Smile Politely

Allegra Raff makes a case for clothes made with joy and intention

A white woman with brown hair and bangs wears an orange linen dress and standing in front of a pegboard wall with dresses and shirts hanging from it. There is a desk to the right with a white sewing machine.
Louise Knight-Gibson

Allegra Raff of Raff Co Clothing has been sewing and making things since she was young, but she always struggled with the idea of being an artist. After school and work in the graphic design world, Raff went back to school and then worked as a dental hygienist. She credits this work to bringing her back to art and in 2018, she started her sustainable business, making simple, beautiful clothes from organic and plant-based fabrics out of her home. In April, Raff opened a brick and mortar store called Mother Ghost in Downtown Champaign. I went to see it in person and to chat with Raff about her clothes, the impact motherhood has made on her work, and the joy and pleasure that comes from handmade clothes. 

This interview has been edited for length and clairty.

A two level brick building with large glass windows and a small green tree.
Louise Knight-Gibson

Smile Politely: What anchors you to Champaign-Urbana?

Allegra Raff: We moved here because of my husband’s job. He works at the University [of Illinois], so that anchors us. And at first, that was the only thing that anchored us. We don’t have any family here. We didn’t know anybody, and we weren’t, to be perfectly honest, entirely sure we wanted to stay. But now the answer is a little different. We have two kids who are in the public schools, and we love that. And our kids love it here. I feel like I’ve really been able to explore this idea of living here. There’s sort of a nice kind of freedom about Champaign-Urbana. There is definitely an arts community and a culture but it’s not overbearing, it doesn’t feel like you’re boxed out, there’s a comfortableness about it and to me, that’s really valuable. 

SP: How did you decide to start making clothes for other people?

Raff: It’s just something I can’t totally explain, there’s an internal drive to do it. I’m just always folding fabric in my mind and putting shapes together to fit a body. I mean, I definitely have sewn other things besides clothing, but clothing is something that is universal. Everybody needs it. And I needed it. I think the original impetus was me not being able to find the clothes that I wanted to wear. And so, it was sort of obvious. I’m just gonna have to make them myself. And those first projects were not obviously the perfect expression of what I wanted to wear. But I’ve worked on that and it’s been a compelling project to me to continue trying to refine, and articulate and really analyze. I ask myself, what do I want? And why? How do I get there? I try to cast away all the extra stuff, things that are influenced by trends and fashion, and just ask, what do I really need? And why do I want it to be that way? Is that valid? And sort of cross check it in that way.

Becoming a mother was a real catalyst. Because suddenly, I had very obvious specific needs, I needed my clothes to have pockets. I needed them to not be tied around my waist, I needed them to button in the front so I could breastfeed. So even though I’m not in that place anymore, I’m still very conscious of those kinds of needs. 

Looking out of the mother ghost store window to the street and Downtown Champaign. There are two dress forms in the widow.
Louise Knight-Gibson

SP: You just moved into this new space, but you’ve been making clothes for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about Raff Co and Mother Ghost? 

Raff: Absolutely. I started Raff Co Clothing online in 2018. I was home with one of my kids and I didn’t really know anybody. So it seemed really obvious to start with really low overhead and put them online, then it moved to a website. I just sort of built it very gradually and slowly and thoughtfully, which is the only way I know how to do things. I was online for almost five years and a lot of my clients had an interest in made-to-measure. Very quickly, people started approaching me about having things made in their size, or even making custom designs. So I rolled out a couple of different versions of custom projects and made-to-measure projects. Now, over the years, I’ve developed a set of core designs that I offer as made to measure. I was doing that online, but it always felt a little bit like an uphill struggle. I want to invite people into a space. I want them to be able to feel the fabric and try things on, and I want to create an environment. And, you know, it’s not perfect but I don’t mind. 

SP: How did you come up with the name for Mother Ghost?

Raff: It sort of came to me. But it’s a combination of the idea of the importance of motherhood to me — not that this place is exclusive to mothers, but that’s what it means to me. It’s persistence and care. Not perfection, but there’s something very primal about motherhood to me. So I try to feel that in my work. 

An overhead shot of a desk with sewing supplies and a sewing machine.
Louise Knight-Gibson

SP: What is the best part and the worst part of owning your own business?

Raff: Oh, man, I don’t think I’ve done it long enough to know. The best part is that you get to make all the decisions. And the worst part is you get to make all the decisions. Obviously, the freedom, you get to set your own values, you get to really make that front and center, you get to decide what’s important and what’s not. And then of course, it’s hard to decide sometimes what’s important and what’s not and to really trust yourself.

SP: Why did now feel like a good time to move to a storefront?

Raff: I think partly for the zeitgeist of getting offline right after the pandemic. I felt like I hit a wall with how much I could present myself online. I was, I guess I want to say bored, with that problem, not with the work but with the experience of trying to be visible online. It was starting to feel a little limited. I feel like all these places made me feel excited for downtown in a new way. Wouldn’t it be fun to be part of that? So it was me, just being naive and idealistic and excited. And I knew Madeline [of OHOK things] and I saw that she had a storefront. And I said, “Hey, if you ever want to share your storefront, let me know?” And she said, “wow, funny you asked…” It turns out that she was considering leaving, and reducing her presence. She called me when the lease was up and said, “do you want to do it?” so it all kind of fell together.

A pegboard wall with dresses and shirts hanging from it. There is a long branch on the top, and a desk to the right with a white sewing machine on it. On the right side of the picture is a rack with a few clothing pieces on it.
Louise Knight-Gibson

SP: What goes into the pricing of your products? And how would you help someone justify spending the money?

Raff: That’s a great question. I think a lot about pricing. And I price it on a formula that includes the cost of the materials, which is not as cheap as fast fashion. I use high quality materials, organic cotton, a lot of the cotton I use these days is grown in the US, which makes it more expensive. But I like that it doesn’t have to travel so far and it’s easier to assess the qualifications of it. So the fabric is one thing, the hours of labor, and my markup is not huge. I’m gonna struggle to remember the exact formula right now but I can tell you that [pricing] includes an hourly rate that is above minimum wage for production of each piece. Right now, I don’t have anyone working for me, but I do hope to hire somebody to help, and I want to have it priced in so that I can pay them. It’s really important because sewing is not unskilled labor by any means. You know, worldwide sewing is such a degraded job but it’s really fine work and it requires skill, time, effort and attention. So I want to be able to pay a decent wage for it. Then I multiply it by two to basically cover overhead and pay me, which is barely enough. So I know that it seems expensive to people, but honestly, I’m proud to say that it is not.

SP: You sound so confident, has that always been the case? 

Raff: I think I had to do a lot of emotional work before I got to where I am. You know, in the early years of doing this, it was always a struggle to feel like, why would anyone care? Why would anyone pay money when they could buy a shirt for $10 at the mall? Why would someone pay for more? And it’s a really long answer. But it involves all of these other questions. Do you care about people? Do you care about the environment? There’s a direct line from caring about those things to being willing to pay for something. And I’m somebody who practices what I preach. I buy expensive things, I look for things that are made by people who were fairly compensated [for their work]. I know that other people will too — and some won’t. And that’s fine, they’re just not my customers.

A white peg board with a dark blue dress hanging on it. There is also thread, a clipboard, and other sewing supplies hanging on the wall and a table towards the bottom of the image.
Louise Knight-Gibson

SP: We talked a bit about this already, but how has motherhood impacted the work you do?

Raff: People have different feelings about motherhood, and it’s a really different experience for everybody. So I just want to preface with that. But for me, it was definitely a realignment, like, what am I doing on this earth? These people are so important to me and I’m so important to them, and I’m not just saying that — the reality is, they depend on me entirely. Something about that experience made me feel like, I don’t want to spend my life capitulating to systems that I don’t agree with and working for some company where the mission isn’t something that I feel passionate about. And that’s a real privilege to be able to step away from that. And I had that privilege. So I thought even though I feel a little guilty about using it, I should use it. The more people do that, the more normal it becomes and I think that that’s a good thing.

SP: What are the benefits of wearing clothes that are handmade? 

Raff: I talk about this a lot in my newsletter. I think that handmade clothes almost have a personality, like they’re individual. I don’t want to be woo woo about it, but they feel almost alive. Like they have a personality. And it’s a very special intimate thing. Right? I think that when it’s done with care — and I try to make them as beautiful and carefully as I can— that the experience translates to the person who’s wearing it. I think you feel it, I think you experience it. And I think that the reverse is true as well. That when you’re wearing clothes that were made in conditions of strife, and made with low quality materials and with sorrow I think that the person kind of absorbs that as well. 

I think that wearing beautiful handmade clothes is an experience of pleasure. I think we all need more pleasure in our lives. And I think it’s so worth it. If you’re experiencing joy and pleasure, you go out and you do better things in the world, and you bring joy to other people, it’s a cycle.

Mother Ghost
14 E Washington St
Su 2 to 4 p.m.
M 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tu noon to 5 p.m.
W 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Th By Appointment Only
F noon to 5 p.m.

More Articles