Local, handmade T-shirts are Earth-friendly

Handmade T-shirts are Earth-friendly
2013-04-21T00:00:00Z Local, handmade T-shirts are Earth-friendlyKristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 21, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Every Wednesday, before Kenneth Armstrong puts together his pop-up clothing shop at the Wednesday downtown farmers market, he slips the medicine man who sells dreamcatchers a buck. Armstrong asks the medicine man to bless his booth from the elements.

"The only issue I have is wind. When you have clothes on hangers and racks ..." he says, his voice trailing off.

You get the picture - and it's a messy one.

Monday is Earth Day, a time when a lot of people pay more attention to our planet than usual. But for local designer Armstrong, every aspect of his business is Earth-conscious - from what he makes, to where he sells, to how he transports merchandise, even to the care of his garments.

"It's just more about a lifestyle and not just one little thing or another," says Armstrong, 51, who calls himself a micro manufacturer.

Even before he started his line of basic men's, women's and kids' tees made from natural-fiber fabrics, the musician and one-time Vegas cab driver advocated eco-friendliness.

Armstrong, who moved to Tucson in 2001, worked in recycling at the University of Arizona and is a former art coordinator for BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage), the nonprofit downtown bicycle co-op. He studied welding and created functional art, like tables and lamps, out of bike parts.

Metal sculpture, though, was a tough way to make a living so after studying fashion design at Pima Community College, Armstrong switched over - still incorporating recycling.

His first creation was a brown canvas purse, made from a Vogue pattern, that used a bike chain for a strap and a gear for embellishment.

Handbags, too, proved to be a hard sell. Armstrong says he just couldn't compete with inexpensive department-store offerings.

After showcasing his clothing designs in different local fashion events, he decided to focus on basics, specifically T-shirts. Makes sense in Tucson.

"Here in the desert, eight or nine months of the year, people are wearing T-shirts and shorts," says Armstrong, whose label is named Enclave.

He quotes a statistic that in America, 4.3 million people work in retail. "It just amazes me that there's so many people who work in retail yet we don't have that much better goods."

The fashion industry, Armstrong says, is dominated by chains that churn out clothing at low prices. The stores don't make much money on individual items but rather through sheer volume. People buy cheap, trendy clothes, then toss 'em when they quickly fall apart. His belief: Consume less and buy better quality.

In his one-bedroom, UA-area apartment, Armstrong - who as a child spent "endless hours" waiting outside dressing rooms while his mother and sisters shopped - sews T-shirts and tank tops made of sustainable fabrics that he buys in Los Angeles. A trio of sewing machines anchors one corner of his living room, his bike another. Dominating the room is a tall cutting table topped with muslin pattern pieces and bolts of hemp, rayon and cotton. He charges $20-$40 for men's and women's shirts, which feature coverstitched seams that not only look cool but make the sheer tops more durable.

Armstrong leaves the arms and hem on the men's shirts unfinished, so he can customize them to clients' preferences.

"If a guy is 6'2, he might have longer arms," he explains.

Local entertainers Flam Chen and Puppets Amongus also sell logoed children's shirts made by Armstrong at their events.

The designer, who's keenly aware of how much energy it takes to care for clothing, says his shirts are meant to be handwashed and line-dried.

Swindlers, a Main Gate store that caters to women, carries Armstrong's work. Owner Christina Henneke loves his wide-neck shirt, which sells for $32.

"The fabric feels really nice, it feels really expensive," she says.

For now, Armstrong - who walks, rides his bike or hops on a bus to get around - is a one-man operation. But, he hopes to bring on skilled sewers and turn his label into a real enclave, a name he chose because it describes Tucson.

"There's a lot of little groups of people who do artist things," he says. Plus, he adds with a chuckle, Enclave "sounds kind of French."

Find the fashions

Find Kenneth Armstrong's designs at Swindlers, 906 E. University Blvd., swndlrs.com; the Downtown Farmer's Market & Arts and Crafts Mercado on the south lawn of the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave., 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays. Armstrong also sets up a booth at The Farmers' Market at Maynards, 400 N. Toole Ave., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Armstrong has an online store at enclavetucson.com and can be reached at shop@enclavetucson.com

"It's just more about a lifestyle and not just one little thing or another."

Kenneth Armstrong, who makes clothing from natural-fiber fabrics

Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet.com or 573-4194.

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