When Becky Tonkin was a little girl, she wanted to grow up and be an artist. But when she decided to take the leap and open her own business selling her designs, she was scared. Really scared.
Though armed with the sewing skills she learned from her mother and grandmother as a child and two degrees — the first in apparel design — she still didn’t feel ready.
Then she moved to Astoria.
“Whatever fear I had about starting my own business — which is something I’ve wanted to do forever — it just kind of vanished when I moved here,” she said. “It really is this community that lifted me up.”
Tonkin is the founder of Shift, a clothing line that focuses on simple, durable, handmade products. She started Shift four years ago, and continues to single-handedly run the business, design the clothes and sew the garments, all while focusing on body inclusivity.
“My whole goal from the beginning was to make sure that I always had plus sizes because I’m a plus size and I wasn’t going to sell stuff that I couldn’t wear,” she said. “I really wanted to serve that community.”
Plus-size clothing is a real need in the fashion industry, Tonkin said.
“You never go to a craft show expecting to find plus sizes,” she said. “My very, very favorite part is when a plus-sized woman emails me, or I see her at a show, and she’s like, ‘People never make stuff for me.’ To have people be excited about that is really, really the best thing that could ever happen.”
Tonkin’s quest to produce clothes that easily adjust to body sizes led her to design what she calls the “suspender dress,” which has become her most popular product. The suspender straps allow the length of the dress to adjust to torso lengths and waist placement, and the open bib means chest size “isn’t really a concern,” according to Shift’s social media.
The dress is made of durable material and comes in a variety of colors and sizes. The simple design has no buttons or zippers, which was all intentional.
“My clothes are not complicated, and that’s not because I can’t design a complicated thing,” she said. “Because the clothes are simple, you can imprint your own personality on them, so they’re kind of a blank slate.”
Which is exactly what people have done. Customers in Astoria wear dresses to work, to dinner, to the beach. A couple of local farmers even garden in their dress, according to Tonkin.
People joke that “it’s kind of like the Astoria uniform,” she said.
The dress acted as her springboard, and its success allowed her to commit to the business full time. Shift is featured at craft markets throughout the state in areas like Portland, Corvallis and Eugene, as well as the Astoria Sunday Market.
Tonkin takes orders online and produces all her clothes in a small studio on 14th Street, a long, narrow room covered with fabric clippings, hanging artwork and fragments of dresses. Her off-white sewing machine sits at a desk near the window, and a wide table takes up the majority of the room where Tonkin and a friend cut fabric.
Up until now, Shift has relied solely on maker’s markets, craft shows and word of mouth to spread business. But that’s all changing next year.
Tonkin and her friend, Nick Wheeler, of Wheeler Bag Co., have secured a storefront in the heart of downtown. The pair has worked alongside one another for years and own similar companies – both featuring handmade, locally sewn products – so a shared storefront felt natural.
“The new space is going to be beautiful,” Tonkin said. “It’s going to be a really huge change.”
“She’s so inspiring and I really admire how she turned her personal passion into a business,” Wheeler said. “We’re super excited to combine forces a little bit.”
Throughout the expansion, Tonkin plans to continue emphasizing inclusivity and conservation in her designs. She wants to create something that will last, something more accessible than how she sees stereotypical fashion.
“Fashion — to me it implies something fancy, and I don’t want this stuff to be fancy at all,” she said. “I want it to be dirty and usable and tough.”