For as long as I’ve known her, Gayle Ortiz has had the gleam of mischief in her dark eyes. Practically levitating with creative energy, she nonetheless exudes an aura of calm and control—spend two minutes with her and you know she’s got her act together. The thing is, after knowing her all through the bakery days, the rosticceria debut, the cookbooks, the expansions, I didn’t realize that Ortiz has only just gotten started.
Who knew that about a decade ago, the woman whose name is emblazoned on regional culinary legend began crafting around with one-of-a-kind sweaters, and after a successful entrepreneurial run selling her designer creations to boutiques the world over, she’s now vigorously immersed in designing, sewing, and workshopping custom clothing? And that’s in between weekly rounds of professional-grade mah jong and Pilates.
Fresh from a sewing retreat in Ashland with her clothing design mentor Diane Ericson, Ortiz is happy to show me around her sewing studios. “It started when I began going to workshops and meeting other sewers. We have our own group now,” she says happily. “We share our projects and problems. And of course we just sew together, too.”
Ortiz was at a point a few years back, she claims, where she found it hard to “get a pattern to fit.” So she sought inspiration for the graceful, easy-to-wear clothes she now favors.
“I made my own clothes when I was young,” she says, and her eyes now glow like neon obsidian. “I remember making all my prom dresses. I stopped it to do the bakery. I started again when I knew what didn’t look good on me, but couldn’t find clothes I liked. I was in my mid-50s. I didn’t need fancy dress-up clothes. I wanted everyday items. I found out about Marcy Tilton and her Vogue pattern designs, and I began to follow her. Then I met Diane, and her Design Outside the Lines workshops and retreats.”
Ortiz’s interest has, characteristically, expanded into her own sewing and making blog, in which she proves to be a clear and encouraging teacher.
“A good reason to have community around you is that they bring in other hands,” she says with a chuckle. “They can help fit the piece on you. Once you’ve got something that fits well, you make a tester. Then I tweak it.”
She doesn’t even have to point out that she is wearing her own designs, a striking combination of flared skirt and draped vest top that flairs out flatteringly around a long-sleeved knit top. “The recycled sweaters—I made hundreds of them. Now I’m into eco-printing and eco-dying,” she says.
We step into her freestanding studio for a look. She shows me examples of scarves with delicate leaf and flower patterns imprinted on them by indigo dyes and steam. “I’ve been playing around with those,” she says. “I’m into the creative stuff now, and I think Jody Alexander’s classes on boro are great.” She holds up a few vests and samples that show the influence of boro piecing and stitching. “The classes I take eventually absorb into my work. I’m very changeable,” she confesses. “In everything. The two constants in my life are the bakery and Joe.”
Ortiz calls herself a “maker,” insisting that she’s not an artist. “Everything I make has to be practical—I’m a utilitarian.”
In her colorful but well-organized studio, Ortiz has a sunny front room for sewing. A new Bernina and a Serger are the workhorse machines. Under a cabinet she keeps “an old, old Bernina,” a portable Brother for travel and a new tiny Singer she refurbished. The sunny cutting room is lined floor-to-ceiling with fabric. A chic black trapeze jacket with hand-inset buttonholes sits on a form, waiting to have its sleeves lengthened. “I don’t like unfinished projects,” she says. Ortiz’s taste embraces asymmetrical, casually structured lines, with distinctive details such as triangular bound buttonholes and pieced yokes. A lifelong sewer myself, it’s all music to my eyes.
A side room contains a cabinet with file folders of patterns, all clearly marked. Showing me a half-dozen soft cashmere sweaters used for eco-dye experiments, she explains, “I used nectarine leaves on this one,” and I spot eucalyptus leaves, even a recognizable redwood branch adding soft patinas of design. “I trade them, or give them as gifts.”
More surprises! Ortiz brings out three necklaces she’s designing out of found elements. “Rubber jewelry,” she says with a grin, pointing to dramatic cut-outs of re-purposed bicycle tires. “Everything I do gives me pleasure, but I admit I need the new!”
See Gayle Ortiz’s designs at http://gayleygirl.blogspot.com.