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Denise Tjarks has been sewing bags from found, used materials for more than 20 years

PMG PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Denise Tjarks has been upcycling used materials into handbags and shopping totes for more than 20 years.As a nation, the United States is responsible for sending about 21 billion pounds of textile waste to landfills every year. Though no one person could rectify that alone, a Sandy resident is determined to help: one bag at a time.

About 24 years ago, Denise Tjarks began giving new life to old clothing and unused fabrics, by stitching them into handbags and shopping totes. What started out as a means for her to stay home with her third child, has now become a large piece of the fabric of Tjarks' life and contribution to the recycling movement.

"Buying used clothing started out as a way to get fabrics," Tjarks explained. "But the environmental factor is huge. I've lived in a lot of places where people are very environmentally conscious."

Tjarks' first bag was made from a piece of vintage fabric gifted to her by her aunt and was more a project of fashion than her eco-friendly passion. Her go-to fabric source then quickly became old Hawaiian shirts, which were easily found in thrift shops at her home on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

"That started my thrift obsession," Tjarks said. "That was it. I never looked back."

A boutique owner saw Tjarks walking around the mall with her flagship vintage-inspired bag soon after she'd made it and asked her to recreate it to sell in stores.

Tjarks' bags became a must-buy souvenir for tourists and a must-have accessory for the locals during the 31 years she lived on the islands. Over the years, Tjarks has been featured multiple times in magazines from Hawaii to Japan. Her Hawaiian-print bags — and later, hats — were a hot commodity on the islands.

Five years ago, Tjarks moved to the mainland, more specifically Oregon, and her popularity has once again taken off.

COURTESY PHOTO - After moving to Portland five years ago, Tjarks began sourcing her handbags from used raincoats. Tjarks delights in finding good-condition used clothing at Goodwill and giving new purpose to things like fabric swatches from furniture stores, which otherwise would've been thrown away.

For the past few years Tjarks has been involved with Girls, Inc., an organization, which provides "life-changing after-school programs and experiences that help girls grow up to be healthy, educated, and independent." Once a year, Tjarks creates a special handbag with a partner from a local business and it is auctioned off for Girls, Inc.'s benefit. One of her bags actually went for more than $8,000.

Since making the Pacific Northwest her home, Tjarks fabric inspiration has changed from intensely floral patterns to something more Portland-ish.

"When I first moved to Portland, I thought 'What can I do up here's that's the equivalent of Hawaiian shirts?'" she said. The answer: raincoats.

"This stuff doesn't break down in landfills," Tjarks said. Plus, she added, the raincoat material is not only waterproof but incredibly sturdy and washable.

Raincoats are the main source of Tjarks handbags to this day, but even before the 2020 state-wide ban on plastic bags, she was making shopping totes so the conveyances for people's groceries were reusable, durable and washable, as well as stylish.

"I've been really empathetic to the food handlers and cashiers," Tjarks said, noting that she's seen multiple social media posts from grocery store workers imploring people to clean their bags before handing them to cashiers. Oftentimes the plastic reusable bags end up with remnants of meat juices and other stains on them, making them off-putting, if not hazardous, to cashiers' and other shoppers' health.

COURTESY PHOTO - Used T-shirts are a major source of material for Tjarks shopping totes. Before selling her products, Tjarks tests all of her bags.

"I want to know what the integrity is going to be for their bags," she said. Her grocery totes can hold the equivalent capacity of about three, sometimes four, plastic bags. They are also reversible and can be machine washed.

Because they're mostly made out of used fabrics, Tjarks said, they also have a unique quality she hopes is worth the $11 she charges for each bag.

"They have a history, a story," she said. "When I'm cutting something apart, I think 'Who wore this?' 'Where did it go?' This fabric could have traveled the world."

Tjarks takes custom requests for bags besides selling pieces of her own inspiration.

"People bring me their own things to cut up," she said, telling the story of how she once made handbags for a bridal party from the bride's recently departed grandfather's clothing.

Tjarks can be contacted via her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mydenisetjarks/ or website at pdxraintote.com.


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