Part of the joy of buying handmade products is that they inevitably reverberate with the story of their makers. In the case of Jeanbag – a collection of products sewn from recycled denim clothing – we are all privy to the journey of Brisbane creative, KT Doyle. Following study in ceramics and tapestry, and later experience as a surface designer, KT now lovingly sews denim beanbags, aprons and cushion covers on her family’s Singer sewing machine.
The process smacks with sentimentality: KT’s decades of creative exploration have led her right back to the machine her mother used to sew and mend her childhood clothing. “That’s a nice story actually,” KT begins, “it’s my Mum’s original sewing machine. It was given to her for her fourteenth birthday by her parents and she loved it. Every few months she pulled it out and made some things on it, and then it would go back into the cupboard. One day she went to use it and it wasn’t there; her Mum had hocked it at the local pawn shop. Her Dad went to see if it was still there, and luckily it was, so he bought it back.”
The Singer continued to be used to sew her family’s clothing and ballet costumes. KT hails from a practical family, where broken items are joyfully repaired rather than discarded. That meant that her family turned their hand to making many things – including car engines, tools, landscaped gardens and veggie gardens – always enjoying the process. Things seem to have come full circle, as KT now continues to use the family machine to sew all of Jeanbag’s prototypes and products.
This same utilitarian approach was encouraged during KT’s initial training in ceramics. A couple of old potters who focused on form, function and usefulness have stayed in her memory. These concepts simmered while KT completed a Masters of Tapestry, before finally making the crossover to design almost eight years ago.
Commissions for both private design work and public art projects followed, including a series of embroidered textiles, letterpress and digital prints inspired by the botanist, Walter Hill. He was the first curator of the Brisbane’s City Botanic Gardens and introduced species like Jacaranda and Bromeliads to the region. Other designs – like the Falling Leaves pattern that adorned her inaugural collection of commercial textiles and wallpaper – are also inspired by her love of nature.
While juggling these projects, KT started to think about how she could continue her arts practice with less environmental impact. She learned of the 2013 Brisbane City Council Recycled Art Competition, and after being selected as one of eighteen artist entrants, set about collecting materials for her competition entry. Guidelines stipulated that these had to be repurposed from the city’s two Tip Shop recycling centres. While mindful of her skill set and limited time frame, a pile of torn and outdated denim jeans called her name.
“When I saw the denim I just felt a connection with it,” KT remembers. “Not only because most of the time I wear jeans, but also the sewing ‘thing’. I knew I could make something interesting from them. I wanted something that people could interact with when they went to see the exhibition.” She settled on making a piece of furniture – a piece of useable art – and in that same moment, uncovered a whole suite of beanbag furniture for $15. Fate accompli.
“I’m not sculptural,” she claims. “I’m not three dimensional in the way that I work or think, so this was interesting for me: that I was going to make something that people were going to use.” She developed the idea of a beanbag crafted from patches of recycled denim by first folding a paper prototype. Once she settled on a final miniature pattern, she pieced together panels of denim into two large panels and sewed them into place on the Singer. A lining was attached and self locking zip inserted, before the bag was topped up with beans from the suite she had found. KT’s efforts earned her the runner up prize. But the most pleasing outcome for the designer was the positive response she received from those who attended the exhibition.
“It was really well liked,” KT elaborates, “and everyone that sat in it said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so comfortable.’ I thought, there’s something here, where I can feel good about making a product. I can actually do some good by making new products from repurposed materials and help keep them out of landfill. The bag used very little virgin materials, just zippers and other little bits and pieces. But predominantly, it is taking something that was going to be thrown in the bin – jeans that won’t be sold by charity shops because they’ve got rips in the wrong place, or stains, or the style’s just not trendy – I can use those jeans and honour the time, energy and resources that went into making them in the first place.”
Spurred on by the notion that her Jeanbag could nourish her creatively as well as have a positive ecological impact, KT considered turning her idea into a business. “I was very much looking for something that was fulfilling on a wider level than myself,” she continues. “I get so much enjoyment from making my artwork, and I get a lot of enjoyment from people enjoying it, but it’s very small scale. Something really appealed to me about doing something good for the environment; something that could make people happy and be scaled up.”
KT spent a year perfecting the design of her first Jeanbag. She sourced fabric for the lining that wouldn’t shrink and pucker the bag’s stitches after washing. She made sure her design met Australian safety standards for beanbags and developed a relationship with her suppliers, who regularly drop off pallets of discarded denim to her New Farm studio. Each bag takes 20 steps, 15 hours and 7 pairs of jeans to complete, with each piece of denim freshly washed, trimmed and prepared by KT.
And just like her studio, each stitch is perfectly neat and tidy. Although she modestly claims to not be a seamstress, each Jeanbag product is crafted with the same impeccable attention to detail KT devotes to all of her making. Her touch is unmistakable: clean, fresh and well considered, right down to the double stitching on the outside edges of the ‘boho’ products, where a neat little frayed edge is allowed to appear after washing. This is a subtle nod to the much loved nature of our altered denim is another example of how KT infuses all of her products with the same nostalgia that drew her to denim in the first place.
Cushions and aprons crafted from the much loved fabric have been an organic addition to the Jeanbag offering, with each design continuing to reflect the clean and practical nature of their maker. This year, KT intends to add more products to the range and knows that Jeanbag’s growth will soon necessitate some key decisions about how to outsource the production of some products. Acknowledging that quality of workmanship and durability are paramount, she knows this will demand a delicate balancing act between these aspirations and cost, and ultimately expects her desire to think small and live locally will win out.
“I’ve always been really detailed,” says KT, “I believe that expert craftsmanship is essential in the handmade. It will be interesting establishing relationships and building trust with the future makers of our products. I seek perfection in everything I do and that creates pretty high standards; but they’re achievable and important, and I won’t compromise on quality. I believe it’s crucial to the success of my business that the people involved really care about it; that they believe in the philosophy and stand behind it.”
For now, she is content to consider herself a part of a small team responsible for Jeanbag. Her sewing, designing and business management skills are complemented by contributions from friends and local creatives who also help to market her business. One scroll through the testimonials on the Jeanbag site reveals that her customers also share her enthusiasm for her products.
“People love them,” she says, “and when you get one beanbag going to a house with kids it ends up subject to ‘timeshare’! One of the first people who purchased a Jeanbag for her media room ended up buying another two, so everyone in their family could have their own. They’re a fabulously relaxed, fun family who love the beach and chilling out, so it totally works into their lifestyle.”