Handmade: It's all in the bag for accessories designer
As someone who's been a textile and jewelry artist almost her entire life, Dorothy Jett-Carter knows "timing is everything" -- even in the world of handmade fashion accessories.
Born and raised in Detroit, Jett-Carter traveled to parts of West Africa in the 90's, namely Ghana and Senegal. While there, she spent time with women in the Wolof Village in northwestern Senegal. She said, "I watched the intricate beading they did, and I (later) incorporated some of that beading into my own jewelry and textile work."
The West Bloomfield resident also noticed the women in Senegal carried large totes which they called "rag bags." She said, they were made with two layers of fabric, and padded with chicken feathers.
Inspired by the rag bags, Jett-Carter said, "When I came back, I wanted to make a very elegant version of their bags. I made the first one about 23 or 25 years ago, and they weren't popular. People didn't seem to understand them when I first made them. But then, about four or five years ago, I was carrying one, and someone fell in love with it." Soon after, there was a tremendous increase in sales of the bags. "The difference was the time," said Jett-Carter.
She named them the "West African Village Bag," and designed them with three layers -- two layers of fabric with a layer of bunting in between. They became part of her unique collection of "elegant cultural accessories" which she sells under the name Dorothy Jett-Carter Originals. "The bag slides on the handles, and the more you put in the bag, the larger the bag gets," she explained. "They have a big secret pocket inside with a Velcro closure.
"I first started designing the Village Bag, my beaded scarves, capes and other African-inspired accessories in the early 90's. They were popular in the African American community, but not everywhere. Now everyone loves and appreciates them, regardless of their heritage."
In October of 2015, "30 Americans," a three-month exhibition which opened at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) featured the work of contemporary African American artists from around the country. As part of the exhibit, the work of a number of local African American artists was also featured, and offered for sale. Among the items were Jett-Carter's colorful West African Village Bags. "That was really an honor to be included in the exhibit," she stated.
Jett-Carter, who refers to her work as "African-inspired, urban chic," later designed a much smaller shoulder purse, embellished with her hand-beading, that can be worn as a cross-body bag. They make the perfect cultural accessory for almost any outfit. She named the one-of-a-kind envelop-shaped purse the "Spirit Bag." She said, "They're made to put your essentials in, and not weigh your spirit down. They're a combination of mudcloth with other fabrics."
Jett-Carter's textile pieces are extremely well-crafted with much attention to detail, and each comes with a leather label that reads: "Dorothy Jett-Carter Originals, Detroit." She said she acquired her sewing skills from her grandmother who was a "well-known seamstress" in Lousiville, KY. "I started sewing and learning from her when I was very little -- like six or seven.
"And, then while I was at Cass (Technical High School), I took textile and design classes. When I first started making textiles, Plum Street (an area considered to be Detroit's art community in the '60s) was around. I've been doing it long enough to remember Plum Street. I had pieces of my jewelry sold in some of the little shops that were on Plum Street."
The mostly self-taught jewelry artist, said her design inspiration for creating beaded jewelry is sometimes derived from the type of gemstone she's using, rather than, the focal point -- for instance, a small African mask.
Jett-Carter, who holds an engineering degree from Detroit Institute of Technology, and worked as an executive at Chrysler for "many, many years," said one of the highlights of her design career occurred in the late 90's when she developed a line of hats, made with African fabrics, that were carried nationally by Jacobson's department store. Another was when her work was carried in the gift shop of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D. C. from 1998-2004.
Her advice to someone just starting out in the world of fashion and accessory design is simple -- "use your own name." She said, " I can't think of a successful designer whose company name is something other than their name. (Also,) stay true to yourself, design for yourself, and the customers will come. Successful people develop a design."
Jett-Carter's work can be found at The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Savvy Chic, Detroit Fiber Works, Detroit Artist Market and the DIA, all in Detroit, and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center in Birmingham.
Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.
Contact Dorothy Jett-Carter Originals at email@example.com, or on Facebook.