Russell Shurtz started his Circle A Brand out of necessity. Shurtz, 35, who says his height is somewhere between Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Simon, couldn’t find jeans that fit and were tight enough in his punk rock days in the mid 90’s. He started by hemming and tapering jeans before he finally decided to deconstruct a pair and make his own on a home sewing machine.
“I was hemming a pair of jeans three or four years ago and they still didn’t fit right and I was just like ‘forget it, I’m gonna take them apart and make a pair of jeans’,” Shurtz said sitting in the living room of his early 20th century house in Asheville, NC that also doubles as his workspace. The brick house used to be the nurses’ quarters for the sanatorium next door before the groundskeeper started expanding it in the 50’s.
Shurtz, who worked as a National Park Service museum technician in Hawaii and Pennsylvania before devoting himself to Circle A Brand full-time, has made parkas, denim jackets, jeans, shirts and hats for custom order clients worldwide since that first pair of jeans using a rotating collection of 14 machines dating from the 20’s and on.
It was the first time that he made a pair of jeans using selvedge denim from his own pattern, though, that he felt like he was onto something.
“I like classic things. I’m not trying to break the rules, just tweak the fit of the standard American jean in a way that I thought had a better silhouette.” It’s this tweaking, and Shurtz’s obsessive attention to detail, that has led to custom orders from all over the globe. He also recently bid on and won his first industrial contract.
Shurtz’s living room, with a midcentury modern credenza that serves as vinyl storage in one corner, is currently configured for this project. Shurtz is taking apart and reconstructing tents from Ciudad Transportable , an exhibition made by the Cuban artists’ collective Los Carpinteros. The exhibit will be on display at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum starting in January.
Once he’s done sewing tents, Shurtz will set to work on two prototypes for Ruby City – a denim line that will be available at Old North Clothing in Asheville.
Then he’ll get to work making 30 or so pairs of WWII-era denim dungarees for reproduction fans at Denimbro.com. The dungarees will be made of 10 Oz. Japanese selvedge, come with large front and back pockets, a cinch back and lined pockets. The Denimbros are still hammering out the rest of the details – belt loops, stitching and suspender buttons – while Russell sews tents.
“It’s going to be fun, I’ve got some new machines from that period I’m going to break out just for that,” he said. Shurtz plans to use a Reece 101 buttonholer, a waistbander and a Singer off the arm felling machine to keep the dungarees as close to period, and Denimbro user, specifications as possible. When he’s done with that, he’ll finally set to work on a full Circle A line.
The collection, which will be available in early May or mid-June, will feature: two shirt designs, a pair of jeans, waist overalls, a few vests, a chore coat, a work cap, a bag and an apron. While he may incorporate a Japanese denim, Circle A will be made as locally as possible with Cone Mills denim, thread from North Carolina, buttons and rivets made in Kentucky and label stamps made in Virginia.
Shurtz will have a small stock, but will make most items on-demand. The collection will be available for purchase online at a Circle A site that will go live closer to release date and at Old North in Asheville.
Once the collection is released, Shurtz hopes to expand; starting with a proper studio so his girlfriend can use the living room again for its intended purpose.
“On one hand, me making everything is wonderful. Having control over everything allows me to be as particular as possible. But I can’t possibly meet demand doing that and I don’t want to charge an outrageous price,” he said. “After the initial collection the next step will be to decide if I want to hire a couple friends to start sewing on this. Whatever happens, it will probably be a slow, organic expansion.”
Shurtz said he still receives a few emails a week from people looking for custom orders. He hopes that things will slow down enough in the spring to take a few more custom orders. I’d suggest getting in on that if you can; because if Shurtz brings the same level of craftsmanship, enthusiasm and skill to the Circle A line, it’ll likely be the last time he has time to make custom orders.
Photos by Betsy Seymour