Today I am thrilled to be interviewing Molly Hamilton, the amazingly talented and inspiring woman behind the iconic Folkwear sewing pattern company! Folkwear has been on the scene creating gorgeous patterns based on historical and vintage garments from around the world since the 1970’s, and they were actually the first vintage inspired sewing patterns I came across when I started getting into sewing – before I even had my first sewing machine! I’ve been a huge fan of Molly’s ever since and interviewing her is truly an honor and a dream come true for me. 🙂 I hope you all enjoy this interview and come away just as inspired as I am!
Tell us about your business, Folkwear!
Folkwear was started in 1976 by 3 women in California who wanted to provide sewing patterns for global styles that were not available commercially at the time. It expanded from there to eventually create 135 sewing patterns from over 30 countries and hundreds of years. We currently have 95 sewing patterns in print, and several PDF patterns, specializing in vintage and folk clothing from around the world. We sell directly to customers through our website/store and we wholesale to over 70 stores in the U.S. and around the world.
When did you start your business? What inspired, you to start it and what excites you about your work?
I took over the helm at Folkwear in 2016 (it started in 1976). I was inspired to work with Folkwear after seeing the owner, in 2014, give a presentation about Folkwear. The clothing, designs, stories behind the garments and patterns was exciting and inspiring. I love history, culture, geography, travel, and sewing – and this company encompassed all of that. Kate, the former owner, wanted to retire and it worked out after about a year for me to buy the business. I love researching patterns, coming up with new ideas, reaching out to our customers through newsletters, working with our wholesale customers, and traveling!
What is your process? What tools do you like using? Where do you do your work? Can you walk us through a day in your life with your business?
Whew! There is so much to do in this business. I have a wonderful assistant, a great pattern drafter, grader, and graphics help. I use my Bernina sewing machines and I love them (Bernina 530 at home, Activa 131 at my office, and an ancient one that I pull out to travel with). I also love my Babylock Imagine serger. I also love a good pair of sharp fabric scissors (and rotary cutter) – everyone should have that. I also like my clear plastic rulers for grading and measuring fabric and cuts. I also find my Dymo printer to be pretty indispensable when filling orders!
I work at my office which is a little crowded with my computer, printer, copier, filing cabinets, cutting table, sewing machine, all our samples, and quite a collection of patterns and books. Our inventory is housed in a warehouse-like room below our office – and all of this is located nearly across the street from my children’s school, so it is quite convenient!
I usually start my day with emails to customers and employees. Then, I may work on any of the following: writing our newsletter which goes out twice a month, drafting patterns, testing patterns, sewing samples, creating ads, writing and illustrating instructions, working to get old patterns back into print (working with graders, graphic designers, and publisher), writing blog posts, posting on social media, and bookkeeping. There are always other random things to get done too, like organizing inventory, placing orders for patterns, photographing samples, and trying to make videos!
What do you love the most about your business?
I love that our patterns span the globe and many decades! And, that Folkwear has such a long history in the sewing world.
What is the most difficult aspect of running your business?
Dealing with problems for things I don’t know much about. I have taught myself a lot and made mistakes, and it is frustrating but also educational. For instance, I have learned how to use Adobe Illustrator. It was very difficult and frustrating at first and I had to hire people to do the work on it because I couldn’t, but after a lot of practice, I finally feel much more comfortable with it and can use it now. I still hire people who are better than me to do the more complicated work, but I can get by with the easy stuff. There are lots of problems like this in this business.
Also, we have lots of old patterns and sometimes when we go to reprint, and I want to make any changes (fix a mistake, grade up a size or two), I find that there are actually no digital files of the patterns. They have been printed from film or paper form that was then shot. So, getting patterns re-created has been frustrating (and expensive) at times!
From inspiration, to drafting to completion, how long would you say it typically takes to create a Folkwear pattern? What is that process like for you?
It can take up to a year to get a pattern made. Inspiration to drafting a pattern can take 2-3 months. Then the pattern is graded into the different sizes which can take up to 2 months. Then, the pattern needs to be formatted and made into PDFs (for print-at-home) which can take another month or two. This is also where lots of other things start to come into play. Instructions must be written, illustrations made, and the cover illustrated and designed. The pattern must also be tested (preferably by other people) and samples made. Any changes to the pattern might mean you start over with drafting and grading again. Then, photo shoots for advertising – and getting the pattern printed (which can take almost a month). It is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle – lots of little pieces that must go in there correctly.
This year Folkwear has two new patterns in the works that should be printed in the next month or two. It has taken a while to get these patterns to print because we had a lot of contract employees retire! So, I worked to find new women to work with and I am excited about them and their talent!
How do decide which patterns to create? What inspires you in a vintage, historical or folk pattern?
I am inspired by several things. First, by well-made vintage clothing that I’ve found – and we have a personal stash from stylish great- and great-great family members. Second, from Folkwear’s own collection – we have hundreds of sample garments and dozens of garments that have been collected from all over the world. We also have many patterns-in-progress from over the years of the company. There is so much to inspire just in this office! Third, I get inspired from my own travels. Folkwear was started because the founders were inspired by folk clothing they saw worn on their travels. I find it is the same when I travel. From museum exhibits to the folk clothing and embellishments of a country, I find details and whole garments to inspire patterns and ideas.
As a lover of fashion history, I love that your patterns come with information on the historical or cultural context of the garments, and how they would have been worn. Can you tell us why that was important for you to include?
Including pattern “lore”, or historic and cultural context, of the garments was a decision made by the founders of Folkwear over 40 years ago and has carried on as an integral and iconic part of Folkwear patterns. It is important to include this information so that people who sew the garments will appreciate the history and culture of where the garment came from, and perhaps have a deeper understanding of it and how it can be worn (historically/culturally accurate or with a modern interpretation). It allows a deeper understanding of where certain styles of clothing come from and how clothing shapes culture and history and culture and history shapes clothing. It’s all fascinating!
Do you aim for historical accuracy in you patterns?
We do aim for historical accuracy in our patterns. However, occasionally, if construction techniques or design lend themselves to a more modern interpretation, we try to include that to make it easier to sew or construct. Sometimes, a few patterns are inspired by a period or item of clothing but are not necessarily drafted from an original item. For example, the 249 1930s Day Dress has one version drafted from an original dress from the early 1930s. The second version (View B) is based on a Folkwear designer’s idea of a 1930s dress that is more flowing – similar, but with different details and not based on an original.
If you had to recommend three Folkwear patterns, which would you choose?
This is a hard question! There are so many patterns I love, but if I had to choose three to recommend, I guess they would be 131 Tibetan Chupa (dress and skirt pattern, very flattering and easy, lends itself well to great fabric choices), 202 Victorian Shirt (for men and women, great shirt, I’ve seen it lengthened into a dress and it is adorable!), 240 Rosie the Riveter (so many patterns in this one: overalls, pants, shirt, sweater – they are all cute and well-drafted).
My top 10 pattern picks:
102 French Cheesemaker’s Smock (easy and great shirt – vintage and folk)
109 Little Folks (lots of great baby/kid patterns here from all over the world)
118 Tibetan Panel Coat (very popular pattern for a traditional vest-type coat)
129 Japanese Hapi and Haori (two traditional Japanese jacket patterns – both are lovely)
131 Tibetan Chupa
142 Old Mexico Dress (very popular and easy, makes easy and cute shirt or dress)
202 Victorian Shirt
210 Armistice Blouse (beautiful shirt/blouse)
240 Rosie the Riveter
268 Metropolitan Suit (beautiful suit, extremely well drafted, skirt and jacket pattern included)
Tell us about yourself!
I am a born-and-raised North Carolinian – I grew up on the coast and now live in the mountains, near Asheville, with my husband and 4 children (ages 6 to 13). My background is actually in science. I have a degree in Biology and a Masters of Crop Science (Agronomy). I grew up on a farm and live on a farm now. I worked for NC State University for 13 years for their Organic Grain Program before I came to Folkwear full-time. I also ran a natural soap business for 7 years, and did lots of sewing on the side! I always stay pretty busy!
What do you do in your free time?
In my free time I like to sew 😊, hike/exercise, read, cook, and travel, and I usually spend lots of my free time with kids – driving to sports or music, or homework, reading, and playing. I also spend time in my garden in the spring/summer/fall.
When did you begin sewing?
I started sewing when I was about 6 years old. My grandmother was an amazing seamstress and made lots of my clothes when I was a child, and she taught me a lot. She started me off hand sewing Barbie clothes. Eventually, I worked up to practicing machine-sewing straight lines on notebook paper and doing simple projects! I started seriously sewing clothing when I was in college.
What started your love of vintage, historical and folk fashion?
I have always loved history, geography (my college minor), and culture. I loved wearing my grandmother’s 1940s dresses and shoes as a child (she was tiny) – they were so well tailored (different from the popular style of the 1990s), beautiful, and stylish. And, I remember dressing in a sari in high school because a Rotary exchange program brought a woman from India to stay at our house for several weeks, and she dressed me in her clothing. I loved how I felt wearing the sari – it was so beautiful and comfortable and different. It brought me a deeper appreciation of another culture and way of dressing. College courses helped develop my interest and fascination further, and Folkwear patterns (even before I came to work for it) made those times and cultures accessible to me through clothing.
How would you describe your own personal style?
My personal style is a bit casual and classic – skirts, simple tops and dresses, and jeans (I love a good pair of well-fitting jeans, which I sometimes make myself). I wear a lot of self-made garments – some from Folkwear patterns, some from other companies.
What is your favourite era for vintage or historical fashion?
The 1940s has a lot of cute classic dresses (and pants/shirts) that easily transfer to modern, every-day-wear. And, most of the styles are very flattering to me. I also love late Edwardian with all the lace, pin-tucks, flounces, flowers, and lawns.
Do you have a favourite vintage era fashion designer and/or sewing pattern company?
Sewing pattern company – Folkwear
Fashion designers – Thea Porter for her boho styles influenced by Middle-eastern and Asian clothing – very similar to early Folkwear patterns. And, Yves St Laurent for some classic silhouettes and beautiful pieces.
What is your favourite thing about vintage fashion and vintage sewing patterns?
I love the level of detail. Vintage patterns can deep-dive you into clothing details like pin-tucks, lace insertion, unique buttonholes, applique, darts, and pleats. And, these details are so flattering and make the garments unique and interesting. I learn new things every time I sew vintage patterns.
What is your personal favourite vintage pattern?
Well, my favorite vintage pattern is a new Folkwear pattern that has not come out yet – it is a flattering 1940s dress that we hope to release in the next couple of months. But, after that, I love Folkwear’s 219 Intimacies (so comfortable, simple, and beautiful) and 240 Rosie the Riveter (flattering, and I love the shirt).
Do you have any words of advice for someone who might be thinking of starting their own creative business?
Take (calculated) risks. Have trusted advisors and mentors (and employees, if needed) who know and believe in and love your business. Use them for advice and feedback – they want to help!
=Do you have anything special you would like to promote to my readers?
We just added our vintage knitting patterns as bundles and PDF downloads to our on-line store. We have two new sewing patterns coming out very soon! And, we are adding PDF sewing patterns to our line (some are out-of-print patterns and some are in-print) so that international customers, and those who like PDFs, can get them.
Also, we are creating a line of clothing based on our patterns. We will have three looks available late summer/fall!
Sign up for our newsletter (sign up form at bottom of our website or on our Facebook page) to get updates about what’s going on at Folkwear – new patterns, sales, etc. I also include lots of great links to articles on sewing, fashion, vintage and global textile/clothing, and museum exhibits. It’s a fun newsletter!
Where can we find you online?
Our website: https://www.folkwear.com/
Facebook Group (Folkwear Patterns Sewing Group): https://www.facebook.com/groups/folkwearpatternssewing/
Instagram (@folkwearsewing.patterns): https://www.instagram.com/folkwearsewing.patterns/
Thank you so much, Molly, for allowing me to interview you! It has been such a pleasure and I can’t wait to see what is in store for Folkwear! The new patterns and clothing line sound amazing! I wish you all the best in everything you do! ♥
I hope you all enjoyed this interview with Molly! Have you ever used Folkwear patterns? Are you as excited about the new 1940’s dress pattern as I am? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
All images featured in this interview used with kind permission from Molly Hamilton of Folkwear.