Carrying the thread: two textile enthusiasts bring vintage online

Jeska Grue and Emlyn Murray turn their love of thrift shopping into an online business.

by Sophie Allen-Barron

Murray and Grue display some of their thrift shop finds.
Murray and Grue display some of their thrift shop finds. (Sophie Allen-Barron / Peninsula News)

For those who partake, the act of vintage shopping is full of unparalleled joys. The act of sifting through racks or digging through bins, then finding the perfect piece in a pile of duds. Some consider the tactile experience to be the best part. So how does it work when the hunt is taken out of the shop and onto the internet?

Jeska Grue, 25, and Emlyn Murray, 22, co-own the Etsy shop Coupy Clothes. Both had an excess of clothes from years of thrift shopping, and decided to turn their crammed closets into a business. Since July 2012 the friends have sold both their own castoffs, and things that they have thrifted, to customers worldwide.

Etsy is an online selling platform that allows anyone with a credit card to list handmade and vintage items. The site continues to grow in popularity – statistics published by the Etsy News Blog show that nearly 1.4 million new members joined last November. In the same month, vendors sold a collective $147.5 million in goods.

Making the old work in a digital age

With other part-time work and classes – both Murray and Grue are in their final year of the costume studies program at Dalhousie University – starting a business is no easy feat.

“I guess one of the big barriers in Halifax is how expensive rent is, especially downtown,” says Grue. Retail space on Grafton Street, for example, goes for about $35 a square foot per month, while space on Spring Garden leases for an average $70 per square foot monthly.

Etsy charges no upfront membership fees, but takes 3.5 per cent of each sale. To list an item for four months (or until sold) costs a mere 20 cents. Murray named this relatively low cost as one of their greatest motivators in starting their shop.

“Once we started actually selling things, it just made sense to keep on going. You’re making money from it.”

The shop is currently a side project for the two, a way of turning their thrifting habit into a little extra spending money. The shop has made 165 online sales so far, though that doesn’t include the sales they’ve made in person with Haligonians hoping to save on the shipping fees.

Grue stresses the importance of including accurate measurements in their listings, and taking good clear photographs from a variety of angles.

“Both of us bought stuff on Etsy for a long time, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, this is the most exquisite thing!’ and then you get it, and it’s not whatsoever what’s represented.”

Preparing items for post.
Preparing items for post. (Sophie Allen-Barron / Peninsula News)

Grue notes that the work required to list an item – from thrifting the item to cleaning and sending it off – can be tedious. The two first have to find items to list, shopping at stores like Frenchy’s and the Salvation Army. They then clean and press the item, attending to any details like loose buttons or stray threads. Once the garment is in tip top shape they photograph it, upload the listing and wait.

“There are a lot of little phases – it’s a lot more monotonous, it’s not like we’re in a room with a bunch of clothes and just throwing them around,” she says with a laugh.

Once an item has been sold, it isn’t as simple as handing the buyer a bag. With customers as far-flung as Australia, managing shipping is a big part of running the business successfully. Murray notes that it wasn’t an easy task initially.

“There were a lot of times [at the beginning] where we really undercharged for shipping and didn’t end up making much of a profit on the item because it ended up being heavier and more costly to ship,” says Murray, adding that certain countries like Switzerland have higher postage rates than others of a similar distance.

So why bother?

As costume studies students and thrifting enthusiasts, both Grue and Murray have a love for textiles rooted in their childhood. Grue grew up near Truro with easy access to a Frenchy’s, one of a chain of treasured Atlantic Canadian second-hand stores, as well as local favourite Louie’s, a similar enterprise. She notes that though as a kid she wanted new clothing, her mother was devoted to the thrifting scene.

“As a teenager I really grew into loving thrift shopping,” says Grue. “I had to go to high school in Truro, and even on my free blocks I’d go to Louie’s, or the Salvation Army downtown, and see what I could find.”

Grue sewing by sunlight. (Sophie Allen-Barron/Peninsula News)
Grue sewing by sunlight. (Sophie Allen-Barron / Peninsula News)

Murray, who was raised in Halifax, can also trace her interest in clothes to her teenage years. She had exposure to costumes as an art form in childhood with two theatre artist parents and a costume-designing aunt.

Both have a sharp eye for combing the racks and bins, and their knowledge of garments and textiles is a real asset.  While Murray says that their shop is “not quite on the level of 100 per cent old vintage,” they definitely keep their eyes peeled for pieces from certain decades.

“It’s actually quite hard to find pieces of clothing from the ‘50s or earlier in Halifax, so sometimes that can be what draws me into things.

“We tend to find older clothing was made better, and that’s why it survived, and that’s why we like selling it,” she says. “More often than not it’s the quality, like if I see something that’s silk, I’m much more likely to buy that over a polyester piece.”

Grue says that they both seek to maintain a sense of levity in their stock, and list a number of playful prints under headings with tongue-in-cheek cultural references, like a “90s Bond girl brocade dress” or the “Jackie Burkhart wants her shorts back shorts.”

“We like things to be a funny, [with] a sense of humour, kind of cheeky. I would say the style is pretty varied. It’s not a dark aesthetic, or a feminine aesthetic, but it’s there.”

Grue and Murray with mannequin friends. (Sophie Allen-Barron / Peninsula News)
Grue and Murray with mannequin friends. (Sophie Allen-Barron / Peninsula News)

This lightheartedness comes coupled with a part of retail that is easily lost in an online transaction: the relationship between the customer and the vendor. The women of Coupy Clothes strive to keep this going with respect to the clothes finding their right owner.

For Murray, this was one of the reasons they initially decided to sell their clothes online.

“If you give them to a thrift store, you’re not really sure of where they end up, like with the right person if it’s a special article of clothing,” she says.

She remembers finding a dress that she loved that was just too large for her.

“It’s kind of nice to know that it went to someone who hopefully it fit really well and that would enjoy it.”

They recently started a Coupy Clothes Instagram account, in the hopes of connecting with fellow vintage sellers and customers alike. The decision to join the photo-sharing platform came after Grue noticed that other sellers would post not only clothing photos but photos from their daily activities. This “gave you more a feel for their lifestyle and why the clothing that they chose would relate to that,” explains Murray.

“It’s not even a type of advertising, it’s a way to document the daily craft,” says Grue.

What’s next?

While they’re sticking to selling vintage clothing for the moment, the two can see themselves eventually listing their own designs alongside their finds.

“I think both of us are very interested in going into making our own clothes, and designing our own clothes. I think that’s really where we’d love to head someday if the opportunity arose,” says Grue.

“If we’re making stuff that we also like, it would attract the same sort of customer base.”

Spring cleaning : preparing for warmer weather on McNabs Island

McNabs Island will see its annual clean-up this June by Friends of McNabs Island.

Most Haligonians would agree that the city has suffered a harsher winter than usual. But Cathy McCarthy is thinking about the needs of another population.

“It would be really hard on all the deer on McNabs,” says McCarthy. “I expect they’ve had a bit of a harder time than usual with all the snow.”

McCarthy is the president of the Friends of McNabs Island Society and has been with them since their first meeting in March 1990. In addition to fundraising to provide amenities like park benches and a composting toilet for the island, the society organizes annual beach clean-ups.

McCarthy says that the island’s location at the mouth of the harbour means that it’s “like a sieve” for garbage and debris from both sides.

“Unfortunately, we’ve collected over 11,000 bags of garbage since we started doing this in 1991. There may be a few people that leave garbage if they go over for a visit to the island, but most of the garbage is washed up on the beaches.”

The clean-ups, or “sweeps”, are intended to not only clear the beaches of debris, but identify the sources of the contaminants. Organizations such as Clean Nova Scotia as well as individual volunteers also participate in the sweeps. This year’s sweep is set for June 1.

Art of the island

Rochelle Owen is the director of the Office of Sustainability at Dalhousie University and has been doing photography for the society on a volunteer basis for around 20 years. She is all too familiar with the pollution on the beaches of McNabs.

“The different shorelines represent different parts of our ocean community. Closer to the Eastern Passage, the debris is reflective of the industry and the inner harbor,” says Owen, “and on the other ocean-facing side of the island it’s a big ocean breeze, much bigger swells of water, a cleaner environment, but there’s debris of a different nature. You can see a little bit more fishing debris, and wood and flotsam and jetsam.”

McNab's enthusiast and photographer Rochelle Owen. (Sophie Allen-Barron/Peninsula News)
McNab’s enthusiast and photographer Rochelle Owen. (Sophie Allen-Barron/Peninsula News)

This was the first year Owen visited McNabs in the winter. She’s working on an exhibition of her photos of the island, set to go up in October 2014.

“The title of the exhibit is ‘Nature’s Reconstruction’, and when I was out there I started to investigate the theme. I noticed that the power of nature to transform the human habitation of the island, for 300 years – or way longer than that with the Mi’kmaq people there, but you can see bits of their history still there.”

In its heyday as a recreational and residential area, McNabs was home to a soda factory. Evidence of this past is still visible on the island.

“There are still old bottles, so you can see how nature is transforming those pieces, that’s the focus of it,” says Owen.

While Fort McNab is a national historic site, and the rest of the island a provincial park, it often does not get the funds McCarthy feels it deserves. Instead, the society fundraises to keep the island accessible and beautiful.

“Over the past five years Friends of McNabs have been fundraising, we’ve applied to various grants, and we’ve been able to raise 500 000 dollars for the trails and to try to improve the infrastructure on McNabs,” says McCarthy.

“We’ve been able to get some arborists to come over and clean out the windfalls, the dead trees and dead wood that was in the Victorian gardens, so there’s well over 100 different species of trees and plants in there and people are able to walk around and see the gardens.”

A youth group congregates in the Victorian gardens on McNab's. (c/o Cathy McCarthy)
A youth group congregates in the Victorian gardens on McNab’s. (c/o Cathy McCarthy)

For all the beauty that drew McCarthy to the island after visiting it with her children over 20 years ago, she recognises that there are serious issues that need to be addressed – specifically, erosion.

“The breakwater just beyond the lighthouse, on the Hangman’s beach side, has been eroded and damaged so much over the years with the winter storms and has not been repaired. That breakwater, if it does give way completely, will change the shoreline of McNab’s completely,” says McCarthy, adding that “there hasn’t been any indication from any level of government that they’re going to fix it.”

McNab’s island is currently accessible through several ferry services out of Eastern Passage, or through Murphy’s for larger groups.