Jane Ryan is part of a three-woman team behind South Street Linen, a home and clothing line featuring the world’s finest linen and their original art. For Jane, linen is about freedom, movement, and comfort. She talks about it with an expert’s keen eye for detail and craft, a woman’s understanding of the body, and an artist’s imaginative palette. Their products are made my many hands – designed by their team in Portland, printed on regional or imported linen by makers on Vinalhaven, and manufactured by craftsmen in Biddeford and Scarborough. Each artist who touches it is part of a community formed by Jane and her co-owners Mary Ruth and Lynn, a community that extends to their customers. Their designs are vibrant, artistic, and hip, and they’re designed for women, especially older women, to feel amazing in.
TELL ME THE ORIGIN STORY OF THIS PLACE
We are three old friends. I met Lynn 30 years ago because our kids were the same age and we met at nursery school. Then I met Mary Ruth. We all met about 10 or 15 years ago at an artist’s group. Lynn and I were old friends. I didn’t know Mary Ruth until about 10 or 15 years ago when we met in that artist’s group together. We were doing art together and meeting once a month, showing each other our art stuff. About three and a half years ago, the economy was tanking and Lynn had an idea that we should do something else besides our art. She said she wanted to do some printing. We all had tea and she said, “I think we should do something different,” and Mary Ruth said, “I really want to work with fabric, I want to dye stuff.” Mary Ruth and I had been to France together so she’s very much into linen, so she wanted to try some dyeing.
HAVE YOU EVER DONE WORK LIKE THAT BEFORE?
I hadn’t at all. I had sewed as a kid. They brought up this whole idea. “Lets do this, lets print, lets dye stuff and lets see what happens.” But then they started dyeing stuff and they sent me a picture of a clothesline of these beautiful pieces of scarves hanging and I said, “Jesus, I got to come out and join in.” I took my sewing machine and when out to Mary Ruth’s the next day and literally we were in her kitchen and dining room. I just said, “Can I just start cutting them and sewing them?” And they said, “Yeah, lets go.” We did and everything we did we thought was fantastic, just collaging scarves together, and then Lynn suggested, “ I want to go home and print on them.” Within very little time, we were seeing the potential.
AT THAT MOMENT, WERE YOU REALIZING IT COULD BE A BUSINESS?
I don’t think so. We showed it to Barbara Corey from Corey and Co., and she said, “These are great.” She said, “I’ll give you a launch party. Make 50 of them and we can have a launch party.” It was the very end of October. She said, “Lets do a launch party December fifth or something, the Art Walk in December.” And we did. We just worked our (butts) off and we made things as fast as we could. We had 50 by that night, and we went into our store and we strung a clothesline all over the place and we hung them up and it was a feeding frenzy; it was a crazy night. We were selling them for about $120. We sold 25 that night and it was fun, and she said, “You’ve got something going here and you’re in business” She proceeded to sell the next 25 before Christmas, so we sold all 50.
HOW DID YOU LAUNCH FROM BEING IN MARY RUTH’S DYEING ROOM TO HAVING A STOREFRONT?
It took a year. We worked out of our own studios and we’d meet at either Lynn’s house or Mary Ruth’s house or my house maybe once or twice a week to say what we were working on what we were doing. We just meet and look at combinations of designs combinations of fabrics, and a friend of Mary Ruth’s said, “You need to go to this place for linen in NYC.” Right after Christmas, we did. We went down there. We put in a little bit of money so we had a little bit of a cash pot and we went down to New York and met with this guy from this company called Mandolinen. It’s the fifteenth floor of a building in the Garment District and he had forgotten about the appointment. He was this young guy, 30s or so, and he inherited his dad’s business. We just talked, he saw the scarves and he was very nice and enthusiastic and he said, “I think I know what you guys are looking for. I’ll bring you some samples back tomorrow.” And then the next morning he called and said “Lets not do that, just come over to the warehouse.” He let us into this enormous – a full block – warehouse, floor to ceiling, maybe an acre of linen that he had inherited. He let us in and just let us go. He assigned this guy to us to pull down stuff as we saw it. We spent a long time in there that day. We probably ended up buying $5,000 worth of stuff or something. We drove it home and we were so excited.
BUT YOU KNEW THIS WAS THE RIGHT ONE?
This guy’s a linen dealer; this guy exclusively sells linen. There’s one other store in NYC called Grey Line Linen. We use them a lot. Jackie is a really sharp guy and he likes us and we have a great relationship with him. It’s so important. There’s one part of his warehouse that’s against a wall that’s old fabric and we found fabric looking just like this in that section and he said, “I have never seen that fabric.” Mary Ruth and Lynn dug in like crazy. He didn’t even know he had it, so we found it and we used it all. We used tons of it and then we ran out of it completely and people were wondering where it went. So we decided to look at other sources. Lithuania is a country that makes great linen because the flax crop there is so good, and so Lynn ordered this stuff here a year ago and we thought it was really good stuff. We started thinking about that and we even talked about going to Lithuania last year and the Lithuanians wrote and said, “We’re going to be in Paris at a textile expo, why don’t you meet us there?” The three of us went and we made three deals with Lithuanian linen makers that day. Their linen is so incredibly beautiful. We were totally smitten with it. However, one of the issues we were realizing is that we have to wash and soften it, and it’s driving the people cutting the fabric crazy.
IS IT LINTY TOO?
It’s not linty, it’s just soft. It moves around when they try to cut it. It’s not stable. What I’ve done is I’m now ordering it unwashed and I found this dye house in Biddeford. Claudia is a woman who’s a lawyer who just started this dye house. We said, “Can you wash our fabric for us?” and she said yes. Here’s the thing: We need it rolled back on the rolls because when the people are pulling the fabric to cut it, they need to have it on rolls so it’s the quickest thing possible to work with. We bought 1600 meters of fabric from Lithuania when we went to that thing in Paris. It’s amazing how many hands are involved with this process before it’s finished.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH LINEN. WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT IT?
It’s so organic. The linen is weird. When you wash it, it gets heavy and stiff, and then when it dries, it dries in half an hour. You can pull it and get extra fabric out of it and depending on how long the threads are it gets more or less nubby, more or less stretchy and such. It breathes like crazy. Post menopausal women, they’re hot all the time, so having a fabric that really breathes is not that crap stuff that’s not an actual fiber. Even cotton is not as lovely as linen. It feels like you’re being take care of really nicely by your clothes.
THE WAY YOU TALK ABOUT IT IS ALMOST THE WAY PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WINE. HOW DID YOU LEARN THAT LANGUAGE?
For us, after dealing with it for three or four years, we feel it a lot, we wear it a lot, we can tell you instinctively now when we see it and feel it. If you’re sensuous or you like food or you like wine or you like art, then this just gets incorporated into the whole thing.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW EACH OF YOUR VISIONS PLAY INTO MAKING IN THE FINAL PRODUCT.
We are really different people. We have really different aesthetics but we all meet pretty easily on what’s going to look good on most people, what’s interesting looking, a little edge to it, plus we have Lynn’s size and my size and we’re just really right in the middle. We’re three different-sized women and that calls for different stuff depending on your size and what you want to emphasize and what you want to de-emphasize.
ONE THING THAT I’VE NOTICED JUST FROM LISTENING TO YOU TALK IS THAT YOU KNOW THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH – YOUR MANUFACTURERS. WHAT ARE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEM LIKE?
I believe it’s all about relationships. I went to a wedding about a year and a half ago in Colorado and I met this guy who works for Ralph Lauren and he said to me, “It’ all about relationships.” That’s my instinct. That’s what we try to do, we talk: “How are you, how are your kids,” et cetera. I like them, I want to know them as people, I want to know what they’re about and stuff because otherwise they’re not leveling with you when things go wrong. We need to know what happened, how people feel, and what do we need to do. That’s what the world’s about and it’s personal.
Also, we have huge relationships with our customers. A lot of them are over the mail. I have a relationship now with a woman from Florida and she’s taking me out to lunch. She said, “I had a horrible year and it really helped to be able to just to talk back and forth with you.” It’s all about relationships. When the women come in here to shop, there are huge conversations. It can be amazing conversations about anything that they’re thinking about at this point. A lot of it is how our bodies feel in our clothing. After 45, things start happening in your midsection that you don’t even know what’s going on. At 45, you start expanding in the middle without doing anything different, and then from then on, it’s a big uphill battle. The clothes are to make you feel good. Most of the women, we get great letters saying, “I never thought I’d feel good again in clothing, but I like how I look and feel in these clothes.” I think those people think that no one’s designing for them anymore. They don’t want to shop at Banana Republic and J. Crew and stuff where their kids shop and they want to be in something that is not Macy’s.
WHERE ARE YOUR MANUFACTURERS GEOGRAPHICALLY?
Scarborough and Biddeford. We also work with artists on Vinalhaven. And I found a young woman who I was referred to who knows how to do patterns and she did the shirt I just told you about. I think we should have at least three major places. She’s a designer herself for youthful stuff. She’s just doing this to make a little bit of money, but she likes to make patterns. That’s good for us because another pattern maker’s a good thing. She’s good at it.
I FEEL LIKE A LOT OF YOUR PRODUCTS ARE FOR ARTISTS
They’re artistic-looking because we’re artists, so they’re artistic-looking. I just designed a shirt that’s not so artful looking. When coming up with a design, we just keep talking about it and we’re pretty straightforward. We just say things honestly; we don’t have time to (screw) around. We just have to go for it and say what we think and weed through it fast.
WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS LIKE? HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH YOUR IDEAS?
A lot of them come from just sheer need. I went on vacation and I was like, “I don’t want to put something over my head,” and people come in too and they suggest ideas. A lot of this is just for the necessity. I’m a big person, I’m always hot, and I don’t have any patience for being hot. I hate being hot; I just want to feel good.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My sanity. I’m pretty self-focused right now because this thing involves a lot of plates in the air, people, and a lot of everything, and you can really get swallowed up. What I’m trying to do now is just hang onto myself and keep paying attention to what do I need to be happy doing this. I’m almost 64 years old, so what’s important to me right now? My husband’s retiring from being a teacher. He was a third grade teacher for 20 years, quit and then became a reading specialist. He loves it but we’re all starting to think, “You can do that work but is that really what we want to be doing?” We’re both trying to pay attention in this process of learning how to keep feeling like this is what I want to be doing with my life. When you start talking about retiring, that’s a different part of life. Your whole life is not about that until you get there and then you go, “That’s going to be a really different thing for us.” He’s going to have time, but then also it’s developmentally about thinking, “Is this the last chapter? What do we want to be doing?” It sounds very self absorbed and it is, and the product may not be such absorption, but the fact is right now I’m just trying to hang onto myself and figure out what’s a good way to live right now.
FROM WHAT I HEAR FROM RETIREES AND THOSE APPROACHING IT, IT’S HARD TO RETAIN THE IDENTITY WE HAVE WITH OUR JOBS
I’m missing painting. I did paint until I was 40 and I’m missing painting. I’m aware of that and it really addressed my need for solitude and it releases juices that nothing else does. It’s really lovely for that and it gets you thinking about things in different ways. Right now, I’m still running a business and it’s very detail oriented. I’m not a great detail person, but I like to do money stuff. It’s just a lot of details and it’s a lot of stress, but it’s also very rewarding. When I don’t do it, I miss it, but I’m just trying to keep paying attention.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON THAT YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY
To take care of myself. That’s what I’m learning. I have known for a really long time how unsure life is. I am an old soul in that way. I’ve lost some friends early on, so I know. Just to pay attention to what’s important and to keep digging in about what is important and what makes me feel alive.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE?
I’ve got to say it’s my husband. I’ve got an amazing husband. He’s a fabulous guy. I can say it’s my kids because I really love my kids, but honestly in terms of keeping me going, it’s him. He’s my good buddy. We’re just there for each other. I am so lucky. Just take your time and find a good one. Don’t shortchange yourself on that because it’s really important.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
It’s also about paying attention to myself. It’s the flip side of what I’m trying to do, just keeping in touch with what makes me feel best, makes me feel whole and makes me feel like I’m the best version of myself. It all sounds very narcissistic and it is at this point because I can’t go on if you don’t do this examination of these things. When you do this kind of business, not that your priorities change, but the business changes. Now we’re in a bigger business than what we started out to be in. Every time we bumped up to a new level this year it was like, “This is it.”
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
There’s a great moment when my husband’s making me dinner and I’m sitting at the counter and I’m flipping through catalogs and just talking to him and we’re just talking and he’ll say, “Put that work away,” and open a glass of wine. That’s a really nice part of the day, just unwinding and having him there.