A New Twist on Old Things

After a career spent creating images for high-powered clients, Leslie Evans launched her own brand with a nostalgic line of fab

By Brooke Williams
Photograph by Carl D. Walsh

Leslie Evans’s first business venture out of college was sewing patchwork pillows on a vintage featherweight Singer sewing machine. She sold her handmade pillows at craft fairs until deciding it was time to “get a real career.”

Evans moved to New York City and started her own graphic design company from a drafting table in her studio apartment. “I called myself a designer, but I knew nothing,” she recalls with a laugh. Her pluck and persistence paid off, and Evans was soon working for major corporations and magazines. In 1990 she relocated to Portland, where her company grew to employ twelve people, creating branding, logos, and marketing campaigns for an impressive lineup of clients, including Stonewall Kitchen, Lindt Chocolate, L.L. Bean, Timberland, Esprit, and Reebok.

Despite her success, Evans longed for an opportunity to use everything she had learned over the years to create her own brand.  As design work slowed during the economic downturn, Evans launched a new business that has taken her full circle back to her Singer sewing machine.

Evans, who hadn’t touched her Singer for decades, started sewing sachets from fabric she designed herself. She sold her first sachets, filled with Maine balsam and lavender, at holiday craft fairs in 2010. Today, Evans has an entire collection of handmade fabric and paper products in more than one hundred kitchen and home décor stores throughout Maine and New England.

“I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole career,” says Evans from her studio in a majestic barn she had built on her property overlooking Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth.  “I have taken all my skill sets in design and poured them into my own brand.”

The Leslie Evans Design collection now includes handmade pillows, table runners, trivets, greeting cards, and placemats. Evans’s designs are composed of an eclectic array of vintage images that she has been collecting all her life: botanical drawings from the 1880s, wallpaper patterns, illustrations from old textbooks, a French print a former boyfriend gave her, a watercolor she created in art school. Evans layers all these different elements to create her original designs. “I have always been fascinated with patterns,” she says. “I am good at putting disparate things together.”

One series features vintage postcards of landmark inns around Maine superimposed on maps of Casco Bay and the Lakes Region. Another features Evans’s photographs of kitchen utensils from the 1930s, their green handles worn with use.  “I bring together old and new and put a twist on it,” she says. “There is also a lot of whimsy in my work.”

Evans is quick to admit that she can’t draw. “It never stopped me as a designer,” she says. “I’ve spent my life finding new ways and techniques to work around this.” The computer becomes her production tool, allowing her to scan, redraw, color, and antique images.

The process of designing fabric is not too much different than creating a brochure, she says. Evans sends an electronic file containing her designs to a printer. Six days later the completed fabric arrives at her studio door via FedEx. The first time she received a fabric shipment she was so excited about the richness and quality that she jumped up and down in her studio. “I couldn’t have done this ten years ago,” she says. “The technology didn’t exist.”

In the corporate world, Evans was known for the collages and layering she used in many advertising campaigns. Her favorite project was an annual calendar she created for clients that got more involved each year, ultimately spawning the first images of birds she used to make pillows.

Inspiration for her art fills Evans’s studio. Running the width of the barn, a wall of files contains some of the 20,000 images she has scanned into her computer. Shelves of design books line all the walls. Her extensive book collection started when she was a teenager making her own birthday cards. Evans’s father gave her a tome of old type specimens and cuts used for advertisements and publications at the turn of the twentieth century. “This is the original clip art,” she explains. “I always go back to old things. I think they made things a lot better back then.”

Evans even prefers old machines. Her vintage Singer sewing machine maintains a focal point in the studio, and continues to be the main workhorse.  She refurbished an identical model found at the Cape Elizabeth Swap Shop and prefers it to the expensive new machine that sits largely unused. Committed to manufacturing her products in Maine, Evans employs local women to help her sew and cut the patterns to create her products. “We do it the old-fashioned way,” she says. She is especially proud that her company enables women with children to work from home.

Describing her work as “anti-mass-market,” Evans is hoping to appeal to people looking for something unique and handcrafted.  Because her business is small, Evans is able to create fabric in both small and large batches, fulfilling orders for eight hundred pillows for one company and just twenty custom pillows for an inn or business that wants a unique design no one else has. In the future, Evans is hoping to license her designs on products that she is unable to manufacture herself, such as sheets, rugs, and wallpaper.

In the nineties, Evans helped Stonewall Kitchen come up with its color palette and packaging design for their products. While she continues to be proud of her past work, she is even more excited that her sachets now sell at the famous kitchen store.

She finds the fact that she has taken her original business concept and turned it into a “real career” to be both satisfying and a little ironic.  “It’s exciting to come back to that idea and apply all the knowledge I’ve learned over the years with the new technology that exists today,” she says.

Brooke Williams is a freelance writer living in Thomaston. This is her first article for Down East.