Designer Sylvie Farrington is celebrating an anniversary this year: She has been creating one-of-a-kind bags for 20 years from her studio and home in West Tisbury. She uses vintage barkcloth, a sturdy fabric featuring colorful prints that was popular in the 1940s through the ’60s for home decor items like curtains and upholstery. Ms. Farrington’s line, SylvieBags, includes a variety of styles, some embellished with crystals, as well as throw pillows. She sells her designs at Night Heron Gallery in Vineyard Haven, and sometimes at the Vineyard Artisans Festival. On August 4 and 5, SylvieBags will be featured at a special trunk show, along with tables made from Island-grown wood by Paul Farrington and pottery by Sam Taylor, at Island Cohousing Common House, 17 Rock Pond Road, West Tisbury. Go to sylviebags.com to check out designs and find out more.
What items make up your design line?
Home decor pillows, change purses, clutches, two different messenger bags, a crossbody, a couple of different tote bags, and an opera bag. I do at least one or two new designs every year. I make a point to change them up and to listen to what my customers are looking for, and introduce new shapes every year.
What makes a SylvieBag unique, besides the fabric?
They all have trademark rainbow-colored zippers — they’re imported from Switzerland. I originally found them at a trade show in New York City. Some of the bags have crystals incorporated into the design. I love sparkles, and it enhances the print in a way — makes it more colorful and fun. I love playing with the color, and combining different textures of fabrics. I make a barkcloth pillow with a really soft velveteen edge. That’s one of my favorite parts of designing, combining colors and textures.
What is your background as a designer?
I grew up in Germany, in a town near Bremen. At age 19 I enrolled in a traditional apprenticeship in fine tailoring. I finished in four years, and came over here and immediately got work with Island designers. I worked for Michele Ratté as production manager for five years. She was my mentor, and I learned a lot from her about marketing and selling and being a local business.
Why did you choose to work with barkcloth?
I took a trip to the Brimfield Antique Show just for fun. I saw a lady with these 1940s fabrics, and I knew I had to buy them. I made a few bags, and Emily Bramhall [owner of the former Bramhall and Dunn store] immediately placed an order. I became involved with the Vineyard Artisans Festival, which I now do selectively.
What do you find so appealing about barkcloth?
I just love the mid-century aesthetic, the color combinations, and the really high quality and beauty of this material. It’s very recognizable. I did not grow up with the fabric, but I’ve always loved color since I was a kid. It’s a form of art on its own. My father was an artist. I was almost always knitting or painting or doing something creative.
What do you think attracts people to the fabric?
People get excited about it. It evokes a sense of nostalgia in people. Customers will say, “I remember that from my grandmother’s chair.” It’s almost magnetic to people. They go to it like a moth to light. It gives people a good feeling. I like to say that my customers are getting a piece of mid-century design.
Where do you buy your fabric?
I go to Brimfield and to special antique-textiles shows. There’s only so much of it left. I sometimes have to literally outrun people to get the fabric. When I go to the shows in Sturbridge, I wait on line early in the morning to get in. People come from all over the world for the textiles and fabrics there. They sell vintage clothes too. Designers come for inspiration, and costume designers come to buy clothes for movies. It’s very cool. It’s one of my favorite days of the year.
Do you do all the work yourself?
I do, but I have two helpers. The lady who sews every single lining in my bags is named Shirley Dewing, and she has been working out of her home on Chappy for me for almost all of the 20 years. The lady who does all the hand-beading for me is named Elizabeth Greene.
What are some of the challenges you encounter?
The fabrics are becoming so much harder to find. My point is to do only 1940s and ’50s original. When I started, it was much more plentiful. It has to be in mint condition. Some has been hung as curtains, and it can become rotten or fragile. My test is I put the fabric in the washer and dryer, and if it doesn’t hold up to that, it won’t hold up as a bag. Now and again I find dead stock from a store. That’s my most exciting find. It’s crisp and it’s brand-new. There are certain designs that are rarer and more desirable than others. I’ll be showing some things made from these, and different pillows and other designs, at the trunk show in August.
What will you do when you can no longer source the barkcloth?
I’ll always be creative in some fashion. I’ll do something small — not a wholesale line manufactured somewhere else. I really love being hands-on. And I really like to deal with customers one-on-one. I meet people from all over the world. I have some pretty serious collectors. They’ll have 30 or more bags, and every year they come in and buy one more. There’s a lady who did her whole house with my pillows. She invited me over. I really enjoy having that kind of personal relationship with my customers.
How did you end up on the Vineyard?
I had an exchange student from Chilmark in my high school class. I visited here, and I came back after I completed sewing school. I knew I could probably find work here.
What makes the Vineyard special, in your opinion?
The community is so supportive of artists. I work in the gallery regularly, and I see how much people appreciate original work of all kinds. Also, of course, it’s beautiful here. The environment has a special relaxing, healing force. And you find a really good quality of people — open-minded and friendly. I grew up in northern Germany where that was not so much the case.