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Exclusive Interview: Lee Ellefson Dives Into DIY Fashion

Based in Alamosa, Colorado, Lee Ellefson has channeled her creative expression into hand-bleaching band tees, often giving back life to bands who've broken up and supporting fellow artists or activists in need of new designs.

Leah Ellefson
Lee Ellefson "Lee's Bootlegs"

Q: How did you start getting into making your shirts? What drove that passion?

A: This year I was accepted into nursing school in rural Alamosa, Colorado when I’m originally from Southern California—coming here with no friends, no music scene, and nothing to do. I started going on a lot of walks. A local store called Skiballs is a print shop selling blank shirts on the cheap side. So I bought one of their clearance shirts for 3 dollars and my roommate suggested I tried painting with bleach.

What drove my passion was wanting band shirts of bands that were no longer together. So the first shirt I made was a D.L.I.M.C. using their cassette singles as reference specifically, the one "I Hope BP Explodes". Punk has been a part of my life for a long time, going back to my brothers always playing it around the house. With Punk comes DIY and there was a need for creative expression, being bored in rural Colorado and ultimately being a broke college student wanting cool shirts.

Q: How has your craft evolved?

A: First, I started with bleach and my roommate's paintbrushes. We had bleach already for cleaning and shit like that. My guy at the local shop had a cheap black hoodie for sale it was like 3 dollars and it had a rip on the pocket, but I said fuck it and bought it. That’s when I switched to fabric paint and I’ve learned a lot since switching to fabric paint. Some fabrics require different brushes and I learned about heat treating to keep the paint in the fabric. Hell, I’m still learning and I still fuck up on shirts too, but I think that’s what gives it character than just a regular screen-printed shirt. They’re not produced fast or in mass either, one of a kind so there might be a little mistake here or there but I don't care I love them for the process and their flaws.

Q: Do you have any favorite projects you've worked on or any dream ideas for shirt designs/fashion?

A: My favorite projects I’ve worked on are either my "Get Lucky" shirt or my Sleep shirt. My get lucky shirt is a men's work shirt that's made with a thick dickies like material its dark red and kinda oversized. I ended up cropping it so it is frayed and came up to my waist and on the back at the top, it says “Get Lucky!” with an 8-ball striking a bunch of bowling pins. It was really fun to paint and I get a lot of compliments on it. The other one is a very simple burn I’m just really proud of how it came out. It’s a dark green long-sleeve with the band Sleep's name spelled out in black and white. The lettering came from their album "Sleep’s Holy Mountain".

Eventually, I want to get into making more hoodies and tote bags. I think tote bags would be very fun and easy because I wouldn't need to think about the layout of a body like I would a shirt. Maybe painting more work shirts or even pants would be sick! I enjoy sewing but I just don’t have the time nor do I own a sewing machine. If I had more time I would be sewing more size-inclusive study pants for femme-presenting people specifically pants haha. I’m on the taller side for being a woman and I can’t find pants for shit so that's why I've been wearing dickies for such a long time. So a lot more size-inclusive pieces that may be painted would be really fun!

Leah Ellefson Hand Painting
Lee Ellefson

Q: How have you been involved in DIY communities over the years?

A: I’ve always considered myself a quieter person in the DIY scene, in the same token I’m a talker. If I know something is happening I’m telling people, if a friend puts out a new EP I’m talking about it. I usually also tell people in the most bizarre areas.

For a long time, I worked in a pharmacy and I would straight up tell patients “Hey this band is playing here you should come” or “There is this cool art gallery opening I think you might like it”. Now I’m not inviting the angry 75-year-old Karen who hates me. I’m inviting the 50-year-old who would tell me about how they would see Black Flag at the Church when they were 17 in the 80’s. I can read my patients and develop relationships with them, they’re people who have interests too, not just there to pick up some pills. That’s also my goal as a nurse to do the same with my future patients. I would like to maybe even host a workshop on showing people how easy it is to make their shirts.

Q: What social issues are you interested in?

A: Workers' rights and creating more unions. Ending this capitalistic rule and free universal healthcare.

Q: What are your views on worker's rights versus being able to create your source of income from creative passions?

A: Well fuck where do I begin? I’ve always been a kid of a blue-collar family with various family members either former or active union members in various career fields. When I started my pharmacy job, it was a union shop and you had to join to get hired. To me, it is almost viewed as a family right of passage. You're not just a worker but a union worker, you're a sister in a bigger family that spans across several unions and you carry that respect. I’m not just Lee Ellefson but I’m Sister Ellefson of UFCW Local 324, shop steward for shop 09912. People first think why the hell does a pharmacy need a union? Working in a pharmacy has opened my eyes and made me realize holy shit this is a terrible work environment and I’m not talking about shitty bosses and patients (which are also terrible too) I’m talking about genuine unsafe working conditions like exposed wiring, ceiling tiles leaking, ceiling tiles falling on workers, MOLD EVERYWHERE. I hit a point where enough was enough and I became a shop steward where I was the union representative in the store and the one that fellow workers could come up to and I could tell management what was up and get them to fix their shit.

I know that’s a lot of information, but that is why I became so passionate about workers' rights. As much as I love being a creative person, I love art, I love music and I wish I could pursue it full-time. Sadly I know how fucked the housing market is back home in CA that I need to make more money to live. Luckily I’m a science nerd and I love helping people, so nursing feels like a great fit for me. My shirts don’t give me much income but they pay for maybe a night at the bar, some groceries, or going to the hot springs in the area besides that it doesn’t pay the bills. Nursing will pay the bills, but also give me the flexibility to make more shirts and create shirts to support workers on strike in the future. Shirt-making gives me joy, entertainment, and a creative outlet, that alone I can’t put a price on or will ever give it up for the sheer joy and happiness I benefit from it. I’ll make shirts till I die even If I don't see a penny from it again.

Q: Departing from the current Capitalist system, how do you think society will be able to change or come together toward a more sustainable future?

A: Fuck all luxury brands and the people behind them. The culture behind them is toxic and elitist. If you're not in the DIY and don’t own nice things, people look down on you. If we weren’t a part of this capitalistic scam, we wouldn’t need Gucci or fast fashion either. The amount of shit ending up in landfills is shocking and the progressively shorter trend cycles are perpetrating it. Thrift stores used to be cheap, but you have all these resellers buying everything and marking it up. I feel like it’s one big hypocrite scam where they tend to be “down with capitalism” and sell some basic ass tank top with a little lace that they paid 4 dollars at Goodwill, but then sell it for 35 dollars as “y2k, coquette core, babydoll, jersey shore core” god damn it’s wack.

I guess we need to work together to stop perpetuating luxury brands, being the ultimate fulfillment and fast fashion, and we need to unite together to understand that we're all together in this hellscape. I feel like capitalism has forced us to label everything to sell more “gorp-core”, “coquette”, and “clean girl”, all those stupid ass labels that if you don’t subscribe to those labels, you get ostracized by your peers. It's a constant rat race to keep up and buy the aesthetic, and by the time you get everything to be that label, the trend is over.

What’s sad is that it’s slowly seeping into the local scenes too subconsciously where I noticed that if you don’t dress crazy or wear what’s considered cool to the scene, people will side-eye you or think you are the poser when you dress plain. I think that's lame too because I’m all about owning your style. I guess that’s just a casual observation. Honestly, I just noticed it over the years. Be yourself and we need to stop letting capitalism tell us what's cool and not cool.

Q: Any new projects in the work? Going forward, what are your goals for the rest of the year?

A: Right now I’m working on a shirt for my best friend's band called Ceramic they’re cool and I recommend checking them out. The running joke is my shirts are just called Lee’s Bootlegs and it’s not wrong but my best friend David said “Bootleg my band and make us a bootleg shirt” so that's what I’m doing. I think I want to make a few shirts for a few Zamrock/African-based bands too. I think that would be a lot of fun, especially since not every band is still around or together anymore and you can’t find shirts for them.

Besides finishing the school year with good grades haha I would like to paint enough shirts and have them stockpiled that I could be vending at a pop-up or show sometime in the summer when I come home for a bit. Also, I would like to try some new techniques over the time that I have been reading about. Besides that, I would also love to pick up some more commissions/customs since I have some time right now. I think custom hoodies would be a lot of fun. I have been thinking, in the long term maybe painting a suit would be fabulous too. I just hope Lee’s Bootlegs stay fun and I’m able to keep cranking out shirts.


Stay Tuned:

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