Out Of The Ashes, The Spirit Is Strong

By Samantha Piggott

Karen Ewbanks of Ewbanks Clothiers, situated in the unassuming building on Route 340, had her livelihood go up in flames on August 13, 2015 when her studio and workshop caught fire. The fire and insurance investigators are still unsure exactly what set the space ablaze that afternoon, possibly faulty wiring. The tenants that live above the shop were unharmed and there was no one in the workspace at the time.

What was lost is ten years of patterns and drafts made by Ewbanks. Trained as a traditional bespoke tailor, she creates unique garments by special custom order of fine country clothing. “Even ‘custom’ clothes are tailored off of stock sizes and then altered to fit. Bespoke is drafted from start to finish to fit an individual,” said Ewbanks.

This translates to around one hundred measurements and angles taken for each individual. These numbers are then plugged into certain formulas to draft a pattern for a garment. For each garment first a paper pattern is created, then a muslin prototype is made of the garment. The client will come in for a fitting from the muslin; the pattern will be adjusted according to the fitting and then the actual garment will be created.

Ms. Ewbanks, who originally hails from New Zealand, studied clothing, textile and pattern design at Wellington Poly Technical Institution in New Zealand. She lived and worked in Europe for many years following college. In the 1990s she was drawn to Virginia, like so many of others, by horses and fox hunting. She rode and trained fox hunters in Clarke County, and hunted with Blue Ridge Hunt for several years.

In late 2004, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease. It quickly became evident that training horses was going to be too physically daunting while trying to fight the crippling effects of Lyme. That is when she returned to her training in dress design.

She began by designing gowns for friends attending hunt balls. The precision and quality of her work was widely recognized, and soon she was taking orders for the coats required for fox hunting—beautiful and regal by any standard. They are also sporting attire, however, and are put to the test of rugged conditions and harsh environments.

Ewbanks crafts coats of the finest wools, each fabric special ordered, mostly from England. She has gone as far as lining the tails of the coats that rub against the horse with lightweight pleather. This protects the wool from dirt, sweat and grime and is more comfortable for the horse.

In the August fire, beyond the totality of Ewbanks patterns being lost, 20 coats were burnt beyond saving, as were yards of fabric. The estimate is that it will be six months before she can return to her studio. The vintage Singer sewing machines used by Ewbanks and her employees were also damaged in the fire. “They will be difficult to replace” Eubanks sighs, “but we are trying the best we can to salvage them.”

The worst damage to the sewing machines came from the water used to extinguish the flames and the rust that ensued. The surest portion of Ewbanks’ future is many hours of hard work redrafting patterns and replacing coats that were burned in the fire. She is not discouraged by the work in front of her, but surely knows it will be long hours and countless fittings to replace what was lost.