Jo Dunsmuir is the multi-talented woman behind Frankie & Ray, her shop for sewing and quilting patterns and handmade clothes. We’re proud to stock her eminently wearable, breezy patterns, perfect for bringing a little colour into your handmade wardrobe or turning a wee snippet of woven fabric into nifty knickers! We caught up with Jo not long ago to learn more about how she got started, what she thinks about fashion and handcraft, and how to make a nice pizza.
Newtown House: Please tell us how you got started with Frankie & Ray ... and what was the work you were doing before you started it? How old were you when you learnt to sew, and quilt, and knit? Have you always had a wide creative streak?
Jo Dunsmuir: Frankie & Ray was born in the early 2000s by accident. I was a librarian by profession but was looking to indulge in something a little more creative and was completing a Diploma of Interior Decoration as a part-time student. I met and made friends with a fellow crafter, and it was Pia’s idea to try our hand at selling some of our makes on a shared stall at one of the handmade markets that were emerging around Melbourne at that time, and so with some moderate success at our first outing, away I went on this journey.
I couldn’t nominate an exact age when I learnt to sew and knit, but knitting definitely came first courtesy of my German-born Oma (grandmother). I took to it like the proverbial duck to water, and I’ve knitted on and off for my whole life. I find it a mindful and meditative thing to do, and I love the ability to handknit a gift.
I did a certain amount of sewing with my Oma, but really I learnt the basics of dressmaking at secondary school, like many women of my generation. I’ll be honest, the motivation for sewing during my teens was to be able to have new clothes at a lesser cost than store-bought. It was a time when manufactured clothing wasn’t comparatively cheap like much of it is today, which meant for our family, store-bought was for special occasions, birthday or Christmas presents, otherwise you (or someone in your family) made your clothes.
I came back to dressmaking during my professional life as a research librarian for a business newspaper, where I admired, but couldn’t afford, the beautiful suits and fabrics of the financial district uniform on my salary.
It was during this time I really honed my skills on making tailored clothing, and started to gain a deeper understanding of how garments are constructed – which led to playing around with drafting my own simple patterns. Beautiful quality fabrics were easily available at this time around Melbourne, from Clegs, from a few retailers who traded at the Queen Victoria Market, and from the haberdashery department downstairs at David Jones, amongst others. (I still have a coat I made from a mustard Italian wool gabardine purchased for a scary amount of money at the time from DJ’s.) It’s really encouraging to see this niche for good quality dressmaking fabrics being filled again by quilt/patchwork stores, but also by some specialty retailers.
Quilting has come only fairly recently, and my first quilt was made as a way to put some sizeable scraps of Liberty Tana lawn cotton from my dressmaking to good use.
My first quilt was cut with scissors, pinned and sewn haphazardly, and hand-quilted very wonkily. I often wish I could return to blissful ignorance to the ‘imperfections’ of that first quilt.
As for a wide creative streak, I’ve never thought of myself like that, but I am always keen to try something new. The excitement of learning a new skill is thrilling... or not. And that’s the beauty of trying things out. I’ve been longing to try ceramics and drawing/painting.
NH: How challenging was it for you starting out? And where does the name Frankie & Ray come from?
JD: I began with accessories, including scarves and fabric belts, and some more homewares and decorator items (cushions, tea cosies etc), but it was inevitable that I moved towards clothing, because I’ve always loved clothes, and I really love beautiful fabric.
Because Frankie & Ray truly began as a sideline hobby, I didn’t chase growth, or have a business plan, or even consider marketing. I really just followed my nose and it has absolutely grown in a very haphazard and unplanned way.
The name comes from our two much loved pets of the time – Frankie, our incredibly beautiful, clever, and charismatic rescue Siamese cat, named after Frank Sinatra for her amazing blue eyes, and Ray, our first pet greyhound, who was a reject racing dog, and responsible for my becoming a crazy greyhound lady. Both are sadly no longer with us, but live on through the business name.
My husband and I have always had pets, and we liked the idea of being able to offer a home to a greyhound from an industry that breeds thousands of dogs every year, many of whom are destroyed for lack of speed, or injury, or disinclination to ‘chase’. The breed has got under our skin, as it has for all adoptive owners, and we now have Henry, our second.
Beginning at the time I did feels like a bit of a blessing, as the whole handcraft / makers movement was just beginning to experience a popular resurgence. Many makers I met at that time were new graduates from creative studies with a fresh take on old handcraft skills, and the market scene in Melbourne provided us with the perfect place to get our products to the public, and our names out there. I think this coincided with the beginning of the age of the internet ... blogging was kind of big back then, and the ability to sell online really enabled many makers to reach customers that would never have been able to find us otherwise.
NH: You've got a range of offerings through Frankie & Ray – gorgeeous handmade clothes, sewing patterns – but you also teach. What aspects do you enjoy most? And what's the one big message you'd want to give people who are trying to get started in these skills?
JD: I love everything I do and consider myself very lucky indeed. What’s that old saying, if you find something to do that you enjoy, you’ll never work a day in your life? For me, I’m very lucky to balance my hands on making garments for sale with teaching and pattern-making.
If I can pass on some skills, and some hints and tips on process and technique, and have a good time while doing it, then that’s perfect. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing women go home from a workshop with a garment ready to wear, and the confidence to make more.
There’s a lot of emphasis out there on skills that are quite difficult to master. If you’re just beginning learning to sew, set your sights on something simple and achievable. When you’ve had some practice and a few successful makes under your belt, you’ll be ready and confident to move on to more complicated techniques.
Never stop persisting. Failing is learning. Ask for help / advice. Practice makes perfect!
NH: How do you spend your days, these days?
JD: My days begin with a walk with our greyhound Henry and my husband, followed by breakfast and a quick(ish) scroll of my social media (read Instagram...I’m no fan of Facebook). Then I try to deal with any household chores that might need attention before packing orders and doing a run into town (6km to Apollo Bay) to the post office. Only then do I start in my workroom, which is downstairs in our house. That might be sewing, or it could be getting patterns ready for dispatch. If I’m struck with inspiration for something new, that inspiration often comes when I’m actually sewing. I work in quiet (no music or podcasts), and the act of working with my hands often allows ideas to present themselves. If it’s a promising idea I usually have to drop everything to try it out.
NH: What inspires you? And which aspects of your work do you most enjoy? And how do you power through the less-fun parts?
JD: I don’t pay much attention to trends. I’m still very influenced by the minimalist fashion of the 1990s – my collection of Vogue patterns included many from Cavin Klein, Donna Karan, and Issey Miyake. Very often it will be a fabric that will inform what I make with it. What I mean by that is; that I buy fabric with no plans for it, so it may arrive and have to wait a while in my stash before I know exactly what I want to make with it.
Trends are unavoidable, even in the handmade world, but I try my hardest to steer well clear. I believe clothes should be comfortable, made from the best quality natural fibres I can find for the job, and should last more than a single season. But perhaps most importantly, I want my garments to be able to be worn as part of everyday dressing. I don’t make anything I wouldn’t want to wear myself. Anything new has to find a place in my own wardrobe for fit, comfort, and style before I go any further with something.
I most enjoy the part of the process when a design becomes as good as I can make it, and the making itself becomes like second nature, when I no longer have to think too hard about what step comes next. Equal to that enjoyment is taking delivery of fabric that is better than I’ve expected. I’ve had deliveries that make me gasp with pleasure. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of not being able to wait to start sewing with those ones.
The flip side are the days I simply don’t feel like sewing but have stock to make. The beginning of the spring / summer season is always a bit daunting. For example, right now I have lots of new fabric, my designs for the season are well-formed and ready, but I have hours of sewing ahead of me to make stock. My motivation is always that I know how good I’ll feel when I have a reasonable amount of stock in hand. There’s only one way to get to that point, and that’s to do the work!
NH: Businesses like yours are very inspiring for people who are hoping to embrace the ideals of slow fashion – either by making their own clothes or by buying one-off, handmade garments. Can you tell us a bit about your approach to slow fashion, and perhaps a bit about the change you hope to see as a result of people starting to really grab hold of these concepts?
JD: Slow fashion is such a new concept, but I’m encouraged that people are working to make more considered clothing purchases or make their own garments as a way to counter the ‘churn’ of the modern fashion industry. My personal philosophy is to make every garment in my wardrobe work hard for as long as possible. I imagine I have a bigger wardrobe of clothes than most people, but every single garment in there must be worn, even if it’s only occasionally. I own clothes (some bought, some I’ve made) that are up to 20 years old. If you love it, wear it, pay no attention to trends, and keep your favourites. If you do succumb to a current must-have trend, then continue to wear that garment the next year, or repurpose the fabric it was made from.
By sewing their own clothing, I hope that people realise the effort that goes into garment construction – that ultimately everything is handmade, even in a factory environment, and therefore the value we as consumers place on garments needs to reflect and respect that.
I’d like to see clothing more treasured and enjoyed, that it’s good for more than a few wears, or even a single season. Once it’s done with, perhaps it might be re-used as rags, or cut up for quilting or other handcraft, or donated to charity or friends if it’s still in good condition.
NH: What is ahead for Frankie & Ray?
JD: Your guess is as good as mine! I’ve never made plans, but I am still enjoying the ride! I am trying to slow down a little bit after many years of being lucky to be in this micro business. Sewing is a physical job, and I do hanker after a little more time to indulge in some other pursuits like gardening and cooking, and maybe learning some new hand skills. Travel is always high on my list of wants.
NH: Tell us a bit about your trip last year to Europe. It looked fantastic. How long was it in the planning, and what inspired your choice of destination?
JD: Oh, Italy! We loved every single minute of it. We began to plan in earnest about a year ago, but we’ve wanted to go for a long time. My husband bought me a book for my 40th birthday (quite a few years ago!) called Salute!by Gail and Kevin Donovan, Simon Griffiths and Robert Castellani. Part cookbook, part travel book, it sparked a real desire to travel to Italy. I used to work with a woman whose family emigrated to Australia from Malta, so we’d always wanted to go there also. When we realised Malta is so close to Sicily, it was an easy decision to add it to our travel plan. I’m so glad we did because for a tiny country Malta packs a big punch.
We began our journey in Zurich, which we loved, travelled by train through the Alps, and travelled Italy from north to south, ending in Malta. We made a decision to avoid some of the better-known destinations, which I have no regrets about. I’ve been asked which were my favourite things / places, and I cannot nominate one place over another. It was all fabulous. One highlight was being able to meet with my lovely friend (and talented knit designer) Anna Maltz and her husband, who travelled from London to meet us for a long weekend in Sorrento.
NH: Tell us about your favourite meal – and perhaps if you are willing please share a favourite recipe!
JD: I love to eat, so to pick one favourite is almost impossible! In Italy, one of my favourite meals was a kind of antipasto picnic we shared with Anna and her husband. We visited one of the many ‘salumeria & macellaria’ (delicatessen) stores in Sorrento and bought a selection of cold meats, cheeses, bread, a few vegetables in oil and some olives. A bottle or two of wine, we took it all back to our hotel and set up on one of the tables on the terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples.
Pizza is a highlight throughout Italy – I think the secret is really good handmade dough, buffalo mozzarella, and a simple (and very sparing) topping of just one or two great quality ingredients.
I set out to eat gelato every single day – and I think I managed pretty well. The flavours are so much more diverse than what is generally available here in Australia. Like liquorice, and some particularly Italian flavours like fior de latte, which translates to ‘flower of milk’...a delicate cream like flavour, and another I had called profumo di Sorrento – ‘perfume of Sorrento’ – which was a mixed citrus flavour. Delicious!
With Italian pizza in mind, this is the recipe we use for pizza dough taken from Karen Martini’s book, Where the Heart Is.
Basic Pizza Dough.
400g plain flour
100g fine semolina
2 teaspoons table salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons (7g) dried yeast
Combine flour, semolina and salt in a bowl. Mix water, oil and yeast in a small bowl and stir to dissolve yeast. Pour water mixture into flour and mix until combined, and knead on a lightly floured surface for about 15 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, but still quite wet and sticky.
Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic film and rest in a warm place for about 30 minutes, or until dough has doubled in size.
Makes enough for 4 pizzas.
NH: Finally, what is one thing about you that might surprise people?
JD: I am truly, totally, dreadfully disorganised when it comes to my paperwork. My income tax returns are always late!
All photos courtesy Jo Dunsmuir