Hill Vintage and Knits offers unique shop to East Village

Mariah Wellman

For Erica Carnes and Jessica Miller, owners of Hill Vintage and Knits in Des Moines, vintage has always been a passion driving their lives. For years, the two women thrift-shopped and collected pieces for their own wardrobes.

As their vintage collection started to grow, along with their interest in retro style, they decided to make a career out of their love of vintage items. First, they sold clothing out of their apartment. They then began a tent operation before finally moving the business into a 1964 RV.

“Heidi,” as the RV became known, rolled around the Des Moines area, stopping at different locations around the city.

“We sold out of that for about two years,” Miller said. “We made relationships with local businesses and they let us park in their parking lot.”

There was considerable buzz in the Des Moines area surrounding “Heidi” and the two women behind the operation.

“That kind of got our name out there,” Miller said about their days selling vintage apparel from an RV, but both women knew someday they would need to move to a larger space.

“We loved doing it, but it was temperamental,” Miller said. “It was hot and people don’t want to shop in a camper.”

In fall 2011, Carnes and Miller started looking at locations for a “brick and mortar” space.

“We were fixated on East Village,” Miller said. “This is for sure the best location in Des Moines proper because there’s always traffic.”

The women heard a rumor that a shop in East Village was moving to a larger space and decided to talk to the landlord about building their vision into the vacant location.

“It turned out to be much easier than we thought,” Miller said. “The landlord’s sister had owned a vintage clothing store in the 80s and 90s, so he totally got it.”

Miller and Carnes signed the lease in the middle of May 2012 and were in the location by the second week in June 2012.

Hill Vintage and Knits opened shortly after the lease was signed, but the women were worried about the store’s sole focus on vintage clothing.

“Our prices are low,” Miller said. “We want to keep them that way because we want everybody to feel like they can buy a $25 dress.”

But to make rent every month, the women knew they needed to find something else to bring in funds.

“Erica was a huge knitter. She’d been knitting for like twelve years,” Miller said. “She taught me how to knit two years before and she was like ‘It’d make sense for there to be a yarn shop in Des Moines.’”

At the time, only one yarn shop was in the area. Miller and Carnes started exploring the idea and decided to make it a reality inside Hill Vintage.

“It worked out perfectly, because the yarn and the vintage kind of jive well together,” Miller said. “In the winter when retail is slow, yarn’s awesome because people are at home knitting because it’s cold. And in the summer when yarn’s not selling great, clothing does great.”

The unexpected yin and yang of the yarn and vintage clothing worked out well for the co-owners, and they are now bringing in interns from DMACC and Iowa State.

“We have two starting next semester from Iowa State from the fashion program,” Miller said.

Miller, an ISU alumna, said that both she and Carnes encourage their interns to take ownership to make it an enjoyable learning experience.

Mia Pierson, junior in apparel, merchandising and design, is planning to intern at Hill Vintage this spring.

Pierson is a transfer student from DMACC and decided on Hill Vintage as her first internship in her field.

“Hill Vintage combined two things I loved: knitting and vintage,” Pierson said. “Starting my own store has been a bug in my brain for the past few months, so when this internship popped up I knew I wanted to take advantage of some hands-on experience.”

Miller says they also have an intern who is a talented sewer and they will be teaching her how to mend vintage clothing and make it more presentable overall.

“One of them is a big sewer so she’ll take our clothing, because sometimes vintage clothing fits wrong, and she’ll adjust hemlines, take off sleeves, things like that,” Miller said. “Also, a lot of vintage clothing needs mending.”

Once the clothes are mended by Miller, Carnes or possibly one of their interns, the clothing goes on hangers in sized sections: small, medium and large.

Hill Vintage also has worn-in cowboy boots, men’s sweaters and flannels and walls of yarn and other knitting materials.

The women also create “record bowls,” as well as take record covers and replace them on the front of lined notebooks.

Carnes and Miller’s vision for their store came together exactly how they had planned, and Carnes said she feels that being part of the East Village business community is great.

“We are learning and perfecting the ropes of owning a business as well as growing our customer base and our inventory,” Carnes said. “I cannot imagine a job better than that of spreading my love of vintage clothing and knitting.”

Hill Vintage and Knits is located at 432 E Locust St. in Des Moines, IA.