how the fabric felts and other factors. It’s like a snowflake: each piece is totally different. I make options casually and it always works out. The customer ends up with a pick that works for them.”
In other occasions, the skirt is something exceptionally individualized.
“I’ve had people ask me to include business logos. In that case, we communicate until we come up with what the customer wants specifically by sending images of unfinished options.”
Arno explains a couple of her favorite things about making these skirts. One is the darkness here in the winter and how she loves seeing bright, cheery colors.
“I always notice people wearing them — and it’s not that I am excited about seeing my product — it just makes me feel happy to see the work as a mood lifter,” said Arno. “I am inspired to light up the winter and give people a chance to feel good about a piece of clothing. Each body wears it differently.”
Two, she enjoys all the opportunities for positive feedback from family members such as grandmothers who are so pleased with what they’ve been able to find.
“Sometimes for the small children, it seems like these skirts are like the little blanket favorites that we attach to as kids,” she said. “Each girl has their own special skirt. One mom told me she often has to sneak her daughter’s skirt away to wash it. I think that’s pretty neat.”
Though she expresses it informally, the whole process seems to provide Arno with satisfaction in working with mixed and recycled shades of color and fabric. It sincerely sounds like a meaningful activity that motivates Chelsey Arno year-round and gives her something to share with the community.
Browse the rack at Ptarmigan Arts or look at her work on-line at https://www.facebook.com/SkinnyOwlz/.