Over the past five years, Kellie Ketron changed careers, moved to Frederick, and launched Sally Forth Supply Co., a small-batch crafts business known for brightly patterned gear bags and waxed canvas aprons.
The 37-year-old seamstress is now settled in a converted camper parked on a friend’s farm in Keymar, where she lives with her two dogs, Charlie and Doc Holliday.
Her utilitarian gear is clutch for camping trips, construction projects, and crafters, with sturdy stitching designed for rough-and-tumble wear. But after a sudden illness — and her ongoing recovery — Ketron is looking toward the future, with plans to eventually design a line of products for people with disabilities.
The local maker discussed her inspirations, illness and upcoming projects as part of the Artist Spotlight series.
Tell me about how you first started sewing. Was it always a passion of yours?
Ketron: Actually, I have a major in music business with a minor in business administration from Middle Tennessee State University. I did, and still do — eventually — want to be a music supervisor: putting music into films, advertising, commercials.
After I graduated, I got a job doing stage lighting and AV work in Nashville. I was the youngest female crew leader in Tennessee at the time, which is really cool, and I did the designing on some shows for some big names. But we don’t have unions in Tennessee, so I didn’t get benefits. We’d have 36-hour shifts. If you got hurt, you got worker’s comp, but that was it. And I got hurt. So, I was like, ‘You know, this is not something that I really want to do.’
I had a friend who was bartending and she was like, ‘You should do this. Your personality is perfect for it.’ So, I tended bar for a year and then I wound up managing the bar for three years. Which I really liked. But then in 2013, I got assaulted by a customer. He broke my collarbone and my shoulder, he tore some muscles in my neck, and I couldn’t pour bottles anymore.
Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry.
Ketron: Yeah. Yeah. It’s okay. But the business started while I was rehabilitating. I wasn’t working, but I had a bag of fabric and this sewing machine my mom bought when we were babies. I was going to a party, and I decided I wanted to wear a tie. So, I just looked at one I had already and made my own. When I went to the party, everyone was like, ‘Hey, that’s cool. Where did you get it?’ They liked it, so I came up with the business. It started out as Dapper Geek, actually. I was doing a lot of reading, a lot of research, looking at the historical reasons for ties: why they existed, where they came from.
I wanted to do something that was very androgynous, that anybody could wear. Try to let people know that fashion isn’t binary, basically. All my stuff was really bright, graphic, and I would never do more than one or two of anything. Like, I had six ties made out of my friend’s grandmother’s curtains, which were awesome. But once they were done, that was it.
Kind of trying to push a more equitable view of fashion?
Ketron: Yeah, because I wanted to wear ties. And even when I came out at 16, everything still felt very binary. I was sick of all that stuff. I wanted to make something that I would wear myself, and people I knew would wear. I wanted to stress, ‘You can wear a tie if you like them.’ You don’t have to live through your son or your husband. You can wear one. It’s okay.
There wasn’t, like, Janelle Monae wearing ties to the Grammys.
Ketron: Exactly! The first time I saw her with her tuxedo, I was like, ‘This is amazing. This is life-changing for so many people.’ I was not on a stage doing it, but I was trying to quietly do it in my community.
So, how did Dapper Geek evolve into Sally Forth?
Ketron: I got sick, actually. Right after my two-month road trip, which I took just to get ... out of Tennessee and figure out where I wanted to live. I thought I was going to move somewhere out west. But right after I got back, I spent some time in Frederick with my parents, who retired here.
I remember I was in D.C. for the American Field craft show, this pop-up event that travels to a bunch of different cities. And it started with my foot hurting. Then on the way back, in the car, I was like, ‘Man. My knee really hurts, too.’ It hurt so badly that my mom had to take the wheel. That’s when I knew something was really wrong. By the time we got home, I couldn’t stand. My left leg swelled up with 35 pounds of edema.
I had three spinal taps and went to, like, 15 specialists, and now I’m on chemo injections every week. I know I have autoimmune something — it’s rheumatoid arthritis, and connective tissue disease being treated as lupus — but we’re still waiting to find out what the big thing is going to be.
And how did that affect the business?
Ketron: Well, I didn’t want to wear ties anymore. I used to get dressed up every day. Always a tie and waistcoat, fancy boots, done up to the nines. Then I got sick and I put on, like, 60 pounds from steroids. I had carpal tunnel therapy and couldn’t use my hands for a while. I had to start wearing tee-shirts and even sweatpants in public, which was never my aesthetic. So, it kind of changed who I was as a person. With Dapper Geek, I felt like I had to play the character of the business. But then I kind of realized, ‘I just want to be comfortable. Other people do it. You can do it, too.’
Where did the name Sally Forth come from?
Ketron: It’s actually a phrase from World War I. Basically, it comes from trench warfare — the idea that if you were moving towards the front lines and pushing your enemies back, you’d eventually reach a safe place, but you had no idea what it was going to be like getting to that point. So, to sally forth is to take a gamble, knowing that there’s potential for better.
When I came across the term, I was like, ‘Wow, I know I’m really sick and I know that it’s going to get better, hopefully. But I don’t know what the process will be like in the middle.’ It rang true for me. And I love having a look that’s more mercantile. Dapper Geek was, like, ‘I have to do ties.’ But I wanted to go broader, move into doing bags and accessories and maybe one day having a retail space that brought in other small makers. Have a little bit of everything.
So, tell me about what you’re making now.
Ketron: There’s the wallets, which are one of the first things I ever made. I had a friend who was always throwing her Chapstick and her ID in her purse and then she could never find them and it would take us, like, 20 extra minutes just to go anywhere. So, I decided to make a wallet just for Chapstick and your ID and some cash. It’s funny because I’ve been making them since the beginning, but they didn’t really get popular until the beginning of last year. Then I think I sold, like, 150. I always knew I had something, but sometimes I feel like I’m a season ahead on a lot of things.
Then I started making the bags because I’m always carrying all this crap with me and it’s kind of unorganized. And I wanted to make stuff that I could use. Like, when I was on my road trip, I had this big toiletry bag, but then I was showering with a portable shower under trees. I was like, ‘I don’t have anywhere to set this.’ So, I made one with a handle so I could hang it up. Then there’s my Gus bag, which you can use for tools or crafts or sewing. It has double pockets and elastic loops for all your stuff.
I make aprons, too — waxed canvas aprons with my own handmade fabric wax. I get a lot of orders for those from stylists and barbers and bakers, and some of my tattoo artist friends use them, too. Now I’m actually outfitting an entire restaurant in Silver Spring, so I’m excited about that. Looking forward, there’s a lot of bigger projects I really want to pursue. I’d love to design something functional that could help people with disabilities. That’s always on my mind — how can I make something that could help?
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters.