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Editorial blog

Sustainability and creativity inspired by Mother Nature

22 Jul 2018

How did you learn to sew?

As a small child. My grandmother and mother were all very keen craftspeople, and encouraged me to learn all sorts of sewing skills. I learnt patchwork, embroidery and dressmaking from them. My mother used to make a lot of our clothes. I loved my ‘My Learn to Sew’ book that I was given back in the seventies, and make many items from it. We were also taught to sew at school, and had a very strict dressmaking mistress. I remember the ‘shortie’ nightie we made at school. We had to kneel to make sure it touched the ground and was no shorter!

As a teenager, I would make wrap around skirts using recycled curtains. I continued to sew, and made my own maternity dresses when expecting my three children, and continued by making them clothes when they were little. I saw it as a way of life more than a hobby.

When I met my husband to be, and we were living in Toxteth, Liverpool, in the early eighties, we started a small business making batik clothing, and I passed my dressmaking skills on to my husband. We even went down to the King’s Road in Chelsea to show our work. However, just as we were about to get a grant from the Prince’s Trust for an industrial sewing machine, my husband was offered a job to train to be an accountant, and I followed a teaching career, teaching children with severe learning difficulties.

I continued in teaching from the mid-eighties up until 2011, only sewing occasionally as a hobby. In 2011, I hit a period of stress-related ill health, that gave me excruciating back pain. My career in teaching ground to an abrupt halt.

How did you begin to turn your passion into a new business?

To keep me sane after losing my job, I started to write a blog. I wrote about what I knew, about reycling and upcycling, growing your own food, and mending and making do. It was through this blog that I was approached by someone asking if I could make a pair of Katwise armwarmers. These were made from strips of recycled knitwear and required an overlocker to make them. Katwise is a US designer who sells her tutorials and gives others permission to make and sell clothing using them. I didn’t own an overlocker, but had had my eyes on one, ever since the days of making batik clothing back in Liverpool. With the small amount of money I had put by from leaving teaching, I bought a domestic overlocker. I bought and downloaded Katwise’s tutorial from Etsy, and tentatively made my first pair of armwarmers using strips of wool jumpers bought from my local charity shops

That Christmas, I had a table at a local Christmas Fair, and was delighted when they all sold. I found the creativity of working with recycled intoxicating, and set about making a sweatercoat, also using a downloadable tutorial from Katwise. I was utterly smitten! I had been devastated by losing my job, and was desperately seeking something to prove my self worth. My back issues meant that I couldn’t sew for long, and couldn’t lift anything heavy. My husband supported my by helping at craft fairs, loading and unloading the car and helping to set up, and I would take regular breaks to walk the dog in between sewing to prevent sciatica setting in.

At the same time, my children were in a band that was getting good slots at a local festival, and I toyed with the idea of making a bike powered sewing machine. That is how The Woolly Pedlar, got her name!

What made you interested in sustainability and how did this then become woven into your business?

I have been interested in sustainability for as long as I can remember. I hate waste, and am passionate about reducing the drain on our planet’s precious resources. To make clothing, soft furnishings and accessories from recycled wool knitwear is an integral part of my business. I get my local charity shops to save any waste wool knitwear for me out the back. Once a week, I can be seen like an old bag lady, dashing around Hexham town, where I live, collecting waste wool knitwear. Even if a jumper has a small hole in it, or is felted, I can use it.

I used to get knitwear in bulk from textile recyclers, but recently have drawn blanks with these. It would appear that the market for recycled textiles in developing countries means that no one is prepared to stand and grade clothing and re-sell in the UK any more. I think this is a crying shame and would love to hear from any textile recyclers that would be prepared to sell wool jumpers to me!

What difficulties did you face in setting up The Woolly Pedlar?

It hasn’t been an easy ride at all. I soon realised that my little domestic overlocker wasn’t up to the punishment I was giving it, and had to invest in an industrial one. I have never gone for grants, but have saved every penny from sales to plough back into the business. I needed a studio, and so cleared out a junk room up in our attic. I call this the ‘woolly garret’. I have had to learn about social media (I’m not a spring chicken at all), and set myself up with Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram accounts.

I have also had to learn IT and photography skills to photograph my products and get them listed on the website. I have also had to learn selling techniques and patience for dealing with the general public. I have found that many of the skills I had as a teacher were transferable and have been very useful in setting up a business.

What tips would you have for anyone thinking of launching their own business?

To anyone thinking of launching a business, I would say ‘just go for it’. I didn’t write a business plan or look for grants, but I did work my butt off. You need to be prepared to work really hard. You also need to grow a thick skin. Many of my creations are on the wacky side, which mean I stick my head above the parapet and can be shot down on occasions. My top tip would be to discover who is buying your goods, then go to the places where they can be found.

I soon learnt that general craft fairs were not for me. I found Woolfest, a two-day event in Cumbria that celebrates all things woolly. From sheep, to finished products. This was stuffed full of colourful creative sorts who loved my work! I now concentrate on these events, and will be going to Yarndale, in Skipton, in September.

What gives you inspiration?

I get very inspired by working with colour. Some say that I have a good eye for colour, and I think this is important. I am particularly inspired by mother nature and the landscape around me. I live and work in beautiful rural Northumberland, and drive over to Cumbria, to the north Lake District, where I am part of The Wool Clip. We are a cooperative of 15 woolly women. Recently we had an exhibition called ‘From Fell to Fabulous’ and I exhibited a sweatercoat inspired by the colours of moss, lichen and stone on the fells where I walk around my home.

I love nothing better than going for a walk in the beautiful Lake Distict, or along the Northumberland coast to relax. We also have a wonderful garden, with a little stream running through it. There is nothing finer than sitting with a gin and tonic, and listening to the sound of running water, or watching to sun go down over the Northumberland countryside.

How did you become involved in the Wool Clip?

It was through Woolfest that I became a part of the Wool Clip cooperative. Back in 2016 I was awarded Stallholder of the Year by the team at Woolfest, and then applied to become a member of their cooperative. I was delighted when they accepted me, and love being part of this awesome bunch of 15 woolly women. We have a shop over in Caldbeck, and are responsible for the running of Woolfest.

How much do you enjoy helping to set up and also participating in events like Woolfest?

We have just had Woolfest 2018, and it was a roaring success. I felt so chuffed to have played my part in this. My roles are health and safety, marketing and media. It was a joy to wander around, camera in hand, chatting to stallholders and visitors alike about their Woolfest experience. This year I coordinated a project where we asked folk to make woollen flowers to bring along. The flowers were displayed by members of West House, a local charity which supports learning disabled adults. The display of flowers was outstanding, and West House will be taking them away to auction and sell to raise funds for their work.

How important has social media become to you now?

Social media is incredibly important, and I work very hard on this, both for Woolfest and for The Woolly Pedlar. I have recently run a free giveaway over on my Facebook page, as I was celebrating reaching 4,000 followers. I feel that if you have a visual product, then social media is vital for getting it seen. It isn’t just about showing products, though.

You need to build a picture of your life, personality and get to know your followers and what they are interested in. I now run workshops and courses on using social media in business, helping others get off the ground.

What changes have you seen in the industry over the last few years?

The biggest change I have seen in the industry is as I have said before - I can no longer get waste wool knitwear from textile recyclers!!

The use of video has increased, and this is an area I need to do more with. I have done a few Facebook live posts, and these were popular, but very scary to do!!

I often get asked if I have any patterns for sale, particularly for my kiddies’ ponchos. I plan to get some You Tube tutorial videos made this year, showing folk how I upcycle knitwear, and make some of my creations.

How did you feel when you were told you had won the Craft Business Award 2018 Sustainable Craft Company prize?

I was chuffed to bits. Of all the categories, sustainability is the one most dear to my heart. Is is so important we stop trashing the planet, dumping our waste and reusing as much as we can. To be recognised as a successful business in this means a great deal to me.

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