Twelve years ago, Tove Ohlander started buying apparel from by Dem, a clothing business in her native Sweden. She liked the company's focus on socially and environmentally sustainable manufacturing and the fact that it was woman-run.
Now, Ohlander has brought the brand to the U.S. with T by Dem, her new, independent affiliate of by Dem. She opened her new shop last week on Burlington's Pine Street behind AO Glass, the facility she founded in 2007 with husband and fellow glassblower Rich Arentzen.
Much of the clothing that T by Dem offers comes from the company's existing line, including T-shirts, polo shirts, tank tops, hoodies, chef's coats, and white and denim button-downs. Ohlander has also contributed a design of her own: the maker skirt, a hybrid of a wrap skirt and an apron designed for industrial femmes. She says she'll continue to work on new designs with by Dem and its partner factories in Sri Lanka and India.
The maker skirt was inspired by Ohlander's own experience as an industrial maker. In the city's South End, she works in close proximity to other artists and artisans, as well as to food-service professionals at neighboring restaurants and cafés.
The maker skirt has been "in the back of my mind as long as I worked in the glass industry producing things," Ohlander says. "When you're at work on a daily basis, or when you're out — we've done farmers markets and events at Hotel Vermont — you want to look somewhat presentable, but you also want to be functional. Then where are the clothes? What is it that's not just jeans with pockets?" she queries rhetorically.
Unable to find what she was looking for, Ohlander made it herself. Unlike a traditional wrap skirt, the maker skirt closes in the back, so the flap doesn't get in the wearer's way. And, unlike typically pocket-free women's clothing, this skirt has two large front pockets for tools and notepads. Keys can be clipped to a sewn-in hammer loop, and a cellphone pocket on the side keeps the device away from sharp objects or worktables. Available in two lengths, the skirt can be worn alone or over pants like an apron. It retails for $90 to $130.
Like the South End itself, Ohlander's new operation is evolving. Currently the store occupies a small corner of AO Glass, which will expand over the next few months to accommodate increased production. Until that renovation is complete, Ohlander won't know for sure where T by Dem will settle; interior rental studios in the large warehouse are shifting, too.
Wherever she ends up, walk-in retail for maker skirts, tees and other apparel will be part of the business. Ohlander is also taking wholesale orders for companies in the Burlington area and beyond. Locally, she says, she's in negotiations with some food and beverage professionals. Scandinavia-based customers include the Barista League, an organization that runs events for coffee professionals; and Oatly, which makes oat milk.
Ohlander's maker skirts are also available at Common Threads on Battery Street and in the Storsjöhyttan glass studio in Östersund, Sweden.
"There is a lot of talk about local business in Vermont," Ohlander writes in an email. "What I am intrigued by is that we are collaborating with two other small companies that just happen to be local in other locations of the planet — a redefinition, perhaps, of what it means to buy local."
Ohlander's products travel long distances to reach her, but their sourcing and manufacturing are ethically and environmentally mindful, she says. All of by Dem's cotton is fair-trade certified and organic, colored with sustainable or natural dyes that meet the Global Organic Textile Standard. (Upcoming versions of the maker skirt will be dyed with turmeric and other plants.)
The clothing is sewn at two factories that pay livable wages, with healthy working hours, in Sri Lanka. And, when possible, the company "prioritize[s]" shipping methods that use fewer fossil fuels, according to its website.
Annika Axelsson and Karin Stenmar founded by Dem in the early 2000s. The women have since received "green" awards in Sweden for their work. Axelsson frequently speaks publicly about sustainability and the textile industry.
So far, Ohlander's maker skirts have received accolades for more than their conscientious conception. Sas Stewart of Middlebury's Stonecutter Spirits calls hers "the most practical and beautiful apron" she's ever worn, and ordered some for her staff. She's currently talking with Ohlander about how to modify the skirt for men.
Ohlander says she makes a point of working with businesses that share her ideals. "We are supporting family-run small enterprises whose values I respect," she says, "and are making the world a bit smaller, friendlier and definitely more sustainable."