Cawley, the Bright British Artisan
British womenswear brand Cawley inspires confidence and pragmatism while challenging preconceptions of contemporary fashion. After stints at M.i.h Jeans and the iconic ready to wear company You Must Create, Hannah Cawley decided it was time to explore her passion for practical shapes and natural fabrics. The collection was quickly picked up by Sustainable Department Store and Young British Designers growing organically ever since.
Over a morning coffee in London and a follow-up call during Covid-19, I spoke with Hannah about the beauty of raw materials, natural dyes, timeless shapes and the taboo subject of self-financing. Enjoy this candid account of a personal journey to purposeful fashion.
Advance Copy: Hi Hannah, could you tell us about your background and first memories of being interested in fashion?
Hannah Cawley: I was born in Stoke-on-Trent, England, a town that’s famous for its pottery. My mother is creative in her interests and hobbies while my dad is very musical. From the age of four to about sixteen I was a dancer at a local ballet school where one seamstress made the entire schools’ costumes. We would get measured, have fittings a few weeks later and by the time of the show, we would have a garment that was made to measure. I really liked that process, seeing how measurements could be translated into a finished garment. My mum also used to make patterns and costumes for various school plays for me and she still helps with Cawley. I think this is where my inspiration to work in fashion came from.
AC: What were your first steps to working in the industry?
Hannah: I studied fashion in a local college, learning the technical side of the job: how to make patterns, to sew and so on. While studying I began doing internships, the first one was for a company specialising in embroidery for the Royal Family. It was very inspiring to work for a bespoke business like this. From then on, I would do an internship every year exploring different parts of the industry from high-street to high-end seeing where I wanted to position myself. I started this research early on and I place Cawley on the idea of where I’ve always wanted to work, which is middle-market well-made clothes.
“I’m constantly looking for ways in which we can be a better business.”
AC: What insightful experiences did you bring forward from previous jobs to your approach with Cawley?
Hannah: I understood how to run a business while working as part of a small design team at YMC (You Must Create). They use beautiful fabrics and collaborate with high-quality factories in Poland and Hong Kong, giving the collections a good price point. It was here that I learnt about fabric fairs, mills, pricing and pattern development – seeing how every part of the business was managed. After two years at YMC, I felt ready to take on more responsibility and build my own brand.
AC: How would you describe the spirit and core values of Cawley?
Hannah: I would like to think of Cawley as an approachable and wearable brand, I want to create clothes that are not restricted to one body shape. I also want to continue making clothes in the most sustainable way that I can, I still have a long way to go but I’m constantly looking for ways in which we can be a better business.
“I want to work with fabric mills which are understanding and open to supporting independent designers.”
AC: Your designs celebrate natural fabrics, does this interest stem from a practical or inspirational place?
Hannah: The materials I use for Cawley are quite traditional and I prefer to work with natural fabrics because of their imperfections, their unevenness. For example, something like calico is mostly used for toiles, but when you look closely you will see the husks of this fabric, which I think is a very beautiful quality. I also love collecting old vintage nightgowns, they are so personal yet feel very special as if they should be worn out. The fabrics these gowns are made from are so crisp even if they are 100 years old.
AC: How do you go about finding suitable factories to collaborate with?
Hannah: I have been going to The London Textile Fair since working in the industry and I want to work with fabric mills which are understanding and open to supporting independent designers. At the moment, I’m enjoying working with a family linen mill in Ireland, the owner is very accommodating and we are collaborating on a custom colourway. It’s difficult to find someone who wants to create something special and I feel lucky to have relationships with people who trust me.
AC: You’ve recently collaborated with artist and gardener Rachel Jones-Jones to explore natural fabric dyes, how did this project unfold?
Hannah: I was testing natural dyes at home with avocado skins and turmeric, I’m not very knowledgeable in that area but Rachel reached out asking if I wanted to experiment with the dyes that she was making during her residency at Grymsdyke Farm. She sent me a beautiful package of dyes which I applied with a paintbrush to get a stripe effect made with a vivid yellow of apple bark.
AC: The latest Cawley garments carry unique ‘Made at Home’ care labels, what made you decide to switch from standard options?
Hannah: I’ve always battled with care labels; I couldn’t find anywhere that would do a beautiful cotton tape in a small batch onto which I could print. I wanted to create something that wasn’t generic and had more personality, allowing the person buying the garment to see where and how the item was made. So, I decided to use fabric remnants to produce Cawley labels, even using the tiniest scraps and the idea of drawing a house went well with the pieces I was producing while at home during the lockdown, directly showing where the garments were made.
“People don’t talk about those jobs that allow you to get to where you are.”
AC: As a young designer, how did you take on the costly responsibility of financing Cawley?
Hannah: Whilst creating the brand I was also working full time managing a pub in south London, I never had a free evening or a free day. People don’t talk about those jobs that allow you to get to where you are, it seems to be hidden and I don’t think it should be, I believe that’s the reason that many designers don’t start their own brands. It’s important to make people realise that not everyone has money to do something from scratch; if you are passionate you can make it work. Working in a pub or a shop shouldn’t make people think differently about your brand because it doesn’t stop it from being lovely.
“It’s not about getting things right all the time.”
AC: What future prospects are you most excited about in fashion, locally or globally?
Hannah: I think it’s important to continue conversations and collaborations. Since the lockdown I have also learnt that people love to see others share their process, it’s not about getting things right all the time. Posting about the natural dyes, saying what they are made from or showing the process of how I made Cawley care labels is like giving people a recipe or sharing ideas rather than keeping them so secretive. As a brand, I’m excited to share more of the process going forward and being more honest about the way new styles are created.