Womanhood, Anxiety, and Denim: An Interview with Aegis Handcraft
Jess Murray of Aegis Handcraft
Aegis Handcraft is a one-woman brand that specializes in using denim to create quality accoutrements. Jess loves to think of Aegis Handcraft as one big collaboration. In a way the bags she makes - because of the materials she uses and how she uses them - leave her shop “unfinished” they don’t really earn their character, their story, until she passes them on to their owners.
Wow, Jess Murray of Aegis Handcraft. I’m so very, very excited to get to chat with you. In the context of our most recent issue on Women I want to send a big thanks to my editor Sam and the community of Women for allowing me, someone who is not a woman, ask these deep questions. First off, can you familiarize our readers with your background in creating? I remember reading in a past interview that you were interested in a fashion route at one point is that right? It’d be great to hear about your cultivation of craft whether formal or informal.
I was always super creative, and it was hard not be when you come from a family of makers. When my parents and grandparents, first arrived to the states from Mexico, they didn't have much, so there was a whole lot of DIY-ing and hand making. Not one Halloween costume was ever store bought, pillows and doilies were always color coordinated, and my school art projects were always over the top.
I remember sitting in my living room in second grade, blisters forming on my hands as my mum and I sharpened hundreds of color pencils until they were little itty bitty nubs. Why Jess, why?! Picture a faded coloring book page, one of the ones that have been xeroxed to death by your teacher, who assigned it just before the holiday break. To color in a happy turkey for Thanksgiving. Now picture what mine might have looked, with layer upon layer of color pencil shavings, meticulously placed and stacked upon one another, forming feathers?! It was a beauty, and obviously a lot of work. So you can only imagine just how seriously we took these sorts of things.
I forged on to be a builder, a maker at heart. In many ways I was born into the world of handcraft. My grandmother, and mum, taught me early on how to sew. You could often find me sitting patiently at their elbow admiring their handiwork. It was soon after trying my hand at my first sewing machine, that all I would make were pillows upon pillows, and tote bags (some things never change). By now, maybe you could guess what I might have wanted to be when I grew up? Yup! That’s right, an attorney.
I’ll cut to the chase though. My mind was pretty much set on law school. I had even taken some preliminary classes, and competed in forensics. I had absolutely no idea until my junior year of high school that fashion design was even a career option. I always figured that you were chosen, or perhaps it was something you inherited. To my surprise, when I broke the news to my mum of my new-found fashion school dream, she was extremely supportive (and to this day is my biggest fan). I went on to earn a Fashion Design degree from FIDM in San Francisco, and the rest is pretty much history.
(Shout out to you mum, thank you for encouraging my dream, and instilling my fear of pencil sharpeners and colored pencils!)
I laughed out loud when you said ‘an attorney!’. Ha! If you don’t mind participating with me, I’d like to close my eyes right now, and I’d love for you to take me on a tour of your studio, mentioning what it would look like if I walked in with you, from what direction the light comes in, the best time of day to enter, what I might smell, and what details I might miss that only you would know, like the sound of this or that drawer if you pulled it just so, or other characteristics that would make you miss the place if you moved to another studio. Of course, I’ve seen a few pics on instagram, but pictures can be really two-dimensional; I’m interested and I’m sure our readers are interested in experiencing your studio with you.
Let’s take a tour!
To begin, I should probably describe the building in which you would find my shop. It’s discretely located on an inactive Navy Base, just across the San Fransisco Bay Bridge. Nestled between a series of abandoned warehouses and the good ol’ USS Hornet (an aircraft carrier turned museum) is an old jet engine testing facility. This waterfront space is home to not only myself, but also to an ensemble of makers; wood workers, welders, artists, painters, and musicians.
Most of the other occupants set up their workshops in the main hall of the building, where huge hangar doors would have once been opened to house naval aircraft. I on the other hand, get to be the odd one out, with my space being just on the other side of a jet engine testing room. This explains why one of my walls is slanted, as it was used to direct the exhaust from the jet engines when they were being tested. The walls are the densest concrete I’ve ever seen, which helps alleviate my anxiety about earthquakes. The winters turn my space into an icebox, while the summers keep it pleasantly cool.
I start off my days by getting out of my car (or motorcycle), and opening the creaky metal gate. Just past some shipping containers, and project vehicles in various states of repair, is my shop. The door to it is in the process of rotting away, but is painted bright red for now, to hide its condition. I’m usually greeted by Lucky, the buildings only permanent resident. He’s an older orange tabby, that probably chain smoked in his early days, judging by his raspy meows.
I unlock the door and yank it open. The walls are painted a dark grey, and are mostly painted, except for one side, where the last 5 feet of the 20 foot walls are left unfinished, since I can’t reach. On the walls you’ll see picture frames and cork boards that are covered by a rotating assortment of artwork, posters, and pattern pieces. You’ll also see a canvas flag of an illustration of my owl, and a woodwork piece by a local artist.
Although I have no sense of the smell (a condition called Anosmia), I’m often told it smells like beeswax. This is probably because the makeshift kitchen and dryer would be just to your left, below a bunch of old fuse boxes. This is where I make my own fabric wax for all of my bags, and finish the waxing process by using the old dryer.
Looking straight ahead you’ll see a shelf full of boxes and shipping supplies. These shelves also hide a pile of scrap wood and shelving, which are used to make my show booths. There’s also a really old Singer scallop embroidery machine, which I am still trying to refurbish, since I can’t find much information on it. To the right of these shelves are big fabric carts that hold all of my scrap materials, as well as some additional shelves for my leather, hardware and show supplies.
Turning right you’ll see a stack of replacement doors, patiently waiting for my significant other to install them (3 months and counting!). Right next to those is my office, where I print out shipping labels and handle other paperwork. A window that’s been painted shut brings in constant light throughout the day, since the shop faces west. Below this window is my desk, although you’ll have a hard time seeing it, as it’s usually covered by assorted boxes and packages of supplies which are waiting to be sorted. The desk is set against a wood wall, where I hang my notes, and all of the mementos I’ve kept over the years (including a license plate from one of my favorite cars, my electric blue Camaro). Just beyond this wall is where the magic really happens.
Looking into this side of the room, on the right, which would make up the backside of the wood wall, are wooden shelves that hold finished product, as well as goods in different stages of completion. I’ve put some plastic plants, to make the room feel more alive. Ironic I know, but it works. Looking to the left you’ll see a huge wooden work table. My anvil, Pound-o-board with granite slab, steam iron, scissors and various tools are usually scattered around on it, along with the fabric and leather of the latest production. Underneath is where I store all of my rolls of fabric. I’ve nailed a leather strap to the edge of the table, and this is where I keep my most used tools. Hammers, strap cutters, scissors, just to name a few. Next to the table, in the far corner of the room, are four sewing machines; a Singer 206W, a Merrow A3-DW, Reece 101, and a Juki LK 1852. Next to those are wood shelves that hold my screen-printing supplies, patterns, lighting equipment, and bins of various tools. Just to the right of those, is a pegboard and a small rolling cart, where I hang all of my leather punching tools of various sizes, scissors, rulers, machine tools, stencils, and clippers to cut the copper rivets. Beneath two windows, which are also painted shut, are the rest of my 5 babies. The rest of my sewing machines are all mounted on casters, so I can re-arrange them however I want. They consist of a Yamato 361, an Adler 167, Pfaff 138, Consew 206rb, and the newest addition to the family, a Juki Union Special 35800.
Scattered around this work area are about ten stools and chairs. Why? I have no idea, since I’m not really sitting unless I’m at a sewing machine. They’ve sort of just accumulated. The concrete floor is sprinkled with tumbleweeds of thread, cuts of fabric, loose pins, leather scraps, and copper bits. I try to sweep and keep the floor clean every day, but sometimes it gets a bit hectic, so I’ll leave it until after I’m done with a production run. It’s not uncommon for me to find some of these leftover bits in the cuffs of my jeans.
The space is always changing, since everything inside of it had to be built from scratch, or rebuilt (third time’s the charm for the doors). Sometimes I feel frustrated by it, since it seems to be a never ending journey of trying to completely finish it, but I take it as part of my workshops charm: it is evolving with me in a way. I get butterflies every time I take a moment to look around, as the shop is a reminder of the all the support I’ve gotten to help make this small space I work in possible.
Mmmm. You have some awesome iconic makes in there like the Pfaff, Adler, and Consew 206. That along with the building’s history is like a time warp to an industrial factory. So cool. Jess it’s easy to see in the way you speak about your work that you’re grateful for the opportunity to do it. Can you give us some insight into the ways that you remain encouraged? I’m sure there are internal practices you have, but do you have any external support? If you do what does it look like?
I’m living my dream, really. I get to work in a space that is very much a piece of me now, harvest my craft and share it with folks from all over the world that appreciate it as much as I do. It’s wonderful!
I like to think that whenever I make something, it’s never really finished, even when it leaves my shop. Its process of being made continues through the everyday wear and tear it’ll get when it’s out in the world. I love getting photos back of my products in use, and seeing how they change since they left my shop. I feel like it’s a moment that the owner and I can share something together, and it feels magical in its own way, and that keeps me going.
That’s partly why I started small batch items, as it allows me to keep creating new products that I can share with everyone. Instead of being stuck in production runs making the same product over and over again. It makes things interesting by challenging my creative side by allowing me to try new ideas and techniques. I love hearing the feedback that I get from these new items that I make, and it drives me to keep challenging myself to create new goods as much as I can.
Overall, I am overwhelmingly happy that I get to live out this dream, even more so grateful for the opportunity to do it at all, but I would be lying if all days felt this way. When I started Aegis, I knew that going it alone would be tough. But you never really know how tough a mountain is, until you begin to climb it. Being a one-girl show, and wearing all the hats all the time, gets exhausting (real quick). Being a business owner, a wife, a fur mom, a friend, a daughter, a sister, there are all sorts of elements in my life that I have to constantly juggle. While most days are awesome, and I feel like I can take care of it all, and maintain a good balance between my personal, and my work life, there are many days where I find it hard to remain encouraged.
Some days do feel overwhelming, as a sole business owner, you often feel like you are carrying all of the weight on your own (this is true a lot of the time). I find that’s when I share my struggles as a business with my friends, and those in the industry. Everybody is more than welcoming to help out others, as we’ve all gone through similar motions at one point or another. I get to share those other times that are definitely more behind the curtain or emotional, with my significant other. He’s seen day in, and day out, the trials and growth that I’ve experienced over the past several years of me running my own business. When I get home at 2am, and am completely drained from work, just sharing the day’s events and emotions that we’ve each experienced, feels like it’s unloading the heavy baggage from my shoulders. In additional to all of this, I also speak daily with my biggest supporter, my mom.
To ignore that you’re a female and just talk about craft and business would be ignoring a large part of who Jess Murray is. So if it’s okay with you I’d like to transition from that image of your mom supporting you, into talking about some aspects of being a female. I’m wondering about your relationship with this word Woman? Do you identify with this banner yourself? And when you encounter this word, can you tell us what it brings up in your mind, your gut? Growing up, how was this theme expressed around you? In which ideas have you accepted, and which ideas have you pressed back at? Feel free to express however you’d like. I have zero experience in being a woman, and will factually never have it, so it’s exciting to go deep with you.
Looking back to when Aegis Handcraft was founded, I tried to keep the fact that it was woman run a secret for the first year or two. I was under the impression that the public would perceive the business in a certain, more feminine light if they found out that a woman was making these denim bags. I wanted to ensure that people would see the product for what it was, and be un-biased by who was making it. Sometimes it does still happen, where a tote bag will be labeled a purse, or I’ll get questions if my goods are made for women, or men. Nowadays I’ve opened myself up completely about who I am, and my involvement with the business. The support from the community has been overwhelming, and I’m happy that my being a woman, hasn’t really been as big of an issue than I originally perceived it to be. It’s been great to see that we all understand the effort and passion that goes into everything denim, and whether its a man or woman who makes it, makes no difference on the finished product.
I grew up in family with very strong, hardworking women, that for some reason or another were tested in life often. With that being said, there was a role that they were expected to play, and certain social boundaries that they were expected to adhere to. Things like their expectations of relationships (I get asked all the time why I haven’t had kids yet), the limitations they put on themselves (like driving too far on their own) and what responsibilities they should have (like taking care of everyone and everything, house chores, kids, etc.). Expectations of what women were supposed to wear were also something that I noticed. It definitely wasn’t feminine to wear anything like T-shirts, jeans, boots or denim jackets. Growing up, I pushed back against these boundaries, by being a more independent person, and not being afraid to have my own voice and sense style.
I definitely find myself not fitting the typical female mold that my family expects. Back then, being the black sheep in my family, it did at times feel like I was a burden on the family by being rebellious towards their norms. Nowadays I feel very in tune with myself, and looking back, am glad that I wasn’t afraid to be who I felt I truly was. However, sometimes who I am, and the ideas that I go against are something that I find myself struggling with. I’ve always admired their strength to keep going on no matter the challenges they face, and although we hardly see eye to eye on what it is to be a woman, I can acknowledge their journey. Even if it’s not mine.
Your response has that characteristic of reality that doesn’t only see the world in dual terms – in only black and white – or right and wrong. Thank you for that. I stumbled upon your work a few years ago and started following you because a few of the craftspeople that I follow are a part of the denim community as well. You’ve got huge cred in the community, not only evidenced by the thousands of people that follow you but by the kinds of comments I read, and the kind of support you’re consistently getting.
Here's a confession, if the truth is told, I don’t know too much about denim. Ha! I know denim is something that can tend to be associated with only men’s wear. Can you as a woman lead me teach me a little bit about denim, about how it’s made, about the joy of indigo, about the mad fades, and about why denim is not and never has been only a “man’s material”?
The reasons why I love denim go beyond what it’s used for in apparel. I love to work with denim because I really appreciate it for the textile that it is. This is why when I create my bags, I try to use denim as a textile, and not have it look like it was inspired solely by a pair of jeans. I feel that its close association with jeans (even though I love them) overshadows all of the great qualities it has as a textile. I love how the weft (the backside) can look so dramatically different from the warp (the frontside). How the different color threads are arranged together on looms to make different types of twill patterns (the diagonal ribbing), and how all of these come together to create different textures. I love how denim can come in different weights, or feel rigid or soft depending on the weave and the weight of the threads used. Even though there are many different colors of denim, it’s always commonly recognized by its more traditional indigo color. The blue indigo dye is actually plant based, where the indigo is fermented in a vat, and is an art in itself to get it just right. There’s so many varieties of shades of blue you can get, depending on the harvest of the indigo, how it was fermented, and how the fabric was dyed. There’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes into everything denim.
Its almost never ending how many variations of denim you could make, and it’s constantly evolving and changing. To me it’s never really been a “mans material” because denim has crossed so many different styles and genres in fashion. Even though it started primarily as a men’s garment for miners, you can now spot it on the runway, the streets, on cowboys, at Coachella, and in work wear. It does it all. It’s the only fabric that I would say that has been used in so many different ways.
How denim tells a story is through its wear, the fades are evidence of the work being put into the material by the wearer. The sick fades we love to share, are due to the indigo being chipped off of the thread fibers when its being used and worn. You could consider it a relationship that is built between the fabric and the wearer as it’s worn in. Two pieces can start off the same, but look very different down the line, and each will tell the story of its owner. I think it’s very personal, and I find that romantic in a way.
One thing that gave me huge respect for you was a particular Instagram post where you opened up briefly about your anxiety and depression. My wife is a social worker who works with foster kids, and we both have a deeply rooted passion for accepting people in all their shades. For me, your opening up was very affirming because when I read it, I was just recently diagnosed with Dysthymia (it’s a condition that negatively ensures the re-occurrence, and persistency of my depression at a midrange scale which went undetected for over a decade in my own life; and when the triggers line up, I can tank. Bad.) If you feel comfortable with it, can you tell us about the difficulties of being in an uphill marathon because of anxiety and depression, and perhaps some of the triumphs you have experienced too? What are some hurdles that came with that and being a woman? Any triumphs specifically because of your womanhood?
Thank you for being open about your experience. Hearing your story is one of the reasons why I choose to share mine. I think that all of us deal with anxiety and depression in one form or another, just that many of us choose to ignore it or feel ashamed to let anyone else know about the emotions they are feeling.
Dealing with anxiety, it sometimes it feels like even though I know what I need to do, and the steps I need to get there, its as if I’m walking through quicksand. You can imagine this is a constant struggle when my day to day is filled with these business milestones that I put on myself to reach; constantly trying to make new product, fill orders, and interact with the community. It can feel overwhelming at times, but I can keep it in control by being more mindful, self re-assuring, and even by breathing a certain way. I guess it’s easier to control, as I know where my anxiety is coming from, unlike those days where I feel a bit down (I like to call those “having the feels”). Those days are still a mystery to me, of where they come from, but I get over them by sharing my feelings, or treating myself and taking a step back from work for a bit.
Growing up, there were certain expectations that girls were just more emotional. Which in turn meant that these emotions I felt wouldn’t be taken as seriously (Oh, it’s just that time of the month again), and were something that could be brushed off due to my gender. I see these emotions as a fog that cloud my life, and I felt that in order to clear the way, I needed to share what I was dealing with to the world. To show that it’s ok to tell everyone who you really are, and how you are really feeling. When I shared how I felt on Instagram, I gained the strength to push through the fog, because of the people that reached back out me. I knew that I wasn’t alone in my feelings, and that I had other people that I could share them with.
I always think about this story I heard about Bison. When they see a storm coming, instead of running away from it, they march towards it together. Because they know that the storm is coming no matter what, and instead of delaying its inevitable arrival, they face it head on together.
I like to think that we dig ourselves into our own holes, because we feel that we can’t relate to one another regarding these issues. I hate the stigma of putting up a front, and not being able to express your feelings. Some see it as a sign of weakness, which I think is the opposite of how we should look at it. You will become a stronger person by recognizing and acknowledging what you’re dealing with. Sharing those emotions with others, you’ll discover that you’re not alone, and that in fact, we are all going through the same journey together, and people are willing to reach their hands out to yours.
You’re not just someone who only wears denim, you don’t work for a primarily male owned brand. Instead, you are the Big Cheese at Aegis Handcraft. The one who makes, the decisions, creates the goods, and sells them also. You literally wear the pants. Have there been any challenges in Aegis Handcraft regarding being a woman? I know for the most part the response to your work has been so positive. I want to give you an opportunity to encourage our readers - particularly those who are women - with not only words, but with your personal grit and struggle of making it through, and consistently killing it. Do you have any fears or personal challenges having to do with being a one-woman denim brand in a community associated with men - are there tradeshows or fairs that you’re on the fence about because of your womanhood? Please be only as vulnerable as you’re comfortable with.
Obviously there are other things that as women, we have to work around in society and the work force in order to get our fair share. But there are things that I have realized that in myself, I have had more struggles with. Like I mentioned earlier, when I started Aegis, I hid myself behind the brand, fearing what people would think, of a woman owned denim brand. In a way I don’t have the restraints that other women may have, due to the niche that I am working in. I’m very fortunate that the community that I’m a part of is very welcoming, regardless of who you are, and embraces new comers (one of us! one of us!). Not to say that there isn’t any work to do to make it feel more inclusive for women, but all those fears I originally had, about being a woman in a primarily men’s community have gone away.
My biggest challenges have actually been more along the lines of what its like to be running a one-woman business. Lets face it; the majority of brands and businesses are made up of many, many people. Because as women, we are often looked to as nurturers, and caregivers, and people who is capable of handling everything at home, as well as at work, this led me to believe that in order to be a one woman show, I had to handle everything on my own. I saw seeking help as a sign of weakness, that I wasn’t able to handle what was expected of me. I often found myself extremely overwhelmed (not to say that a solo business isn’t overwhelming in itself).
Finding a balance between forging ahead on your own, and knowing when to reach out to ask for help is something that I’ve learned is important. It’s impossible for one person to be great at everything, and so seeking advice or help on something that might not be my greatest strength, has become my greatest lesson. It gives me the time to focus on the things that I am good at, and allows me to balance the needs of my work, home, and me time in my life. Asking for help is never a form of weakness, and it doesn't make you any less of a one-person show. Something that I come across often meeting other makers, is this stigma around sharing “trade secrets” for fear that someone might be “heavily inspired” by your work. I come from a place where I love sharing what goes into what I do. Because sharing our struggles and learnings will help each other grow. I feel that there’s no reason to fear being imitated as a maker. No one can really imitate the passion and relationship that every maker puts into their work.
Jess, what I see in you and in your work is a powerful image. Fr. Greg Boyle once suggested that kinship is like imagining a circle of compassion with no one standing outside of the circle, “...moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased”. I see you as someone who stands next to people; who resists stepping into the traditional mold of being a woman – and erases those boundaries creating a community of kinship between all different kinds of people. Please keep doing what you do. I’m deeply inspired by your whole story. Thank you so much for letting me learn from you. I have a lot to chew and think on.
Thank you so much for letting me dive deep into things that I live but never really put into words to be read.
Walter Cabal, Writer
Walter gravitates toward the deep end of the pool. Many times he finds that depth in his conversations with people and many other times he finds it in the long silences at work as the product designer for Cabal Crafted.
He tends to drive in the slow lane, talks to trees and animals, and frequently finds poetry in ordinary life. He earned his BA in philosophy from the University of California, Riverside. Walter and his wife Alicia live in southern California.
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