How Rose Gerstner crafts comfortable, versatile clothing
Rose is a clothing designer and small business owner and also my mother! Despite being around my parents’ last clothing business when I was small, I found that I still had many questions for my mom. In this interview, I ask about the art of making clothing. (Photographs are by Robert Frost and Willow Paule.)
How does your creativity manifest?
I get inspired to do a project and then proceed through all the obstacles until completion when I actually decide about all the styling details of what I’m making. I make clothing and start with an idea, often fabric inspired. But because I work so often in one type of fabric for my business, Sympatico Clothing, sometimes it’s an idea about something that would be fun to wear or that would look good on a particular body type.
How did you become interested in your creative practice?
I have always loved to make clothing. I started sewing as a very young girl. My Mom loved to sew as did my sister. I get great joy from creating interesting shapes that are comfortable and colorful.
Where do you “find” your ideas?
One source of inspiration is traditional (or ethnic) clothing; another is images of old garments in the movies or in books; fabric itself can be quite inspiring. Of course, I get to observe clothing on people everywhere, so there’s really no shortage of inspiration.
How do you decide if an idea is viable? Do you act on all your creative ideas?
Usually, I start with a sketch and think about the idea. Often I’ll sketch it several times making changes with each rendition. Once I begin the piece, I start with inexpensive fabric like muslin and either drape directly onto the dress form or cut out a flat pattern and then cut into muslin and drape on the form. I work out a lot of details as I go, once I start seeing how it all works together. It’s often harder to simplify the style and retain only the important features than to come up with ideas in the first place.
Sometimes I drop an idea after working on it for a while because it isn’t working out, but I often bring those ideas into another garment eventually. Sometimes I work and work on a design, abandon it and then dream the solution. Those styles come together quickly if you only count the time after the dream!
If I’m producing the piece for my business, once I’ve got the style in fabric, I try it on several bodies to see how it works. You can’t always tell by looking at the dress form, which cannot give feedback after all. And not everything that looks good on my body will work for other bodies. Since I cut styles to work for many people, I spend some time observing and testing the design. Then I further refine the pattern so that the cut pieces will fit together well and be as easy to sew as possible.
What are you working on currently?
I am just finishing a tunic top with an uneven hem and pouch pockets. I took some samples to craft shows recently; people were enthusiastic and the tops sold right away, so I think this is going to be a wearable and needed design. Currently, I have a pullover trapeze top on the dress form, and I am eager to get started on pants that will work for a common body shape that I haven’t designed for previously. In this case, I know the fit goals and have a couple ideas for styling. I’ll finalize the styling later and have several good ideas.
How have you made it financially possible to focus on this?
I balance my needs and desires with the income of a craftsperson. I am interested in doing my craft artfully, and I have found a market for my clothing.
Who makes up your market? Describe a typical customer:
Like many entrepreneurs, I sell to people similar to myself. My typical customer is female, over 40 years of age and employed in a professional or semi-professional job. Many are interested in the eco-friendly fabrics I use and in my comfortable but elegant designs. Some like to support craftspeople working in the US. My customers are a very interesting and inspiring group and include doctors, teachers, and environmentalists, among others.
Do you think artists should starve? Do you consider yourself an artist?
I do not think that artists should starve but do understand that our culture doesn’t properly value many important professionals such as teachers, artists, and poets. It’s unfortunate that as a culture, we often overvalue money at the expense of creativity, balance, and health. How do I regard the art of making clothing? I consider myself an artisan rather than an artist because I focus my energy on the practical application of an art or skill. If I were making one-of-a-kind creations for the theater or for museums, I’d say I was an artist. Instead, I enjoy making clothing that is “Everyday Chic!” as my tagline states.
What challenges have you faced in your creative work?
My biggest challenges have been in learning the skills to execute my ideas. I took a circuitous route to my profession in that as a young person, I considered it strictly a hobby. When I became involved in a clothing business, I found ways to school myself by reading and by working with others. Years later, I got formal training. When I did finally get the schooling I desired, things fell into place quickly because I had studied and worked so long teaching myself.
Sometimes it’s tough to break away from day-to-day production and running my business and find time to design which is the most fun and inspiring part of my work. But the day-to-day hustle also drives me to make time to do creative work as I know that it will be appreciated and needed.
Have you ever reached an impasse where you thought your work had become impossible? What changed your mind?
I’ve been ready to quit on numerous occasions but haven’t because I know that this is what I really want to do. Something changes, the pressure lightens and I continue my work, grateful that I get to do what I love.
How can people view and stay up-to-date with your creative work?
They can visit my website and sign up for my email updates or come see me at a craft show. The shows are listed on my website.
Are there any ideas you wish you had time to act on but haven’t yet? Do you think those ideas will become possible in the future?
There are many garments I’d like to make and clothing lines I want to launch. I also hope to have a chance to share some of what I’ve learned about my craft and about running a small crafts business with others. While I am focusing on my own craft and business at this point, I hope in the future I will find the time to mentor others to help them grow. Time will tell.
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
I have a trunk with some old garments, including the outfits worn by my parents when they got married.
Rose Gerstner grew up in the Washington DC area and, like many other residents, began her career working for the federal government. Several years after college, she found her profession and husband working an interim job for a local clothing company while waiting to change jobs in publishing. Despite several offers from a publishing company, she realized that she had found work that was meaningful and fulfilling. About the time she had given up on ever traveling internationally, she and her husband sold their business and took the opportunity to travel around the world with their two children. Rose has worked for other clothing companies including a nurses uniform company and a regional theater but her favorite place to work is at home, the place where she has grown both of her clothing businesses. Currently, she and a group of local craftspersons organize a crafts market to sell their wares.
Other interviews in the Q&A: Creatives Speak series: