Elizabeth Dye

The ennui of a cold, rainy day in Seattle inspired Elizabeth Dye to take up sewing.


While in graduate school in Seattle, Dye watched “Ziegfeld Follies” on video and decided she wanted to do something creative, something she could sink her teeth into. She bought a pattern and sewed a blouse using the material from her ironing board.


“I didn’t want to waste material,” she explained.


Dye said she felt sewing her own clothes gave her the feeling that she was “seizing the means of production.”


“I think we’ve all had that feeling,” said Dye. “You go to Anthropologie and see something you like, and it’s $168. You can’t really afford it so you make it yourself. That is DIY [do-it-yourself].”


What was a humble beginning for Dye has now become her life’s work. She released her first collection in 2001 and has produced fall and spring collections since then.


Willamette Week’s Finder heralded Dye as one of “Stumptown’s hottest thread-heads.”


In April she and a business partner opened a boutique in northwest Portland called The English Department, where in addition to creating fashion lines for spring and fall, she also spends a lot of time designing bridal gowns. She prides herself on creating bridal gowns that offer an alternative look for brides to be.


“When people want to get married it’s hard to find someone to meet an alternative aesthetic. People with good taste deserve to get married. Some people may be put off by the typical wedding aesthetic and they deserve to be able to have a dress that is unique and something they want.”


Dye characterized her ideal client as someone who appreciates vintage but doesn’t want to dress head-to-toe vintage. “I have classic tastes. I’m not into that sort of trendy, up-to-the minute stuff. I think something that looks good always looks good.”


A native of Portland, Dye, 33, got her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Washington. After earning a master of fine arts in English with a concentration in writing and spending a year in law school, Dye determined that she wanted her work to be something tangible.


Dye is a self-taught designer. “I’ve only taken one sewing class. I’m one of those heretics who thinks if you can read you can cook. If you can read you can sew.”


That may be true, but Dye’s signature style sets her apart from other local designers. Dye’s describes her designs as “timeless,” and she says goes back in time for her inspiration. She has a penchant for Parisian couture of the 1930s, and she also admires the mod aesthetic of the 1960s with its clean lines and prints.


“It’s this kind of lovely femininity that isn’t too girly. I love that.”


Her designs are like collages. She typically works with fine silks, cotton, and jersey wool.


Her studio in southeast Portland is organized chaos. She has several works in progress. One of her jackets from her fall fashion collection is hanging on a rack near a mannequin with a wool coat she is working on for boyfriend, Jarkko Cain, who owns Holocene, one of Portland’s hottest night clubs.


“I promised him I’d make it more than a year ago. You know the cliche: the cobbler’s children are always barefoot.” 


One of Dye’s favorite places to buy fabric is Mood in New York. As she works on a blue mini dress, Dye explains that Mood sells leftover fabric from New York based design houses.


“I love that it’s this kind of almost uptight regency English drawing room fabric, and I’m making this groovy kind of ’60s mini dress.”


It’s that sort of ingenuity that makes Dye’s designs singular creations.


After living in different parts of the country Dye chose Portland as her home base.


“I think Portland is a spectacular place to develop a creative career because its such a beautiful and humane place to live. There are other creative people in the community that you can interact with. I also think there’s a growing sophistication here and an appreciation for artistic talent. It’s a city on the rise and it’s cool to be part of a city that’s growing culturally.”

Dye’s designs range in price from $70 ?” $300. Custom-tailored wedding gowns can cost as much as $1,400.