Alternatives to Fast-Fashion: An Interview with Small Business Owner Morgan English
Shopping online has never been easier. But with so many options flooding the market, it’s hard to know what to buy. Fast-fashion brands offer ease and speed, but smaller businesses with handmade products offer more personal and sustainable products. Morgan English, based in the Brattleboro area, is the owner of one such small business: a clothing company called Amsonia with a focus on creating ethically-sourced and sustainably-built options for customers. Morgan designs, cuts, and sews all her products by hand, so the labor of love is guaranteed in each of Amsonia’s products. Operating a one-woman business can be tiring, but with the help of an Artist Development Grant from the Council, Morgan was able to attend some printmaking workshops this summer to expand her studio’s capabilities.
Creating a clothing business is not something Morgan planned for herself, but her love for Vermont and natural landscapes coupled with her knowledge of sewing helped to formulate the idea of Amsonia. Morgan’s designs reflect a life immersed in nature and offer a comfortable, flexible fit for a range of activities and people of all body types—compelling traits enhanced by their assurance of sustainability.
Niamh Carty: How did you get into sewing and designing clothes?
Morgan English: I first learned about sewing from both my grandmas when I was young. One taught me to hand sew and one to machine sew. They only really showed me the basics, though, simple projects for kids. I made clothes for clothespin dolls and drawstring bags, and that gave me the confidence later to be like, “Oh, this isn’t scary. I can teach myself how to sew.” Then in my twenties, I wanted to make myself some dresses that were more interesting than things I could find in the store. I just did it for fun. I had definitely never thought I would start a business, especially not anything that had to do with clothing.
I majored in English with a concentration of poetry at Florida State University. And I think fashion students and business students were probably the only students I sneered at. I was like, “What? Those are jokes of majors.” It just seemed so vacuous. It was a big surprise to me starting Amsonia, but it was also a natural progression. I just loved making things so much; I wanted to do it more than just for myself and friends. And I just love Vermont. Even though I had a degree that I could have gone back to school with, it would have meant moving and then if I wanted to teach at the college level that could have meant moving anywhere in the country. I just felt like I had to invent a career for myself if I wanted to have one here in rural Vermont. I’m still writing too, and I try to tie my writing into Amsonia.
When did your connection to Vermont begin?
I grew up in Florida, but my family and I came to Vermont and New Hampshire for a few weeks in the summers. We had an old camp that had been in my family for four generations. Most of my older relatives were school-teachers. That’s where my love for the area started, and I’ve been here for 12 years now.
Once you decided to start Amsonia, did you take any sort of business or fashion class?
No, I’ve had to teach myself everything. It’s been really hard. I’ve done things I never thought I would do, like learning graphic design and designing my own website. I wasn’t starting out with a lot of money, so it was easier to just teach myself something than to hire someone. I did take a class online on pattern drafting for clothing design called The Pattern Workshop.
Did you have the idea for Amsonia very soon after graduating?
No, I had some adventures after college. I biked across the country, and I was a farmer for a while in Florida at a really awesome farm called Turkey Hill. I also did a season of farming out in Oregon, and when I first moved up here, I worked in a record shop and a few restaurants. At a certain point, though, I was just frustrated. As I was entering my thirties I was like, “I need to find a career.” I actually moved to New York City for a short time and became focused on printmaking. I’d been a little more focused on printmaking than sewing in the past, and it’s cool now to have it all come together. But anyway, I moved to New York thinking I’d be able to access more printmaking workshops. I became a member at a studio, but in the end, I was working too much in order to pay my rent, and it just didn’t work out. And that’s been my printmaking journey. It’s been fraught and trying at times, but I’m really excited to finally have arrived somewhere with it.
Where did the name Amsonia come from?
Amsonia is a perennial pollinator plant with a blue flower blooming mid-spring. It’s native to open woodlands and plains and it attracts various important pollinating insects. An illustration of the flower stem of amsonia is featured in my new collection. I feel like Amsonia is about the clothing and textiles, but it’s also about gardening and poetry. That’s my life. Gardening is so tied to everything sustainable. Like, right now I’m sitting in my pollinator garden watching the bees on my bee balm. It’s all about finding more balance in this modern world, making room for nature.
With your Vermont Arts Council grant you attended a few printmaking workshops here in Vermont this summer. What was that experience like and how has it affected your work with Amsonia?
I signed up for three one-day workshops, and it was pretty much just me there in the studio with the press owner. It was great to have that one-on-one time because I got to tell him exactly what I was looking to get out of it. I didn’t really do any printing there, but he helped me start the process of burning screens. I also was able to take notes and pictures on all his press setups so that I could recreate it at home in my own studio. There’s a lot that goes into printing for Amsonia, so it’s really essential to be able to print in my own studio. So now I have my own set-up, I’m printing in my studio, and it feels great.
What is the process like behind creating each of your products? They are all handmade so I can imagine that can be a tedious process as a one-woman business.
I’m really interested in sustainable and natural fabrics—in fact, my last release consisted of shirts made of sea scraps—so I’m really trying to use every bit of everything and to have as little waste as possible. I also try to source everything ethically, which can be a time-consuming process of trying to figure out if something really is ethically sourced, and what the whole story is. I use a lot of linen, and I also buy a lot of fabric from Cloth House in London because I know they’ve sourced the fabric themselves from really small operations. One day I hope to use linen that was grown and made here in Vermont, but our local fiber efforts still have a long way to go before that could be possible.
One thing I didn’t really realize when I first started was that I have to design my own patterns for my clothing. I realized this as I was making dresses for friends based on some vintage patterns, and thought, “I can’t just sell someone else’s pattern.” I think there are actually a lot of people out there who are doing just that, but I found an online class to take and have learned how to draft patterns. It’s been slow going because I am committed to these goals and every part takes so long.
To make up for the fact that I am just one person, I have been collaborating with other artists. That definitely makes me feel less alone. Most recently, I have been working with Briony Morrow-Cribbs, an etching printmaker and illustrator who also lives in the Brattleboro area. Her work is very focused around and informed by nature, like mine, and we both worked as gardeners for years with garden designer Helen O’Donnell. As I move into offering my new collection of screen-printed linen clothing and textiles, botanical illustrations by Briony are at the crux of the whole thing. It feels so beautiful to be surrounded by her art everyday as I work on this collection. And because I’m working alone and am responsible for taking a piece of clothing from inception to pattern design, to size grading, to cutting and sewing it—and then of course the photography and other tasks involved with selling the pieces—it feels amazing to have a piece of the process not be about me. I hope to keep working with artists in this way.
Have you done any other collaborations?
This winter, before I got set up to print, I did a collaboration with a printmaker who lives in Oregon, Delia Perez. She block-printed on some shirts of mine that hadn’t sold from last year, which was a great way to spice up some of my plain linen shirts. And they sold out in 15 minutes!
Do you have a favorite piece or item of clothing from your line?
Well, I’ve made a lot of one-of-a-kind pieces, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. But I guess my favorite would be the main shirt design on my website that I started making three years ago. I’m still working on it and size grading it to be more inclusive and go up to 7XL. I just really love it. I’ve done a lot of work as a gardener here as a supplemental income thing, and this shirt was the solution to all my clothing problems. It has more space under the arms for being active in Vermont, and it’s a little feminine, but not too feminine. It just makes me feel good.
Besides your efforts to be ethical and sustainable with Amsonia, what role does sustainable fashion play in your personal life?
Honestly, it’s so hard to be one person with a small business, but I think we need more people doing this. I’m never going to scale my business, but if every town had like 10 people doing this, then people would be able to find what they’re looking for in terms of locally made clothing. I also think sustainable fashion is still in the beginning stages. Even though on the one hand, you can look on Instagram and feel like tiny clothing lines are just flooding the market, it’s not really true when you compare it to how many people fast fashion is reaching. There’s still so much to learn. I have so many more skills that I’m working on now, and that I’m going to work on in the future, to make my clothes a good choice for people. You can’t just buy sustainable clothes. You have to also buy clothes that you like, and that fit you well, and that you feel good in. How we clothe ourselves is really important, and there are so many components to it. I think the more that small scale designers learn, the more people will choose to buy from us.
Yeah, that’s a great point. You don’t plan to expand Amsonia though?
Well, it might expand. I could see maybe having like two or three of us, but I don’t want to scale it any larger than that. I’m never going to have factory workers overseas—that’s the antithesis of what I’m trying to do. So it’s always going to be small compared to what fashion has been.
What are you excited for with Amsonia moving forward?
I’m really excited to keep improving my printmaking. When I first started working on printmaking in my early 20s, I started in my old farmhouse, just using sheer, antique curtains in my grandma’s drawer that I stapled to wooden picture frames, and I used a library card as a squeegee. That was my early printmaking, so I’ve come a long way. I was experimenting printing on vintage silk and making pillows that I stuffed with local wool, and I feel like because of the grant, now I get to be a grown-up printer and print really high quality. I also recently thrifted t-shirts, and I’m going to print on those to give people another sustainable option. And I can sell them for a lot cheaper, which allows a wider audience to buy them.
The other thing is the ink I’m using. It’s called Permaset, and it’s Soil Association approved, meaning it can be composted. It’s a certification that the UK has, but we don’t have. If there’s clothing that has Permaset on it, it can go in the compost. So after I have a round of printing, I just come in my backyard and wash out my screen with my garden hose because there’s nothing toxic in the ink. Our environmental regulations aren’t really up to snuff here. I’m excited to be using that ink.
Are there any other ways that your products go beyond US environmental regulations?
Well along the way there have been all these new realizations. Like, at some point I realized that pretty much all thread is polyester, so I had to change that aspect of my production because I was using this 100% linen but polyester thread! I changed to all cotton threads, which is quite expensive, but it’s worth it. There’s just a lot that has to change, and there’s a lot to think about—everything down to the thread.
Linen is a really sustainable fabric because flax doesn’t need a lot of water to grow, and it doesn’t have a lot of pest problems. So even if it’s not a certified organic linen, which is actually hard to find, you can assume that it was grown more environmentally friendly than cotton or anything else. And I never want to preach to people, like “this is what you need to be doing,” so I just try to have a quality product that people will see the value in even without knowing all the details. I don’t have all the answers. I’m just trying to put the planet and people before profit and make this business work while adhering to that mission. I’d like to get better at speaking about why linen is so sustainable, how terrible working conditions are for the people—mostly women of color—who we outsource our clothing manufacturing to across the globe, and why it’s so important that we keep sewing and textile skills alive in our communities.
*All photos courtesy of Morgan English.