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Building Dovetail: Christa Miller-Shelley, Captain of the Gloucester Adventure

We are celebrating 5 years of Dovetail, highlighting the women who have helped build workwear by, for and with women. Meet our founders, employees, pant namesakes and wear testers. Learn about their work with Dovetail and see what they are doing now!

Sara DeLuca caught up with Christa Miller-Shelley, captain of the Gloucester Adventure in Massachusetts, and the original weartester and namesake of the Christa DIY pant. Christa will join the Dovetail crew at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend Washington September 8-10. Come out and see us if you’re there!

How did you originally get introduced to Dovetail?

CHRISTA: Through my friend, Grace, one of my shipmates who worked for the High Line in New York City. The female High Line landscapers and facilities workers were product testers and used Dovetail for their uniforms. She was on board my ship at the time, and we were talking about work pants. I expressed my frustration about how Carhartt stopped making their women's pants at the same quality as the men's. They had changed their materials, and it really frustrated me because I would blow through them in a week and a half. Grace said, “You should try these pants.” At the time I was skeptical because I can't spend money on pants that I'm just going to destroy.

She said, “No, they're really tough, but you should reach out to them. I mean, you do all sorts of interesting things. Who knows? Maybe they want a product tester.” So that's when I sent you the email. I just put myself out on a limb. And that was how I became involved with Dovetail and began wear testing with Sara. 

And then Sara, when you said, “sure.” I was like, oh, wow, this is exciting. This is the best day ever. I'm going to get some pants. I'm thrilled! And all I had to do was send photos for Instagram. And I thought, oh man, I gotta earn my keep here. They just sent me pants for free!

What kind of work were you doing at that time? And now? 

CHRISTA: At that point, I was sailing up in Maine on the American Eagle, the 1930 fishing schooner, and I was doing passenger trips that averaged about a week. And then, in the winter, I was up at Sugarloaf working as a ski instructor and working at the coffee shop and teaching yoga and dog sitting and doing my hundred jobs that it takes to afford to live up there.

Right now, I am captain of a 1926 fishing schooner for The Gloucester Adventure, which runs Schooner Adventure. We do education, community sails, and we're stewards of this 1926 fishing vessel. I'm ripping all around the harbor and showing this old girl in all her glory. First female captain. But in my mind, I don’t consider myself different.

I just want my position to be based on my experience. And, then I realized, in 97 years, this has been predominantly run by men and, actually, it's pretty darn cool when you put it in that perspective. There's a list of historic captains in the aft cabin, all of which are men, and I think that I'm going to need my name on one of these plaques here. I am actually a historic captain.

This summer, we have a Girls On Adventure Program, which is based on board and around the Gloucester community. They'll learn how to sail Adventure with myself and a female chief mate as their mentors. The girls also tour a bunch of businesses to meet with female leaders in industry, including one of the female captains from Wicked Tuna

Just keeping the legacy of this boat alive, it's just such a labor of love. I am so, so honored to be a part of it. I could talk about the organization and the people all day long. It's been a true showing of dedication to keep this vessel alive, and her heritage, and the community around it, is really powerful. I would love to do a “Woman In The Trades” sail at some point. Got to figure out how to get some grants and sponsorships so we can get some working women out there! That's for next year. 

As a namesake, what feedback or wear testing did you participate in?

CHRISTA: From the original? The original ones, or? Or, from my entire history of Dovetail? 

SARA: Yeah. You don't have to remember all of them!

CHRISTA: Oh, I do remember! I remember every single pair! It started with a pair of tan Brits and to this day that was my favorite pair. And then a pair of black Mavens, which I still have, because they're sacred to me. I don't know why, this pair, I never want to get rid of. I tried to keep them nice for so long. I wouldn't work in them. Finally I started working in them and got a couple of drips of varnish and panicked. So now they’re for “clean work”. I don't want to ruin them. Even though they're quite worn out and they have some holes, but, there's something about them. And then I had a pair of Freshleys in grey. So those were the first three. 

Then you sent the prototype for the Christa Pant and it was very exciting. I really liked that I could put a can in the pocket. I got them during COVID, so you couldn't go to a bar or buy a drink. I really liked that I could put a beer can in each pocket and walk through Boston, not looking conspicuous, to meet a friend for a socially distanced outdoor beer during COVID.

When I teach my classes or, when I'm driving the boat, I wear my Christa pants. Or, if walking around town, but I try not to get those all messed up because they're my dress pants. But the best thing is, they have the zippered pockets and I tell everyone about the zippered pockets so she doesn't lose stuff overboard.

Right around the time of the shorts, I also got the insulated Britts. And I still have those and they’re still my favorite.  I kind of baby them. They show their wear, but there's a difference between having faded knees and faded butts to having paint splatter all over. 

Tell us something dirty. Sawdust, oil, drywall, paint: share the tale of your nastiest job/project. 

CHRISTA: Ever? Oh God. It's like every day of my life. I've gone in the poop tank before on the boat to chip out the calcification. If it's a smaller tank, you have to get your arm deep in it. Put your face down in there. But the Roseway's head tank is big. And last summer, when I was on there, they were having all these issues and so I just said, I'm going in. Then I would chip it out and put it in a five gallon bucket and pass it out of the tank to everyone. And I spent hours chipping, chipping the stuff out of the tank. But, there was, like, a sludge, really thick. It was really bad. It was quite toxic. Definitely would have been a hazardous job. There's all sorts of jobs on the boat. Now that I'm captain, I'm a lot cleaner. But on the boat, you have to slush the mast, which is just Vaseline and you get covered in Vaseline or you have to tar the rigging and you get covered in pine tar. Just sanding anything with a wooden boat, like when you're sanding the hull, you just get covered in paint dust. That's pretty gross. It’s in everything, and it’s all in your hair.

What do you have to sacrifice to be good at what you do? It can be something like “free time” or “my thin skin/ego” or “Sundays” or “$$$”—please elaborate on your answer!

CHRISTA: With working on the schooners, you really give up your predictable schedule. In general, on the boats, it's like, you can have off time scheduled, but if the boat needs you, the boat always has to come first. Because, if you don't give the boat what it needs, the boat's not going to keep you safe. A lot of it is giving up a steady home life. Pretty much once the summer starts, I'm not going to have time off until the end of September. And then I'll have a little break in October but, in November, we go into yard. For yard, it's a race to get it all in and get her back in the water as soon as you can. Because every day is money and somebody else is waiting to get in there. Yeah, so I think that's the hardest thing, is just that your schedule doesn't really sync up with other people unless they're also boat people. It can put strain on relationships, whether it be with friends or partners. But, you also build really deep relationships with your shipmates. 

What are the top five things that are always in your pockets? 

CHRISTA: Oh man, it depends on the day and what I'm doing. Now it's different too because I have a dog, Bonnie. She's very sweet. I'm very grateful for her. She loves going sailing, and has a little life jacket now because she runs along the rail, which is a little precarious. Anyway, so let's see, in my pockets, I'll have a Leatherman or a knife. A little bit of twine, like the string we use on the boat. What else would be in my pockets? There's usually a granola bar because I get hungry and I need snacks. There's always my pen and my notebook. I can't get through my job, I'm always being pulled in ten different directions. So, I live by my little notebook. That's the best part of all of the Dovetail pants, is that I can put my notebook in my pocket. Then, I have a pen and a sharpie and I have dog treats.

I've also been known to have a toothbrush in my pocket, but I haven't been doing that now that I'm not living on the boat. A toothbrush fits perfectly in the penhole pocket, which some people say is gross. Other girls on the Roseway, when we had the Dovetails, they started putting their toothbrushes in their pockets. It just works because, then, when you get off watch and have to brush your teeth on deck before heading to sleep, you already have your toothbrush with you! 

What are you doing when you’re not working hard?

CHRISTA: I love riding my mountain bike and Bonnie loves mountain biking. All winter I ski. I like trail running. I love surfing. Just exploring. I fished Bristol Bay for the sockeye salmon run because my schedule on the Roseway meant that I would work for a chunk and then have a chunk off, and then work for a chunk.

It was something I'd wanted to do for years, and then a friend of mine, who I'd been talking to about it, needed a crew member. And, we all just hit it off. It was great. So that's, oh, that is very dirty. Actually, that is probably the grossest because you're covered in fish guts for at least five weeks, like real fishy. And, no matter how much you wash your clothes, the fish smell stays in it for a year. I would get covered. My skin was so great because of it! I didn't shower because there was no bathroom. There was no head. You just had a bucket.

Sometimes I would use the deck wash down pump and I'd go in my bikini and my crew would be like, ”Never in the history of Bristol Bay has anyone taken a deck shower on these boats!”, because the water is 45 degrees. But it was so good. You know, the cold water is so good for your back and stuff.

But anyways, yeah, I had two pairs of pants. I would go between the Anna Taskpant and the fuzzy Britts. And, I'd wear one and then they'd get pretty much totally saturated, even behind my foulies with fish guts and fish blood and fishy water. Then I'd change, hang those up to dry, put the dry ones on, and I would sleep in that, and I'd work in that, and then keep rotating for five weeks.

Tell us something surprising about you. Maybe you get put “in a box” because of the work you do, or gender stereotypes in your field. Or maybe you have an unusual quirk or talent that you can bust out. Answer as you see fit! 

CHRISTA: Oh, I think my quirk is just that I'm very enthusiastic about everything. I would say that my hummingbird energy is definitely my quirk. It's just this extreme enthusiasm about everything that I do! But, I think really, it's hard because, not only am I female, but I'm small. And, even when I took this job, there was an older man on the waterfront that said, “You're the new captain? How can you even turn that wheel?” People make these assumptions when they see me but, thankfully, I've actually had a really great response. I feel like, since I've taken over Adventure, people are more receptive to my role. And, I finally feel like, you know, maybe I have passed. I've reached the point of experience where people can see beyond a little bit more in general. I'm so small, people make these assumptions that I can't do things because I’m not strong enough or tall enough.

Then they see me in action and their perspective changes. I frequently hear people saying things like, “Look how she jumps up on stuff, she has this amazing balance. She can just balance and do this thing and then climb up and pull herself up.” I've never let my size or my gender be a limitation for what I could do.

How do you encourage other women to start doing what you do?

CHRISTA: I try not to treat anyone differently and I just try to lead by example. I'm so proud to be a woman, but I'm not going to say, well, because I'm a woman, I do it this way or, because I'm a woman I get treated differently. I just show that it doesn't matter. And, I love working with women because it’s so powerful. They do want to come together, like, getting a bunch of women working together to accomplish a goal. I feel like our energies… we have this sense of community, that we have to stick together in order to do what we have to do. And, on boats, because we're inherently smaller than the men, instead of being like, “Oh, I got this myself”, it's like, “Hey, let's get this together.” We'll get two of us on this line instead of just like one 250 pound guy, we'll just have two 140 pound women. And then we work together and we realize that if we sweat at it exactly the same way, now we're going to get more power.

My favorite thing is just, you know, even though I'm the captain and I'm back aft and I'm overseeing things, I love to just say, “Hey, hop in here with me, let me show you.” And, create that environment where they're like, “Oh, this is okay.” We can just hop in and do what she does because she just showed us and she's tiny and she's doing this thing. I think that I just really try to rally the troops and show my excitement and just say, “You know this might be scary, but it only feels scary. We don't need to be afraid. We need to respect it. Let’s move slowly but smoothly, and therefore we will go faster, and everyone will be safe.” Just showing them that we don't need to back down, that actually moving forward even if you're nervous, moving forward with confidence can actually create a safer and more productive environment.

Let’s get deep. Workwear specifically by and for women—what does it mean to you, how does it affect your life, and why is it important, philosophically? 

CHRISTA : Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be working on things. I always wanted to be fixing and building and designing. And, you know, I'm tiny and I don't fit in men’s clothes …before they started even making women's Carhartts, I was wearing boy’s Carhartts. They never fit right, they were uncomfortable, and I didn't feel good…I felt like I was a woman hiding in a different body, hiding the fact that I was a woman, rather than just owning it. It’s so important to me to just feel that there's this piece of the societal stereotypes that we're fighting against. Why should you be uncomfortable in what you're working in? It’s empowering to feel like you're not trying to fit in a different mold. You're being celebrated as a female in the female form.

Has anyone recognized you wearing the Christa? Like, fans? 

CHRISTA:. There have been people that recognize me wearing Dovetails. They'll be like, “Oh, are those Dovetails?”, which is always very exciting to share with that community. Usually it's a friend of mine who will shout out, “This is THE Christa!” And people think it’s so fun and I feel like a celebrity.

SARA:  I remember you talked one time to me about how you would go into dock and sometimes there would be a woman on another ship that would be like, “Oh, you're wearing Dovetail.” It was almost like a secret handshake.

CHRISTA: It happens everywhere. Like with farmers and sailors. Now I'm seeing Dovetails everywhere. It’s amazing! You know, because it used to be a niche…like I'd be wearing 'em in the coffee shop, and people would ask me where my pants were from. Then they started popping up in some little stores and then I'll get text messages from people saying, your pants are in my (local) store! Everyone calls 'em “my pants.” But I don’t think of them as “my pants.” It's wild, the amount of women on the East coast now that are wearing them. And, you know, I guess it's been five years, but it's incredible to me to see how fast the Dovetail community grew because, I feel like I was there in the beginning when nobody knew what Dovetail was. Because you were a West coast company and now it's just growing and growing and I love it and it's like, “Oh you got Dovetails! I got Dovetails! Yeah!” 

Learn more about Gloucester Adventure here.

Dovetail Workwear Disclaimer: We are not the boss of our Women At Work! They say it their way and wear it their way.