by Wendy Gooditis
photos by Lauri Bridgeforth
Watching Karen Ewbank sort through the samples of rich tweeds, it is clear that this determined woman has found a way to gather up the threads of her life and weave them into a beautiful, functional fabric, rather like the gorgeous Harris Tweed she is examining. Her business, Ewbank’s Clothiers, is to make noble custom riding clothes for the discriminating equestrian, as well as elegant custom clothes of all kinds. In her shop/workroom on Route 340 near Berryville, the mannequin sporting the nearly completed scarlet hunt coat appears ready to escort the glimmering mossgreen silk dress on the next mannequin in to dinner at the hunt ball. And heads will turn as they make their entrance! Her clothes are professionally designed, thoughtfully made, and meticulously fitted, as evidenced by the number of return customers she has. It began with a line of clothing she created for stores in Middleburg and Pentagon City. When her riding friends learned of her skill, they began asking for custom clothes. Soon a Master of Foxhounds asked if she would rework the linings in the staff hunt coats.
Word got around, and customers began coming to her from various hunts, mostly in the Eastern United States. “We really go out of our way to tailor our hunt clothes traditionally. I studied the highest quality coats made in England and France,” she says. She really does make the most wonderful riding jackets: hunt coats in fabrics light or heavy, scarlet or black; tweed hacking jackets; elegant shadbellies – the curiously named riding jacket with tails, worn with a vest or vest points. She makes custom britches in a number of styles. She makes riding aprons to keep hardy foxhunters warm on brisk winter mornings. She makes correct driving habits for those equestrians who exercise their horses in harness. She even makes the pristine white coats worn by the handlers at hound shows. Her personal experience as a lifelong horseman and avid foxhunter is invaluable in her work: for example, knowing what colors and buttons each hunt displays and how to use those correctly, or what constitutes “correct” in the finicky requirements of a riding habit.
Her shop is a place of busy clutter balanced by the direct, detail oriented personality of its proprietor. Ewbank was trained in the art of fashion design at Wellington Polytechnic in her native New Zealand, earning her degree with a particular interest in clothing and textiles. From there she became a theater costume designer, followed by a long stint as a fashion model, from Hollywood to Milan to Paris.
And throughout these thrilling developments, there were always horses. Having grown up riding, she never lost that lifelong love, and after she stopped modeling in France, she attained her Instructor Certification and ran a training operation there.
Eventually she found herself living and foxhunting in the United States, where in recent years the fabric of her life has been sadly torn through the loss of her fiancée followed by a harrowing struggle with Lyme’s disease. But this woman has the strength of body and spirit which characterizes so many equestrians; she started her custom clothing business and made it work in spite of her tribulations, and makes it work every day. Her customers come from up and down the eastern seaboard, and she attracts men and women who not only want superb custom riding clothes, but also want that special evening dress or whimsical silk vest with matching bow-tie, that little Chanel-like suit or the Harris Tweed blazer, or, inevitably, that one-of-a-kind bridal gown!
She has designed and fashioned bridal gowns in a fantastic array of styles, moods, and fabrics. Her happy brides have been aged 18 to 60. Smiling, she says, “Young brides often know exactly what they want,” and tells of the bride who arrived with a folder of clippings, asking that her gown have elements of all of them. So Ewbank makes her brides’ dreams come true. There are the lovely and traditional long, white gowns, with all the tucks, pleats, and trains a bride could desire.
There is the brilliant orange Thai silk gown. There are the fascinating and exotic Persian-influenced outfits for brides and bridesmaids. There is the simple knee-length, eyelet cotton frock, all ready for the barn-dance wedding celebration. And, naturally in this establishment, the heavy silk crepe culottes which allowed the bride to say her vows on horseback and then dance at her reception with the rich material flowing about her as richly as any bridal gown. Ewbank designed them all, created them all, fitted them all, and captured them all for posterity in her photo albums.
Photos, drawings and albums of her work abound. Her sketches and pictures are a much-referred-to portfolio, showing the history and sometimes evolution of her creations. Using the art of portfolio to share her passion is also a passion for Ewbank. She is currently helping several students to develop design portfolios of their own to aid them in their applications to design schools. She believes in handing on the skills and the sometimes apparently arcane knowledge which has been handed down to her.
The particular art of design is part talent, part experience, and part education: an education which includes extensive study of history along with intensive study of the science of drafting. Ewbank opens one of her well-thumbed textbooks from college days, turning pages of drawings of how to draft patterns. That which never seemed simple to the thinking observer now takes on an astonishing complexity! The axes drawn, the points marked, the mapping of an individual’s measurements – the only resulting clarity is the realization that the finished garment is the distillation of many centuries of thought and practice and tradition.
Unsurprisingly then, the half dozen sewing machines in Ewbank’s shop are divided between antique and modern. Ewbank comments that the antiques are the preferred machines for all who work there. Christopher Wilson, Ewbank’s associate, smiles his agreement with this statement as he places precise hand-stitches in a nearly-finished hunt coat. Ewbank says “On the plastic machines, if you hit a bump, you don’t get straight lines: you don’t get the regularity of stitch length. These old metal ones are much, much better!” In this place, age and tradition are valued: Ewbank has continued to perfect her craft by studying custom clothes – some quite aged. She reveres the traditions that have informed the clothing worn by foxhunters today.
Many of her hunt customers return to request fun and fancy clothes, often for special occasions. A rack in the back of her shop holds myriad hangers, each one bearing a number of curiously-shaped pieces of heavy brown paper: a pattern custom-sized to an individual. Many more of these individual patterns are rolled up, tied with twine, and stored on shelves. So her return customers’ measurements are each documented here, streamlining the process for future orders. Creating these patterns, called drafts, is Ewbank’s favorite task. She says with a gleam in her eye “I like getting my Tsquare out and starting a draft. Take the T-square and make a corner: Point A. Then Point B” – she continues murmuring in the language of her profession – “Divide the waist by 4, add 3 centimeters for ease…” Clearly she is living in a world of her design!
Ewbank holds up an example of her work: a handsome cloak in a dark wool, half cape, half overcoat, called an Inverness cape. She also has made evening cloaks of sumptuous silk velvet, lined with silk. While such a cloak would usually be worn by a woman for a special night, Ewbank is happy to dress a man with equal opulence, making vests of luxurious embroidered silk, with bow-ties to match. Truth be told, Ewbank may make an admission that she prefers making men’s clothes. She says “I love the history of costume, especially for men.
When I needed to make a military mess jacket, I took a 200-year-old draft that was labeled in Old English, and I used that!” She has plenty of passion for making women’s clothes too. She says of the design process for women “I draft some, I drape some…” However she does it, her superbly-dressed customers would agree that her artistry is always evident in the end product.
Ewbank Clothiers has a website (www.ewbankclothiers.net), and may be contacted via email at email@example.com, or by phone at 540-955-8525 or 540-514-9565.