Each morning, Christel Ellsberg makes her way through downtown Raleigh, headed to work.
She enters the Raleigh Denim Workshop, a cavernous atelier in the warehouse district, where the Triangle-based fashion company handcrafts its popular jeans.
Head down at her workstation, she blends in with her hip young colleagues, but at age 81, she could easily be the grandmother of most of her co-workers. And with more than six decades of apparel experience under her belt, she possesses skills almost unheard of in today’s fashion industry.
Ellsberg learned to sew from her grandmother as a small child in East Prussia, a German territory along the Russian border.
“My grandmother said, ‘If you learn how to sew you’ll always have a job,’ and she was right,” she says.
At the end of World War II, Stalin’s army advanced into East Prussia. Machine gun-wielding soldiers appeared at the front door of Ellsberg’s family home, driving the clan to flee to Berlin before their house was burned.
During her teens, Ellsberg did an apprenticeship in Berlin, learning custom tailoring techniques. At age 20, she left Germany with $30 in her pocket, speaking no English. She resettled in Canada.
“I got a job and I picked up and went from there,” she says. “I learned how to make patterns and work production and worked in different factories.”
After a few years in Canada, Ellsberg relocated to the United States and started working in a dress factory before taking a job at Levi’s.
Levi Strauss, Raleigh Denim
Ellsberg found her niche with the venerable jeans maker. She became only the second pattern maker for the company, creating patterns for scads of jeans styles.
“Jeans pretty much became my specialty,” says Ellsberg. “Not many people know how to make jeans. As the fashion production industry left this country, so did all the skills, and there were very few left who could make patterns.”
Ellsberg worked for Levi’s for several years and eventually found her way to North Carolina, working for a New York-based apparel company with an outpost in Zebulon. Not long after losing her job there on the cusp of the recession, Ellsberg heard about a small jeans-making startup in Raleigh.
“My hairdresser said, ‘There’s a company here in Raleigh that makes jeans,’ and I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about and I didn’t believe him,” she says. “But he brought me a story about the company, so I decided to contact them. I met with Victor (Lytvinenko, co-owner of Raleigh Denim), he took my resume and I was there the next day. I could tell that they could certainly use help.”
Nearly a decade later, Ellsberg still works part time for the company as a production pattern maker. She works mornings at the brand’s downtown workshop, overseeing the pattern-making and production process.
“That’s where you really need to know production – every machine, how to sew, how to train operators; it’s not just making a little pattern,” she says.
Stylish coats for pups
Once she leaves Raleigh Denim each day, Ellsberg goes to her second job: Working on her dog coat line, Ilkare, from her Raleigh home.
Ellsberg launched the collection as a way to flex her creative muscles and have a little fun with her pattern-making skills. The fleece-lined coats, available at ilkare.com and at local Phydeaux pet stores, come in a variety of sizes for everything from pint-sized pups to extra-large pooches.
“I just didn’t want the dog to be cared for and be warm, I also wanted him to look good,” she says. “I think I was correct because it certainly sells.”
Ellsberg’s coats come in fashion-forward colors and patterns – everything from a Burberry-style plaid to a colorful Navajo print. She approaches the design and fabric selection process similarly to her work on human clothing, choosing colors and patterns that reflect current fashion trends.
“I just fall in love with fabric,” she says. “This season I’m going to experiment a little bit with prints and do raincoats, too.”
She spends the warmer months toiling to execute new ideas and build inventory for the fall and winter season so that customers can order directly from her and receive their coats within a day or two.
Ellsberg often thinks of her grandmother’s advice as she builds her business. While most of her peers have settled into leisurely retirement, she has no intention of slowing down and instead has plans to grow Ilkare.
“I only have so much time; I do have to sleep on occasion, but I like this a lot better,” she says with a laugh. “I cannot even imagine sitting at home and doing nothing. It’s enjoyable; I don’t know anything else because I’ve always worked and I will continue doing work. It’s just simply fun to me.”