Woven Together: 21Tonnes
2020.08.24Aileen Lee

Woven Together: 21Tonnes

This story is woven together by snippets of conversation with Chessa and MJ, the founders behind homeware brand Twenty One Tonnes. This duo live and work in two different countries, but their creative partnership is well maintained through their passion for their business.

Chessa wears our Dialogue Sweater, coming this Fall.

“I wouldn’t say that there is a Twenty One Tonnes woman,” Chessa explained as she gently tugged on a piece of willow shoot with her fingertips. Balancing the half-finished basket on her lap, her fingers darted back and forth with a soothing rhythm as she weaved on.

“What we share with our customers is a deep appreciation for and curiosity about traditional handicraft - how did you make that, who taught you, what did you make it with, and how do you move your fingers so quickly?”

Chessa Osburn (left) wears our Hyle Top in black and MJ Bolton (right) wears our Hyle Top in cream.

Business partners Chessa and Mary Jane are the dynamic duo behind the beloved home accessories brand Twenty One Tonnes. Both women wear all hats for every aspect of the business, from creative work to marketing to sales and finances. Yet, their relationship is unusual — they work remotely from different countries.  Chessa is stationed in Vancouver, where the brand was first conceived. MJ originated from the same city, but now works out of Los Angelos, where she currently resides.

Fortunately, much like the basket goods they sell, partners Chessa and Mary Jane are a closely woven pair.

“Has it been difficult to work long-distance with Chessa?” I had asked MJ during my last trip to Los Angelos.

Not at all,” MJ replied without hesitation. “We are constantly in touch with each other and check in on most things. I essentially take care of everything in the US and she takes care of Canada and Europe.”

“Other aspects of our business have always been long distance also. We are constantly in touch with our partners in Ghana and did everything remotely on our cushion collaboration with Jauja Bordados in Mexico,” MJ went on to explain.

Twenty One Tonnes is a global venture. Not only do Chessa and MJ work independently, they also source materials from Africa, work with a designer in Mexico, and partner up with a team of female weavers from Ghana. I recalled my initial fascination of watching Chessa’s weaving, and how soothing it was to see pieces come together as a whole.

“What inspired you to start Twenty One Tonnes?” I asked Chessa.

Chessa responded, “I was raised by an architect father, and a mother who was a lover of all things woven and handmade. There were a lot of baskets and woven fish traps in our family home! And I pursued an education in Social Justice and International Development, and then worked in those fields internationally. So Twenty One Tonnes was really a marriage of those two parts of myself.”

“Our products are slow,” Chessa added, “Everything is made by hand by women who gather together (often with children) when the rest of their work is done. And when it’s harvest season, or someone gets sick, the order is delayed. We guide the designs, but the techniques used to make our products are usually passed down through generations of women. As with most traditional craft, the materials used are generally ubiquitous and locally sourced.”

In and out her fingers darted, and horizontal stakes unified the perpendicular stakes. Over, under, over, under. Two parts came together to formed one whole. I examined Chessa’s space as she wove. Both her Vancouver home and MJ’s Los Angelos home were brimming with baskets.

Chessa and MJ wear our Dialogue Sweater in navy and blush, coming this fall.

“How did you become a part of Twenty One Tonnes?” I had asked MJ.

“Chessa and I have known each other for a very long time,” MJ started, “Our mothers are friends and we went to school together growing up. When she first started Twenty  One Tonnes we met up and chatted about the business and I always felt like she had started something really special. I was working full time in film at the time. After having children we met up again and began talking about collaborating and re-imagined the beautiful business she had started as a partnership.”

“We have always been very in line in terms of our aesthetics and business ethics,” MJ added.

She picked up a stack of damp baskets and stepped out to her front porch. Gently, she laid them down in bright corners, where the desert sun blanketed them with its sweltering warmth. MJ then patted and reshaped each basket with unreserved vigour, demonstrating her grasp and mastery of the products’ materials.

I had asked both women, “how do you incorporate creativity into your daily life?”

My job is pretty creative — but I also try to make time for other projects, currently my own attempt at weaving,” Chessa chuckled as she lifted up the half woven basket from her lap.

As MJ shaped the damp baskets on her porch, she explained how creativity has reshaped her life.

“Being on lockdown here in LA since March as a single mom with my 6 year old son has really made me have to re-assess how I get things done and how I incorporate my work into my daily life,” she said. “A big aspect of my work life is just getting photography for the site and instagram. I used to do this when my son was at school. Now I incorporate all of it into my daily life with my son, into my home and I just try to take advantage of those creative moments as they come. There’s no line delineating work and home life for me anymore.”

“More importantly, I’m a firm believer in pursuing what you love,” MJ concluded.

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