Two centuries ago, our forebears would have known the precise history and source of almost every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned. They would have been familiar with the pig, the carpenter, the weaver, the loom and the dairymaid. The range of items available for purchase may have grown exponentially since then, but our understanding of their genesis has grown ever more obscure. We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the production and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.
ALAIN DE BOTTON - ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ p 35
The first To Barwyn and Back product, the Game Singlet, was a means to experiment with fabric, reflectivity, marketing, customer relationships and pattern-making. But from the very beginning, I was already dreaming up this collection. I had been itching to create fun, detailed, ambitious pieces loaded with more. I wanted to create a video featuring experimental pieces, garments that would be artistic flowing, technical, detailed, luxe, rich, and suggestive of a work-in-progress. I was hoping to receive feedback so I could further develop the pieces most desired by the customer.
I spent a lot of time studying different areas of the human body, analysing how they move, and working out how each part needs to be supported. This resulted in literally hundreds of sketches. I made notes on what I deemed to be necessary fabric properties, comparing them with fabrics I already had at home. I was inspired by old Face magazines, childhood films like Little Rascals, Denis the Menace and The Sandalot Kids. I also religiously poured through piles of contemporary magazines to understand what was coming out of fashion, and if there was anything I could learn from them.
Once I started purchasing sample amounts of fabric, I began to realise that it would be fruitless to invest so much time, money, and effort into executing garments that could not be shared and enjoyed by the consumer, and that wouldn’t necessarily contribute to the label – the business I was determined to expand. It was then that I decided to create a smaller collection, one that could be produced locally, in small runs and would allow for business growth. I wanted these garments to be genderless, rich in a variety of bold colours, with reflective details and simple functions.
Early documents I created listed infinite amounts of detail. There were suggestions supporting specific activities, modes or variations the one garment could accommodate for, as well as characteristics (moisture-wicking, waterproof, etc.) unique to each item. I had gigabytes worth of saved images, plucked from the internet to indicate the feel, effect and attitude of a particular garment. I updated these regularly, refining ideas as I learned more about available fabrics, and the costs of other details (embroidery, heat transfer, custom nickel buttons, etc.). I produced an elaborate brief for each garment.
That was when Tess sat me down. She said something like, “Here’s a calendar. Let’s be real. Set some goals, do the damn thing. People love and support what you’re doing, so just bite the bullet.” Since then things became fast-paced, intense and emotional. A year and a half ago I started locking in designs, but the rollercoaster never stopped moving.
Fabric availability was a huge area of limitation. Showroom after showroom, phone call after email, after researching some obscure engineered cotton thread; I was being lead around in circles. Fabrics that were durable had no stretch, or only came in black. Fabrics that were insulative and moisture-wicking came only in pastels and were too expensive, with large minimum runs. All the gross combinations of dead ends you imagine could happen, happened. To create clothes that resemble wearable garments out of available or accessible ‘tech’ fabrics was next to impossible. I found solutions in mixing fabrics on a garment – like in the gown. By begging a local producer to manufacture a polyamide/spandex blend I could access the perfect long-sleeve shirt fabric.
Paul and George at QRF were exceedingly patient. Most local manufacturers I approached had never worked with the fabrics I had in mind – reflective, PU coated, etc. – and new fabrics required extra attention to things such as needle size and sewing machine foot-type. Approaching manufacturers with a whole hoard of innovative things was pretty unenticing, especially coming from a start-up sole-trader, with an evident lack of ‘fashion/textile’ lingo. In the end, I found one manufacturer who would oblige.
I met Hung through George and Paul. He is a great person, grounded and kind, who supported me in making prototypes. Hung also connected me with Bernice, who is so truthful and nothing short of brilliant. She is the pattern-maker who helped transform my amateurish paper patterns into the real thing, and someone I could bounce ideas off, who has a great deal of industry insight. When Hung finally admitted he couldn’t help with production, I began the long and tedious journey of trying to find someone else imaginative enough to produce my bits. But he had equipped me with the language to explain what I wanted to produce. Where my architectural sketches and terminology fell short, Hung and Bernice stepped in.
A depressing sense of déjà vu dawned on me after I left meetings with manufacturers all over Melbourne. I worked myself up beforehand each time because everything depended on their involvement. I had a memorised spiel, which attempted to make the garments sound simpler than they were. I was approaching manufacturers in the busiest season, many of whom weren’t listed online. I was following a bread crumb trail of mobile numbers and first names on post-its gifted to me from a few sympathetic souls in the industry. Some of the places I visited were in the process of shutting down as customers were going offshore and I almost gave up. When I finally found someone willing, the prices were far more than I’d anticipated.
Accessing start-up income was difficult. I left architecture with no savings. I had always been more about instant gratification planning. So, with a little bit of debt, and assets including a bed, a shitty laptop and a crappy car, meant I wasn’t eligible for loans. I applied for many grants, but my idea was so undercooked – yet so expensive to ‘cook’ – that I was never the right candidate. I had put every hope in a City of Melbourne grant to make things happen, but part of the criteria was being able to execute the start-up business regardless of the grant – which though well-intentioned, seemed pointless. I just couldn’t figure out how to get my hands on a loan. I didn’t want to give anyone else power over my idea or business. I didn’t want to ask people for handouts. also felt a lot of pride and wanted to ‘do it on my own’.
Despite my inadequacies in saving, I’ve always been good at creating something out of nothing. Meals at our place, and Kerrod will attest to this, often include crafting something pretty tasty from cheap tins plus broccoli stalks and other old or remnant ingredients. I once made a twinset for Mum out of Tess’s nana’s old duvet cover. I made plans and set up very elaborate spreadsheets, calculating that I could produce a collection of 7 items with $15,000. Even though I was working part-time at two hospo joints, and babysitting for 3-4 families, and doing freelance design, no bank would loan me the money I needed. So Dad and Mum performed the ultimate miracle and invested in me themselves.
It made me sick in the stomach to borrow that amount of money from my parents without knowing when I’d be able to pay them back. Especially when I have so many memories of them being thrifty, careful and keeping budgets. But at the same time, that unconditional exhibition of faith, propelled me to hustle hard.
I remember meeting Vicki Skorsis of CGT. Her small factory was filled with colour, threads and patterns – a humble office space with smiling workers. Immediately, I felt a sense of familiarity there, and she took a huge leap of faith helping me. Each item we worked on together, Vicki and her team offered insights and advice, and I feel incredibly lucky that they took me on. The same goes to Osman at Kaplan Group. A no-bullshit man, kind and accommodating, but able to do the simpler garments at a good price. He was always clear and honest with me.
After I exhausted my first loan I had fabrics and fastenings, and a good grasp on how to proceed, but not enough capital for production. I worked towards getting another $20,000 through a microfinance program with NAB, and then another $5,000 through the kind support and mentorship program offered by Many Rivers. Because I was working multiple jobs, it all took a great deal longer than I thought.
I wanted to make use of every minute of every day, but I forgot that down time made the up time more fruitful. And even though people told me that I needed to take a break and have some social space, I really wanted to do nothing other than nail this and not put the investment mum and dad made in jeopardy. I worked really hard to make the garments accessible money-wise. Driving Elaine (my car) all over Victoria to save even $1/m on webbing and shipping costs was done with little hesitation. Time in my car, despite my love for the bike, was really enjoyable, a mental break from my computer – and connecting with the world through the radio was a real comfort to this social recluse.
Some experiences felt completely out of my depth– like my first import. I was googling acronyms and spread-sheeting all the quotes so I would get the best offer down to the dollar. I have since learned that often the cheapest option will take you more time and energy to navigate and therefore ends up costing more. Golden lesson.
Many times I’d wear something I was testing to work, and it got all caught up under my bum, or sat funny around my arm, or the fabric was off – to be honest I felt like a dickhead a lot. But because I had a very clear vision I tried to stay modest.
There were many overwhelming moments when people would just go out of their way to be kind to me – Laura and the team at M.Recht, Arther and Angello (Weston St mechanics). Mary and Christina at the pharmacy below our home. Antoinette at Heavy Metal Jewellers telling me she loved everything I wore. Robert at Speedline always invoicing me after he sent fabric to manufacturers. The dude at Bunnings who gave me a discount on the neon orange esky because I was wearing a neon orange dress. The crew at Rooks for always looking after me, likewise Bluebonnet legends. Carey who I met on an architecture job, who had seemingly unfailing belief in me. The Melbourne bike polo fam and the Brunswick cycling club. The ladies at Rathdowne Remnant, and gals at the Fabric Store for patience, camaraderie and support. The print crew at Officeworks for their brilliance and insights. And all the mums and dads and their kids that brought me into their lives and became a little cheer squad for me.
I feel really lucky to be where I am - and so grateful to the people that have helped. I feel blessed in the morning getting out of bed to be working on something that I chose, that makes me so happy. I know how rare it is to be content with your work and I couldn’t recommend this start-up journey to others more. I can’t remember being happier or more proud of myself.
For an insight into garments specifically, here’s a little rundown.
/ TRACK PANTS
Formerly known as ‘smarty pants’. I made these after I had settled on 6 other first collection items. It was mid-winter last year and I was house-sitting at the O’Sullivans in Fitzroy, so I had a rare big space to create. I hate the cold, and I hate not riding, so I made these as my kind of shield. I wore them all weekend working, and then rode to a house-party later, and felt comfy, safe and cool.
Soon after, I sought a tougher crotch fabric; 100% merino, while comfy and naturally moisture-wicking and insulative, started to peal and wear away. So I used a blend with nylon and spandex instead. I added a zipper detail for airing out the legs after long rides, changed the fit several times and added some elastic at the ankle to keep in warmth.
/ADVENTURE LONG SLEEVE
I made long sleeves from shirts I had at home and got Kerrod and Lachie test their fit. Fabrics were limited, and after sampling an expensive Italian fabric, I sought help from a local mill to produce something similar. George at QRF undertook this challenge. I was turned away more times than I can remember by heat pressers not wanting to do the 6 presses on the top. Cherie and her team at Reflective Impressions are to thank for the stunning graphics.
/ STREET VEST
I though this would be so simple to nail. I fell in love with the neon orange fabric and was excited by the challenge I’d set. However, first patterns were ill-fitting, puffy and ugly. Samples were very expensive to produce but I found that subtle tweaks in detail made a big difference to the overall garment.
I added the pocket eyelet at the end for headphones and used embroidery to indicate to the wearer where the garment was created so that they might value it more.
/ WEEKEND SHORTS
I initially thought these could be a simple taslan elasticized short, something pull-on and quick-dry. Attempts had pocket flaps of varying shapes and a simple flip and clip. However, they were all too casual and I eventually changed tact and decided to make a more tailored short, inspired by Dr Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park.
I tried hard to make them for both hips and waist - webbing and D-rings on the side would allow for adjustment however caused bulk. Stitching and other details changed many times in an effort to make them valued in a fashion context, not just functionality.
/ RACING DRESS
Finding fabric ideal for this garment took many months. Technical fabrics are mostly tough and non-stretch, or stretchy and thin. I needed a strong, thicker, flattering tech fabric, and the closest things I’d found was a Merino shell fabric whose price tag and MOQ where astronomical. When I found this Cordura®, I had to beg for a quantity that was still 3 times what I needed. The pattern was remade many times by myself and Bernice. The neckline was tricky, as was the fit, the bottom detail, the eyelet locations - and up until one week ago, this detail was still being amended.
/ RIDING GOWN
First iterations had casings and were based around a hidden shank button detail (custom, branded buttons that had already been ordered). The skirt was originally fuller but too heavy. Bust detail & shape evolved through many mock-ups; it required stretch for movement and comfort along with structure for a flattering silhouette. This, and making the ‘up’ function simple, manufacture-able, and accessible (cost-wise) were the greatest challenges. Shout out to the patient staff at Bunnings & Jaycar.