Over the weekend I unpacked the last of my boxes. I had saved this one until last because I knew what was in the box and I wanted to give myself all the time I needed to wash these little dresses, and dry them in the sun on a day when there was a breeze. They’d been kept in storage for 20 plus years. They needed some TLC and to see the sun before I hung them up in my new sewing room.
I was looking forward to this exercise. I was also a bit nervous. I wasn’t really sure how they would have fared over that time. You see, I hadn’t gone to any pains to preserve them. They definitely hadn’t been put away in anything near ‘airtight’ so this was down to chance.
But sure enough, they washed and ironed like a dream (linen, after all) and they are in exactly the same condition as they were when I made them, all those years ago. And I was so pleased. These little dresses have a special place in my heart…..and my history. Not because they were my little girls’ dresses. No. These dresses were a collection, a range that I put together to start my own label. This was Charlie Grace.
I had wanted to create a children’s clothing label for as long as I can remember. Always. Forever. And I had dreamt about white linen baby dresses from the first time I ever sewed with linen, in my teens. I loved the indulgence of linen and the way it felt, folded, and breathed. I adored the crispness of the white and was in awe of the statement that this simple and natural fabric could make. I still feel that way that about linen.
And I loved little dresses. I was mesmerised by them. I still am. The more indulgent the better. I am a sucker for quality, detail and embellishment. My preference is for classic understatement but I also love ‘over the top’. the more layers on a tutu, the better. In my mind, the possibilities for little dresses were, and still are, endless
In starting my own label, my mind was crystal clear. I knew what I wanted. White linen and little dresses were the perfect pair. Impractical? Absolutely. I am driven by beauty so I didn’t care.
Finally deciding to give it a go was, for me, probably one of the most energising decisions I had ever made. It was liberating. Empowering. It may not sound like a big deal but believe me, 20 years ago it was. Things were so different.
We didn’t have the access to markets and media that we do today. Copyright restrictions were much tougher and unless you bought in bulk, sourcing materials was difficult and expensive. If you wanted to sell at the markets you had to get a big clumsy machine from the bank, linked to a business account under a registered trade name. Of course you had to do all of this, face to face, with a teller after you had made an appointment. And then there were sew-in labels and swing tags. You had to buy them by the thousands.
So you see, taking this on, was a big deal. At the time I had 2 little ones, aged 4 and 1, and I worked part time.
Most of my fabric came from a place on the northern beaches that used to sell off cuts from fabrics that had been used by designers. They sold the most amazing pieces for practically nothing……..some I’ve still got in my stash. I bought a lot of linen of different weights and textures (pretty much all white but some navy). The one below was a favourite – a light linen with a little stripe woven into it.
Spotlight was competitive for both fabrics and notions and you didn’t need to buy in bulk. I spent many an hour in different Spotlights all over Sydney and was never disappointed. Spotlight had a good range, was never out of stock was always comfortable and easy with a pram. In those days it was pretty disorganised too…….so it wasn’t too stressful when your kids touched the buttons! This was how I came to love Spotlight.
As the owner of a registered business, I also had access to Charles Parsons (textile supplier to manufacturers). I loved the Charles Parsons part of the experience! It was too exciting talking about the qualities of different fabrics (on huge rolls) to the sales assistants and being taken seriously. Again, the requirement to buy in bulk was prohibitive but I didn’t let that stop me. In fact, the basis of my stash today, is quality fabric from Charles Parsons. And as Im writing this I’m thinking that I probably should keep that fact under my hat!
Constructing the garments
I drafted some of the patterns myself but the gorgeous gathered yoke and Peter Pan collar style, that features frequently, was a modified ?Style pattern. Thinking ‘copyright’, I modified that pattern by at least 50% ( this probably wasn’t ever necessary but I played by the rules -a dyed in the wool stickler for the rules, was I).
You can see I included embellishments on all the dresses and that I had a particular penchant for piping, and tucks. Ribbon also featured frequently as did hand embroidery and lace. I also loved a puff sleeve with detail and adored a cuff. I still love every one of these details today……nothing has changed in 20 years (except my reluctance to spend as much time on washing and ironing ….although I probably still would).
Then there was the selling and marketing! Now remember, online shopping wasn’t a thing and social media didn’t exist. So if I wanted sell the dresses I had to market them through a distribution channel. This involved cold calling boutiques that sold children’s clothing or department stores like Myer (could have been Grace Bros in those days?) or David Jones.
I found this very challenging. Selling has never been in my DNA. Notwithstanding , I had actually got an appointment with a buyer at David Jones. Now she gave me the heads up before the interview that if I wanted to deal with David Jones, I would need to be able to guarantee a minimum supply of items, of her choosing. Looking at the range of handmade little dresses, with their hand embroidered embellishments, I knew that promising any sort of minimum was going to be a problem.
But I wasn’t defeated…… not quite. I changed tack. I decided to alter the style slightly and omit some of the embellishments to give me a better chance at finding someone who would be prepared to sew the garments en masse. It worked. I managed to source a woman who lived miles and miles away. She wasn’t very interested but in the end reluctantly agreed to sew me a few samples …..for a pretty penny.
Where did my dream go?
I can still remember that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I picked up the samples, weeks later. My little handmade linen pieces had turned into poorly constructed cheap looking, slightly wonky, manufactured dresses.
They had become something else. Somewhere in the transformation my passion died.
I cancelled my appointment with the buyer at David Jones and put the project on ‘hold’. Severe morning sickness helped me make that decision.
And now, 20 years later, I find my little dresses, as good as new. I still love them just as much, (maybe even more) and I marvel at the beauty and durability of linen….you cannot beat it.
For me, the dresses still incite passion and enthusiasm.
It ain’t over yet!