Not many companies can survive two recessions and five changes of ownership. Not many companies can continue to grow their audience while keeping their original ethos unchanged for over 40 years in business. Folkwear Patterns has managed to do both.
Folkwear is one of the oldest independent sewing pattern companies. They publish global, historical, and vintage sewing patterns, often including extensive cultural history, textile information, and handwork embellishment instructions in their patterns. They have a history of deep respect for people all over the world who make clothes and for what those clothes mean. Folkwear has proudly been passed from woman owner to woman owner the way that needlework traditions have been passed along through centuries.
Folkwear Patterns was started in California in 1976 by three women – Barbara Garvey, Alexandra (Jacopetti) Hart, and Ann Wainwright. They didn’t see the patterns they wanted to sew in the conservative offerings of the big pattern companies. They wanted folk clothing and things they could embroider and embellish with hand work like the garments they had seen on their travels around the world.
In the 1980’s, faced with a recession and owner interests drifting apart, the original owners sold the business to Taunton Press, a publisher focused on sewing, woodworking, gardening, and cooking. When Taunton was ready to sell Folkwear in the mid-1990’s they contacted Lark Books, thinking Lark would be a logical home for Folkwear because of their focus on handcrafts.
Lark Books decided to purchase Folkwear and hired Kate Mathews to manage it. It was a great fit for Folkwear. Mathews had owned a shop in the 1970’s that sold weaving, basketry, and other craft supplies and books, including Folkwear sewing patterns. Mathews was a sewist herself and sewed Folkwear patterns for her own wear.
In 2002, Mathews purchased Folkwear herself, making it yet again a woman-owned company. She says she, “…felt so lucky to be the one that acquired Folkwear many years later. It was a sense of completing the circle.”
A couple of years ago, Mathews was ready to retire and started looking to pass the torch. She had already turned down several offers that “just didn’t feel right,” when Molly Hamilton came along. Mathews would often be a featured speaker at textile-focused meetings, showing off garments from Folkwear’s extensive original garment collection. At one such meeting, Hamilton was in attendance. Almost a year later, when Hamilton’s work and home situation had changed, she approached Mathews about purchasing Folkwear — and this time, for Mathews, it clicked.
Owner Molly Hamilton wearing a blouse sewn in a knit fabric.
Photo courtesy of Erin Weisbart
Hamilton is now faced with the challenge of modernizing Folkwear while still staying true to the company ethos. She says that things were a little stagnant when she took over so she got started using social media, built a whole new website, and started publishing PDF patterns — developments that Mathews had avoided since she describes herself as “too old and cranky to learn all that good stuff.”
A major challenge for Hamilton is to make Folkwear pattern sizing more inclusive. While there are many patterns that are one-size-fits-all or have sizing based on height, only 15-20 patterns in the entire Folkwear catalog currently go up to a size 3XL. For perspective, Folkwear currently has 90 patterns in print and 135 patterns in their back catalog. Hamilton is working on increasing the size range of the patterns, but it has to happen one pattern at a time as they come up in the queue to be reprinted. First, she has to make sure the pattern is already a good seller to justify the cost since she doesn’t want to sit on a single print run for years. The pattern has to be scanned and digitized, then graded, formatted, and reprinted. It’s an investment of time that she’s willing to make, but it can only happen one at a time.
Hamilton’s goal is to get every pattern digitized, including the back catalog. Digitized patterns not only appeal to younger sewists but she also sees it as part of her duty as steward of the company. As each pattern comes up for reprinting, Hamilton goes through it with a modern look at cultural sensitivity, trying for cultural appreciation instead of cultural appropriation. She recognizes that many of the patterns were originally written in the seventies and eighties and there are different cultural norms now. She relies on feedback from customers who will reach out to her and say, “This pattern shouldn’t be spelled this way anymore,” or “I don’t think this part is culturally sensitive. It should be changed to this and here’s why.”
She also reaches out for help. For example, Folkwear recently re-released a Navajo blouse pattern. Hamilton found a friend of a friend who is Navajo to help her re-write the instruction booklet. Like many of the Folkwear instructional booklets, it includes a cultural history with the sewing and needlework instructions.
Hamilton is working to reach a new generation and audience by showing how flexible and timeless the designs are. Someone can follow the instructions exactly to make a very a traditional garment for cultural costume or for reenactment.
While younger sewists may balk at the time required for traditional embellishments (165 hours for the sleeve embroidery in the Romanian blouse, for example), Hamilton is trying to show that the patterns can be modernized into fun, easy, everyday wear that is still different from what you might find in the store or in other pattern companies while still recognizing and honoring the history of the garment.
So how has Folkwear been able to survive so many changes? While Hamilton’s responses are thoughtful and measured, and Mathews’ are rambling and enthusiastic, when asked this question both women immediately discuss ownership. Folkwear has had mostly women-based owners (ignoring a corporate period that “just didn’t get it,” as Mathews says), all of whom identified strongly with the original goals of publishing global, cultural patterns. The owners have all seen themselves as stewards of the company.
Visual continuity has also helped in Folkwear’s longevity. While Hamilton discusses logo and branding and Mathews talks about “that fairy tale, romantic interesting look,” it’s clear that the owners appreciate the original owners’ strong brand design and the talents of the cover illustrator. In fact, when Mathews purchased the business she contacted the original cover illustrator, Gretchen Schields, to work for her. Schields stayed through to help Hamilton in her first few years of business.
Having a defined niche has also been important in Folkwear’s longevity. Folkwear patterns aren’t for utility or saving money; they’re for people interested in doing something creative and wearing something creative. The supplemental information they include is quite unique. There’s a lot more than just the sewing patterns — people can participate in a tradition of needlework instead of just making a dress.
Mathews also attributes the longevity of Folkwear to the nature of the business. Being a small business that doesn’t rely on its own brick and mortar presence allows its owners to weather upheavals. Regardless of recession, people who love to sew interesting clothes always love to sew interesting clothes.
Author Erin Weisbart modeling Afghan Nomad.
Photo courtesy of Erin Weisbart
Continuity of ownership helps in longevity as well. Hamilton is in contact with the original owners. In fact, they sometimes chime in on the Folkwear Facebook Group. Mathews and Hamilton meet once a month to talk about what’s going on with the company and Hamilton often texts Mathews to say “do you know where this thing could possibly be?” or “have you heard of this problem I’m having?”, and Mathews relishes the chance to still be involved.
The example that Folkwear has set offers lessons to all of us creative small business owners, from having a concrete and relatable vision, to passing on a legacy. I look forward to seeing their business continue for the next 40 years — and will personally sew more of their patterns in the meantime!