Kelsey Johnson said she hardly hears the sound of her knitting machine anymore.
After so many years producing knitted creations on the hand-operated machine, the rhythmic zipping noise fades into the background.
“It's really empowering,” Johnson said. “I can start with a spool of yarn and end with a one-of-a-kind sweater. The options are limitless.”
Johnson is the owner of ElseWear Collective, a handmade clothing boutique at 2690 W. Main St., unit A, in downtown Littleton.
Johnson produces nearly everything in the little storefront — sweaters, ponchos, mittens — on one of several human-powered knitting machines from a workbench against the back wall.
To her left towers a wall of spools of thread and yarn, mostly cotton and wool, all naturally sourced and dyed.
In front of her sits the knitting machine, a loom-like device composed of dozens of prongs.
Guided by hand-punched punchcards to lay out patterns, she zips a carriage back and forth across the prongs, carrying thread along the course, knitting far faster than two needles ever could. Beneath the machine, pieces of what will become a sweater emerge, row by row.
To her right is the show floor, where racks hang with her creations — sweaters and ponchos that range from durable to elegant, simple to extravagant.
Each design, which Johnson developed herself, is named after a Colorado county — Park, Rio Grande, Larimer. On Jan. 28, she was working on a Teller sweater, named for the mountain county home to the historic Cripple Creek mining district.
All of Johnson's creations are produced with natural materials, and the precision of her process leaves little waste — mostly bits of threads she tosses to her chickens at home to use for bedding.
She sources her wool from humane farms, because “happy sheep produce better wool,” she said.
“This is something sustainable and local,” she said. “It's a chance to be conscious about where the things you use come from. When you buy a $4 T-shirt, you couldn't water the cotton needed to produce that shirt for $4. The people who produced that shirt aren't the ones getting the profits. Just like with our food, seeking out products that are produced humanely and sustainably can have a big impact on the environment and each other.”
Johnson grew up wanting to be a fashion designer, and studied the field in college.
She started ElseWear Collective in a tiny studio in Denver's Santa Fe Arts District, but when COVID restrictions shut down the district's First Friday Art Walks, she decided it was time to make a move.
A 2004 graduate of Littleton High School, she's thrilled she wound up on Main Street in Littleton, where she marched in many Western Welcome Week parades as a kid. And she's thrilled to have more space than she ever had in the little studio on Santa Fe.
“It's so exciting to come into a space I've created,” she said. “It reflects who I am, and it inspires me to be more creative. I miss the art district and all my friends, but this is a chance for me to do some things I've always wanted to do.”
Chief among them: Teach others to produce their own clothes. Once COVID is in the rearview mirror, Johnson said she'd like to hold classes and pop-up events.
She would also like to boost the “collective” part of ElseWear Collective by establishing partnerships with other local artisans and crafters who share her passion for local, sustainably produced items.
Johnson said she hopes her sweaters hold a special place in the hearts of buyers.
“It's something no one else will have,” she said. “I hope they feel like them when they wear it. It's something special, that took time, that I cared about making just right.”
For more information, visit ElseWearCollective.com.