The Fourth Annual Inc Web Awards: Start-up Strategies

Company: Pilgrim Designs, in Lexington, Va.
What we liked: By launching her fashion company on-line, founder Jill-Anne Partain not only avoided the expense of manufacturing in a big city but also helped revive an economically distressed area

On a crystalline morning in September, the magnolia tree outside Jill-Anne Partain's window is a fragrant temptress. But the young designer concentrates on her work, unfurling a bolt of green cloth freckled with dragonflies and spreading it across a cutting table. Partain has orders to fill, and she knows that if she opens the window, the glory of the day might tempt her outside for a ramble through the neighborhood she loves.

Pilgrim Designs is located in Lexington, Va., a town haunted by the shades of Civil War generals and a vanished textile industry. It is the latter that Partain dreams of reviving by building a business there. What is allowing her to do that is the Web.

Pilgrim Designs, which Partain founded in 1998 with a $500 college-graduation gift, makes handbags. Handbags are accessories by definition, but Pilgrim's -- designed by Partain and hand sewn by four seamstresses -- are spotlight stealers. The bags were inspired by handicrafters that Partain observed in an outdoor market in Krakow, Poland, where in 1997 she was researching her thesis on the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. "Watching them work, I thought, 'That's what I want to be doing," says Partain, who grew up quilting, cross-stitching, and doing needlepoint. "But not on a small scale. I wanted this to be my life."

Partain was attracted to the idea of a traditional manufacturing business, particularly one as tactile as handcrafting bags. But she also wanted to maintain one-to-one relationships with what she hoped would be thousands of customers. To do that, she knew, she would need a Web site and a healthy E-mail database. So back at Hollins University, in Roanoke, Va., Partain designed an independent-study program to teach herself Web business. "I was interested in Amazon's strategy, but I saw the venture as more of an old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves brand," she explains. "I envisioned Pilgrim as being like L.L. Bean."

BAG LADY: Jill-Anne Partain dreamed of running a fashion company far away from fashion centers.