It all started with a bag of discarded dress shirts. Jessica Johnson Moore of Raleigh, designer and founder of Little Grey Line, just couldn’t bring herself to drop off her husband’s shirts at the thrift store.
“They were beautiful fabrics and they smelled like him and every time I saw one I remembered something or some time when he was wearing them,” says Johnson Moore. So she decided to repurpose the shirts into dresses for the couple’s then 2-year-old daughter, Adeline Grey, in 2011.
From there, Johnson Moore gathered shirts from male family members and taught herself to sew through online tutorials and practice, eventually creating custom dresses for family and friends as gifts.
“The idea that with each dress it’s a way to preserve the memory of those that wore the shirts before is very important to me,” says Johnson Moore. “Something that would have been discarded or that was no longer useful now has a new purpose – and not only a new purpose, but it’s usually on a galloping little 3-year-old. There’s just something very delightful about that to me.”
Johnson Moore, who is a trained architect and former adjunct professor at N.C. State University, let her early creativity from working on renovation projects drive her current inspiration to create dresses from shirts.
“I take an existing shirt – a button-down shirt – and I will only use what the shirt has to offer, so each shirt is it’s own design challenge, and it allows the process of design to be seen fully,” she says. “So I start with the shirt, and I am able to try to find the most interesting characteristics of the shirt and make those come to the forefront. And that’s what begins each design.”
For Little Grey Line, Johnson Moore works with special shirts sent by clients. Those heirloom shirts drive her creativity, but also bring pressure to the process.
“I see each one as this treasure, and I don’t want anything to happen to it when it’s in my care,” she says. She carefully makes a new pattern for each custom dress she designs. “There is no redo,” she emphasizes.
Johnson Moore’s dedication to using only what the shirt provides is reflected in the details of the dresses – a cleverly placed pocket, or a collar used as straps for a playful sundress. There are no zippers or additional embellishments, and Johnson Moore works around any worn or stained areas on the original to find the best features in each shirt.
“The real beauty of this work, and of Little Grey Line, is that it is custom,” Johnson Moore says. “You send me something and I transform it new for you and I send it back ... And in some way, the memory is still there.”