Handcrafted Bags with Vintage Appeal

It’s time to trash the Coach clutch, ditch the Cole Haan hobo, and jettison the Juicy Couture backpack. The Island’s premier bag lady is back in business and her creations make other designer handbags look like Stop & Shop’s paper or plastic.

To the delight of annual visitors and year-rounders, Sylvie Farrington, on hiatus since 2008, reappeared last summer at the Vineyard Artisans Festivals with a whole new batch of bejeweled handbags in gem-colored vintage fabrics. Created in her West Tisbury studio and sold under the banner SylvieBags, the purses are a combination of mid-century barkcloth, lush brocades, velvet piping, hand-beading, zippers with multi-colored teeth, and handmade buttons from Italy.

Sylvie explains her own infatuation with the mid-century textiles. “I absolutely love the way the colors are put together,” she says, “and the design sense of that time. I think it’s beautiful. It has a spell on people, this stuff!”

Barkcloth was originally used for curtains and upholstery, and dates from the 1920s through the 1960s. Its name is derived from the texture, a thick “dobby” weave that is reminiscent of tree bark (and some early barkcloth was literally made from the bark of trees such as paper mulberry). The patterns range from the art deco of the earlier designs, through the tropical floral, boomerangs, flying saucers, and cocktail glasses that were popular in the later years.

The colors run the full spectrum in surprising and often outrageous combinations: pale pink with blue, green, orange, and brown cowgirls, for example. Or a white background with geometric shapes in hot red and three shades of blue. A Samurai in crimson and purple riding a white horse past a blue and white tree on a black background. The dark backgrounds – usually black – are Sylvie’s favorites, but she says they are becoming rare more quickly than other designs.

Born Sylvia Kadzik in Affinghausen, a tiny town outside of Bremen in Germany, she fell in love with colors while watching over the shoulder of her father, a watercolor artist. Her education was further enriched by family excursions around Europe in support of his art. But she never became a painter – falling in love instead with textiles. “I started knitting at age twelve,” she recalls, in lightly accented English, “I probably knitted fifty sweaters between twelve and eighteen. I got into sewing in my early twenties.”

Sylvie discovered Martha’s Vineyard immediately out of high school in 1986 when she worked for a year here as an au pair. She returned to Germany for three years to study tailoring but couldn’t resist the siren call of the Island. “I actually saved money while I was in sewing school to come here to the Vineyard every summer,” she recalls.

When she graduated from sewing school she decided to come back to the Island, and she worked for textile artist Michèle Ratté in her West Tisbury studio for five years. “I learned a lot from her,” Sylvie reminisces. “She gave me a lot of responsibility at a young age.” When Michèle downsized her business, Sylvie found work at Bramhall & Dunn in Vineyard Haven.

A trip to an antiques fair in Brimfield proved to be a turning point in her career. This was 1996, the same year she married Island carpenter Paul Farrington. “I saw a booth that was selling a lot of barkcloth and immediately loved it,” she remembers. She spotted a length of fabric that more than caught her fancy. “I thought, ‘Wow! I have to buy this fabric! I have to own this piece of material.’ I just loved it and had to have it.”

She made a pillow, and she was hooked. After experimenting with shapes and designs, she pulled together a couple of handbags and showed them to Emily Bramhall, her employer, who immediately ordered a dozen for the store. Soon Sylvie was selling to another shop, Chica in Edgartown. She was eventually able to leave Bramhall & Dunn and began to make and sell bags full time. She hired a high school girl, Noava Knight, to help with the production and shows, and subcontracted a home-worker, Shirley Dewing, to create the linings. (Although Noava has moved on, Shirley, who lives on Chappaquiddick, continues to churn out the zippered and pocketed innards of the bags; and Elizabeth Greene of West Tisbury does hand-beading.) Sylvie’s husband became her business manager and built and painted many of her displays and props. Summer visitors flocked to her booth at the artisans festivals at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury and she began to enjoy repeat business. Her bags were also becoming recognizable off-Island.

Because of family considerations – she and her husband fostered, then adopted, a little girl – Sylvie stopped making bags three years ago, but she never stopped collecting fabrics, and she returned to her business last spring. “It feels so great,” she relates. “I feel very, very happy. I used the last six months of the sabbatical to really focus on new designs.” She boasts five new shapes that “people are loving,” she says. “And the support I feel like I’m getting from both the other artists at the shows as well as from my customers is just overwhelming. People are so friendly and appreciative and happy to have me back there. It’s just heartwarming.”

And her business is expanding. Besides the artisans festivals (she will be there every Thursday in July and August as well as for the Labor Day show), her bags are currently at Night Heron Gallery, an artists’ cooperative on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, and she sells handmade barkcloth pillows through North Water Gallery in Edgartown. She will also have work in the Friends of Family Planning Art Show during Memorial Day weekend; a list of other exhibitions is on her website,

But as they say, nothing is forever. Because the design of the antique fabric dictates the design of the handbag, Sylvie is constantly adding to her stash of vintage barkcloth as the sources for the mid-century fabric dwindle. “I feel like since the beginning when I first started, it’s less available, it’s more expensive, and many colorways are really, really hard to find,” she explains. “I’m very diligent about keeping my supply strong. I still go to Brimfield and I also shop online – mainly eBay. But it’s definitely not an unlimited supply.

“I won’t be able to do this forever,” Sylvie predicts. “My guess is it will all be gone in ten years.”