Latvia's got personality: Linen fashion designer Ilze Prūse

All winter, our sense of style has been hidden under jackets, jumpers and scarves. But spring offers the chance to strut our stuff again.

To find some beautiful, natural attire, turn to Ilze Prūse. At her studio “Baltie Darbi” in Jaunpiebalga, 150 kilometres east of Riga, this talented lady produces linen clothing which blends Latvian heritage with contemporary flair.

“I want women to take off their t-shirts and get into linen,” Ilze says. “I wear every model I make myself to ensure that it’s comfortable.”

Inspired by her grandmother’s passion for handicrafts, Ilze began sewing when she was a little girl. She made her first linen item, a nightgown, while she was in charge of cultural activities at Jaunpiebalga’s community centre.

Tablecloth by linen fashion designer Ilze Prūse

She was very good at that job, even winning the title of “cultural personality of the year” in the county. But she got sick of the paperwork, and when she went on maternity leave six years ago, she realised her dream of starting her own business.

“My son is the real boss around here,” she smiles. “Thanks to him I found the time to do my own thing.”

At first, Ilze focussed on making sleepwear. But she quickly realised that clients also want to wear linen attire out and about. So, getting up at 6 am, she turns out skirts, blouses and dresses. There are also maternity gowns “so women can wear their own instead of the ones they hand out at hospital,” accompanied by clothing for newborns and older kids.

She also makes classic Latvian tablecloths and, those symbols of our time, facemasks.

Over the last few years, Ilze has won a loyal clientele, selling her wares at crafts markets and via her website. When Covid restrictions shut down the fairs, she developed a monogram embroidery gift pack to help people keep busy with fine needlework during lockdowns.

Although linen cloth is no longer made in Latvia, the folk symbols and traditional embroidery Ilze incorporates in her designs reflect the nation’s ancient linen heritage, and she scours museum collections and old books for inspiration. Ilze is the curator of an exhibition currently on display in Jaunpiebalga’s community centre showcasing textiles from previous generations which local people have loaned from their family vaults.

Some of her attire, like the “tea dress” which Ilze herself models in the picture accompanying this article, could be straight out of the 19th century. Other items have a trendier Scandinavian feel to them.

“I try to add a bit of history to new items as well, and I’m always seeking to create something fresh,” she explains.

Ilze says that environmental concerns and worries about allergies from synthetics are bringing many people back to natural materials like linen. Linen doesn’t require as much ironing as some fear, she says, and after a couple of washes you can hang it up to dry on its own.

Linen fashion designer Ilze Prūse

“People want to get closer to nature,” she says. “We are longing for natural materials, natural food, and cofortable clothes which breathe.”

Ilze also has a job as an art teacher and runs her studio out of her apartment. While the building is a typical Soviet structure, the tasteful, light interior closely compliments her products. She would like to open a salon where customers can try on clothes, but rents are high in Jaunpiebalga’s few retail outlets. She hopes to eventually find a space in the town’s historic inn which is currently being renovated.

Ilze grew up in Ādaži near Riga and moved to Jaunpiebalga after she got married in the early 1990s. But in spite of being a relative newcomer, she deeply loves the Piebalga region. She believes the meticulous attention to detail exhibited in the area’s folk costume is an abiding asset.

“We have beautiful nature here, as well as great people,” she says. “Piebalga folk are deep thinkers, and before they travel somewhere they’ll think and rethink it a hundred times.”

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