Studio Visit: Oil/Lumber

Story By: Cat Acree
Photography: Daniel Meigs
Nashville Design Week 2019

Oil/Lumber’s handmade clothing and furniture are designed to exist and change with people over the years, and in the same way, the company’s studio has grown and changed with them.

The materials used in Oil/Lumber clothing and furniture are natural, recycled, organic, and they go far: A beautifully cut jacket might be made of the same material that will be used to upholster a sofa. Founder Ethan Summers is half Japanese and grew up making shibori, and many of his designs draw from items of his family’s heritage, such as a tiny, beautiful jacket he used to wear when he was five years old. He’s continued that tradition, now collaborating with Patagonia, Bar Otaku, and hotels like Noelle.

The studio for Oil/Lumber is clean and simple—the equivalent of a basic white T done perfectly. It’s located in a giant converted warehouse, with offices, industrial sewing machines, massive cutting tables and a classic showroom existing effortlessly in one open space, with wood and metalworking done in a cavernous shared basement. But first, it all started at Fort Houston, back when the co-working hub was located in the May Hosiery building.

When the creatives of Fort Houston were forced to move, Summers set out with a few friends—Adam Gatchel of Southern Lights Electric, Luke Stockdale of Sideshow Side Co., and Bingham Barnes and Drew Binkley of silkscreen company Grand Palace—to find a new place to land. The warehouse, located near the fairgrounds, had no air conditioning, no interior walls, no big glass garage doors that allow light to spill in. But they saw potential, and what was once the practice facility for the Nashville Roller Derby (the floor is still stained with a ring from so many roller-skated laps) is now a co-working space for Oil/Lumber, New Hat and many others.

What changes did you make to the space?

We made it as cool as, we think, a metal warehouse can be–within a budget. So when [tenants] move in, you have to be okay with like, you don’t have a light switch, you just have a breaker. And we’ll help you with whatever else we can, but you take care of your own house. Unless there’s a hole in the roof, we don’t really do much.

How do you use the space?

We cut and sew all the garments here. We design them all here. And then the furniture the same way. We sometimes outsource some of the upholstery down the street, but for the most part, we upholster all our sofas and chairs right here. We have all the machines to do it, and that’s the only way I can control how good it is, is if we have our hands on every piece of a project. That doesn’t mean you make more money. It usually means you make a lot less, but I just couldn’t find anyone to do the level of stuff that we wanted at the quantity we had.

How has the space changed with you?

We were doing all the welding and screwing and doing it all up here [in the showroom space]. As we’ve grown, people have either decreased their size downstairs or expanded, and [we’re] just like, ‘Can we take this? Alright, we’ll expand.’ And now we have 3,000 square feet downstairs that’s dedicated just to that.

The clothing’s gotten bigger. We didn’t have a cutting table [at first]. Now we need two of these big ones. So we’re just scaling and trying to figure it out. We’re doing it a different way. Elizabeth Suzann–we’re trying to replicate what they do, just on the men’s side. So how they’ve scaled over time is what we’re trying to do.

How far do you think you’ll expand?

The plan is to always make everything here. Regardless, we would never outsource the manufacturing, and if we did, it probably wouldn’t be my company anymore.

With the mixed sense of a showroom and a workshop, this room feels a bit like a restaurant where the kitchen is open to the dining room, or like coffee shops with the bull pit at the center of the room. The work you do is really on display.

No one knows how stuff’s made. We say it’s handmade, but no one knows what that means. They see it as a buzzword sometimes. . . . The hard part is educating people who aren’t local. We sell most of our stuff online, and when people buy it, I’m like, ‘What do know about us?’ and they’re like, ‘I just like the jacket. I bought it.’ That’s great, but you need to know what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

I do every button hole still. I do ever bar tack myself because it’s the last part. I kind of QC everything myself. There’s still levels of that we have to do.

How do you replicate this experience of being in this room?

We want to be as genuine as possible and make sure that they know we’re not playing the game, and that it still looks beautiful and looks cool. . . . Even if that’s made in China, Korea, wherever, someone’s hand-sewing that, and it’s kind of cool to know if it’s made by somebody.

And it’s got to be across the board. We claim to be as sustainable as we can be. We don’t claim to be 100 percent sustainable because I’m not 100 percent perfect. If I claim that, I will get called out. Whenever we get a decision [whether] we can make it sustainable, we usually choose yes. The only reason I wouldn’t is because we don’t know enough about it or we don’t have enough money to do it.

In what ways do you think you’re succeeding in sustainability?

Material sourcing, I feel like we do a pretty good job. We try to get organic as much as we can, or at least natural-fiber materials, stuff that will biodegrade into the earth. Using conscious dyes. We dye all of these ourselves here from indigo we source from Columbia, Tennessee. There’s a huge indigo supplier here called Stony Creek. They’re awesome. They work with Madewell, J.Crew, Lucky Brand, Patagonia. They’re the national supplier for indigo for them, and it’s a lady in East Nashville. She was smart because she found that . . . the machines to mill tobacco and grow it was all the same as indigo.

Those shorts over there, they’re [made from a material called] cocoTEX, which is 80 percent recycled bottles and 20 percent coconut husks that we weave into it to make it strong.

We’re doing a fleece for the fall, like a standard knit fleece. We’ve never done that. The debate is whether to go organic cotton, which is awesome but it doesn’t function as well, or you can get recycled polyester. It’s the first polyester that can be biodegradable. It’s a huge company called Polartec. They give to Patagonia, North Face, and just released this brand-new fabric that’s supposed to be revolutionary.

How do you expand while staying true to yourself and your company?

Quality just can’t drop. On anything. I didn’t think I was a perfectionist, but we hired new people and Mike was like, ‘Man, you might be a perfectionist, because stuff’s got to be so perfect in your eyes.’

I’m very hands-on with both [furniture and clothing]. I do all the designs from the ground up. . . . Furniture stuff I’m probably more versed in because I’ve built it for so long. It’s pretty straight-foward, working with materials that never change, like wood. Wood is always the same. It can move a little bit, but clothing, between this material and this material, an armpit can be different even though it’s sewn exactly the same way. Fabric stretches and pulls and fits everyone’s shoulders differently. That’s something to get used to, but now I feel like we’re on equal playing field with both.

What’s next?

We’re trying to move the furniture into more direct-to-consumer, like the clothing. I have Ikea stuff, but some of it’s like, you can buy one thing that will last you 20 years, or buy one thing you buy every three years. We’re trying to educate people on, this is a solid hardwood table. A thousand dollars for materials is not crazy.

Our differentiator is that we do both. If you do one or the other, it’s not really that different. All the things that make you weird as a kid are the creative things that you push away for the longest time, and if you end up doing it professionally, that’s the things that make you better. All the things that make us weird, spin it, use it as art, differentiate.