An interview with Laine Gabel of Mildred Handmade.
Briefly describe your business.
Mildred Handmade is a line of made-to-order wardrobe essentials including tops, dresses, smocks, jackets, robes and aprons. Every Mildred garment is designed, fit and sewn by me in my Quinte West home studio. This process allows clients to customize elements like colour, size, length, necklines or sleeve finishings within the framework of each design. I work with sustainable natural fibres like linen, wool, silk and sometimes organic cotton. It is a one-woman show. I design the garments, grade my patterns, consult with each client on every garment, source the fabric, determine the fit, cut, sew, ship and manage my website and social media.
One factor of my process that my clients love is that I do not use a standardized sizing rubric. Meaning when you purchase a piece, I don’t ask you to choose your size from a limited chart. Rather I size each piece for every client based on their individual measurements, which we determine over email. So, my line is size inclusive, ethically made and as sustainable as possible. I limit my waste in every way possible and use off-cuts to sew a limited selection of one-of-a-kind, ready-to-wear and heirloom pieces. I also hold my Give Love Valentine’s Day Sale every February 14th with ready to wear one-of-a-kind pieces with 50% of the sale price going to a charity or mutual aid cause.
What brought you to the region?
My husband and I wanted a change from city life in Toronto where we had been for 13 years. He was also looking for an affordable space to start his own business, Quietly Coffee. We wanted someplace accessible to the city but still far enough away that offered nature at our doorstep, and we found the perfect mix in Quinte West!
What makes the Bay of Quinte a good fit for your business?
I work from my home studio and it has been wonderful being located close to nature. I take hikes on my lunch breaks now! I also love that I am close to Ottawa and Toronto when needed and also have such easy access to the Bay of Quinte and Prince Edward County fabric stores as well. The community of small businesses out here is also incredible. I feel really at home here!
What was the hardest thing about starting a business?
I think the hardest part was making the leap from my career as a librarian to starting Mildred. I started sewing as soon as I was old enough to safely hold a sewing needle. Then when I could reach the foot pedal I was allowed to sew on the machine. It’s something that has always been a part of how I live my life and I’ve loved it since day one, but it took me a long time to realize I could make sewing a career. This is partly because I didn’t want to work within the fashion industry as it functioned throughout my youth and early adulthood. The waste and human exploitation that is built into the fast fashion industry is not something I wanted to contribute to.
After university, I pursued other things for a while, including photography, and then became a librarian (which involved going back to school for a while). A few years into my library career I realized how unhappy I was working in an office environment and began to ask myself if I could sew clothes on a made-to-order basis. It is so difficult and terrifying to decide to leave solid employment to start your own business!
As I talked about it more with friends, I was given good advice that we only get one life, so you should spend your time doing something you enjoy. So, at the end of one of my contracts at the library I had been working at, I made the leap, launched Mildred, and haven’t looked back. I love what I do and am excited to get to work every day!
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs in the area?
I think no matter where you live and work it’s important to always support local small businesses. I have absolutely loved shopping at, and getting to know, the local fabric and sewing notions shops in Quinte and the surrounding area, as well as supporting local farms, restaurants and other creative businesses.
In general when starting a new business, I would say expect it to be very, very hard and to feel like the work is endless. Running your own business is very rarely (maybe never) a simple 9-5 endeavour. But make sure to give yourself time to look in the rear-view mirror and recognize how far you have come at regular intervals. It can feel like you aren’t making progress because there is always so much to do; when you look back you realize how far you have come and it helps!
What surprised you about starting a business in a smaller community?
I actually started my business in Toronto which is where I built up my client base, although I now have clients from all over Canada and the US, and a few overseas too! One thing that I had to give up, given that we are located in a rural area, was having clients easily be able to pop into my studio to see fabrics in person or for measuring and fittings. That said it is fairly easy to have fabric, measuring and fit conversations over email or online and to send fabric swatches by mail.
How have you changed your operations during the pandemic?
Given that I was working alone from home already, my process hasn’t really changed too much. The pandemic did put an end to all in-studio visits with clients unfortunately. I do look forward to one day being able to welcome local clients into my studio, but for now it just isn’t an option.
From the beginning of the pandemic, I have had a very welcome increase in orders. This meant that the amount of time it takes to complete an order also increased, since I am sourcing, sizing, cutting, sewing, packaging and shipping every order by myself. I have also had to limit my fabric offerings a bit during lockdown; it has become harder and more time consuming to source the fabrics I use which are exclusively natural fibres like linen, organic cotton, silk and wool. Another way the pandemic has impacted my business is the increase in shipping times. Fortunately, everyone has been very understanding about these limitations and this is made-to-order slow fashion after all, so it is part of how it works.
What is something good that has come from this difficult situation?
I’ve been extra busy since the pandemic began. My line offers garments that are beautiful, versatile and comfortable with a nod toward an oversized aesthetic. I think there has been added incentive for people working from home to treat themselves to a piece they know will look great on a Zoom call but also feel wonderful on the body throughout the day.
I often say my goal with Mildred is to make easy-to-wear clothes in deliciously beautiful textiles that you want to put on every day. I think that ethos really works well in a time when we want our clothes to offer us comfort while feeling uplifting to wear. I also think that more people are embracing slow fashion in a time when we are reckoning globally with the human and environmental costs of fast fashion.
If you were to have one word tattooed on you, what would it be?
I have no tattoos because I am indecisive! But if I had to I guess I would tattoo my husband’s name on my butt. 🙂