How do you make a dog collar?
I started making collars under the name ike&stella back in 2012, out of my apartment just north of downtown Denver. That's me, several years later, trying my best to look very cool and casual and accomplished, the way I thought a creative entrepreneurial woman should. But the reality behind that photo was very different. My story starts in a wholesomely common way: girl adopts dog, girl can't find a dog collar reflecting her tastes, girl sets out to make one. Armed with a $40 sewing machine my mom had laying around and a two day sewing lesson she gave me - I started scouring the internet and local craft stores in search of supplies. My first design was probably pretty obvious, gleaned from whatever DIY dog collar instructions I found online - I started sewing colorful ribbons onto webbing, trying different kinds of breakaway buckles and hardware.
You're going to have to bear with some of my early photography. I'm unsure now why I decided that vintage cork board made for a good backdrop, but I was really committed to it for a while! In an effort to be an eco-conscious member of society, I also dabbled in up-cycling - my favorite were these recycled belt collars that I so cleverly paired with an issue of Vogue magazine. I remember selling them for $10 a piece. I wasn't great at valuing my own work in the beginning.
When I discovered an Etsy shop called The Felt Pod, I became obsessed with felt. I designed four different lines of collars using it over the following year or so - beginning with these lined snap collars. I went with the powder-coated metal hardware to add a chic factor, but was ultimately disappointed to find that the powder coating chipped too easily, leaving the hardware looking tattered, so they get dropped pretty quickly.
A random estate sale pushed me to pursue leather work. The man who had passed was at once an epic hoarder and also a very accomplished craftsman, and it's him I have to thank. I spent hours going through his massive workshop full of vintage power tools, wood-working supplies, and leather working goods - it was an emotional day that I'd write about it if I thought I could do the experience justice. I can't say I knew much about leatherwork, but I bought a bunch of the tools anyway, as well as a large stump from the yard with an $11 price tag stuck to it. I remember being in line to pay when a man walking by said "you're going to PAY for a tree stump?!" (btw this is what happens after you die). To this day I do my leatherwork on that stump; it made the move from Denver to Los Angeles with me, and from every place I've lived here since. (Don't even mention "the stump" to my husband). Anyways once I got my bearings with leatherwork I started making collars like this (Jenn MY GOD, enough with that awful cork board!):
The idea to sew the felt onto leather was very exciting for me - in fact I took out a small loan (my first) to buy an industrial sewing machine that could handle the heavy work. Then I set about sourcing the leather and convincing the lovely owner of The Felt Pod to supply me with felt ribbon in the widths that I needed. I applied to a popular craft fair in Boulder called Firefly Handmade - and was so thrilled to be accepted. The felt and leather collars ended up being a hit, and I was contacted afterwards by a shop in town wanting to sell them: my first wholesale order. I truly wish that I had more photos of this product line - but for some reason they've been lost to time. I think sometimes when I was finished selling a product, I wanted nothing to do with it anymore - failing to have the foresight that I might someday want to reflect on this journey. I do have this lone photo - taken at the craft fair & salvaged from social media:
I remember the burlap pillow was an afterthought - something I scrambled to sew together the night before, realizing I had nothing with my brand name on it. At the time, not even my collars had branding; I hadn't quite worked out how to do that yet. I was still less than a year into the business.
Soon after the craft fair I made the decision to move to Los Angeles. I had been longing to for a while - a recent trip here had confirmed it was the place for me - but knowing how much less affordable it was than Denver, I wanted to have a solid plan in place, as well as a source of income to float me while I looked for a new job. Riding the confidence of my wholesale order and a steady enough stream of Etsy customers - I packed up my sewing machines, my stump, my dog, and made the leap.
Once in LA those close to me encouraged me to go to shops and show them my collars, but I didn't feel ready. When I went out there with my product I wanted it to be with my best paw forward (had to). Also my tastes were changing, my skills were improving and I wanted to do something more refined. Still clinging to the felt material though - I reconfigured my design and came up with this:
Admittedly, I still LOVE this design. It was simple and elegant, and as you can tell, a huge step up from my previous lines. But I started running into issues with the durability. Some customers were coming back to me saying that their dog had shredded the felt. At upwards of a $50 price point, I really needed something that every dog, from Pomeranian to Pittie, could wear, and wear, and wear. Because they were also extremely labor intensive, I stopped putting energy into that line.
After that I faltered for a little while, surviving with cat collar sales but growing a little disheartened, if I'm being perfectly honest. Being young, I didn't have much money to invest other than the small amount of profit I was making, and my limitations were growing more frustrating by the day. I had so many ideas but no means to make them a reality. Then I got an idea from a fellow LA collar maker, who I wish I could credit here, but it appears he's no longer "in the biz". The idea was simple and seemed almost stupidly obvious: collar sleeves. Essentially removable, replaceable sleeves that you can slip on to a basic leather collar. The design not only posed zero construction issues for me, the options were limitless. The concept breathed new life into me and my business. And because durability vs price point no longer posed as much of an issue due to the low cost of replacing a sleeve - I tried ONE LAST TIME to make my beloved felt work. A factory in Asia had sent me samples of a different kind of felt, claiming it could be used to make everything from wallets to shoes, so I gave it a shot, adding the machine embroidery I fashioned my cat collars with, and came up with these:
I love how palpable the influence Los Angeles had on me is in these photos. California style is something we're all pretty saturated in at this point, but I remember when I moved here how new it was to me, and how thrilling. It still is! I can't say I know how well this particular style did - I sold only a few before I started experimenting with fabric sleeves and decided to kick felt for good. My first attempt is a pretty laughable to me now, but worth sharing here:
I found this textile at a flea market for $15. I can't say I've found anything like it since. I don't know why I decided I needed to sew it together with twill tape, I guess I couldn't conceive of turning it inside out yet - but that didn't last long. At a popular vintage clothing market downtown I discovered Hmong textiles through a vendor there, and ended up making what are probably still my most popular collar:
It was around this same time that the demand for these textiles exploded, surely you've seen them in throw pillow form, at the very least. The soaring prices and scarcity made this a very short-lived line for me - though I did manage to sell quite a bit of them to Free People (always nice to get a nod that what you're doing is the right thing). I still work with a few Hmong textiles, but I'll always miss these in particular - taken from elaborate tribal skirts, I loved the indigo dyed patterns and colorful yarn and ribbon appliqués, they were really special.
I've continued on with the collar sleeve line - sourcing new fabrics for them is still something I consider fun rather than work. But this style does require a specific type of fabric - thick and durable enough to last, but not so thick it can't be turned inside out. Oftentimes I'd purchase fabric online that looked great - but ended up being the wrong weight for my purposes. Over time I built up a respectable collection of these "unusable" fabrics - and because I'm nothing if not resourceful, came up with my current and favorite design - the martingale:
My love affair with this design is two-fold: from a construction standpoint they're great because you can use pretty much any fabric to make them - the webbing that the fabric is sewn around adds a much needed layer of durability to even the flimsiest of fabrics. And from a dog mama standpoint they just work for me and my dogs. I love that if I want to take them off it's super easy, a quick slip over the head and I'm done (especially easy for my wily 7 month old puppy). At the same time they pull tight without choking them when attached to a leash, preventing them from slipping out of their collars and darting into the canyon every time they see an animal. They're also comfortable and light weight, without any harsh edges. I feel like the ultimate dog collar almost becomes a part of the dog, something they seem "naked" without. That's how I feel about these collars - they are just an extension of my dogs, there to keep them safe. And lastly because they do wear them most of the time, I love that I can avoid a jangling tag by adding these:
I've been working with these slide-on collar tags since the beginning - to me they are a no brainer. They're big enough to fit any information you want to include, but discrete and out of the way at the same time.
I feel that after five years of experimenting, I've finally made that perfect dog collar I set out to make so long ago when Ike came into my life. In retrospect it feels like it took a very long time to get here, but what an amazing and creative journey it's been. It has led me places I never thought I'd go and to people I otherwise would never have met. Reflecting on it now, I realize how truly invaluable the experience has been, and how well the time was spent (even if it didn't always feel that way). It seems fitting to end here with a photo of Ike, my namesake and my muse, wearing the first collar I ever made. We've come a long way baby boy.