Vintage button seller Dixie is in her fifties and lives in a Georgian Square in London’s Camberwell, she is married with a teenage daughter.
Ten years ago I was ready for a change from journalism
I used to write features about houses. Much of it I enjoyed. I was working for myself which suited me, but after ten years I was in danger of re-treading known turf and wanted to do something new.
I changed direction overnight with absolutely no planning
In fact the decision took me by surprise. Years before I had inherited a vast quantity of handmade vintage glass buttons. It was the stock left when my father finally closed his button making business. He had handmade each one and even in their day they were exceptional and were used by the top London couture houses such as Hartnell, Amies, Cavanagh, Paterson, and Mattli.
The buttons followed me round – a decade in the cellar of a Lincolnshire rectory and another in a Surrey stable, I couldn’t throw them away but nor did I open the rotting boxes. Now I needed a business it was obvious that these could be it.
The problem was there were very few quantities of the same button and I couldn’t replenish the stock. But I realised that that’s what made them magical, they could be like the Nanking Cargo. People would want some because they were unique, their strength was that they were recognisable, with a romantic story and very finite.
All this activity was pretty much a waste of time.
For the first few years I thought I should make things with them so I ran though all kinds of cottage industry projects: there were drawer handles; embellished candles; greeting cards, display plates, beaded jewellery. I wrote, or got magazine articles written, about them and took a stall on Greenwich market every week.
Essentially the buttons were utterly unique so it was stupid to make them into something with a limited sale price. Also to make anything I had to invest in other materials with money I had not yet earnt. The breakthrough came through editorial in Interiors magazine all sorts of interesting options emerged including Pringle who became a major customer. What people wanted was the buttons as buttons I had been trying to be too clever.
Do what you can’t
As a journalist I had been forced into using computers, technical stuff is not me, but I gradually got edged towards building a website. It was the most difficult and frustrating thing I have ever tried to do, hours of going down into the dark and coming up with a tiny glimmer of advance, it drove me mad; but it also gave me a business.
Now I have a decent enough website nicholsbuttons.co.uk I put five collections of buttons from my stock onto it each year and that generates a steady income.
Do what you hate
To keep the website supplied with visitors and to allow customers to see the buttons in the flesh I do a couple of specialist fairs. These I find a complete roller coaster. They don’t seem to obey any logic. Sometimes you make good money, sometimes you scarcely cover costs. They are completely exhausting. You say the same thing all day, that with the early starts, finding the venue and lugging the stuff makes them pretty much a misery but I fear also a necessity.
It has given me freedom. The buttons are an excellent base, I have learnt not to hurry them, now they will comfortably make their money year after year. They will also take a little neglect without harm.
I love my absolute control; what I have never settled to is that awful social question “And what do you do?” It takes so much explanation and wreaks of housewife with a hobby, or so it seems to me. Being a journalist carried status, I am not sure this does, but maybe that is still the child in me who was embarrassed by a father who wasn’t a doctor or an accountant.
I also have a sneaking feeling my friends are more grown up than me, they are out there working long hours earning serious amounts of money. I work when I want or need to. I do all the household chores myself, it’s a choice and its a valid one, but as I get older a tiny bit of me feels marginalised, the rest feels pleased with what I have managed to wrangle
◊ Try, at least to start with, to do everything yourself
◊ Don’t spend money until you are forced to. That means no playing at setting up office or workspace; do that when things are selling and you can’t work at the kitchen table anymore
◊ Talk to the tax office before you start, they will give you sensible guidance about what your tax position will be
◊ Don’t advertise. You are new so you are a legitimate news story, exploit editorial mentions
◊ Understand your goal. A handmade life doesn’t make you rich, you are doing well if you can make a modest living from it.
◊ Making mistakes really doesn’t matter, what is important is to learn from them quickly.
◊ Don’t under price. There is no sense in selling twice as many at half the price, you are simply working harder for the same money
There is a lot to be said for life in the slow lane– Works 10 hours a week – Income £9,000 a year –