Ms. Emma Designs…..a long story by Sofia Verna PDF  | Print |  E-mail


silk painting

 sewing machine




After university and travelling and supply teaching, I decided to open a shop with two partners on Queen Street West, at the foot of McCaul Street, not far from the OCAD. The area was not fashionable as it is now, but the rent was reasonable and so three of us took the plunge calling the shop” Ms. Emma Designs”, a name easy to remember, but then Emma’s were always strong women in literature  and life. We were in the company of low level “antique” stores, pawn brokers, second-hand bookstores, office store furniture sellers, as well as the Peter Pan, which was the local greasy spoon. It was a mixed bag, so much so that my two partners soon left seeing no future in this part of town.  I continued to make clothes, as best as I could, doing alterations and custom work, as well as supply teaching on the side to make ends meet and pay the bills.


  Cloche Hat


Cloche Hat


 The store was an open concept, with the sewing machines and cutting table in view, which allowed me to work and sell at the same time. Ms. Emma was not planned or conceived through a clever business plan, but was and still is rather an evolution over the years culminating at one point in 9 stores and franchises.


silk painting 2

Hand painting fabrics 

Love of textiles working with fine silks, luscious wools and cool linens kept driving me, and then there was the pleasure of customers appreciating these one of a kind handcrafted clothes by returning time and time again.


Learning how to use and manipulate darts from a cardboard block were invaluable lessons I learned at George Brown College in Toronto. Doing  custom work  for people bringing me commercial patterns  (Vogue , Butterick, Simplicity) taught me a lot,  but I found that laying up patterns on unusual fabric widths did not work very well, and so over the years I devised my own method of cutting directly into the fabric using a geometric approach which suited my designs best. Respecting the nature of the cloth before deciding on a design is still the method I use today. For the first few years, a couple of homeworkers and myself assembled the clothing for the store.


collegew street interior

 Interior of Ms. Emma Designs. 543 College Street, Toronto


The best teachers were my suppliers on Spadina Ave, the “rag trade” area. When they were not busy with customers, I would ask them to show me the best, most beautiful fabrics they had, which they did willingly, explaining the ins and outs of this particular textile. An outstanding lesson I received from Lorne’s father, a portly man, sitting behind his desk, smoking a cigar. When complaining about how slow business was, he asked how long I’d been in business. Two years, was my reply. Are you paying your bills? Was his next question, Yes I answered-.Well then, what do you want? May be after 5 to 10 years you can take out some money, after 25 years, then you are in business. I had no idea then how right he was. It was sound advice, and it kept me hanging in despite the waves of recessions that hit along the way.


   Silk velvet patchwork dress

Silk velvet patchwork dress Fall Winter 2010



A necklace from  the collection for the exhibition 'From Fabric to Jewellery'  at the Museo del Tessuto


Canada has always been the destination point for refugees, and the Canadian government was always trying to place them with small businesses. Ms. Emma got a subsidy for a period of time and we taught them how to use the various machines and assemble garments. These ladies became part of this “family” and rather than lay them off,   we simply opened more stores.Of course, The Emmas had become a close knit family. Children  were also part of the Ms. Emma set up, and work did not suffer in any way.


Handpainting fabrics in vibrant unusual colours also became an important part of Ms. Emma as well as the more recent introduction of patchwork and quilting.


The search for interesting, beautiful textiles led me in many directions, from open air markets in Europe scouting for traditional blankets or bedpreads to exquisite Belgian tapestries for jackets, a very popular item in the 80’s.


 In the 70's natural fibres were not very popular, as people had no awareness and were still in love with the wash and wear idea, and above all NO ironing. There was a void in the market for people who wanted natural fibre clothing. For100% cotton turtlenecks, I approached Jockey, the men’s underwear people, and bought the 3 colours they carried and dyed 6 them in the washing machine, so that we could offer different colours to our customers.




Sometimes weavers would show up, sell us their shawls,   and we would buy their handwoven fabrics to make into jackets. Unfortunately there were never many of them. Handwoven Indian tussahs for upholstery were compensation, in the process of which we ruined needles and scissors. Over time Italy became and still is the most important source of fabrics, which is where I source most of my fabrics now.


Ms. Emma has experienced many ups and downs over the years and always managed to bounce back.  The only reason probably is  a genuine passion for the craft.

 In this recession we see many vintage "Ms. Emmas" coming back for alterations, which mean that the clothes withstood the test of time and that’s what it is all about…


 For me it is important now to mentor young people who want  to take this road in the “rag trade” which is rough at times, but also extremely satisfying and rewarding, and always remember that a business is not built on projections but hard work and dedication, hanging in there for good., for better or worse.



the shop

 Ms. Emma Design 543 College Street. Toronto, Ontario Canada

Visit Ms. Emma Designs on line at http://msemmadesigns.it
< Prev   Next >