National Picnic Founder Interview
Betsy makes versatile, handmade garments with organic and heritage fabrics under the label, National Picnic.
Her aesthetic is just what I prefer: classic, wearable pieces with a twist, and her focus on sustainability, domestic production, and timeless silhouettes means I can feel good about wearing a National Picnic piece.
I hope you enjoy this in depth interview about the design process and fabric sourcing. Thanks to National Picnic for sponsoring this post.
WHAT’S THE NATIONAL PICNIC ORIGIN STORY?
I’ve always loved to sew. I began sewing National Picnic clothing in 2011 for friends and neighbors. I hand-delivered the tops and dresses myself, wrapped in brown paper packages tied up with strings.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE NATIONAL PICNIC WOMAN?
Well, I’m always surprised at who might see it and love it, but I began designing for women like myself who wanted “casual-fun” clothing that was easy care and better content.
It’s not a coincidence that the styles I design would all be suitable for a picnic.
She enjoys being casual and wants to look nice in a unique way while she is being casual.
WHO MAKES YOUR CLOTHES?
I make about 95% of my clothing at this time.There has never been a single garment that I haven’t had some hand in cutting or sewing. I’ve experimented with local contracting at times, and have had assistants help me with larger orders, but in the end I am usually doing the sewing.
I’d love to have enough orders to hire, to generate more work for local contractors, to directly affect more jobs. That isn’t far off the radar but demand has to be there. So I’m hoping this answer will be different soon.
HOW DO YOU SELECT YOUR TEXTILES?
Twice a year I get to go to NYC and hunt for fabrics at trade shows and garment district warehouses. It’s one of the highlights of designing because I have always loved textiles. But it’s also quite a hunt, and building a fabric sourcing network that fits a small business is an ongoing process.
I just found find a favorite organic fabric supplier last year. That was a score because I could finally put some cool organic prints in my collections with some degree of reliability.
Another means of selection is like treasure hunting: searching warehouses for roll ends and other industry surplus.
I might find a few yards of something amazing that I can turn into a style that is hyper-limited and truly rare and special.
WHAT ARE YOUR AESTHETIC INFLUENCES?
I like the classic fabrics and details of vintage Americana – mostly countryside and working class –
I catch myself staring into vintage photos guessing if a woman made the dress she had on and what I’d change to update the look.
I am also very influenced by memories of clothing I wore in my youth. Not to say my clothing looks like a certain era (OK, it was the 80s), but I had an affinity for loose-fitting, structured shapes that draped away from my body, things like oversized tees, twill above-the-knee skirts and oversized poplin shirts. I styled myself into a tailored-artsy mashup that still shows itself each season in the National Picnic brand.
I can’t remember ever wearing tightly fitted clothing, and as I design now, I meet lots of women who enjoy a similar fit and feel. I read somewhere that Jackie Kennedy requested looser fitting clothing from her designers. Not my decade, but she would have been in my club, definitely.
HOW DOES SUSTAINABILITY PLAY INTO YOUR OVERALL MISSION?
I try to make low-impact choices that are tempered with the size and scale of my business.
I wish I had a more airtight formula that more easily explained how sustainable I want to be. Like, for example, setting out to have all product made from 100% organic source that does XYZ, etc. But it didn’t begin as a sustainability-first plan.
It began with my pure love for making clothing, grew into a plan to make clothing my livelihood, and it’s being fitted for sustainability as I move along.
I’m trying my best to make smart choices in everything I do, from choosing FSC-certified tags, choosing materials considering their footprint (which is based on the location and circumstances of its acquisition, ranging from GOTS-certified to “someone gave it to me hoping I could use it”), and other considerations. More detail from an interview with MadeFAIR:
I’m still very much looking for more domestic organic. Domestic mills that produce organic cotton right in the US are like unicorns, and to find one that will sell me a roll of fabric at wholesale prices is like finding a two headed unicorn. But to my surprise, I found one! Recently. So expect more in future seasons. And I’d love to know of more, so I’m always eager for a tip or lead. Organic textiles make sense. If you can use an input that has less harmful output, then why would you NOT choose organic?
But to be honest, I don’t know if getting an organic fabric shipped halfway across the world is a better choice when there are existing fabrics, organic or not, that I can haul home from New York on public transit.
I work with reputable sources for my re-orderable, imported organics and I add local inputs for balance and creative details. Carbon footprint is a buzzword but a business like mine can’t hire consultants offering to calculate just how sustainable business practices really are. When considering fabrics, I try to strike a balance between what’s already around me vs. what might need lots of added shipping (a miles-to-closet component), organic/natural vs. local vs. waste reduction, and the business components to sustain a livelihood that supports myself and my family. It’s a messy equation that is different with each style, but the thoughtfulness adds up and ultimately produces a healthier product.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE FABRIC TO WORK WITH?
I love shirting and similar wovens for practical reasons. They are easiest to roll, cut, and sew. Jeez, don’t I sound boring! A designer that doesn’t have to make their own styles would probably have a more romantic answer. But if you don’t choose details with self-production in mind, ideas can easily become projects that are impossible to produce.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE GARMENT FROM THE CURRENT COLLECTION?
This answer runs deep, because it’s not just about visuals.
Right now I love the tank dress. I would spend every summer day in one and it’s been good to me.
It fits a very wide range of body types. It’s pleasing to sew. It’s easy to sell. It can make use of so many different fabrics. It’s a great outdoor photo shoot piece. It’s fun and ageless. Any styles that become popular and good for my livelihood are obvious favorites.
Sometimes you try out a style and it won’t sell well, and the investment of designing and developing it are a loss. Those are the heart breakers. I love them and wish every style to do well, but they might not be everyone’s cup of tea and they don’t get ordered. You hope for home runs. The tank dress is a home run.
CAN CUSTOMERS BROWSE YOUR CLOTHING IN A PHYSICAL STORE?
I have a new shop in Old City, Philadelphia that has become an awesome new component of my business. It’s a space I share with other designers where I can work on the boutique floor while the door stays open for the public to walk in and browse.
It’s a special place because it’s like a laboratory for testing new ideas, interacting with customers, learning from colleagues, and it’s a way to generate some business while I work.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.