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Cumberland clothing designer finds her niche in designs inspired by nature

Jipsi Tree Clothing is adorned with screen prints of botanicals, <a href=

public health many of which JoAnne McElroy finds around her hometown of Cumberland. “People really like the fact that the designs are created from actual plants, ed ” she says. Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”https://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/jipsi-tree-web-602×903.jpg” width=”602″ height=”903″ /> Jipsi Tree Clothing is adorned with screen prints of botanicals, look many of which JoAnne McElroy finds around her hometown of Cumberland. “People really like the fact that the designs are created from actual plants,” she says. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Okay, I admit it—I really like clothes. Not just any clothes, though. I gravitate toward pieces that are comfortable yet flattering—clothes that I’m happy to wear all day AND that make me look slim! And if the pieces look interesting, well, then I’m really hooked. That’s what happened the first time I saw a Jipsi Tree T-shirt on display in a shop window. It literally stopped me in my tracks. I backed up, made sure my husband was listening, and then clearly stated that THAT was what I wanted for my birthday.

The shirt, made of a stretchy bamboo knit, is cut long and is just a little snug, so it’s flattering yet super comfy. Along the bottom front of the shirt in bright contrasting colors is a screen print of a bicycle floating over a random pattern of leaves. The end result is quite striking. It spoke to me… and I listened.

Jipsi Tree has been speaking to a lot of people in the past nine months since JoAnne McElroy first put her T-shirts and skirts on display at Rusty Rooster in Cumberland. “It really is amazing to me how this venture has taken off,” says McElroy. “In the beginning I dreamed of people recognizing my pieces—stopping me and asking ‘Is that a Jipsi Tree?’ I remember thinking that that would just be so wonderful… so amazing. And now it’s happened. People know my pieces because they stand out. And I regularly see people wearing my stuff around town. It’s so cool to see that—I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.”

Though it seems that McElroy has arrived, the road to get here has been fraught with wrong turns, potholes and dead ends.

Originally trained as a teacher, McElroy knew early on that it wasn’t a career that would make her happy or fulfilled. “Being a teacher—it wasn’t a good fit for me,” she says. “In fact I was miserable. But I’d spent so much time and money on the training, and it was a good job. I wondered how I could walk away from a solid career.” But McElroy was so unhappy that the job was making her ill. In time she knew she only had one choice—she had to leave her career as a teacher.

“That was really hard. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. When I was young it was a constant struggle for me to make my way through society. I always felt like I was a fish swimming against the current. Now here I was again, in the current and desperately wanting to get out.”

But McElroy did get out and eventually came to Cumberland to visit some old tree-planting friends. She never left. “As soon as I arrived, I knew Cumberland was different,” says McElroy. “Here in Cumberland I feel like I’m in good company. It’s okay to take chances here. In Cumberland people wear lots of hats to make ends meet. The difference from other communities I’ve known is that so many people wanr to live here in Cumberland. So they move here first and then they figure out how they’re going to make it work—just like me.”

Finding what would work for McElroy wasn’t easy though. She tried her hand a lot of different things in the past few years. “I think I drove my friends crazy for awhile,” she admits. “I would see something that someone else was doing and I’d start thinking that I should do the same thing. Then I’d notice something else and start talking about that idea all the time. I’m sure they all wished that I’d just choose something and stick to it.”

Now that Jipsi Tree is off and running, McElroy’s friends may be collectively breathing a sigh of relief, but the relief can’t be greater than what McElroy is feeling. “It’s been a long struggle and a difficult journey to get to where I am now. Now I’m following my heart and that struggle has disappeared.”

Though McElroy grew up being exposed to the clothing industry, she never saw herself as the type to own her own business. “Throughout my childhood my mom ran a ladies’ wear store in Hudson Hope. All those years I watched my mom run her business. I’d hang out at the shop during the day, helping her where I could, and I’d even travel with her to Vancouver to help her choose the next season’s clothing. But the thing is, I never thought I could actually run my own business like my mom. I never thought I was smart enough so I never imagined myself doing it. But here I am. I’ve become so much more confident through this experience—I actually have faith in myself now.”

McElroy describes her entry into the clothing design world as “a fluke.

“It’s actually funny how it all evolved,” she says. “Awhile ago my friend Paola and I took a weekend screen printing course in Royston at a place called Squeegeeville. We spent three days learning how to screen print and we really enjoyed the process. Afterwards Paola and I discussed the possibility of using our screen printing skills to print articles of clothing. But things were too hectic then, Paola was too busy, the time wasn’t right and things just never got off the ground. One day months later, Paola got tired of hearing me talk about yet another brilliant idea. She sat me down and stated that even though she couldn’t do it with me, I had her blessings to start the clothing company on my own.”

And so she did. “When Paola said that to me—it was one of those ‘ah ha’ moments,” McElroy says. “As soon as I heard it, I knew that it was something I had to do. It was perfect.”

From the beginning McElroy knew she wanted her clothing to be something she could be proud of. “I felt very strongly that I didn’t want mass produced clothing that didn’t support our environment or our economy, so I do my best to source fabrics that are sustainable and I only use water-based inks. My tag line is ‘Canadian, sustainable, and beautiful.’”

Procuring the clothing pieces while supporting the Canadian economy became easier when she decided to team up with her partner’s mother, Sylvie Chabot, a professional seamstress from Quebec. “Sylvie is immensely talented as a seamstress,” says McElroy.

“Since I didn’t want to use pieces that were mass-produced, I decided I may as well design my own items and have Sylvie sew them for me. I knew she had the skills to match the challenge. The physical distance between us is a problem, and so is the language barrier—she doesn’t speak a word of English—but we’ve worked through those difficulties. We have business meetings by Skype and my partner Miguel translates for me. It’s pretty funny sometimes but it seems to work.”

Though McElroy has not been professionally trained in clothing design she has a knack for creating styles that are unique yet functional. “To create styles I go online and I simply find things I like,” McElroy says. “I combine styles that appeal to me. Maybe I like the hemline of that skirt and the waistline of another one. I try to create styles that are flattering for any body size or shape. That’s why my sizes range from extra small to extra large. After I decide upon a design I send Sylvie the pictures and she creates a pattern from the images as well as our conversations. She then makes a prototype and sends it to me in the mail.”

The process may be convoluted at times, but it seems to be working well. In fact, sometimes the communication barrier can cause happy accidents. “There have been some interesting things that have come from our long-distance and translated business meetings,” she says. “Just the other day I received one piece that’s intended for my new fall line. I opened the package, took one look and thought, ‘That’s not what I wanted.’ However, after I looked at it more closely, I realized it was actually better than what I had originally intended. I decided to keep the design as it was.”

Besides the interesting designs, Jipsi Tree clothing is special because of the images printed on the pieces. The clothing is adorned with botanicals that McElroy either finds around Cumberland or that friends send to her for the purpose of incorporating into a screen print. “People really like the fact that the designs are created from actual plants. Most of the botanicals are found locally, but some things, like the ginkgo biloba leaves that will be used for some of my fall line pieces—those aren’t native to this area—but a friend of mine has a plant and she saved a few leaves for me. I’m excited to see how they turn out.”

To create the screen print McElroy first takes the dried plant and places it on a screen that has been covered with an impermeable coating. This screen is then coupled with another screen that holds the plant in place. The two screens are then propped upright and subjected to a bright light that burns the image onto the screen. This burning also removes the impermeable coating and this is the only part of the screen that will allow the ink to come through. McElroy can then use the screen as many times as she likes to embellish her pieces. Each article of clothing is one of a kind.

And each piece has a name. For example, there is a dress in the fall line that McElroy is particularly proud of. “The dress is very dear to my heart,” she says. “It’s called Mrs. Jessop’s garden dress. Mrs. Jessop was a neighbor of mine, and she and I were very close. Unfortunately, she passed away this spring. She loved to garden so I decided to take some of the dried flowers from her garden and create screen prints from them. These are the prints that I’m using on the garden dress. It’s a way for me to honor her memory.”

The fall line will be available in mid-November. “There will be a long skirt, a newly styled T-shirt, a long sleeved T-shirt, leggings, a tunic and of course, a dress,” says McElroy. “I’ll also have bras, boy shorts, camisoles, headbands and scarves. It’s very exciting.”

There is much for McElroy to be excited about, as she’s convinced that she’s started something that has changed the course of the rest of her life. “This business incorporates all the things I love to do. I’m able to be creative. I can be outside. In fact, when I’m running or biking I’m always looking for botanicals that I can use in my screen printing. There are so many elements of my life—of who I am—that are a part of this business. I love what my lifestyle has become.”

What’s in a name? Some say that a name can tell a story. In the case of Jipsi Tree Clothing, that is true, as the name says a lot about McElroy. “It was one of those things—once I happened upon the name I knew it was right. Jipsi because, like the gypsy, I’m a free spirit. Gypsies live to their own beat. I love that. I need that. I was a tree planter for many years, living like a nomad without real deep roots. But now I’m settled, putting down roots like the trees I used to plant. Jipsi Tree resonates with who I am.”

Jipsi Tree clothing can be found on Etsy.com and at the Rusty Rooster in Cumberland, be Clothing Boutique in Courtenay, Beulah Creek Nursery on Hornby Island, Shades of Green in Parksville, Radway Eco Boutique in Cowichan Bay and Hollyhock Store on Cortes Island. For more information find Jipsi Tree Clothing on Facebook or www.jipsitree.com