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May 2-8, 2007

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Alix McCauley

Homegrown: Alix McCauley models her 3/4 sleeve top.

Cottage Industry

How a Sebastopol designer went from zero to 700 in just five months

By Gretchen Giles


Sebastopol mother of two Alix McCauley has been content to stay at home with her kids for the last seven years, taking special time to raise her son and daughter, now seven and three, be available for play dates and do school volunteering, work on her garden and help renovate the old house she and her husband bought a few years ago. Trained as a painter and photographer at the Rhode Island School of Design, McCauley hasn't had time to do much fine art, but she has made her children's clothes and, before that, made her own maternity clothes. And then one day last November, a friend told her about an online marketplace for crafters and artisans, Etsy.com. Never one to turn down an idle moment to shop, McCauley took a look and loved what she saw.

"I was immediately inspired," she says. "I'd never seen anything like it; it's a compilation of so many energies." Before she went to bed that night, specifically the night of Nov. 19, 2006, McCauley took some photos of clothes she had made for herself and, thinking little of it, posted them to Etsy.

When she woke up the next day, all of them were sold.

Now just five months later, McCauley--who taught herself to sew--estimates that she has completed some 700 custom-made pieces through her store, Treehouse28, on Etsy.com. Standing in the airy backyard cottage that literally houses her cottage industry, she still seems a little shocked by her immediate success.

A tall, willowy strawberry blonde who is also her brand's only model, McCauley, 38, is an old-fashioned dressmaker in a decidedly new-fashioned world. Working exclusively with cotton-lycra blend fabrics that are stretchy and forgiving and particularly beloved by pregnant women and yoga enthusiasts, McCauley makes earth-tone dresses, headbands, shirts, arm warmers and pants exactly to her customer's dimensions.

"It's all custom work," she says. "I don't work from sizing charts. I'm finding that a lot of people of different sizes and shapes want a wardrobe that works for them perfectly." McCauley posts pictures of herself modestly modeling her designs, customers send in their dimensions--including how long they like their tops to be from shoulder to leg--and in a two-week turnaround, the item appears in the mail, hand-addressed and with a short note from McCauley inside the package.

A typical dress costs just $60, entirely intended from color choice to breadth to length just for its new owner. And prices don't change for larger women, whose clothing assuredly uses more fabric than do the size-zero eenie-beanies. "It's really rewarding making clothing for women who don't feel like they can pick up a piece of stylish clothing and have it fit," McCauley says. "A lot of women don't want to go out shopping or don't have the time or feel shy trying clothes on in public."

The small cottage where McCauley works is immaculate, with clothing samples hanging from the ceiling, and her three sewing machines--two of them commercial sergers that she had to hastily purchase within the first month of her uncanny success--sitting on a white table, quietly at the ready. Even with the flood of orders that come in daily from spots as disparate as New Zealand, England and North Dakota, McCauley still keeps track of her inventory flow on a yellow legal pad.

A bright orange basket on the floor holds fabric scraps that she uses to hand-tie each garment before packaging it herself for shipping. In less than half a year, she already has large design houses interested in her products and is fielding offers to expand and redirect the very personal nature of her business. And, oh, she has also had to learn how to actually do business.

"I'm at that point already where I need to consider how big I want to be, how much I want to do," she says, settling down on an oversized white sofa. "I can make the sales. Now it's a matter of how to handle a business that's growing. It's exciting."

She leans forward and smiles. "It's something I would never have forecast five months ago."


To learn more, go to www.etsy.com and search for Treehouse28 under 'sellers.'


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