Boiled Wool: She Designs Her Jackets with a Painterly Flair

By CHRIS BURRELL

It's hard to imagine a less inspiring genesis. But for Christy Phillipps and her burgeoning fashion empire, it started with a couple of old blankets.

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Her basement had no heat, but it was her sole workplace for sewing pillows and slipcovers. What she needed was a way to keep warm.

So she boiled some wool blankets and started cutting them up and stitching pieces together until she had created a tight-fitting jacket and cozy pair of pants, work clothes perfectly suited for a day spent in a cold cellar.

Ms. Phillipps, who lives in West Tisbury, wasn't shy about her outfit. Not that it was ready for the runway, but it was fine for trips to the post office.

"I would go out and about, and people were like, ‘What are you wearing?' " she said. " ‘It's a blanket,' I'd say."

The response emboldened her. She went home, dropped some dye in the washing machine and turned her outfit a hue of blue worthy of Superman. But this was five years ago, and since then Ms. Phillipps has turned her boiled wool jackets into daring, Technicolor statements.

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This is not clothing for the timid. The jackets are pieced together from bold stripes of yellow, blue, green, turquoise and lavender along with earthy tones of brown and gray. The net effect is a garment that looks like a walking Mondrian painting.

"A lot of people buy two, one loud and one neutral," said Ms. Phillipps. Or she'll customize a coat, letting clients rifle through a palette of wool swatches with more than 20 colors.

Her fashion house called Wear Out is a one-woman business. No surprise, then, that output is limited. She's made well over 200 jackets in the last five years and sells them at the artisan fairs in West Tisbury and at Campbell & Douglas Harness & Feed in Chilmark. An unlined jacket sells for $240.

But with their working class roots, the jackets have found a following in horse country. Ms. Phillipps's sister runs Netherfield Farm in Chilmark and has spread the word about the sturdy gear made for active wear.

"I think a lot about how things wrap around the body, how it moves with a person," said Ms. Phillipps.

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You can see that in the way the jackets are sewn. The pieces, and the lines, curve. The fit follows the body but it's not supposed to be constricting.

"My dad was an architect. I ran a construction company in New York, and growing up on a sailboat, it all lent itself to geometry, how things go together," she said. "I could never ever do a commercial pattern. I had to do my own."

Ms. Phillipps, who is 42, has no formal training as a seamstress. She simply watched people make clothes and then tried her own hand. In San Francisco in the late 1980s, she worked for small fashion designers, doing their accounting.

"But I'd filter into the sewing areas, talk to the sewers, beg them for help. I'd come in on Saturday and sit next to them, learn their tricks," she said.

She started her own business making costumes for children and found high end outlets for her line at Nordstrom's and FAO Schwartz. But it was a difficult niche. "People are either really into costumes, or they're not," she said.

Her background is really in the arts. She studied film, photography and performance art at the State University of New York-Purchase. She became a painter, mixing her own inks and gouaches.

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It's a skill that comes in handy in the fashion world. She still mixes her own colors, only now it's dye for the wool. She records the formula for each color, noting the exact proportions of dye, vinegar and kosher salt.

Her wool still comes from blankets, vintage military stock that originates in Canada, France and Great Britain. She's tried the Danish and Czech military blankets, but they're too thick.

You'll notice on some of Ms. Phillipps's jackets that there are seemingly random numbers and initials - three to five inches tall - on the wool. Some are obvious, the year 1967, for example. Others remain a mystery.

Ms. Phillipps orders the blankets 50 to 100 at a time. The next step is dying them. It takes her two weeks to finish one shipment. Then comes the cutting. Her tool looks like a pizza cutter, only this thing is razor sharp. But with this much wool, Ms. Phillipps can wear out a blade a day on this step.

Down in her basement, she has six sewing machines. The Merrow machine leaves a neat horizontal stitch on the multiple seams in a jacket, again lending a transparency to the process: There's no hiding how this coat was put together. It takes her about an hour to sew one jacket.

Durability is key. These wool jackets are destined for horse riders and frequent trips to the washing machine and dryer.

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"I love wool," said Ms. Phillipps unapologetically. "I just have to iron the hell out of it." Otherwise, it gets what she calls, "boogly."

She has little patience for polar fleece, that modern fabric that seems to have shunted wool to the sidelines of many winter closets. "Stuff sticks to it," she said of fleece. "If you have any animals, you are your animal."

The respect for the old world was just part of her upbringing. She can remember her grandmother dressing her and her siblings in those stiff Austrian wool jackets, buttoned up with silver buttons right to the neck, so tight you could barely move.

Several years ago, Ms. Phillipps learned about the family textile business, the Cheney Brothers of Manchester, Conn. They were the premier silk producers in the United States. Ms. Phillipps's grandmother was a Cheney. The mills manufactured velvet and silk for dresses, upholstery and parachutes and flags.

In 1995, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford mounted an exhibition of the Cheney textiles, and last fall, Ms. Phillipps made something of a pilgrimage to Connecticut to meet the museum curator and visit the old mill buildings.

The experience made Ms. Phillipps realize that her work is reviving a family legacy. "She was really the sewer in the family. I always feel she's the one who fed this, that she's filtering through me," she said.

Ms. Phillipps, however, is eager to branch out. She's modifying the jackets, using tent meshing to line some of the coats. She's experimented with old burlap coffee sacks to see if they can function as the back piece of a jacket.

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"I'm really into industrial, unorthodox materials," she said. She's looking at neoprene and polypropylene next. Or maybe a brain-tanned deerskin.

It's that kind of offbeat thinking that keeps devotees of the Wear Out label coming back. Erin Mansell, the innkeeper at the Hob Knob Inn in Edgartown, where some of the clothing line is sold, said, "It's something you'd never see anywhere else."

A cold winter isn't bad for business, either. Ms. Phillipps is scouting for another batch of vintage blankets.