SWAMPSCOTT — When Lynne Rutkowski was tapped to sew a staggering 48 matching costumes for her daughter's school play, she didn't realize what it would set in motion.
Her success with the costumes, combined with her mother's plea to bring fashion to the kitchen, inspired Rutkowski to start crafting stylish aprons.
"I think people have the idea that aprons are a little frumpy," Rutkowski said, "so I'm doing prints to complement what you're wearing, instead of ruining it."
In the last 21âÑ2 years, it has slowly blossomed into a career.
"I started off just using fabric I would find places," she said. "Then I had to find a distributor because people would call and want 30 of one print."
Rutkowski's first big stroke of success came in July 2006 when she began selling her aprons at Pamplemousse, a home goods shop in downtown Salem. The aprons were a hit, and Pamplemousse owner Diane Manahan suggested that Rutkowski sew witch hats to match the apron patterns. Tourists visiting during Halloween season eagerly scooped them up.
"So people dress up as kitchen witches," Rutkowski said. "The fun thing for me is when I'm walking down there (in downtown Salem), I see people walking around with the hats on. I don't usually get to see the aprons on people because they wear them in their own home."
From pink polka dots to beautiful brocade, Rutkowski sold 1,500 aprons last year. This year, she has already sold 4,000, and her custom-pattern aprons are in 75 stores across the United States and Canada. She named her business Lynne's Whim.
"The way the business has been growing is perfect for me," she said, "because I've gone in little steps. Now I'm at a point where I'm very comfortable and I know I can produce a large quantity."
Rutkowski still sews each apron in a cozy guest bedroom-turned-studio in her Swampscott home, using fabrics made in the United States. Her sewing machine sits on a large work table, adjacent to a rack brimming with aprons of all colors and patterns. Custom witch hats are stacked on a shelf, and boxes of index cards carry the names of shops she has solicited to carry her items.
"My family has been unbelievably supportive," said Rutkowski, who lives on Puritan Park in Swampscott. "I used to be downstairs in the TV room. There were boxes and thread and fabric all over, and I was tripping all over myself, so I decided it was time to put it in the guest room."
Rutkowski has grown adept and can turn out an apron in 20 minutes. She tries to stay abreast of fashion trends and colors, and next month will introduce five new prints.
"You've got to keep changing," she said. "The best part is picking out fabric. You can't only buy what you like; you have to think of everybody across the board. ... And I always keep my drawing paper close by to make patterns."
Rutkowski also makes oven mitts to match her aprons, and she added a signature white hand towel that is affixed with a button to each apron.
"I love to cook and entertain, but I always ended up with dish towels all over the kitchen," she said. "I thought, 'I should put a button on it, and the towel stays with you.'"
She even names her aprons.
"Nancy" is a retro, groovy pattern, named for Nancy Sinatra. "Jo," "Meg," "Amy" and "Beth" are named for the March sisters in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."
A best-selling baroque apron is called "Fancy." "Chef" is a black-and-white houndstooth men's apron with a military buckle. A white apron with vibrant red flowers is "Lipstick."
"Coco Chanel would have made that color into a lipstick," she said.
Building her business
Her aprons cost $40, and she has developed a catalog, business cards and a Web site (lynneswhim.com) and will participate in her first major trade show in Atlanta in January. Locally, she still sells at Pamplemousse and at Crimson and Clover in Marblehead.
"I love working with small store owners," Rutkowski said. "They're all such nice people. You get to build relationships."
Rutkowski, 45, grew up in Ohio. She studied fashion merchandising and marketing in college and moved to Boston, where she helped open The Limited at Copley Place.
She and her husband, Leon, moved to Swampscott 17 years ago, and she left the retail industry to raise her three children. But as they grew up, she knew she couldn't be a stay-at-home mom forever.
"I'm not a sit-still type of person," said Rutkowski, whose sons, Emerson, 17, and Miles, 16, are students at Swampscott High School. Her daughter Anastasia, 18, whose school play was the genesis of Lynne's Whim, is now a college freshman.
"I wanted to do something for me," Rutkowski said, "and it's nice being in the house because I'm still available for shows, soccer, hockey, lacrosse and everything else.
"And it's nice being your own boss," she said with a laugh. "I'm a small business so it's just me, but I'd love for Lynne's Whim to really explode."