She waits under the eaves of her porch, peering through pouring sheets of silver rain for a car to come down her street. It is two weeks before the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Roycelyn Dequair is excited. She has earned a crafts spot in Congo Square and she can’t wait to talk about it.
Had the hospital registration clerk not lost her job, all this might not have unfolded. Dequair’s days are no longer about forms and filing. She is now merging an age-old craft with the modern concept of upcycling in hopes of creating her own business.
On this rainy morning, her crocheted aluminum soda can pop-top handbags and creations are spread across her living room in New Orleans’ 6th Ward. What started as a pair of earrings has turned into multiple fashion items from headbands to hats to handbags.
The concept of merging soda can ring-tabs with intricate handiwork to create wearables is nothing new. In fact, it is an international craft that has also turned up in high-fashion collections. Just last spring, designer Narciso Rodriguez — designer to the likes of Michelle Obama, Jessica Alba and Claire Danes — joined forces with the eco-focused British accessories label Bottletop to create a tote bag and clutch using the ring pulls from soda cans (ranging in price from $1,000 to $2,000 — limited edition, of course, with all the couture details).
Pop-tabs have been used to make everything from chainmaille (metal mesh) bustiers to bracelets. DIY videos on the upcycled fashion medium are plentiful.
For those who depend on their own two hands to turn out products, the craft requires skill, patience, endurance, a sense of design and a tolerance for callouses on the fingers. That, and short-lived manicures, says Dequair, who puts in about 16 to 17 hours a day chain-stitching spools of nylon thread to aluminum soda can parts — ring tabs and the aluminum bottoms of cans — preparing for the upcoming festival.
“You don’t find out you have been selected (for a crafts booth at Jazzfest) until January 15,” says Dequair, who goes through about 20,000 pop tabs a week, many given to her by friends, neighbors and fellow second-liners.
“This is only my second year making these (bags and accessories),” says Dequair. It is her first time to show at Jazzfest, where she will also demonstrate her craft in Congo Square the first weekend of the festival.
“I learned to crochet in the 7th grade in home-ec class,” she says. “And then, I just made things like baby blankets for friends.” But when the 49-year-old found herself unemployed, she began to think of doing something she loved as a way to make a living.
“I wanted to put this in motion to be a business,” says Dequair, who started with crocheted earrings.
She gave a pair to a stylish friend and business started to come her way. “Then, Ms. Nett at Smothers Grocery (in Tremé) said to me, ‘This might be what God wants you to do.’”
Dequair decided Ms. Nett might be right, and began to spend hours on her computer researching the techniques used by others and even seeking some online tutoring to get started with more complicated designs.
“One morning at 2 a.m., I watched a video made by a woman in Mexico who grew up very poor, and she had just happened to walk down a street where a woman was making these pop-tab purses. The woman taught her how to make them, and today that woman has a studio in San Francisco and employs 300 people. I started crying watching it,” said Dequair, who enlists the help of a neighbor to cut dowels for some of the purse handles. She also depends on her father, her husband, her son and her sister to lend a hand.
“Please put in the story how grateful I am for all the help that I get,” she says. “And a big shout-out to those who bring me the soda tabs.”
She begins a verbal list of thank-yous to the the women who have worn her pieces and created that first ripple of business for her, with a special nod of gratitude to Sue Press, founder of the Ole & Nu Style Fellas Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
Part of the appeal of pop-tab and crocheted bags and totes is that the purse itself is exceptionally light. It is what a woman puts inside her bag that determines the burden of weight she will be carrying. A popular design that will attract Fest-goers is the compact crossbody bag that holds festival essentials such as cash, lipstick, a compact tube of sunscreen and credit cards.
“I made them in larger sizes as well, for those who have the bigger smartphones,” says Dequair, who also offers a range of colors from bright primary hues to elegant neutrals coupled with the burnished patina of aluminum.
Randomly stacked on her table of accessories — from small change purses to roll bags to oversized totes ranging in price from $10 to $500 — are throw pillows she has crocheted in the likeness of many local musicians, one of them being Kermit Ruffins, a fellow Tremé resident.
“I remember when Kermit just had a horn, and we were all beating on boxes,” says Dequair.
In addition to the portrait of Ruffins crocheted on a throw pillow, Dequair also plans to feature the faces of Trombone Shorty, Dr. John and others.
“I crochet these pillows when my hands need to rest from holding the pop-tabs steady while I work the threads through them,” she says. The inside of her fingers show the wear and tear of hours of handwork. She exercises her shoulders daily to release the tension produced while holding metal and thread in place as the stitches are being made.
Yet none of this feels like work to Dequair.
“I love it! It is my passion,” she says.