EIGHT YEARS ago, when I first arrived in Maine from Washington, I worried I had left the world of style. It seemed like every woman I saw was dressed like Paul Bunyan, regardless of the season or even the occasion. But once my eyes became adjusted to my new surroundings I began to notice a certain kind of woman who looked stylish yet still relaxed and New England-y. Eventually I found my way to South Street Linen, a tiny shop tucked away in Portland’s arts district that is the source of original clothing crafted in unusual, eye-popping fabrics, and at affordable prices. What a relief!
It all started seven years ago when three women, all serious painters, met in an art critique group. One of them, Mary Ruth Hedstrom, had some linen with her that she had purchased in San Francisco. Jane Ryan and Lynn Krauss admired it, and before too long they started thinking about dying the linen. This led to some serious brainstorming, which in turn led to the production of one-of-a-kind linen scarves. The trio made these for a year, working at home in their own studios, dividing up the work of designing, printing the fabric and getting the word out.
Everything they made sold, so naturally they made more, adding table runners, pillows, napkins and blankets. “Anything square,” they all recalled. Eventually they started making clothes, beginning with the Pinnie dress, a wrap-style dress based on a pinafore that is still their biggest seller. Sleeveless, it can be worn over anything for dressing up or dressing down.
Today the women of South Street Linen are local celebrities with a huge fan club and dozens of devoted groupies. Their following spans several continents, including New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia. The Northeast U.S. remains their strongest customer base, with roughly 30% of sales coming right from Maine. “We always thought we would be more local, but because of the Web our customers come from all over,” said Jane.
Despite the focus on keeping it local, all the fabric comes from Lithuania; no linen or flax is grown in the United States. The team receives individual yarn samples and Lynn works from those, choosing colors and designating how she wants them used. Everything else happens in Maine, with local sewers working at their own homes producing the garments. “We believe in doing it here,” said Jane. “We know the people who make our clothes, we know their kids. It’s like a family.” Lynn nodded in agreement, adding, “It also lets us keep an eye on quality.”
Mary Ruth and Jane set the styles and Lynn designs the fabrics, which show the influences of Marimekko, Scandinavian and Japanese prints. Although the clothes are loose and far from form fitting (part of their appeal to women of a certain age), they are not shapeless. “We respect your shape, not hide it,” said Mary Ruth. As Jane put it, “After a certain age, women have certain body parts they want to embellish and others they want not to embellish.”
South Street Linen has grown from its three founders to a full staff including a production manager, an assistant production manager, someone who handles shipping and several sales people. Many of the positions overlap; Geneva Waite, sales associate extraordinaire, also models some of the clothes in their ads.
Because they have backup, the three owners are rarely in the shop at the same time. “When we got started, we made a pact not to get crazy,” said Mary Ruth. This winter Jane will be away for three months in Florida, and Mary Ruth will be in South Carolina. But no doubt they’ll all still be hard at work in their homes, handling advertising and social media remotely.
They produced menswear for a while, and while it did well, it wasn’t the direction they wanted to go. “Everything we do that isn’t women’s clothing dilutes the women’s clothing,” said Lynn.
The linen scarves, their first signature piece, get better and better over time, softening with each wash. They also make coats, jackets, pants, blouses, but stopped producing home goods because the demand for their clothing has grown so much.
“We get a lot of feedback from our customers,’ said Jane, so we keep adding and subtracting to our product line.” Lynn is especially proud of the constant stream of online “love letters” they get from their customers. “We have a relationship with each customer,” said Jane. “Our customer service is very personal.”
The owners are their own best advertising. People see them in their clothes and constantly approach them, asking where they got whatever they’re wearing. Their clothes are not for everyone (the target audience is women over 40). “Our bodies change, but still you’re not done with fashion,” said Mary Ruth. “Women of all ages and sizes look great in our clothes.”
And the prices? “We are the low end of the high end,” said Lynn. The linen scarves, available in two sizes, sell from $139 to $159. Another popular item, the Boyfriend Shirt, which comes in five colors, is priced at $199. The Pinnie dress, their first signature garment, is $159.
Linen is relatively easy to care for. You can machine wash it in cold water or by hand and then air dry on a hanger. And the good news is that a wrinkle or three is stylish, which is surely music to the ears of South Street Linen’s enthusiastic audience.
Andrea Rouda blogs at The Daily Droid.