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‘Plain’ linen is big business

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Rough Linen

1925 Francisco Blvd. E., Units 1 & 11, San Rafael, CA 94901

800-968-0903

roughlinen.com

There is nothing glitzy about linen. Its character is “dead plain” and not something you will find on the ever-changing hamster wheel of fashion runways.

And therein lies the allure.

“Linen is so straightforward,” said Tricia Rose, founder and owner of Rough Linen in San Rafael. “You can develop a relationship with this material. It struck a nerve with me, and it has struck a nerve with other people as well. I want everything to be quite calm and tranquil. It just struck me as that’s exactly what bedding should be.”

Rough Linen manufactures sheets, covers, duvets (comforters), curtain panels, table linens, towels and pinafores from fabric imported from Belgium, France, Lithuania and Belarus.

Linen is made from flax and is one of the world’s oldest and strongest natural fibers. Very little is manufactured in the U.S., as it is labor-intensive to produce.

Many years ago, after Rose found a plain linen pillowcase in her grandmother’s house in Scotland. Charmed by the simplicity of it, she started to design, cut, and sew bed linens in her spare time.

Rose, originally from England, has strong family ties to Australia and came to the North Bay area in 2001. Her background is in making corporate and documentary films.

In 2009, she took a photo of a duvet cover she made and sent it to Remodelista, a homemaker’s blog site. It went viral and the next day she had 10 orders for duvets to fill.

At age 62, her life was transformed.

Rose spent the next three years buying and washing the fabric, designing, cutting and sewing bedding, all by hand in her dining room. Her output was about two duvets a day, then she would spend at least two hours a day marketing the product.

“It was so thrilling. Honestly, for three years my feet never touched ground,” she said. “It was so heady to see results so quickly. And don’t forget, I was 62 when I started this. That’s Grandma Moses. It’s the classic little woman at home starter and it grew like you wouldn’t believe, in a very steady way.”

In the first few years, Rough Linen generated about $2 million in sales, in a home textiles market of about $22 billion a year, according to Home and Textiles Today, an online and in-print industry analyst.

Rough Linen sheets cost $140, and though the products are plain and simple, Rose is meticulous about details. The material is woven on old style looms “so the salvages (edges) are made properly,” she said. “I cut to the thread for accuracy and fold the fabric as precisely as origami before sewing so our minimal seaming is exact.”

It’s not a hard product to sell, Rose said. Most of the sales come through the website. The company rarely does any traditional paid advertising, preferring to keep it organic, with an “authentic feel.”

“We approach marketing in a friendly way, relying heavily on social media (Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest) and referrals through partnerships to spread the word,” said Rachel Ritz, Rough Linen’s marketing representative. “We also partner with bloggers and stylists. The first print ad will be coming out next January in Marin Magazine’s SPACES issue. It will be interesting to see how locals respond. I don’t think people in Marin even realize we’re here.”

Rough Linen

1925 Francisco Blvd. E., Units 1 & 11, San Rafael, CA 94901

800-968-0903

roughlinen.com

In a Google search of “linen sheets,” Rough Linen’s site appears first. Most of the sales are to individuals, and it also supplies linens to a restaurant in San Francisco and one in Olema. They also started offering a small discount for interior designers.

“Swimming in a compatible sea is really what I’m looking to be doing,” Rose said. “I’m delighted to persuade people to my point of view, but I hate the hard sell. I think it’s sort of insulting if you hard sell people. What I want to do is lure people.”

One of the ways she lures them is by commenting on other people’s blogs.

“It’s powerful. It takes me three seconds to write. I get sales from commenting on blogs that aren’t even about sewing. You can’t go on and blow your own horn. I just say something that I know people would be interested in, they read it, and look up your name,” she said.

Linen is very absorbent, hard-wearing, and valued for coolness in hot weather. It’s soft to the touch and doesn’t need to be ironed.

“That’s my secret. It’s a wonderful selling point,” Rose said. “Most of the time people who can afford that kind of thing don’t have the time or inclination to iron a sheet, and to my way of thinking you don’t want to. Yes, it’s a luxury, but one that you don’t have to cosset and look after. I don’t want anything I have to look after it more than it looks after me.”

Rose is proud of the fact she never borrowed “one red cent” for the business.

“I don’t like banks, show me who does?” she said. “The freedom that gives me is I don’t have investment capital or a silent partner going on at me. It gives me the sort of independence everybody really wants. Nobody wants money with strings attached.”

It helped that her husband created her (estimated) $20,000 website. Both of her sons are computer programmers, and her daughter is a video editor.

“I was sort of dragged into the present time which is very lucky,” she said. “I started out with a much nicer website than I ever deserved.”

She also saves money by writing her own copy and taking her own photos.

In 2012, Rose moved the operation from the dining room into an in-law unit and a year later bought space in a business district of San Rafael. The products are designed, cut, sewn and shipped out of the same location.

The company has 16 employees, all hired by word-of-mouth.

Rose will be expanding her line soon with more garments including pajamas and pinafores for toddlers. She is also collaborating with artists on colors and scarves for the Christmas season.

“I’m always looking for collaboration with artists. It’s a way to keep it fresh.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.

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