The end of November was the deadline for Christmas orders at Erik Desjarlais’ workshop, an old chicken barn in Gray, and the business, Weft & Warp Seamster, is as busy as Santa’s workshop. Helpers are hurriedly stitching and sewing in anticipation of filling those orders.

“It’s been insane,” said Desjarlais, former chef/owner of three well-known Portland restaurants; he has a backlog of six to eight months to clear before even turning to Christmas orders.

Desjarlais now makes his living designing aprons and knife rolls. He also sells tote bags, wallets, belts, key straps and a cook’s tool kit that, according to the Weft & Warp website, “will hold a small piglet, lamb, or a good sized tuna.”

Most of his customers – as much as 80 percent – are in the restaurant industry, although he also counts serious home cooks as fans. Cooks, bartenders and front-of-house staff all over Portland use his gear, as do employees of such well-known restaurants as Toro in New York City and Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.

“We love his work,” said Ken Oringer, chef/co-owner of Toro in Boston and Manhattan. Toro’s New York service team wears custom Weft & Warp waist aprons. “We love to support any chef/artisans who take risks to follow their hearts.”

When Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez, chef/owners of the Portland restaurant Piccolo, cooked at the James Beard House in New York recently, they outfitted their staff with custom aprons made by Desjarlais.

Briana Volk, co-owner with her husband, Andrew, of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, says Desjarlais’ custom wax canvas and leather aprons and other products “look gorgeous while taking a beating.”

“He has a deep understanding of what working restaurant professionals need, and he creates beautiful, durable pieces that show that,” she said.

Desjarlais hopes to open his first retail shop Thursday, at 4 School St. in Freeport, just down the street from L.L. Bean. The storefront will be a combination of retail and workshop. One of his assistants has dubbed it “Build-A-Bear” for adults. “We’re going to do tote bags while you wait, so you can choose the bag part, you can choose the leather, you can choose the hardware,” Desjarlais said. “You can sit and have a cup of coffee and wait, and we’ll build it right there.”

CRAFTING A NEW REALITY

The success of Weft & Warp, after several years of ups and downs has been, Desjarlais says, “unexpected.”

“I had no idea what I was going to do after cooking,” Desjarlais said. “It could have been anything. Starting (Weft & Warp) back then, it kept me occupied to keep myself from freaking out about not having a restaurant anymore.”

Desjarlais, 39, has undergone both a professional and personal transformation since he left the Portland food scene in 2010, when he closed his last restaurant, Evangeline in Longfellow Square. He previously owned Bandol, a high-end, French-inspired restaurant on Exchange Street that he opened when he was just 26, and a casual Old Port soup shop named Ladle. Back then, he had a reputation for being the classic temperamental chef, the kind who is overgenerous with the caviar and foie gras but occasionally throws out customers who tick him off.

After closing Evangeline, Desjarlais stayed home with his new daughter for a couple of years while his wife, chef Krista Desjarlais, ran her popular (now closed) Portland restaurant, Bresca. Eventually, he began looking for a new career. He already knew how to sew, thanks to his grandfather, an upholsterer with whom he had apprenticed. Maybe he could sew for a living? Desjarlais had inherited his grandfather’s sewing machine, which was sitting idle in his parents’ basement. In the afternoons and evenings, he began going to his parents’ house to sew.

He made his first knife roll out of an old painters drop cloth, reverse-engineering it by taking apart the roll he had used for 20 years. “It was kind of symbolic,” he said, “and I had a lot of experience with a seam ripper. So I figured it out.”

His second roll was a gift for his wife.

When the family moved to New Gloucester, Desjarlais set up a workshop in their new house, but it was so small he used the kitchen island as a cutting table and the dining room as storage space for leather and canvas. Word of his knife rolls and aprons spread, and he began getting orders. Desjarlais estimates he made 25 knife rolls and 50 aprons his first year. (In 2015, he says, “my numbers were 25 to 30 times that.”)

When the business outgrew his home, he moved his workshop into the chicken barn in Gray, where a business partner, Diane Harriman, is now in charge of making the aprons so Desjarlais can concentrate on custom work. Five contractors help with the sewing. (He tried doing everything himself, but his waiting list grew to over a year.) Even with help, he is in his Gray workshop by 4 a.m., and he doesn’t get home until 8 p.m.

‘EXPLODING’ FASHION

Chefs today are celebrities. They work in open kitchens or they’ve come out from their kitchens altogether, interacting with customers and making frequent public appearances. Style and appearance are more important than ever, so it’s probably no surprise that apron fashion is “exploding,” according to Izabela Wojcik, director of programming at the James Beard House in New York City. She has seen the chefs who cook there “wearing all sorts of cool, hip apron styles.”

(And it’s not all new, either. Willa Zhen, an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park who studies chefs and cooking schools, says chefs have cared about how they look ever since the formalization of the profession in late 18th- and 19th-century France. Given their public presence, modern chefs, she added, are “a little more conscious of it.”)

Desjarlais’ signature apron costs $75 and is made of Japanese raw denim. The aprons get softer as they are worn, but the weave doesn’t break down. They protect chefs from kitchen burns, but feel like pajamas. (A simpler, 100 percent cotton apron sells for $38.).

Chef Matt Jennings of Townsman in Boston – named one of America’s Best New Restaurants this year by Esquire – first met Desjarlais when he ate at Evangeline, and the two kept in touch. Jennings bought Desjarlais’ first set of aprons when he owned Farmstead, a highly regarded restaurant in Providence. When he opened Townsman last winter, he purchased more for his entire staff.

“I’m a big guy, and (the apron has) always fit me really well,” Jennings said. “He makes them custom to my dimensions, so it’s really like wearing a glove in some respects. Erik pays a lot of attention to detail, and that comes through in all of his work, just like it did in his food.”

Desjarlais demurs. His knife roll ($180 or $210 depending on the number of pockets) are made of waxed canvas with leather straps, but otherwise are ordinary knife rolls, he says. He describes his products as utilitarian, and says he cares more about their durability than about fashion. Simple is better, he is fond of saying. Less is more.

“It’s like saying the most important ingredient on the plate is the one you leave off,” Desjarlais said. “It’s the same thing with this – no extraneous decor.”

His restaurant customers have discovered his other products, and the totes and wallets are now selling almost as well as the restaurant-related items, he said. He also makes leashes for leash companies, straps for bag companies and custom items for restaurants, such as place mats, trivets and menu books. If his business does well in Freeport, he’d consider opening a satellite store in North Conway, New Hampshire.

‘WHO DOES THAT?’

Life as a seamster seems to agree with Desjarlais. He looks much more relaxed and happy than he did when he ran a restaurant kitchen. “I think it’s getting older and realizing what’s important,” he said. “Having a child. And learning from the numerous mistakes I made as a chef.”

Desjarlais doesn’t shy away from discussing his old reputation and admits openly that “I used to be a jerk.” Only half the stories that once circulated around Portland about his behavior are true, he said, but yes, he did throw people out of his restaurants. (“Most of them deserved it.”)

Once he cut the apron off one of his cooks and dragged him out the door by the back of his neck. “I think back on that now,” he said, “and it’s like, who does that, you know?”

He has offered many apologies since then, he says.

He maintains his new outlook on life with the help of a regular exercise regimen and a diet that is now virtually gluten-free. He laughs as he talks about the gluten-free thing, aware that his old self would have totally mocked it.

He’s holding on to the idea of re-opening Ladle in another 10 years or so. And he’s saved all of his old restaurant stuff “because when I’m 60, I want to open up the tiny place where I don’t have to try. I’ll have 10 seats, and I’ll feed you every night. It will be my retirement job.”

Meanwhile, there are lots of aprons to make.