Erika Kelly: Small Business Owner, Maker & Portlander Who Sews
Erika and Portland Apron Company were brought to our attention by a mutual friend (shout-out to Leah). Aside from the glowing endorsement we heard, the research we did made it clear that her creative entrepreneurship was a natural fit to profile. Following a passion? Check. Developing and adapting her PNW-based business? Check. Commitments to sustainability and giving back? Check. Has mastered a skill I (Dena) daydream about learning someday? Check. We loved hearing more about her and her business, and are so pleased to share it with you today:
Name: Erika Kelly
Where did you grow up: Grants Pass, Oregon
Where do you live now: Portland, Oregon
Tell us about your career path?: I received my degree from Portland State University in Communication Studies but I’ll be honest, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I’ve always loved sewing and grew up learning how to sew from my mom, but it never occurred to me it could be a “job.” While working in coffee after graduation, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, Portland Apron Company naturally evolved.
What other passions do you have?: I love animals, especially cats (I have two). I really love to garden, it’s my form of meditation. My husband and I have a big garden that becomes more full every year. I love planting food and getting to eat it.
What is a “normal” day like for you (if such a thing exists!): It kind of does! I try to stay on a “schedule.” I get up about 6:00, do yoga for 15-20 minutes, make coffee and a smoothie and answer emails, then go down to my studio, put on my headphones, and sew my heart out.
Favorite thing about the PNW?: You cannot beat the beautiful summers we have here! The birds are chirping, the people are singing, and it’s light out past 9pm.
How do you take your coffee?: Americano with cream.
How do you record info?: I prefer a pen and paper because it feels more natural, but I’d say it’s 50/50 pen vs. computer. I remember things better when I write them out by hand.
Favorite season in the PNW?: Summer Summer Summer
When you’re out, how do you protect yourself from the rain?: I have a great raincoat with a hood that I pull tight around my face. All I need are my eyes, everything else gets protected
Please tell us about your experience starting Portland Apron Company: When I first started, I was really just looking for a creative outlet in my post-college life. I remember thinking, “Thank God that’s over, I’m ready to do something fun!” So, my gift to myself after graduation was a sewing machine. I’d been working and going to school full time for so long I didn’t even remember what it felt like to have free time, and, wow, it felt so good. It was around the same time that Etsy was getting popular, and I happily joined (just for fun). My first sale was to a friend and even though it was someone I knew, it was the best feeling, and off and running I went.
What has surprised you about running your own business?: How much I’ve learned over the years without even realizing it. Only when I look back on old Instagram posts, or when Facebook reminds me of a photo from several years ago, do I see how far I’ve come. It can be surprisingly fun to take a step back and see the progress, since it’s hard to notice it when you’re in the thick of it.
How does your business affect your life in the PNW?: It gives me more flexibility to travel and spend time with my husband. Although being self-employed doesn’t necessarily give me more free time, I really cherish being able to make my own schedule. Sometimes I need to sleep in a little, and some days I wake up at 5am and I’m ready to work. I have found that autonomy is very important to me.
And vice versa, how does life in the PNW affect your business?: I think it helps it! People in the PNW are very supportive of small business and handmade goods. On top of that, they are very aware of the importance of sustainability. I love the support I’ve received locally because my products are made with organic and sustainable fabrics.
Okay, we’re intrigued and impressed that you make your aprons with sustainability in mind. Can you tell us more about that choice, and how it affects both your long-term decision making, and your day-to-day operations?: Although environmental responsibility has always been important to me, I wasn’t thinking all that much about where my fabric came from or how it was manufactured when I first started. The more I learned though, the more I knew I couldn’t happily run a business I was proud of unless I was doing all I could to be sustainably responsible.
Once I learned that cotton is one of the most chemically intensive and dirtiest crops in the world, I knew I needed to make some changes. So I started researching, and discovered that linen and hemp textiles are not only far better for the environment, they’re beautiful too. Linen is made from the flax plant, a crop that requires very little pest-controlling chemicals; and hemp does not exhaust the soil, uses very little water, and requires no pesticides or herbicides. Once I discovered these two wonderful fabrics, it’s been true love ever since.
What are some of the long-term goals you have for Portland Apron Company?: At this point, I’m fairly certain I just want to stay small and keep doing what I do. Maybe someday I will hire someone to help me, but I’m in no rush to do that. I would love to start hosting monthly pop-up sales in my studio with other creative people. I think it would be a really fun way to connect with my customers in person and more often.
What do you love talking about at parties?: I think the deep ocean is really interesting. Everyone is obsessed with space travel, but I think the ocean is way more intriguing…there is a whole world down there that we know so little about.
What brings you joy?: Gardening with my husband really does bring me some of the most joy. I can’t even really explain why I like it so much, but I do.