Three Armidale locals won awards in the inaugural Fleece to Fashion Awards show, held in Armidale on Saturday, July 7.
The gala fashion awards program celebrates Australian merino wool production and its esteemed presence in the top fashion and textile manufacturing capitals across the world. It replaces the Australian Wool Fashion Awards (TAWFA), which ran from 1997 to 2015.
Armidale’s Tracy Wright and Katherine Cranfield won first and second prizes in the active and outdoor section. Rita Showell was awarded first prize in bridal wear.
Active & Outdoor section – 1st prize
Tracy Wright is a science teacher turned designer.
Hailing from Narrabri, she studied at UNE before heading to the school lab.
Sewing, though, had always been her hobby. She learnt the craft by watching her mother, a professional dressmaker – which stood her in good stead as a student.
“I’ve made clothes for people since I was at uni,” Tracy said. “That’s how I made a bit of extra cash during my uni days!”
While working for Namoi Cotton in Wee Waa, Tracy met her husband, and returned to Armidale in 2000. When she first moved to town, she started dressmaking at Rita Showell’s Fabric Fair shop.
“Whilst I enjoyed science,” Tracy said, “I really couldn't see myself doing it forever, and I wanted to do something that I was passionate about. I was offered a job teaching textiles at a local school, and it just went on from there.”
Tracy created her own label Raw Fibre, manufacturing garments using natural fibres, in 2016.
"I was looking for a name that represented what I do, and I make clothing basically out of natural or raw fibres,” she said. “I just wanted to typify the fabrics that I work with, which are predominantly natural fibres. I don't like polyesters and nylons, so I wanted my brand to represent who I am as a designer."
She quit teaching to work full-time in the business in February last year, operating from her own shop in Beardy Street.
Seven weeks ago, Tracy moved premises to the New England Collective, in Hanna’s Arcade, Armidale – a venture she started with other small business owners.
“We thought we would join forces and open a shop,” Tracy said.
The Collective now leases space to 30 small businesses from Glen Innes and Inverell down to Armidale and Tamworth.
"The thing I enjoy most about my business is the satisfaction of people when they walk out the door,” Tracy said.
“I design a range of clothes for the shop, but I also do a lot of custom work for people. I have clients of all ages, shapes, and sizes who find it difficult to find clothing in Armidale. Seeing someone walk out with one of my designs and really appreciate what I do is probably the most satisfying!"
While managing her enterprise, Tracy has also entered design competitions. The Australian Cotton Fibre Expo 2017 invited her to enter; she won the Racewear and Modern Child sections. The Royal Australian Show Society invited her to exhibit at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney this year; she came second.
“It’s been a good 12 months,” Tracy said.
At the Fleece and Fashion Awards, she entered the Active & Outdoor section – outside her comfort zone.
"It was a new section,” Tracy said. “I also felt that by entering a section that is not something I would normally do, I went in with no expectations and there was no pressure on me. When it's what you do for a living, people expect you to provide a certain quality and design, so I just did something that was totally different. It was fun, really.”
Her outfit consisted of tights in two different colours, a top, and a fleece hoodie jacket, all made out of pure wool, and modelled by her daughter.
The category was sponsored by activewear manufacturers Bluey Merino, who may take on some of the outfit as a commercial design.
Active & Outdoor section – 2nd prize
“In some ways,” Katie Cranfield said, “I fell into design.”
Katie, 25, works at the Rag and Trader Store, in the Richardson Arcade, creating clothes for them, and working on her own label in her spare time.
While Katie enjoyed sewing with her mother while in late primary and early high school, it was only in senior high school that she picked fashion as a career.
She had entered the TAWFA’s school section since she was 14 or 15, and modelled for them in Sydney. In her final year of school, she entered the children’s open wear section – and won it.
“I decided I didn’t want to do anything else,” Katie said, “so I may as well do fashion design.”
Even then, she ended up doing Visual Communication before studying fashion textiles design at University of Technology Sydney, and deferred her degree to try nursing for 18 months. She realised, however, that she preferred creating to book study, and finished her degree in May.
“I love the problem-solving,” Katie said. “I love being able to create with my hands, and make beautiful things. I also like exploring different concepts, and how people relate to different areas of their life and cultural aspects.”
Katie’s winning design for the active and outdoor section was three women’s looks and two men’s looks: tights, skivvies, bike shorts, a tennis dress, and a bomber’s jacket – all made from merino wool.
“Active wear is one of the fastest-growing areas within the fashion industry at the moment,” Katie said. “It’s a really exciting area to be in.”
Wool, she finds, is such a versatile fibre that it's very easy to work with. It's hypoallergenic, breathable, it doesn’t hold odours, and it regulates heat.
“That makes it the perfect complete fibre for all seasons and sportswear,” Katie said. “You can wear it on long bushwalks and hikes, and it’s nice close to the skin.”
Katie is also designing clothes for RAW natural born artists’ Ovation showcase in Sydney in August, looking at the melting pot of East meets West.
“I want to create a market for men’s wear that is more interesting than what you’ll see on average persons – men’s wear that people can really have fun with, and play with, and isn’t restricted to the masculine man,” she said.
Her vision is to bridge the divide between masculine and feminine clothing, even including transgender women who want to express themselves more masculinely, or men who want something more feminine.
“Ultimately,” Katie said, “I would love to have my own men’s wear label, but the world’s my oyster!”
Bridalwear – 1st prize
For 35 years, dressmaker Rita Showell sold textiles and sewing supplies from her shop Fabric Fair, in Jessie Street; made clothes for Armidale locals; and taught students her craft.
“Generally I work with customers’ ideas, and mould those to suit them, for the best results,” Rita said, “but I’m fascinated by sewing techniques, and how best to sew a particular fabric in a particular design. My forte is not really design – but just occasionally a spark happens!”
This year was one of those sparks. Rita won first prize in the bridal section with an ostrich feather-trimmed 100% merino wool jumpsuit – quite in fashion at the moment.
“I thought it would be rather different, and striking, and wearable again for a future bride,” Rita said.
She enjoys working with merino wool because of its fineness. It looks, as she put it, good enough to eat with a spoon, and its creamy smoothness gets rid of the idea of wool being heavy or prickly.
This was the second time Rita won an award in the TAWFA or Fleece to Fashion. Twenty years ago, in 1998, she won first prize in the bridal section.
“I decided I would enter it to support it, and actually won!”
That was a good year for Rita. Her daughter won the supreme award and evening wear sections – a triumph for mother and daughter!
Rita didn’t enter the awards again until this year, when she did so to support her ex-student Mary Carter, running the parade.
The feathers that appear on the current garment were recycled from her original dress. Obviously they must be lucky!
“I’ve been involved in TAWFA right from Day One,” Rita said. Back in the 1980s, the very first garments were judged in the back room of the original Fabric Fair.
A former classroom teacher of maths and geography, Rita made her dressmaking hobby her job. She opened her retail fabric shop in 1983, and started making bridal and special occasion garments and running classes as she went.
Rita has taught generations of Armidale residents how to sew and make clothes. Two of her students won scholarships to the Raffles College of Design and Commerce in Sydney, or gone onto University Technology Sydney.
Rita herself is almost entirely self-taught, bar a two-week sewing course in the US just over 20 years ago with one of the world’s top couturier teachers, now a firm friend.
Rita finally closed shop at the end of the 2017/18 financial year, after 35 years in business. Now she has gone into semi-retirement. She is building a studio attached to her house, where she can continue making custom orders, and running classes and workshops.
“It’s very exciting,” Rita said; “I’ve never had a purpose-built studio before!”