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Cameo and her model.
Ever wonder what chefs do in the limited spare time they have? Welcome to Counter Balance, a new weekly Voracious column

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Cameo McRoberts: Vessel's New Chef Is Needling Away the Time With Skirt Work

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Cameo and her model.
Ever wonder what chefs do in the limited spare time they have? Welcome to Counter Balance, a new weekly Voracious column dedicated to the sans-kitchen interests of local chefs. Whether it's fundraising for a personal cause, playing in a rock band, or collecting fingernail clippings for collages, this column will unveil the many talents that our favorite tastemakers foster when they're not contributing to our meals.

First up: Chef Cameo McRoberts. The last time we heard from her was a little more than a year ago when she had just accepted a job cooking at Little Water Cantina--a job that ended up being short-lived (we'll call it a parting of ways over creative differences). After a bit of a hiatus, Kathy Casey's former executive chef is looking forward to being the chef at the much-anticipated Vessel, which, after closing in January 2011, is expected to reopen in the former Red Balloon space at the end of this month. What has McRoberts been doing with her time in the interim? She's been making super cool aprons out of old t-shirts as part of a new craft business she launched in December called Skirt Work.

How did the whole apron thing come about?

I started making the aprons around Christmas time. I was just doing it because I was unemployed and I had this sewing machine that I didn't know how to use and I figured if I wasn't going to sell it on Craigslist, I was going to figure out how to make rent with it. I just started looking around in a bunch of sewing books and I figured t-shirts would be easy because they're cheap and I could just hack them up and screw up. So, I ended up making them and they were really fun and it was really easy and I ended up selling a bunch of them during Christmas. Sewing has become really fun and it's something I can do while watching TV. It's meditative.

I built the Etsy store in January. Selling stuff online is a huge deal! It's a huge business. Learning about Etsy has been, well, I've done a bunch of online webinars and whatnot, but you really have to involve yourself in the community; you have to promote yourself with social media, and you have to have a blog and a Facebook page or else your stuff doesn't get found. So, it quickly became its own little full-time job. People always tend to think Etsy is this homespun kind of craft fair online, but your photographs have to be near professional. The information I've gleaned from it is kind of like in order to come up farther on searches, you have to be more involved in the Etsy community, so you sort of have to 'Like' other people and they have to 'Like' you and then some people 'Favorite' you and you 'Favorite' them, and so the more you involve yourself in that, the better chance you have of being seen. There are millions of people selling stuff on Etsy, so your chances of coming up on search engines--you have to learn how to work within that machine. It's been like a crash-course in small business owning.

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How did you decide on the name Skirt Work Crafts?

I always liked the idea of skirt work, which is used as a derogatory term for a woman's job. Like, doing dishes is skirt work, or cleaning the house is skirt work. That's what ladies do. I always imagined skirt work as being like, "Ooh! You get to wear a skirt and clean the house!" I don't know. I just took it in this other direction where it was kind of fun. So, when I decided to build the business, that was the name that came up because I was sitting at home sewing and listening to the radio and doing skirt work. But the aprons are made out of what I call "rescued t-shirts," instead of recycled t-shirts or whatever, from Goodwill and people who send me t-shirts. [The aprons] are all service-oriented with pockets. I've always hated wearing chef uniforms because there's always so little personality in them. The idea of making these frilly, fun aprons with t-shirt designs and quirky sayings and awkward pictures and stuff just gave it all, I don't know, they're functional and cute and kind of precious, but you can get them dirty and wad them up in a ball.

Do you have a favorite Goodwill?

The one on 8th and 65th. And I also like the one on 145th up near Shoreline. And the Bellevue one. Sometimes you can find fancy stuff there.

Do you have a favorite apron that you've made?

My favorite ones have been the first one I made, which was from a Nirvana t-shirt that I accidentally got bleach on. So, you know, it became the Nirvana Bleach apron. I made one for Anu [Apte] who owns Rob Roy that had a pocket for a flask. The other ones people really seem to like are, I cut the bottom seam off of all the t-shirts and when I collect enough of the seams, I make a striped apron with all the different colored seams sewn on. People really like those ones, plus it makes the apron kind of heavy so it gives it weight. They feel really good to wear.

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Chewbacca loves to BBQ.
How long were your aprons on Etsy before someone bought one?

I started around the beginning of January and I probably got my first sale that wasn't from somebody I know towards the end of January. Every month the sales have gone up. One week I sold five and I thought that was the most amazing thing ever.

How much do they cost?

They range between $24 and $36. The ones that have more design elements to them are a little more expensive. I want them to be affordable. The material is pretty cheap because I'm buying second-hand stuff, but the time that goes into making them.... Everyone tells me I have to pay myself and figure out what my hourly wage is, but then they'd be $100 aprons!

You need to get one in the hands of Rachael Ray or someone like that.

Yeah, that's kind of the end game. I'm like, "How can I get Zooey Deschanel to wear one of these aprons?" That would change everything.

Do you think about whether or not you want this to be your full-time gig eventually?

This last year, because I haven't been in the kitchen full-time, it's been the first time in my adult life that I haven't been working 14-16 hours a day. I had a couple of experiences that caused me to step back and evaluate what I was doing and where I wanted to go, and all of the die-hard restaurant people will roll their eyes, but I don't want to work on a line 14 hours a day. I really like doing art work, I really like doing a lot of the things that I kind of pushed aside to be a good cook, and now I've gotten a lot more balance. I'm very protective of my time now, so I have to figure out how to balance those things because I can't go back to not being able to have them. I kind of envision the whole Skirt Work thing as kind of this hippie collective thing. I would like it to be a physical location and I would like it to be a place where you can do events and other creative things; a place where people could come and work on their stuff and there'd be classes. Some of that involves food. Until then, I want to start doing Skirt Work events where, for a nominal fee, you buy a ticket and there are cocktails and some food, and everyone sits around and we put on a cheesy movie or something and do crafts.

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Do you think you would have Skirt Works if not for your unemployment?

No. I think becoming unemployed was fortuitous because it gave me the opportunity to step back and figure out what I want to do with the second half of my life. I feel like I have a much better idea of the person that I am now compared to a year ago when I became unemployed. I still love kitchens, I love doing creative menu work and I love developing recipes. It's given me the opportunity to look at all of my creative endeavours and try to figure out how I can do all of them. I want my cake and eat it too!

Did you teach yourself how to use your sewing machine?

I did. Cooking and sewing are very similar. You have to learn a certain skill set and there are rules in that skill set, but then once you figure them out and become comfortable with them, you can start playing around with stuff. When I need to figure out how to put a zipper in or something, the internet is an amazing tool. I've always been really good at teaching myself how to do just about anything. I knit, I sew, I crochet. I'm kind of a craft whore that way. [Sewing has] become a lot easier. And the progression of the aprons. It's kind of funny because they were very simple to start out with and now I'm like, "I want circles and ruffles and I want this to go here and I want that to go there," and then I figure out how to do it. It's been a learning process, but it is a lot like cooking.

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Why did you have a sewing machine in the first place if you didn't know how to use it?

I have this grand idea that's sort of come to fruition, but I've always wanted to have a room that had just everything in it so that anytime I'm inspired to do anything I have the tools to do it. So, I have acrylic paints, I have pastels, I have watercolor paper, I have old books and magazines, old pieces of yarn, weird pieces of wire, broken computers--I just have all of this stuff at the ready. I had bought a couple of used sewing machines for really cheap and they all sucked and I could never figure out how to use them. I had gone into Ballard's Sewing & Vacuum and there was this $1,200 machine and I got sucked into this woman telling me all about it and how it was on sale for $600 and they were going to let me do layaway, which is so very 80s, and so every month for six months I went in there with my little $100 check and paid for this sewing machine. Then I got it home and I think I may have used it twice and was like, "Nope! Don't know how to sew!" and put it away. When I became unemployed, I put it on Craigslist to sell and I got like five offers and I couldn't bring myself to sell it. So, I figured if I wasn't going to sell the machine to make rent, I was going to make the machine make the rent for me.

I sat down and learned how to sew.

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