This past Friday I had the pleasure of meeting Cathi from Gertrude Made. I fell in love with her work the first time I ran across her Instagram account and continue to be more and more inspired by her as time goes on.
For those of you who aren't familiar with her amazing work, she is a dressmaker from Australia who makes her "frocks" out of carefully selected vintage barkcloth. You can see some of her designs here. She designed her own patterns for the dresses and sews by size range or you can custom order a dress. I love how she takes old fabric that isn't used much anymore and brings new life to them with her modern but classic patterns.
And now a bit of a history lesson. Barkcloth is one of the oldest known "fabrics" and was originally made by soaking the inner bark of trees until they were able to be beaten together to form a sheet. Over time, barkcloth evolved to be made of mostly cotton instead of tree fibers but the cotton is woven in a way to still resemble the rough texture of old barkcloth. This newer version was typically used in home furnishings, such as curtains, drapery, upholstery, and slipcovers, but has also been used to make dresses and accessories.
While she is still making her beautiful homemade dresses, Cathi now is spreading her wings and has just released a new collection of vintage inspired barkcloth fabrics. She has worked very closely with Ella Blue Fabrics for over a year to create her collection "Outback Wife". The cotton barkcloth base is very carefully woven to create a feel that is as close to vintage as possible, and the beautiful floral designs are hand-painted. In her talk, Cathi refers to her fabrics as "slow fabrics" which really resonated with me. From the first design ideas all the way to the release of the collection, the process of making the fabric has been very intentional. For example, Cathi really wanted to use a fabric maker in Australia and wanted to make sure that the fabrics were made in a loving way.
She has named her collection "Outback Wife" as "an ode to the strength, passion and courage of rural women across Australia" (source). In her talk she mentioned that a lot of the vintage fabrics she has worked with have a woman's name on the selvedge and she's often wondered if these women were real or not and what their story would be. She went on to say that vintage fabric always feels like it has a story because it's been around so long and has survived so much. New fabric doesn't have the same emotions around it or stories to tell. So when she was making this collection, Cathy was inspired to name each design after a rural woman. You see, she herself is a farmer's wife in rural Australia and just sort of happened into this whole fabric design thing. She wanted to share the resilience and courage of other rural women in part to give more meaning to the fabrics she was designing (since they are new fabrics and can't have their own stories like vintage fabrics do) and also to bring awareness of the reality of living life on the land like she does and like the women who the fabrics are named after do. (You can read more about her story here.) I think this is such an amazing idea and an incredible way to bring more of her story into the fabric design. Yes each design has pretty flowers printed on fabric, but they are also so much more. I would highly recommend reading the stories behind each woman the fabric is named after. They are all inspirational women who talk about their life journeys as well as their history in sewing: Bindi, Kirstine, Mary, and Elaine.
I was also really inspired by Cathi's own story. I learned that unlike in the US, farms in Australia are not subsidized. This means that if there is flooding one year that kills a whole crop, tough luck. The farmer has to figure out a way to make things work without the aid of the government. Farming is hard work and isn't always the pretty, instagram-worthy sweet leisurely scene a lot of people have in their mind. A lot of times nowdays, farmers wives are not only mothers, but also helping on the farm as well as holding down another job to help ends meet; Cathi herself helps on the farm and sews dresses and designs fabric to help keep her family financially stable. I think that while a lot of us can understand the struggle of financial instability, being a farmer or married to a farmer (especially in Australia) takes that to a whole new level because the weather is totally unpredictable and there is no financial help from the government to help balance that risk.
I was totally inspired by everything Cathi talked about (obviously!) and am really looking forward to her fabric line hitting the shelves! She said it would start showing up stateside around February of 2017, and there will be a free quilt pattern (I think released through Ella Blue Fabrics) along with a dress pattern designed by Cathi released through Simplicity (keep checking here for the release of the dress pattern)! Have you ever sewn with barkcloth? Let me know in the comments below!