As part of the Sewing Indie Month of September, today I have Wendy Ward of MIY Collection discussing what's it's like to write a book, quitting her day job to pursue her dreams, and some costume deliciousness... pink ruffles anyone?
Betsy: OK, I need to ask the standard question: How did you start sewing? Who were there people who influenced your ambitions and tell me about those light bulb moments that stood out that made you stop and think "Hmm, maybe I should do this for a living..."
Wendy: My dad was probably a big influence as he was a joiner (now retired) and I spent many hours watching him do practical stuff like sawing wood, mixing cement and hanging wallpaper so to me, making stuff was what people did. As an only child I was always busy entertaining myself. I started making caterpillars made from pompoms in the local Sheffield football colours and selling them in the working men’s club on a Saturday night! I progressed to clothing after I was given an Ann Ladbury book when I was around 11 or 12. My dad gave me an old Singer hand crank sewing machine and when I was keeping it busy, he bought me my first electric sewing machine. I started making very simple batwing tops from the Ladbury book. I also had an amazing textiles teacher in school who really encouraged me.
Betsy: Most people think of the fashion industry as a fun or glamorous job, but It's a lot of work and not really the kind of work you envisioned as a kid, but still ok in it's own way. Is that how you found it to be? Tell me about your experiences. What was your role and what kind of products did you work on?
Wendy: During my degree I did an industrial placement year with a Marks & Spencer supplier, they offered me a job on graduating, but I chose a job with Matalan (a UK discount/fast fashion retailer) instead as it came with more responsibility. As it turned out, a lot more! I was the sole designer for the whole of their boyswear collection and was thrown into working 60 hour weeks churning out designs on a very quick turnaround leaving very little time for the creativity and concepts I’d been immersed in at university. I also found it difficult being completely disconnected from the practical making side of things; I had no idea where the clothes I was designing were being made or under what conditions and this started playing on my mind as I’d researched a lot about sustainable fashion for my dissertation. I soon left Matalan to work for a company called Gossypium, an ethical clothing brand, who design and make clothing from organic fair-trade cotton. Within months of starting at Gossypium I was on a 3 week working trip to India, drafting patterns and helping machinists make samples in a tiny tin roofed factory in Mumbai. Talk about from one extreme to another!
I left Gossypium to work freelance for a while and didn’t enjoy spending endless days working alone so went on to do teacher training.
Betsy: There are a lot of people out there (myself included) that fantasize about quitting their day job and devoting their energies toward their own business. How did you decide to make that transition and what advice would you offer?
Wendy: When I stopped working freelance I didn’t want to commute from Brighton to work in London, which is where all the design jobs are. I had a few inspiring teacher friends so thought I’d give teaching a try and did a year long teacher training course.
My path to running my own business was then a gradual but quite organic one; after teacher training I began teaching dressmaking to adults at lots of adult education centres in and around Brighton in 2007. Back then there were lots of classes and I was teaching around 150 people a week. Then in 2010 the colleges began to drastically cut back on their adult ed provision. Classes were being cancelled at short notice and I thought it was crazy, as I knew there were still lots of eager people wanting to learn to sew so I started teaching my own classes in the building that is now MIY Workshop when it was run by someone else. It went from there really, classes got busier and I was doing more and more and when the owners of the business I was teaching for decided to move location, I took over the premises and opened MIY Workshop in January of 2012.
Just after that in May 2012 I launched MIY Collection patterns because I had been using a lot of my own designed patterns in my sewing classes and students enjoyed using them and started to ask if they could buy them.
My advice to anyone thinking of starting their own business is don’t ever think it’s an easy option to fit in around the rest of your life (I hear this sooooo often – trust me it’s not like that!). To do it well it will be all consuming and for the first few years the rest of your life will have to take 2nd place. If possible do it gradually and test out your ideas first. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to take the plunge without having the opportunity to do that first.
Betsy: How has your teaching influenced your own work?
Wendy: Teaching is THE best way of learning, I love it. My students are a constant source of inspiration – they come up with ways of using my patterns that I would never have thought of and they ask me lots of challenging questions, which means I have to stay on top of my game. I get to see a great range of different fabrics that they bring to class and I’ve seen a lot of patterns! I don’t think I could write such clear instructions for my patterns and books if I didn’t teach. I know to take nothing for granted and cut out the jargon, or where the jargon’s necessary take time to fully explain it.
Betsy: You have a pretty amazing line-up of original sewing classes at your studio. How do decide what the projects will be?
Sometimes I decide classes from a selfish point of view – if I fancy making pyjamas I’ll put on a pyjama making class! I like to link classes to my patterns and run the “make a garment in a day” type project based classes, but I also like to compliment that with skills building classes. People learn in different ways, those that are pushed for time and need a “quick fix” will do the project based classes, those that are in it for the long haul love the techniques based classes. Personally, I think you should do a bit of both. Start with an easy project based class to fire the enthusiasm and motivation and have a glimpse of what’s possible, then up your game with skills classes to perfect tricky techniques.
Betsy: Sewing has become so popular in recent years. Do you still find there are lots of beginners looking to learn how to sew or has your clientele expanded to become more advanced?
Wendy: There are always new students fresh to the world of sewing coming through my door. Many of them get instantly hooked and I have a range of classes to suit all abilities. I never want to just focus on one level of teaching. Beginners and more experienced students are both a pleasure to teach for different reasons; I love the enthusiasm that beginners are full of and that can be infectious, but I also relish the challenges that more experienced students bring to class to work out.
Betsy: What is your favorite type of class to teach?
Wendy: Tricky, I don’t think I have one as I deliberately teach a variety of classes so that I don’t get bored! They’re all great for different reasons, I love that I have lots of regular students at my weekly classes some of whom I’ve been teaching for a long time and it’s very rewarding to see their steady progression over time – there’s nothing better than seeing a nervous beginner confidently coming through the door a few months later proudly wearing their most recent make! My project based one day classes are also really enjoyable and it’s great to have a group of students going home at the end of the day often wearing something they’ve made in the class. The techniques classes are a lovely exercise in nitty gritty details which appeals to the perfectionist in me.
Betsy: What is it like to write a book? How did the book come about? Was this something that you always planned to do?
Wendy: I had wanted to write a book for a long time. I knew I was capable of writing a good one and I think in this industry it’s essential to have at least one book under your belt. Then people start to take you seriously.
I sent a proposal for the book to several publishers and it was a long process (18 months). Once a publisher was interested, it was quite a stop-start process to begin with before the book was finally commissioned and it was pretty frustrating as I didn’t want to tell anyone about it in case it didn’t happen! Once it was actually commissioned though it was full steam ahead and I really did enjoy the experience, despite it being possibly one of the hardest periods of my life. From Christmas 2013 to June 2014 I didn’t really have much of a life aside from work as I was working 7 days. I wasn’t in a position to just put my business on hold or pay someone else to take over while I wrote the book so I had to juggle writing, making samples, teaching and the day-to-day of running a business. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard, but it was worth it and I did enjoy it! I got to create 6 new patterns and made around 30 samples which was heaven, I spent days sewing which I normally don’t get to do and I loved it. I’m really proud to be able to say I did everything in my book, the only thing I didn’t do was style and take the photos.
Writing a book I found to be quite a strange process. The actual writing part is great fun and creative and all-consuming, but then you have to hand it over and for a few months there’s nothing to show for all that hard work. It’s an exercise in patience and delayed gratification for sure!!
Betsy: What inspires your patterns?
Wendy: I’m not really a follower of fashion, I’m more driven by creating timeless, comfortable garments that will be a pleasure to wear, so I suppose I come at it more from a perspective of working with the human form. My last job as a designer before starting my business involved developing a range of sportswear aimed at people doing yoga, so I spent a lot of time doing yoga myself and watching and speaking to others doing yoga to really understand what the clothes needed to do. This resulted in garments that had minimal seams or gathers and other detailing in unexpected places to ease movement and really tiny considerations in the design of the garment such as critical lengths of garments at different points. I suspect I probably approach designing clothes as more like a kind of engineering with a little nod towards current trends.
I still find it amazingly satisfying to be able to imagine something in my head and be able to turn it into reality.
When I think about starting a new project I play and experiment with fabric and my sewing machine. It’s often not until I begin to make something that I start to have ideas about the full potential of the original design and how I can adapt it into different versions.
Betsy: If you could hang out and make stuff with anyone who would you choose?
Wendy: Alexander McQueen or Cristobal Balenciaga, no competition! These are two of my greatest design heroes because I love their distinctive styles that didn’t always conform to the popular stereotype of feminine beauty and they were both designers who were also true craftspeople that really understood fabric, and garment construction and pattern cutting and actually knew how to make the things they were dreaming up; they got their hands dirty, didn’t just draw pretty pictures.
Betsy: What is something you wish Experienced you could tell Beginner you?
Wendy: Comparison is the thief of joy! A pearl of wisdom recently given to me by my friend Liz that I regularly try to remind myself of. It’s very true and very good advice.
Betsy: Now I love to be asked this question (I could write volumes!).. and so I also like to ask others because everyone who sews has a story: What is the craziest project that you have ever done?
Wendy: I feel like I can’t do this question justice, I’ve wracked my brains and just can’t think of anything! The craziest things I’ve probably made have been when I’ve helped my friend Holly out who is a costume maker. I worked with her on a job making very exaggerated jackets and trousers. We made some frilly bolero jackets that had sleeves so massive we put boning in them in the way you’d make a hooped underskirt! I did enjoy working on that job, it had a very “anything goes” spirit which doesn’t happen much in my usual sewing.
I’ve reached a stage in my career where I now feel at ease saying no to things that sound too crazy thankfully.
Many thanks to Wendy for taking time out to chat with me and I am so happy to have met her and learned about her work! Be sure to check out her patterns and it you are in the area (Brighton, UK) pop in and take a class.