I’m walking along when I hear the rattle of a sewing machine. It’s light and faint, but you can still hear it distinctly emanating walking down the side street. Like a relic from the past.
The source of this delicate clatter is five8ths, a handmade design shop sitting in Maboneng District. It’s a cute little place, the sort of quaint business you might have found back in the 50’s, turning out old school ties and bespoke dress wear.
The designer, who I’d quickly find out was a friendly American re-established in Johannesburg, is named Liz. She has a clear passion for clothing and fashion, and a keen eye for style. Her work is exquisite – the detail put into the material is absolutely refreshing. It’s not often you see someone take the time to weave together unique products like full-length shirts. She sweats the small stuff.
I have a soft spot for bow ties, and since today is Small Business Saturday, I figured I just had to stop and chat with her. So, without further ado, a snippet of my conversation with Elizabeth Kading, clothing designer.
What inspires you?
I love routines—a big part of my “inspiration” comes from my own daily practice of work. Working in my shop making clothes is, for me, a discipline. Through daily repetition, the process and my skills become refined, and new ideas emerge. The repetition of physical and mental tasks in my work gives me a sense of peace, which is what I need in order to create.
What’s keeping you busy lately?
I have been making a lot of bespoke patterns over the past few weeks. First, I take body measurements, which I use to draft a paper pattern, which I then cut and sew out of muslin. Then the customer comes for a fitting and we tweak the muslin until it fits just perfectly. Once the pattern is finalized, then I make the finished shirt.
My background is in fine art, so I think of each shirt as a sculpture, which fits perfectly around a figure, and moves comfortably and beautifully with the person. I take fit seriously, because my aim with five8ths is to encourage buying fewer, nicer clothes that fit better and that are worn more often.
Tell us two things you’re excited about right now.
1. I recently opened a combined workshop/retail space in Johannesburg. It is set up with my tables and tools, and there are two racks displaying current designs. I spend the days drafting, cutting, sewing, and when shoppers pop in, I tell them the story of five8ths.
Having a place where people can see what goes into five8ths clothing, and where I can talk to them about what I do, and why, has completely transformed my business. I used to work out of my home and sold online and at fairs a few times a year. I wrote a lot about what I was doing, and talked to people at fairs, but it makes a huge difference when people can see the paper patterns hanging from the ceiling, the rolls of fabric under my cutting table, my sewing machine and other tools in the shop. It’s a more comfortable space to try things on and be measured for a custom fit. When people look around my shop and see what I’m doing, it clicks that this is a handcrafted item. You can see the change in the customer’s face when he/she realizes that my shop is different than a shop with factory-made clothing. Another thing I really enjoy is having neighbors. My shop is located in the courtyard of Maverick Corner in Maboneng, so I can just take a few steps out my door for a snack or a chat.
2. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to find the perfect crisp, white fabric. I buy the most beautiful Italian cottons and linens, but they all have a pattern on them. And everyone needs a crisp white shirt, so I’ve been searching for a plain-weave white for years (I have high standards…). It was like a treasure hunt—one place leading me to the next…but I’ve recently found a luxurious white Egyptian cotton, milled in Italy. It’s gorgeous and simple, and it sews like butter.