Three California Old-Clothes Fanciers Build a Sew-It-Yourself Business in Roots Suits

updated 04/16/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/16/1979 01:00AM

Ethnic is in vogue these days, but the real thing gets harder and harder to find. So women with a yen to run up a Ching Dynasty skirt, a Missouri River boatman's shirt or, say, a Turkish coat—on their sewing machines—are turning to Folkwear patterns produced in Marin County, Calif. "People are really interested in tracing their roots no matter where they come from," figures Annie Wainwright, 45, one of Folk-wear's three founders. Or at least somebody's roots. "After all," she asks, "who wants to wear basic black and pearls when you can go out in an Afghani nomad dress?"

It's a rhetorical question. After just three years, Folkwear patterns are sold (for $3 to $4.50) in 1,200 fabric, craft and museum shops across the U.S., not to mention half a dozen foreign countries. Counting a sizable mail-order business, the company will gross $500,000 this year. Smiles Annie: "I think we have been terribly clever to get this far."

"We" includes—in addition to designer Wainwright—Alexandra Jacopetti, 39, the embroidery expert, and Barbara Garvey, 44, who wrote the instruction guides and keeps the books. It all began in 1975 over dinner at a San Francisco restaurant. The three, all folkwear addicts, had met two years before when Alexandra was working on Native Funk and Flash, a crafts book photographed by Annie's husband, Jerry Wainwright. Annie, who had been collecting old clothes since she was a teenager, was then a free-lance designer with firms like Alvin Duskin of California. Barbara was a rep for her artist husband Al, whose wood sculpture was featured in the book. Over the shrimp scampi, the threesome complained that Bay Area rag shops were cleaned out of the genuine ethnic works they treasured and concluded that they should start their own pattern company. In 1976 they set up shop in an old school bus 90 miles north of San Francisco in Forestville, which is still their shipping center.

The patterns were based on authentic pieces the women found in thrift shops and junk stores or bought from private collectors. Within a month their first patterns, a Gaza desert dress and a French cheesemaker's smock, were ready for sale. One of the appeals, notes Alexandra, is that "You don't have to be an adept seamstress to make our clothes—we have no set-in sleeves and no zippers."

Today Folkwear favorites include a Nepali blouse, a Japanese field jacket and the best-seller, a 19th-century prairie dress from the "Times Past" collection, a special group of clothes worn universally in the past rather than just by one ethnic group. Just off the drawing boards are Russian and Ukrainian shirts ("there's a Russian thing grabbing the country," says Alexandra) and African tribal tops. "But we don't get involved in fashion crazes," stresses Barbara, "and we want our patterns to fit people's lives as clothes, not costumes." The trio's biggest problem is finding good examples of native craftsmanship to copy. "Countries have been Westernizing their styles, so the modern Rumanian peasant blouse isn't as wonderful as it was years ago," says Alexandra.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of the women's reverence for tradition is the longevity of their marriages—with two of them in Marin County, yet. Photographer Wainwright and Annie have been together 11 years; Roland Jacopetti (who handles Folkwear's shipping and customer relations operation) and Alexandra have logged 18 years; and Al Garvey, still sculpting, and Barbara will celebrate their 20th anniversary next month. The one concession to California—and to their wives—is that all three gents go around by day in Folk-wear-patterned smocks.

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