The Timeless Creations of Fashion Designer Heather Stilin

The founder of small Maine fashion label Herself designs elegant clothing meant to bridge the gap between classic and new

Among the natural blues and browns, a pop of red really stands out.

“CLASSIC” is one of those adjectives that gets used so much in fashion copywriting that it almost loses its meaning: how else can items as trendy as shorty rompers or Crocs get described as classic? Heather Stilin of the small fashion line Herself, based in Cape Elizabeth, makes clothes that can truly be called classic in the, well, classic sense of the word: fine tailoring, simple but luxurious fabrics, and timeless designs. As she says, “I put a lens on every item of clothing when I’m making something to make sure people are going to want to wear it in a couple of years.”

Stilin can trace her love of textiles back to her childhood in the Midwest. “My mom used to sew, and she would bring me to the fabric store. I remember looking at fabric and picking out fabric. My mom tried to teach me how to sew, but I didn’t really have the patience for it when I was younger, so she always finished everything for me,” she concludes with a laugh. But those early sewing days were formative, and when working as an archivist at the University of California, Berkeley, as a young adult, Stilin was drawn back to fashion. “When I lived in California, I learned how to do pattern making at a place called Apparel Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. I really loved it,” she recalls. It was a way to make the clothes she saw in her head, items she wanted more than what was in stores. “I needed to learn how to make things myself, so, say, when I wanted this certain kind of pleated skirt, I could just make it,” she says.

After meeting her husband out west, they moved to Maine to be closer to his family, then started a family of their own. As she finished up a degree in library science, Stilin found herself at a crossroads, still musing about fashion: “When I had that choice again in front of me, I thought, do I want to do library science? Or do I want to do this thing that I’ve always really wanted to do but not allowed myself to do?”

She recalls, “2016 was when I started seriously thinking about it and really exploring the idea. I got a desk at A Gathering of Stitches,” which was, at the time, a makerspace for textile-based artists. Based on advice from a mentor, she started with something simple: dresses. “She said, ‘Start with one kind of fabric. You can use different colors, but just do three dresses, just so you can contain what you’re doing and know that you’re doing it well.’ So I put a lot of effort into getting those three dresses just right!” She continues, “All professional patterns have numbers, so I started with my age as the first two numbers. They start with 44 because I was 44 when I first decided I was going to try and do this. It’s a reminder to me that it’s okay to be older and still be starting something new.”

Sitting in her sun-dappled studio with finished garments swaying in a gentle spring breeze, Stilin is happy to expound on her design process. “The way it often starts is with a drawing or a garment,” she begins. She leaps up to pull down a vintage dress that is hanging on the wall. “I’ll show you this one, because this is a recent one that’s not quite finished yet. I was up in Rockland and I saw this dress. This style of dress, with a yoke, was something I’d been saving pictures of for a while. I bought it to give to my pattern maker as a base to start from. I gave her this and I said, ‘I don’t want this color. I want a different kind of color. I want a sort of mandarin orange color.’ We talked about what I wanted to keep the same, what I wanted to be different, and then we applied my sizing to it.” She turns to the next dress hanging on the wall: “This was the first sample that got made, in this lovely sort of twill. There’s a lot I like about this, but the sleeves are too short. I don’t really like this color. We need to adjust the color. Then I made another sample, and that sample is not quite right either because I added fullness, and then I realized I don’t want that much fullness. You might go through two or three samples depending on the style before you finally get to a pattern and a sample that you feel like, yes, this is what I want, this is the way I want the garment to be.”

A satisfying sample is really just the first step, though. After a sample works, “then you get it graded,” continues Stilin. “Grading is the sizing. Usually for brands, they have standard grades that they use because that’s where you get the consistency in sizing. My hope is, if somebody is always a medium top in Herself, then all the styles of shirts that I make will all fit the same. Next you get a marker made, if you’re going to work with a factory. A marker is placing all the pattern pieces in the most efficient way so that you don’t waste fabric and everything has the correct grain line. Finally, the pieces get cut and sewn at the factory.”