Useful and beautiful. An interview with an original upcycler.

Useful and beautiful. An interview with an original upcycler.

  • Posted by Dion Hughes

We'd noticed Julie Steller's beautiful handmade designs at art shows around town, and knew she'd be a perfect collaborator on a super-efficient travel bag for our shampoo bars and conditioner bars. To coincide with the launch of our bags, we did a little catch-up chat with Julie. Enjoy!

HiBAR: You were an upcycler before that became a "thing." How did you start?

Julie: I started “upcyling” as a result of raising children on a limited budget! Hand-me-downs and thrift stores were a way to dress my kids more affordably! However, my hardcore experience came when I was the costumer for our school Shakespeare theater. We created costumes for twenty children by buying different thrift store pieces that we then remade. We bought navy blue sport coats in all sizes that we then “repurposed” into soldiers jackets with stand up collars, red-lined tails and lots of brass buttons! Eventually I did the same costuming for even larger casts. My goal was always that the student actor felt fantastic!

HiBAR: What are some interesting upcycle successes and failures you’ve experienced?

Julie: Beyond our mittens, which we think are nicer than any repurposed mittens on the market because of the high quality materials and amazing workmanship, our Elf Hats are a huge success! They are whimsical and fun, with a nod to our Scandinavian history. We say “Every child deserves a pointy hat, and adults look pretty good in them, too!” 

I always knew an idea was a “fail” because my kids would laugh me right out of the room! I’ve made repurposed sweater “snakes” that came out looking like earthworms. I made “sweaters for your electronics” that were repurposed sweater sleeves for laptops and iPads. Hmmm. They never caught on. But I’ve learned that when I am trying a new product, to make a few and “test the waters.” When I made the fleece mittens with patches of the Metrodome Roof people loved them but I simply made too many (and borrowed the money to do it.) I wouldn’t call that a fail, but the way I went about it could have been better!

HiBAR: Your work feels very personal. What do you think about while you’re designing and making?

Julie: It is personal, in that I love everything we make. I think about color, the beauty and quality of the materials we repurpose, the quality of the workmanship. I love every aspect, and I have a wonderful team that each feel the same way. 

HiBAR: You seem like a wise steward of being mindful, avoiding plastic waste, and so on. How does that play out in your life as a mother and grandmother?

Julie: All my kids understand that reusing and being thoughtful about consumption is a great way of life. For example, growing up living in a duplex, sharing a washer/dryer and lawnmower made it ordinary not to own one of everything. We still own “the” extension ladder, which we loan out to neighbors. We all use reusable water bottles instead of plastic. It is a way of thinking that impacts every area of life.

HiBAR: Some business questions for you… you’re a female entrepreneur. Do you think of yourself that way? What would you say to encourage other women?

Julie: I knew that when my kids grew up I would work outside the home, but I had no clear vision of what that might look like. That being said, the creative part of me was always in action. When I bought my first pair of wool sweater mittens, I just had to learn how to make my own. It didn’t occur to me that not knowing anything about repurposed wool would be a barrier! I knew I could figure it out, and I did!

As I grew to love repurposing fibers, I had new ideas for other materials: remnants of NorSari winter skirts turned into cloche hats; cashmere sweaters with holes became amazing fingerless gloves and scarves; Swedish table cloths turned into summer purses and children’s bonnets; the Metrodome Roof turned into useful memorabilia!! So my business grew organically. Even though I had no business background I found lots of women with expertise who were so generous with their support. So my advice is find those people! In the beginning I didn’t know what I didn’t know, hence the many mistakes. But those mistakes became learning events. Having the humility to admit a bad decision and seek help isn’t fun, but I have found there is tremendous help solidarity in the process. 

As far as your question about being a female entrepreneur, I always hope that the value of my product is what sets us apart, not necessarily that we are “woman owned.” Women Venture has been an invaluable resource, both for advice and for funding. 

HiBAR: And last, this is about us! We worked so hard together to come up with these lovely travel bags for our shampoo bars. You were an amazing partner - so dedicated to getting to just the right solution. Is there anything about our collaboration that stands out to you? (For better or worse!)

Julie: You are very, very kind. I absolutely loved this project. It is the first time that I have done a design, start to finish, for a product that was not “Steller Goods.” It was such a challenge to find the right materials and design to match what you needed. All the back and forth was really fun. This required lots of listening and lots of prototypes, until what you were imagining was what I was making. We found the sweet spot and I am very proud of the finished product. It fits the Steller Handcrafted Goods tag line perfectly: “Useful and Beautiful.”

About Julie
Julie Steller is the owner of Steller Handcrafted Goods,Minneapolis-based company that uses upcycled wool sweaters, authentic Nordic braid and other quality materials to create one-of-a-kind products.

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