Louis Bicycle creates hand-dyed embroidered clothing, from hoodies to bucket hats
Being forced to adapt to new circumstances can take us down unexpected paths. Louis Bicycle (@louisbicycle) was taking a break from tattooing and selling his hand-made screen prints and linoleum block prints at a street fair in San Francisco when the pandemic caused the fair to shut down. During those first few days stuck at home, he picked up a tote bag that he had started to embroider a tiger onto a couple of years before. He finished the bag and put it online. “It got a decent response, so I made another the next day. It just went from there.”
Since then, he has put out a variety of clothing—unique pieces that sell out almost immediately. “I've sewn for a long time, even a small amount as a kid. As I got older, I fixed clothes. I had a little wave a few years ago where I made some little embroidered patches. I just did it for a month or so and set it down. I hadn’t done hoodies in the past, just patches and tote bags. I soon figured out a way to put a backing on the hoodies so I could embroider them in a way that it would stay flat.”
Louis says he is grateful for growing up in Missouri “among a bunch of farms”. He drew a lot as a kid and was drawn to skateboarding and the graphics associated with that culture. He remembers observing the graffiti on passing freight trains and coming to the realization that there were people in the world “doing that kind of thing.” In high school, he took a basic art class that prompted him to start applying to art schools, eventually ending up at a liberal arts school in St. Louis, where he studied painting. “[My work] wasn't stylized at the time. I was interested in pretty formal drawing. I was doing lots of figure drawing and architectural drawing; just lots of drawing from life. I even got into a lot of technical drawing, like architectural perspective.”
During summer 2011, Louis landed a job doing airbrush T-shirts at Six Flags in a Western-themed booth. “It was a really corny set up, but I had this boss who really inspired me and got me interested in tattooing. I had been in this 'fine art headspace' and that job took the edge off a little bit. When I started tattooing, I was loosening up. A couple of years later I moved to New York and was working in a shop. I was pretty much just doing whatever came in the door four or five days a week. It was a real neighborhood shop, lots of ‘tattoo-themed’ tattoos.”
Since around the age of 18, Louis has had an interest in exploring mindfulness and psychedelics. While in New York, he began creating work during these experiences. “Psychedelics have always been, and still are, a way that I try to kind of keep a clear perspective, like a third person's perspective almost. I had this rough day [in New York] where I suddenly saw my work as contrived. It just didn’t feel like my work–up until then I had thought it was. I felt like it was overly influenced by a really narrow community. So I started trying to let that go and make something more personal from then on out.” It was from this moment on, that Louis began to develop the unique illustration style that make his clothes, prints, and tattoo designs so recognizably his.
Below, Louis talks us through the steps behind creating one of his unique pieces of clothing and the materials and tools he usually works with.
I'm mostly buying black or white fabric. I have days where I’m just dyeing fabric. I leave some hoodies black, they get the least energy as far as dyes go. I'll have a day where I'll dye or bleach maybe 20 hoodies or so. That's usually a sunup-to-sundown day of being outside. It takes a lot of time to get them all dyed. Then there's usually like a full day after that of washing them and maybe adding some layers of dye or bleach. Sometimes there are days of just chopping them and mixing colors. Perhaps sewing one half of a hoodie to another half of a hoodie.
Embroidering his designs
I try to pull the one I least want to do. Occasionally, I have an idea where I'm really eager to make one, but I'm sort of forever in this place where I think I have no ideas. I usually just put one on the table and say, ‘You don't have to make it.’ Then I see if there’s anything else to do with the day. Usually within an hour, if I just lay one out and kind of stare at it or leave it within view, eventually I know what to do, either from flipping through sketchbooks or just seeing what's on the hoodie, maybe a certain texture. Definitely, sometimes there is this lull where I pull one out and it seems like there's nothing I can do to improve it.
Once I have an idea I’ll chalk it on there–sometimes I’ll cycle through a couple of ideas before I settle on one. Then there's trying to decide if I need a heavier backing for more dense designs–pinning backing underneath the sweater is a small piece of the process. Then, I’ll pile the spools on there to think about color. The actual process of embroidering can take anywhere from an hour to four or five hours. It really depends on how dense they are. Sometimes there are complications and you end up pulling stitches. You really can always backtrack; there's hardly ever a reason to have to scrap a hoodie altogether.
Photographing items and promoting them online
I'm always imagining that the process of photographing goes underestimated. I usually wait until I have about six or seven of whatever item–maybe if I just picked up a new poster that week, I'd count that as an item. If I have a patch, a poster, and four hoodies, then I might consider it time to take photos. I'll have a day of just setting up lights and backdrops and just trying to get photos that accurately represent things. It takes a better part of a day to photograph, if not most of the day. Once I have photos, I'm trying to get them online once a day. Usually, I'll just get up in the morning and edit all the photos for one product, get it on the website, and post it on Instagram. It ends up taking quite a bit of time. I feel like it often takes at least an hour just to edit and upload photos.
Packaging and shipping orders
I just try to stay on top of shipping. Sometimes it ends up being as little as once a week, sometimes it piles up. I am sticking with all biodegradable packing materials–all paper materials–and trying to make the packaging fun with stamps and stickers and notes and all that sort of thing. Shipping takes up a decent amount of the week too. There’s a lot of steps other than embroidering.
I use a Bernette B33 straight stitch machine for embroidering. I just have a little $20 attachment that allows the fabric to move more freely than it normally would–it's often used for quilting. I also have a Brother 1034 and a Janome Coverpro 2000CPX machine, which are both used for making clothes. I’m currently working on some shorts that I’m making from scratch. I’ve put out two hoodies that were cut and sewn. For one, I chopped up a blanket I had made and the other was made from scraps from some embroidery projects that didn’t work out. I’m wanting to focus more on [making my own clothes]. A lot of the motivation for working with clothing was to heighten the awareness of what manufacturing entails and where the U.S. is at with its relationship with manufacturing. You don't see many individuals, or at least I don't, that are making clothing from scratch. I'm hoping to just get more eyes on what it takes to make this stuff since clothing is a necessity.
One thing I’ve been stuck on for a long time is a certain time of pen. It’s the Pigma Sensei. It's just an Indian ink marker. I like that the ink is waterproof. I use the number six and the number ten, but I probably have 40 of them.
We have a scrap art materials store here that I'll often go to to get stacks of sketchbooks from. I got into having really small pocket sketchbooks so I could grab the seemingly worthwhile ideas. I probably have two or three. I’ll keep one on the table, one by my bed, and one in a bag. Then I have bigger sketchbooks for flushing out ideas a little more.
I stick to just natural fibers. There’s this brand of thread called aurifil. Quilters are pretty committed to cotton so a lot of the stuff is quilting-related. I guess a lot of what I'm doing kind of overlaps with quilting.
I’m using procion dyes, which are nontoxic. They’re pretty easy to find–Dharma Trading has been really popular since everybody got into tye-dye while stuck inside.
What motivates you?
There’s something to be said about spending time outside of some sort of art world or outside of the practice of making art. I try to just hike and get outside and socialize and play music.