Sommers displays her hand-crafted, sustainable items at a holiday fair. (Photo by Haley Richter)

by Len Lear

If there was a national magazine devoted to the making of crafts whose production does no harm to the environment, then Christie Sommers should be on the cover of that magazine.

Sommers, 41, a resident of Wyndmoor for six years, is the founder of West Oak Design, whose products are sold at many holiday fairs and craft festivals as well as The Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition shop, The Perelman Building exhibition shop, Vault + Vine in East Falls and Harvey Oak Mercantile in Swarthmore, to name a few. She creates sustainable fashions that are not disposable.

This means durably crafted, classic garments that transition seamlessly through changing seasons and trends. Production methods are intended to preserve the health and well-being of our society and environment.

“For my business,” Sommers said, “that means reducing production waste, utilizing materials that have outlived their usefulness and supporting local and/or family owned suppliers. As my business grows, I aim to go completely zero waste. My ultimate goal is to develop a method for fiber decomposition that could be utilized not only by my company but others as well to reduce the amount of textile waste the fashion industry currently dumps into landfills.”

Sommers grew up in Ardsley, a small community in Abington Township, and attended Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote. She studied ballet/modern dance from 1996 to 1998 at DeSales Art Institute in the Lehigh Valley with a minor in Technical Theater.

“It was through their in-depth costume design courses that I learned sewing, garment design/construction and various fabric dyeing techniques that laid the foundation for the work I do now,” said Sommers. “Then I received my BS in Interior Design from The Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2010, where I developed a deep love and admiration for modern art and design, as well as a passion for sustainable design.”

Some sustainable West Oak Design products.

Sommers had been making handcrafted goods and gifts for friends for years. Her family entertained her interests in the form of birthday gifts ranging from calligraphy kits to little looms or hookrugs.

“There is something so special and personal about handmade gifts,” she said last week. “Chances are, if I ever made you something, you mean an awful lot to me. And I began making handcrafted goods as a means of income around the time we moved to Wyndmoor in 2013.”

In February 2014, Sommers launched The Handmade Today Project, a 365-day enterprise wherein she made one item by hand every day for one year and posted daily photos to Instagram.

“I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but my mountain of student loan debt meant I needed to generate some form of income.”

The Wyndmoor resident was making children’s products (bibs, playmats, stuffed toys), housewares (planters, pillows, etc.), clothing, bags, jewelry and more.

“The Handmade Today Project was my way of kick-starting my online presence while building an inventory and getting some feedback on what people were interested in buying. I started receiving custom orders three days into the project and officially opened my online shop in May of 2014.”

According to one customer, Brooke Folk, “I really love her business, her positive impact on our lives and the environment. Hopefully more people start to realize how bad fast fashion is for the environment.”

Sommers has also been a mural artist, nursery school teacher, terrarium maker, flower arranger, dance teacher, architectural handdrafter/renderer, interior designer, waitress and bartender.

“I spent most of my 20s trying to figure out what I wanted to be,” she explained. “Each and every iteration has contributed in some way to my business.”

Why is the zero-waste concept so important to Sommers?

“When I was in my final year of design school, I read two books that shifted my perspective on design, ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,’ by Braungart & McDonough, and ‘Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,’ by Janine Benyus. Those two books opened my eyes to the great responsibility designers have to our environment,” she said.

“We are in the unique position to make people think about how they live and how their lives impact the environment for better or worse. My senior thesis was a … zero-waste utopia, and everything I have made or designed from that point was designed with the product’s ‘end of life’ in mind. In other words, what will happen to this after it has outlived its usefulness?”

During this holiday season, Sommers and her products will be at these events: Dec. 12 – URBN Market Urban Outfitters Headquarters Building 543, 5000 S. Broad St. (in the Navy Yard), 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dec. 14 and 15 – Clover Holiday Market at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dec. 21 – Event in Fishtown. Details coming at @westoakdesign on Instagram or on the West Oak Design website.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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