Anna Sowa / The Bulletin

Harriet Langmas' Bend home is her own life-size scrapbook - full of family photos, plaques of personal achievements, piles of fashion magazine clippings and mounds of fabric in various stages of creation.

Like a scrapbook collects pieces of old and new, Langmas has for 50 years collected bits and pieces of discarded fabric that she's turned into a business making patchwork skirts, knit sweaters, vests and various accessories.

The 74-year-old former model, runner-up Miss Oregon and current fashion designer whose business operates as Harriet Langmas, said she's just one of many women who have lived in Bend and started their own businesses at a time when the city had little to offer entrepreneurial women.

”Bend is so full of special women,” she said. ”They have been very supportive of me.”

She holds these friendships close.

As a testament to Langmas' extensive social network, dozens of birthday cards dotted every table in her home last week, as did at least eight birthday bouquets.

Langmas has been a Bend socialite for the 50 years she's lived here, before Bend's tourism industry took off, before the downtown streets had quaint boutiques and before many restaurants other than Pine Tavern existed.

Those also were the days when professional and domestic duties were strictly divided between the sexes.

”I thought I could only be either a secretary, a nurse or a teacher,” Langmas said. She became a teacher, but says the design business ”is something fun that happened along the way.”

To those who know Langmas, she is a wonder woman.

”There are a lot more options for women now than there used to be,” said 60-year-old Linda Gardner, one of Langmas' friends and president of the board for the Women's Resource Center of Central Oregon in Bend.

She echoed Langmas' list of career expectations for women in the late 1960s.

”If you weren't creative, you just did one of those things, or you were a mom,” Gardner said.

And in Central Oregon, job opportunities were limited, making business creativity vital to success, she added.

Langmas possesses both the creativity and talent that made her successful, Gardner said.

”Harriet has risen above her time,” Gardner said. ”Back then, women didn't work outside the home. But she had the creative juice.”

A few scraps sewn together

Although she said matrimony kept her out of the women's movement, Langmas' progressive ambition has led her on a professional path that's gone from being a Bend High School journalism teacher in the 1950s to a fashion designer in the 21st century, with no retirement in sight.

”Who would have thought a few scraps could be made into this?” Langmas said, browsing through a rack of vests and sweaters she's preparing for her next fashion show May 12.

”I'll be doing some really funky things,” she said of the show at the Stone Lodge retirement community in Bend.

Langmas' notoriety took off when she sold her tapered patchwork skirt design to McCall's - an American women's magazine - in 1972 for only $2,000.

She's also sent her patterns to Virtue Magazine and appeared on the show, ”What's My Line,” in 1972 for her patchwork skirts.

She's sold at least 6,000 patterns to retailers throughout the country, she said, and boasts that former first lady Betty Ford sported the skirt in 1976 while watching the fireworks display at the nation's bicentennial celebration.

She said Katharine Hepburn ordered Langmas' products while in Central Oregon filming ”Rooster Cogburn” with John Wayne around that time.

Thirty years later, Langmas is delighted to see more women starting their own businesses in Bend.

”It must be the mountain atmosphere,” she said. ”It makes people creative and inspired. If you have something you made and it's something people want, you can start a business.”

She did just that.

Beginnings

Even as a young woman in the 1950s, Langmas tested the boundaries of the social status quo.

After a brief stint in modeling from 1950 to 1953, she competed in the Miss Oregon competition in 1952, finishing as first runner-up.

”I lost because my talent was too progressive for 54 years ago,” Langmas said.

She began her talent routine playing classical Chopin on the piano. Then, she ripped off her coat dress, revealing a Hawaiian shirt, and played a Hawaiian war chant.

After that, she tore off her shirt, revealing a swimsuit and played, ”The bathing suit never got wet.”

Langmas thought the routine was amusing. The judges didn't agree, awarding the crown to a woman who read a poem about the Korean War.

Langmas has no hard feelings, she's just proud she got that far.

In 1953, Langmas graduated from the University of Oregon with a journalism degree and began teaching English, journalism and writing at schools in Eugene, Portland, McMinnville and at Bend High School.

Bend resident Sandy Taylor, 66, was one of her journalism students.

She remembers Langmas encouraging her students to be creative and flexible with ideas - just like her.

”She just wanted us to be more free to be creative,” Taylor said. ”That was in the 1950s, which seems like an early time for that to be starting.”

Langmas said her husband's support helped boost her career.

Langmas - formerly Harriet Vahey - married Samuel Langmas in 1954.

The Langmases were not the stereotypical 1950s family, Langmas said. She taught English and writing classes at Central Oregon Community College from 1959 to 1962, putting her husband through college while he did the cooking and cleaning. He became a teacher, then went into landscaping and was active in Bend politics, serving as mayor from 1982 to 1983. He died in 2003.

”He bleached the clothes to a whiteness I could never get,” Langmas said.

Throughout her professional career, Langmas maintained two small businesses from her home: teaching piano and sewing.

She took sewing and design to the next level in the 1960s, when her designs sold throughout the country to stores including Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

It was a big step of financial independence for Langmas.

”My husband never gave me money,” she said, ”so I always had to make my own spending money.”

From patches to shows

For half a century, Langmas has collected scraps that she would turn into clothing - first for dolls and then for herself.

Fifty years ago, most women in Bend made their own clothes and they gave Langmas the extra fabric.

”I just started creating things,” Langmas said. ”Even as a child, I was sewing, hiding a seam with a pleat and making really cute clothes.”

She still remembers her first fashion show 70 years ago.

”I wore my own handmade clothes to my first day of kindergarten,” Langmas said. ”I used a little treadle machine that I still use today.”

In the late 1960s, Langmas began by making patchwork skirts.

The style started gaining popularity in 1969, when everybody wanted one. After many requests for the long, colorful skirts like her own, she started selling them to local boutiques, which sold them for $80 to $100.

Eventually, she hired 40 seamstresses over the years to help manufacture the skirts from her Bend home. Many took the design and started their own businesses making the clothes.

Now, the patchwork style is out and Langmas has stopped making those skirts. Instead, she makes other clothing, including the pieces woven from fabric scraps, which she sells for no more than $20 each. She advertises her products in four or five fashion shows per month.

Her small business hasn't gained her much more than social capital, she says, which is OK.

She makes one new scrap-fabric item per night. It helps her unwind.

”I knit myself back together every night,” Langmas said, displaying her latest project, a dark gray shirt that's nearly finished. ”Just like I knitted myself back together when Sam died.”

70 is the new 50

At least once a week, Langmas says someone wants to know how she got started in her business.

”You just do it,” she said, joking that she could have invented the Nike slogan. ”It has to grow out of an experience. It has to have meaning for you.”

Langmas says any woman can do what she's done.

”I'm nothing special,” she said. ”I'm a jack of all trades, master of none. I'm just amazed when I meet people who know who I am.”

Perhaps part of her positive attitude comes from her refusal to let aging stall her.

”It used to be that you peaked in midlife, then declined,” Langmas said. ”Now, 70 is the new 50.”

Langmas says she stays young at heart by always having something to love, something to look forward to and something to do.

”People need excitement in their lives, they have to be willing to take risks with their money,” she said. ”The spirit of adventure, to me, is life. If we don't have spirit, we will always get vanilla ice cream. And that will be the end of civilization.”

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