Cut From a Different Cloth :Out of Seam
Born in Bed-Stuy with Belizean roots, Out of Seam is a culmination of Director & Designer Tajah Ellis’ many walks of life. The designer’s background in urban farming jump-started her interest in natural dyeing, a practice that transformed her relationship with plants and herbs. Since then, Out of Seam has grown to offer “coagulated project pieces,” all of which are hand-knit by Ellis and her team fragmented throughout NYC and Belize. Everything about the brand is calculated — from its creative direction to its community connection. Last summer, Out of Seam facilitated a natural dyeing workshop to bring the practice “back to the people,” especially since the most common way to learn the skill is through an internship or university classroom. “We don’t necessarily come from or go to the places they say we should to do this stuff,” explained Ellis. “We’re doing it straight out of passion, love, and expression.”
How did the idea for Out of Seam come about and how did you execute it?
I was working in retail and had a serendipitous moment of meeting an elder. We started exchanging a lot of ideas & eventually learned how to put pieces and parts together. After a certain point, it was necessary to have a level of cohesion instead of it being a one-off thing. Infusing a look, feel and overall personality became imperative. Out of Seam started as an opportunity for clarity with the work I was already doing and to funnel the artisans I was connecting with.
What problems or challenges, if any, are you trying to address with Out of Seam?
It is not a sustainable brand. That word is simply “sustaining” capitalism and therefore reductionist to the craftsmanship and process. It also assumes people don’t have the heart to connect and the mind to think. I understand it seems digestible for masses but if you are engaging with an OOS item, knowledge and intimacy are key components. Being involved with your craft beyond just “work” entices a level of protection and fluidity. I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge, but it’s a focal point for sure.
You say that you don’t like the term “sustainable brand,” so how would you define the kind of work you’re doing?
They’re coagulated project pieces. I’m not buying a bulk order of t-shirts and dying them to be sold at three times the price. It’s not built on a capital model. Experimentation is important. Of course, I’m selling clothes but it’s an involved process. Words like organic, sustainable and eco-friendly train people to associate you in a certain way because they are marketing tools. Those terms are not robust enough for the totality of what it means to be involved in having these projects.
How has your background as an urban farmer informed the work you’re doing with the brand?
I’ve been a core member of Tehuti Ma’at Militia for about five years. Before it was more of a therapeutic space, but as the world shifted so did my responsibilities and areas of interest. I started to look at the world differently. That’s how I got started with natural dyeing. I did my research and interacted with what some might consider “weeds” but are highly intelligent life forms – red clover, mugwort. Of course, my first avocado skins didn’t come out pink! There’s always so much to learn. This summer, I created a connection with mulberries and their purples and blues. Being a part of the garden elevated my life in a different realm.
What’s a color you’ve been gravitating towards lately and what do you use to make it?
Logwood! Purple! So much purple, it’s insane! It’s been shifting a lot. I just came back from Belize. I was working on some knits there with my family but it turned into way more. Logwood and mahogany are one of the main reasons Belize was colonized. It’s very different from sugarcane or cotton throughout the Caribbean — it was for timber. Having that level of information has encouraged my intimacy with it. I was always getting these rich purples, but now I’m getting blues and blacks and greys — a wider range. I’ve tapped into a different level of understanding and communicating with it.
Out of Seam was birthed in Bed-Stuy, but has ancestral ties and uses agricultural resources from Belize. In a recent post you reminded people of “…the physical labor of our elders, the opportunity to extend a Caribbean lineage of artistry and craftsmanship.” What is the significance of the Caribbean, specifically Belize, to you and the brand?
It’s important for us to remember who we are. It’s beyond just saying I’m a Black woman. There’s so much beneath, behind and in front of it. It’s the richness that needs to be more celebrated. If you have four generations of New Orleans people in your family, learn from them! Learn how to make gumbo! There’s so much connectivity and immersion that can happen when you remember the things that came before you. The influence of your environment allows you to have a different scope on reality.
It created a space to be interested in things that ACTUALLY matter to me. These topics won’t make me millions of dollars but they give others confidence & assurance to be EVERYTHING they are. I’m from Bed-Stuy, born and raised. First generation American. The oldest. As a New Yorker, there’s so much importance in speaking up for us. I was talking to a homie about this, and it’s so important to say some of these things because we’re now the minority amongst our social circles and creative crowds. Our lands have changed, whether it’s through colonization or gentrification. It’s so important for us to speak up and be who we are.
What did you gain from your time in Belize and how did it develop Out of Seam?
I learned how to learn. I was working with my family and was able to bring ideas to them they would never think about. There are so many factors and variables. It’s not that they hit a cap, but I’m coming from somewhere totally different, so the remix of that was very interesting — that’s what Out of Seam is about. I work with a lot of New Yorkers on the designs, and spanning that internationally is very important. It’s pivotal to keep the interpretations and reinterpretation, draw the lines, and remember that you’re the vessel. It’s through you; it’s not about you.
L: Tajah photographed in the lab by Isobel Rae (2021); R: ‘Sweat, Tears & Dye’ workshop photographed by Isobel Rae (2021)
That makes a lot of sense, even with the whole ethos and the community threads in the brand, it’s like you’re taking this ancestral knowledge and sharing it with people in New York. You also did this with your ‘Sweat, Tears & Dye’ workshop. Why do you think it’s important to share this process of dyeing with your community and what did you want attendees to take away from that experience?
A lot of art forms are heavily gate kept through access. You would only know about natural dyeing through a Pratt classroom or an internship with the white elite who are very far removed. Even within learning the skill, it’s very sectioned in a particular way. It’s very important for me to bring it back to the people. There’s this idea that all the things we think we can’t do because of race, class or status, but they exist for that reason. They make you think you can’t do it, so there is a level of separation. If you think that, you’ll believe that.
The way I do natural dyes is inherent but also in opposition to a typical natural dyer because it’s very experimental. Of course, there is a procedure and you can’t throw shit together like I was when I initially started. That’s still a part of my style because there’s an organicism that’s felt. It’s worn but not old. It’s living and dying simultaneously. That comes through this form of experimentation and letting things be what they are. Being a dyer is alchemy and chemistry at once. You are mixing various components and they create an explosion. That’s science – the act and the awareness of the explosion.
When you get into the more rigorous methodologies, you lose the magic. I was emphasizing that [in the workshop]. I had some people who came, and I’m glad they came, but I was like please don’t ask me about grams or measurements! We’re here to be in awe of lemons. Why does a lemon do that? Acidity. What’s PH? That’s how you can learn about these things, not the meticulous way. Experience first, learn later. The way we’re taught within institutions is not necessarily conducive to growth.
Going back to the creation of these pieces, this is quite the opposite of fast fashion. You’re taking a slower, deliberate approach, and you’re also encouraging people to place custom orders as well. Can you explain your process and approach to clothing making?
I love my homies. It’s definitely deliberate, but honestly, it’s us expressing ourselves. This is the shit that makes us happy. Of course, we have to know what we’re doing — sewing, working a machine, dyeing. My back hurts sometimes, my hands are blue, my face was itching the other day. This is my actual time, body, and mind going into this. I wanted to create green the other day and I had to take a whole part of my brain to think about it. I could’ve gone on Youtube, but I like to do things my way — even if there are cheat codes.
To educate people on not only the time it takes, but the process and the whole journey is worth it. This is a part of me. It’s a different experience than paying $500 for a Gucci t-shirt made in factories. I’ve linked up with so many amazing people — I collaborate with my homies Matt & Cash on so many projects. We had no design; that was straight out of their minds — it’s sickening! I get really excited talking about it because it’s real people making real things, and we don’t necessarily come from or go to the places they say we should. We’re doing it straight out of passion, love, and expression.
What is a moment in your Out of Seam journey that you’re proud of?
The colors I see daily can only come from God. There’s no Pantone and there’s no Google. These things fade, form, and change. It still gives me goosebumps. Also, the fact that I could put a certain level of respect and value into myself. It’s taught me a lot about self-worth.
Another thing I love about Out of Seam is the photography. Given that you have an in-house production team, what have you been aiming for when building the brand’s visual lexicon?
Cohesion is extremely important to me. There’s a certain feel, flow and function to create every moment and then allow that moment to be. Mona Layne was the first photographer I ever worked with; I went out to Boston to see her, and I respected her vision! Alici is Out of Seam’s muse. Everything is deeply considered all at once — the photography, the graphic design, down to the lighting choices and poses. I work with an amazing, ever expanding but close knit team that goes off! I really respect them. It’s very important that I’m not working within a hierarchy and to find people nobody knows. This isn’t coming from ego at all, but I love being on the verge. All these people are great, and they’re doing exactly what Out of Seam is built on.
L & R: Tajah Ellis photographed by Catherine A. LoMedico (2021)
Can you leave a piece of advice for other young artists?
Just do it. Do it in whatever state, at whatever point, at whatever moment. If you feel compelled or even interested, just do it. I was reading something that said to do it broke, do it hungry, do it tired, do it in pain, just do it and get it out of you. And don’t compromise!