Written by Rebecca Falzano
Photography by Erin Little
The modern, light-filled West End home of Caitlin Mushial is an exercise in editing. Everything in sight is thoughtfully considered, right down to the rack of linen tops in the open living area from Caitlin’s small-batch, slow-fashion clothing and home goods line, Always Piper. The business of making clothing by hand is also an exercise in editing—so it’s no surprise that the clean lines and simple beauty of Caitlin’s collection are echoed inside the space she lives in. We asked Caitlin to share her thoughts on making and living in Maine.
THE MAINERS: Every piece in the Always Piper collection looks so effortlessly beautiful. I’m certain this does not happen without a great deal of effort! Tell us how your brand came about and what’s behind the name.
CAITLIN: Always Piper started with a linen tunic that I designed because I couldn’t find what I was looking for on the market. I wanted an easy pullover piece that wasn’t sheer. My finished sample was made from a yarn-dyed linen fabric. It had three-quarter-length sleeves and an open V-neck placket with natural shell buttons. I had a local contract sewer make up a small batch of 40, which I sold to family and friends. Another batch followed, along with a couple of dresses. When a roll of fabric arrived that was too heavy for clothing, I knew right away I would use it to make myself a blanket. That blanket is now the top seller in our bedding line. We have continued to grow over the last three years and now also offer a few home decor items, including throw pillows and beach towels. As for the name, the ocean and the beaches are my happy place. I love a stormy winter walk as much as a summer swim. I take particular delight in watching the sand pipers and piping plovers. My hope is for Always Piper to play some kind of role in supporting the shore birds in Maine, especially the endangered species. I would personally love to volunteer in the efforts to help protect, manage, or reduce disturbance to the breeding grounds. I can also see Always Piper bringing public awareness to existing and future challenges that the shore birds face.
THE MAINERS: What are some of the tenets of your style that translate to Always Piper?
CAITLIN: I would say my style is quiet, practical, comfortable, and classic. I am drawn to quality natural fabrics with rich textures and neutral colors. Always Piper echoes some of the same style principles. We strive to make timeless pieces that are multifunctional, staple pieces that you reach for again and again. We are a slow fashion brand creating sustainable goods in small batches right here in Maine.
THE MAINERS: What experience has most informed your design aesthetic—both in your home and in your work?
CAITLIN: My husband, Erik, picked up a copy of Dwell magazine when it first came out in 2000. We were building a house at the time and making all of the design decisions ourselves. The house was open-plan with some big windows and high ceilings. We used salvaged farm sinks and a pair of 8-foot-tall Victorian front doors. I would call that house contemporary. There were things that we loved about it but a few things that could have been better. Dwell issues piled up and we bookmarked our favorite articles. I credit the magazine for informing us about modern design and ultimately adopting modern as our design aesthetic. With my work I am always asking myself “what is necessary and what is not?” I want my products to be simple, timeless staples that won’t go out of style. I am very particular about the fabrics I use. I have high standards for quality and sustainability. I also want to make sure I’m including important details in each piece—maybe it’s perfectly placed side seam pockets on a dress, or strong flat-felled seams on a blanket. I am striving to strike a balance between utility and luxury.
THE MAINERS: Your pieces do exactly that. Where do you draw inspiration from?
CAITLIN: Last summer I took a workshop and learned about natural indigo dye and how to do Shibori, a Japanese resist dyeing technique. Since then I’ve been a little obsessed with Japanese design. I have a couple of pieces in my head that I hope to create. One is a modern kimono in a light drapey fabric with big pockets. The other is an easy pull-on pant inspired by a Japanese work pant but polished enough to be both casual and dressy.
When you have the house to yourself you: have dinner on the couch and watch a movie.
Cook in or eat out: Definitely eat in
Early bird or night owl: Both
Favorite neighborhood park: Dinosaur Park
Place you go to get out of the city: Our camp on Torsey Pond
Style icon: Anyone who is confident in their own look
Band on repeat: The Lumineers
Go-to outfit: Lately, cutoff jean shorts, Birkenstocks, and our Modern short-sleeve top
THE MAINERS: What is it about making items by hand that brings you joy?
CAITLIN: It’s rare to make something and have it come out right on the first attempt. Usually it takes many samples before a pattern is created and then more work sourcing and sizing before an item is ready to go to production. Once it’s ready and I feel like I can launch it out to the world, there is a pride and a satisfaction I feel from all the hard work. If I’ve had a hard week or I find myself in a funk, I’ll try to find time for some making. I have found that it can actually turn my mood around.
THE MAINERS: Portland’s West End is such a vibrant neighborhood. What do you love about where you live—both the neighborhood and the space itself?
CAITLIN: We live in the West End, but we are not in the historic district where big brick houses with landmark plaques are common. We are on lower Clark Street where vinyl siding is prevalent and the sidewalks are too narrow for tree planting. We fondly call our neighborhood “The Midwest.” We love its diversity, density, and walkability. Our house is tall and it’s perched on the hillside, which affords us some amazing deep views of Casco Bay, South Portland, and the Fore River. We feel pretty fortunate to live right here.
THE MAINERS: Beyond your neighborhood, what is your connection to Maine and what keeps you here?
CAITLIN: My parents are both from New York, but when they separated in 1970, my mom found herself looking for a new home. She found two ads in the New York Times. One was a Vermont rental with a pottery studio, complete with lessons, and the other was a rent-to-own house in Mount Vernon, Maine, with a lake across the street. With six kids in tow, Mom chose Maine and it’s been home ever since. I live in Portland now with my husband, Erik, and our son, Wyatt. I love being near the ocean and having easy access to beaches and the islands of Casco Bay. The seasons here bring so many gifts year to year. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
THE MAINERS: Your house is a beautiful example of modern architecture. Who designed and built it?
CAITLIN: Our architect on this house was Carol Wilson. Initially I took on the role as general contractor but after some time and a couple of big issues I realized I was in over my head, and thankfully Monaghan Woodworks stepped in and saw the project to completion.
THE MAINERS: Where in your house do you spend most of your time?
CAITLIN: Definitely the kitchen—our large island is the hub of the home. Beyond cooking and eating, it’s a landing zone for everything from shopping purchases to sorting mail. Oddly I prefer to sew standing up, and so the kitchen is also where I will set up my machines and work on sewing samples or personal projects.
THE MAINERS: What are some of your favorite pieces in your home and why?
CAITLIN: I really love all of the custom pieces that Erik designed and built for this house. My absolute favorite has to be the vanity in our master bathroom. It’s a large piece but appropriately scaled to the room. It was made from walnut and has big useful drawers. It has a single undermount sink set in a marble top. He chose simple, handsome hardware. It’s the perfect piece and extra special to me because he made it.
THE MAINERS: For your furnishings not built by Erik, what is your approach when it comes to buying things for your home?
CAITLIN: We’ve been fortunate to get some great hand-me-downs, including a storage locker full of Danish modern pieces from our aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. We have splurged on a few things when we agreed they were just right for the space, like our LEM Piston bar stools, our large white lacquered dining table, and Eames chairs. I really like the rule where you don’t bring anything new into your home that you don’t love or find very useful.
THE MAINERS: Your style is very clean and spare. What’s your feeling on minimalism?
CAITLIN: Neither of us think of ourselves as minimalists or subscribers of minimalism, but we do both know we like simple forms, neutral earthy materials, and functional things. We would agree to choose a bare lightbulb fixture over an intricate chandelier. Neither of us go for bright colors; we love white walls and big windows where the views do the talking. Our house is modern and there is a simplicity in its form that may be viewed as minimal—we are both okay with that. We also like the house uncluttered, open, and clean. As much as we try to keep possessions to a minimum we do actually have a fair amount of stuff, it just has a place to go when it’s not being used.
THE MAINERS: Tell us about a ritual that you look forward to?
CAITLIN: I recently bought a digital camera and while I’m a total amateur, I love to shoot landscapes—especially seascapes and beach paths. I’ll drive around with our dog, Moxie, and try to find new places to go for walks. We’ll go out in all kinds of weather, which often means we get a beach to ourselves. It’s always a nice break in the day, a breath of salty air that fills me up with inspiration and maybe gives me an image to post on Instagram.
THE MAINERS: Speaking of rituals, let’s talk about making the bed. Always Piper has some beautiful bed linens. Do you have any tips on how to dress a bed?
CAITLIN: I definitely fall into the category of folks who make their bed, but I don’t fuss about making it perfect. I think that getting into bed at night is a ritual to be relished. Peeling back the layers and getting yourself tucked in is so nurturing. Linen bedding to me is casual luxury. Linen is easy to launder, and it looks great a bit rumpled and wrinkly so making a bed with it is easy. If you haven’t tried linen bedding I would recommend starting with pillowcases. I will be honest, they feel a little stiffer at first than most other bedding fabrics, but I can assure you they will soften up beautifully with use and just a few washings. Once you get used to them, you will enjoy the many benefits. Linen is durable and will last for years. It is a natural crop that grows without the need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and it requires very little watering and is therefore a naturally sustainable product. Linen is more breathable than cotton and it wicks moisture in muggy weather keeping you comfortable and dry. I am not an expert on the science, but I have also heard that linen has good insulating properties which make it a great choice in cold weather too. What I do know is how much I love linen and I don't see myself going back to anything else ever again.
THE MAINERS: What is an item that you own with a really good story?
CAITLIN: I absolutely love the oil painting that hangs above the fireplace in our living room. It’s an abstract cityscape that my mom painted when she was an art student in college. It hung in the dining room of the home I grew up in for as far back as I can remember. There is a round dent and some cracks that emanate from it; it’s not obvious but on close inspection you’d probably guess someone hit it with a ball. I don’t know which one of us six kids was responsible. We were a little wild and nothing in the house was considered precious or off limits growing up. I’m thankful it wasn’t destroyed, I love it so much. I recently lost my mom and so this painting has me thinking about her a lot. I think she was in her element at the time she painted it, a talented artist full of potential. She moved away from her tightknit artist community and started a family and her focus shifted. Her art shifted too—smaller pieces, tighter still lifes. I am aware of her sacrifices and forever grateful.
THE MAINERS: That is very moving. How do you want people to feel when they come into your space?
CAITLIN: My husband and I built this house; it was a labor of love. It is for living and working, for family and friends. Stop by and you might find the sewing machine humming, teenagers kicking about, a conference call ongoing, and probably the dog napping. It’s busy but not chaotic—there is an easygoing energy that is both productive and peaceful. For me, this space is not fussy or precious; it feels lived in and comfortable. I hope that’s what visitors feel too.