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Maker Moment: Farm to fashion with Grace Gouin of Appalatch

Posted by Melissa Massello  March 26, 2014 02:31 PM

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grace_gouin_appalatch_clothing.jpgPhoto: Shoestring

Growing up on a small farm and attending a Quaker school in Cumberland, Rhode Island instilled in Grace Gouin a deep love for all things organic and handcrafted — something she carried with her to design school at Skidmore in upstate New York through the launch of her ethical clothing line, Appalatch, in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina last year.

Sharing the values of sustainable garment production and the importance of bringing 100% USA-made manufacturing back to the American economy, we became fast friends with Grace five minutes after meeting her at SXSW — so of course we had to ask her to sit down for our Maker Moment series.

From Germany, where she co-founder Mariano deGuzman — a Kenosha, Wisconsin-born Harvard alum — are picking up the sweater-making STOLL knitting machine they purchased as a result of their successful December Kickstarter campaign, Grace filled us in on how they're combining innovative trends like mass-customization with lost arts in organic fiber production to shake up our notion of ethical clothing.

And it all started with an heirloom-quality T-shirt, a dream of changing how clothing is made, an obsession with knitting, and some Stevie Nicks.

What inspired you to start Appalatch?
Mariano had a dream of starting a sustainable clothing company that would change the way that clothing is made. I wanted to start a company that would help change the way that we, as consumers, relate to products. I want to help people have a relationship with their clothes again, as well as a relationship with the background of their clothes. When we first met and started talking about Appalatch we were absolutely crazed with the idea -- and the enthusiasm is still 100% there, but we pace ourselves a little better after a year into this, no longer texting about product ideas until 3:30 a.m. every night!

Where are your products made?
The products are made almost entirely within North and South Carolina. The yarn and fabrics are made within a couple of hours of Asheville. The base layers, blankets, and socks are all made within an hour of Asheville; the bags are made completely within Asheville. We are lucky to be located in North Carolina since there is still a strong textile industry in this area.

Tell us a bit about your Kickstarter campaign & this new knitting machine.
We decided to launch the campaign for ethically made, custom fit sweaters to help us get the seed money for a really nice knitting machine. A project like this is taking the process of fully fashioned sweaters to the next level and in a direction that I think the industry will move over the next decade. We have the technology to make these fantastic sweaters, it just takes a brave and light-footed new company like ours to take it there!

The knitting machine is going to change our lives. Basically, the Stoll machine uses a pattern thats been programmed into a computer to talk to the knitting machine so that the machine will knit the rows and stitches that make up the pattern pieces, without having to knit any additional fabric that needs to be tossed away after cutting. We are going to house it in the second story of this amazing spinning mill (LEED Gold Certified!) where we will be able to have really unique yarns spun right downstairs, then brought up and knit on the machine. I don't think you can get a much smaller carbon footprint! We can also work with small fiber farmers through this spinning mill and incorporate their wool. alpaca, angora, you name it, into our products. It's about to get real!

What's the first project you remember making/crafting?
For my first unsupervised sewing project, I made a series of coin purses for pretty much everyone I knew out of the prettiest pink fabric. I still remember exactly how the fabric looked in the light of our sewing room, and how it felt between my fingers as I pinned and sewed it together. I think I was 7 at the time, but I had already been assisting on my grandmothers sewing projects for years by sitting on her lap and pulling out the pins when they got close to the presser foot. Those were the days!

Most successful project? Biggest fail?
This past Valentine's Day, I made my sweetie a flawless wool winter coat, fully lined with alpaca. I completed it shortly after having worked on my biggest professional failure, which was another wool jacket. I struggled at it for like a month before I had to give up. After a week without even looking at a sewing machine and trying to put the whole thing behind me, this totally different jacket just seemed to pour out of me. It was very cathartic!

What do you DIY the most?
That's a tough question, because I'm compelled to try my hand at almost any DIY project I can. I think I hand knit the most, but that may be because sewing projects are so much faster. This Christmas I decided to break out of my comfort zone and make everyone ceramics. I also like to reupholster furniture, fix up antiques, weave, and make baskets. I think the next frontier, for me, is leather, or possibly wood... But at the end of the day, I love to knit.

Favorite/least favorite tools/materials?
Favorite tool: My hands! (Is that cheating?)
Least favorite tool: Industrial button hole machines. Terribly useful but also terrifying!
Favorite Material: Angora Rabbit Fur (responsibly sourced, of course).
Least favorite material: Cheap acrylic yarn, blech.

Has a project outcome ever surprised you?
I was really, really surprised by the outcome of the blankets that are on Appalatch's website right now. I didn't get to weave them myself, they were woven by actual experts at the The Oriole Mill, but I did get to design the pattern. The program I used was akin to Microsoft paint circa 2001, so seeing them in reality, and seeing how beautiful they are, was a very pleasant surprise!

What's the best advice you've ever received?
In the essay Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson there are many profound points, but this one has always stayed with me:

"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perfection that the absolutely trustworthy was seated int heir heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being."

He references "divine providence" in relation to God, but I prefer to mentally insert "the universe" or "karma" — something a little less dogmatic.

What's your top tip for first-timers?
Follow your gut! Sometimes my best projects are simpler than I first imagine them, so I try to keep an ear out for that little voice inside that says, STOP! This is done!

Anything you DIY now that you never thought you would?
I never saw myself trying basketry, but it is totally intoxicating.

What won't you ever DIY/when do you call in the experts?
I do NOT handspin yarn. I tried, I am awful at it, and I don't have the patience. Get to the knitting already!

"When I'm not making stuff, I'm..."
Walking in the woods gathering raw materials and thinking about things to make!

The Maker Movement is going to change the world. There is a something profound about how many people I meet who are hell-bent on refining the things we make and the way we make them. People making objects that will be valued beyond their price tag and potential status symbol but for their inherent quality and aesthetic qualities. The planet needs a respite from this economy that was built on disposable goods, and a resurgence of all that the maker movement represents.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the Authors

Melissa Massello is a newspaper journalist turned startup junkie and lifelong Bostonian who prides herself on her do-it-yourself attitude. From making her prom dress out More »
Tara Bellucci is a Boston-based writer that lives for fonts, food, and flea market finds. Whether decorating jars of her homemade jam for The Boston More »

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