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Comfort and style from South Street Linen

Customers of a knitting store in Albany, Calif., inquired about its owner’s clothing so many times that she finally contacted the company that makes them—South Street Linen in Portland.

“She said everyone loves her clothes and was constantly asking where they could buy them—so much that she knew she’d be able to sell them if we wanted her to,” says Jane Ryan, one of three longtime friends who co-own South Street, along with Lynn Krauss and Mary Ruth Hedstrom. “So now she carries our line in her knitting store! I just did a trunk show out there last week, and it was great fun.”

South Street’s line of high-end, comfortable, locally made linen clothing and accessories is also carried at a store in Vinalhaven and one in Englewood, Fla., for similar reasons, but it probably won’t ever be widely available wholesale.

“Our pricing is not China-made pricing. Making things locally with Maine sewers, by people in our community is the ‘slow-fashion’ way we want to do it. But it really does cost us a lot. So selling 50-50 to most wholesalers wouldn’t work for us. It’s not worth it,” says Ryan.

South Street Linen owners, from left, Jane Ryan, Mary Ruth Hedstrom and Lynn Krauss outside their Portland shop. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

The business is doing well enough without that, she says, a fact that still sometimes astounds Ryan and her co-owners, considering their ages—all 60-plus—and humble beginnings, dying linen scarves together, splattering all over Hedstrom’s kitchen, laughing and having fun.

“It’s funny when you’re doing art,” Ryan says. “You’re just following your nose and enjoying it, until one day you look at what you’re producing and say, ‘Hey, we could sell this!’ and that’s what we started doing.”

Barbara Corey of Corey & Co. in Portland gave them a boost by offering to hold an event about seven years ago. She strung a clothesline across her Pleasant Street store to display luxurious South Street Linen scarves, and 25 sold that night. More orders flowed in, with all the work being done in Ryan, Krauss and Hedstrom’s homes, and the business evolved slowly but surely. More straight-sewing items like pillowcases and table linens were added, and then an apron, and gradually a pinnie (a dress with a criss-cross back), which was an instant hit.

The move that broke things open for them was placing a tiny but hugely effective ad in The New Yorker magazine. Ryan says she knows that sounds like an obscure place for a little shop in Maine to spend advertising dollars, but she and her co-owners knew a man who made legal office furniture who sang the magazine’s praises for greatly elevating his business.

“We decided to take a chance and spend $1,800,” recalls Ryan. “And then we were blown away by the response.” Orders poured in.

The New York Times came calling, and tried for a year to get them to advertise.

“We didn’t have two nickels to rub together, let alone pay $5,000 for an ad in The New York Times back then,” Ryan says. But when an advertising rep offered them a double-page ad in the “Made in America” Sunday Magazine issue for $3,500 when another ad fell through, they scraped the money together.

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

They rushed to photograph a South Street Linen French tunic and submit the ad, and within a day of it running, they had sold $3,500 in merchandise, paying for the ad immediately. “We made about $10,000 from that ad, and we started to realize that women really liked our stuff.”

Ryan explains that although younger women certainly can and do wear South Street items, the line mostly appeals to women over 45 “who want to look good and feel comfortable” and “no longer want to buy clothing that is so cheap that it’s almost disposable.”

They appreciate the quality, beauty, coolness and ability to layer linen (South Street gets theirs from Lithuania). And they like the easy style of the clothing, the beautiful patterns and textures.

“It’s women in mid-life and older who have some means and desire to own nice things and who like our timeless styles and workmanship. We like to think of them as classically hip. It’s basically women who appreciate good clothing and want to feel good in what they’re wearing.”

For instance, the Jane Dress, named for Ryan, was designed for “murderously hot days when you don’t feel like wearing anything but want to still look good.” It’s longer in the back and has a mandarin collar with three buttons. South Street promises it to be “flattering no matter what your shape.”

Ryan, Krauss and Hedstrom, who all wear their products, are thrilled with the progress of their business.

“We’re very proud of this company, and we get a lot of love letters about our stuff, and we just love that,” Ryan says.

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

MORE IMAGES OF SOUTH STREET LINEN

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