Rachel started her millinery business in May last year, working from her dining  room, and putting in long hours to establish her label.

The Bumpy Bit

There is no question that Rachel is still in the bumpy start-up bit of establishing her millinery business.  Ten months in, she is still like a weather vane  trying to work out where the wind is coming from. Every thing is new, every thing is a struggle, except for the hat making itself. The once stylish downstairs of her  house is awash with millinery clobber, she can’t come home and unwind because home is now work.

In the run up to Christmas I was working from eight in the morning until seven-thirty each night, seven days a week, it was hard living with the mess and it was difficult to switch off from work.

I haven’t had anyone round to dinner since I started, I don’t even have a dining room any more.

A social historian could discern from the mantelpiece that this was once a stylish room

“I am quite good at making hats”

Rachel  did  Costume Interpretation at Oaklands College, St Albans; work experience at Jess Collett and at Philip Treacy; then worked at Siggi in the Fulham High Street shop. So she can make hats.

“But no good at selling them”

Actually she is wrong, I spied on her selling at her stall in the weekend Brick Lane Backyard Market. She is very good, she is confident and friendly and when I was there, surrounded. Maybe it is the Eliza Doolittle effect but men seem to be drawn to her stall.

Men buy fascinators for their wives, but I have had to develop a bit of a thick skin over time-wasting customers such as boyfriends trying ladies hats on themselves as a bit of a game. At first I stupidly let them, now I realise that its my livelihood and stop them

“Taking the stall was all a bit of a baptism by fire”

A friend suggested a stall there, my husband pushed me to do it but I was afraid that no one would like my stuff. I didn’t think I was going to walk away with my pitch fee of £45 but I made £105 so I went back the next week.

The stall meant extra expenditure hat boxes (from Baxter Hart & Abraham) and display heads. It also meant making to market demand and learning to be tolerant of making the same thing over and over. For example the buckram bird clips which were popular at £6 each and which Rachel loathes making. The market is a tough learning curve you have to manage disappointment

My best day at the market I earned £300 and I had a run between £220-£250 and you get cocky and  then suddenly it stops happening.

I spoke to Rachel just after she had gone back to the market after Christmas she had transferred to the main Spitalfields market where the stall cost £90 and her sales were dead. “Winter, no one wants to try anything on”


“People don’t understand how hard you work and how long it takes to make things”

One of the frustrations for any craftsman is how many hours go into an article and how many separate processes. Hat making is no exception. A quite ordinary blocked felt hat cannot be made by hand in less than eight hours.

A hat is made in two sections, the crown and the brim. You need a hat block for both, hat blocks cost about £200 and second-hand ones are “gold dust and rarer than hen’s teeth and not that much less than new ones”

You change a block’s head size by adding extra felts. You can painstakingly make your own block with buckram and wire as Rachel did to make her burlesque top hat or you can have them made, try Guy Morse Brown

The felt is  sprayed inside and steamed over the kettle for five minutes.

It is then put on the block, pulled into shape and left to dry

The brim is then resprayed;steamed; pinned to the  block and again allowed to dry.

Next the raw edged brim needs to be measured marked and trimmed to the desired size .

Then the brim has to be created on a third block so the whole circle of spraying steaming, pining, drying is gone through a third time.

Not only is the basic process hugely time- consuming but also the hat block is tied up in each lengthy process.

“Have You Made Any Money From it Yet?”

When you see how much time is involved, Rachel’s current prices look ridiculously low, if you look at her website rachelblack you will see that her prices begin at £45 .

But pricing is a matter of confidence and all handmakers are buffeted by people’s surprise at the cost . Makers themselves are low earners and so they find it hard to accept the realistic price for their work, as to them it seems a massive amount.

When I work out the price for a couture hat a bit of me says “Really that much!” Its the very hardest thing to hold on to the belief that there is someone who will want it at that price.

The worry of pricing is magnified by friends and family who will always plague the start-up creative business owner with that lethal  question  of “Have you made any money from it yet?”  Which feeds directly into your fears that they think  you are not really working.

Working from home I feel I have to justify myself an awful lot. I don’t have many friends who work in the creative industries and they don’t understand how long it takes to make things.


Another thing that cuts hard into the start-up’s confidence is mistakes, especially ones which cost money.

Rachel hugely regrets her naivety in allowing herself to be talked into taking part in a music festival show which cost her £345 stand money. She was mislead and flattered, told there would be 4 days trading (actually 3) and a card machine ( never showed) not to mention the ghastliness of sitting out a no chance show where greasy haired festival goers amused themselves trying on her hats.

But you have to see mistakes as inevitable, you have to take risks to build a business. At the beginning you know less about everything, so you make more misjudgments than you will later. You can’t learn to ride a bike if you are not prepared to fall off. The enemy that you must not let in is depression.

The Two List Solution

When Rachel and I talked, she was about ten months into her new business. She had put her heart and soul into building it up. She was clear  about what she wanted to achieve : peace of mind and security which for her meant earning a steady £20,000 a year; a good work life balance and appreciation for her work. She also wanted to be able to move her work out of the house. So far she had earnt £6000 -£7000.

This is the time to write two lists, one about what you enjoy about the life you have made for yourself  and another about what you don’t like. It’s important that the question is about your life not just the business because your goal needs to be about happiness not business. This was Rachel’s list

Good part

  • Making hats

  • Freedom to experiment

  • Customer interface especially when “light bulb goes on right hat”

  • Being in control

  • Taking new directions

Bad Part

  • Time wasting customers

  • Isolation

  • Living in a mess

  • Business side

  • Justifying myself

  • Not being able to switch off

  • Lack of confidence in self promotion

The lists give you insight. The dislikes tell you elements you might be avoiding and the likes  elements you might be indulging in at the expense of the second.

In Rachel’s case I thought she was making too much stock ahead of sales, I also thought she was blindly persisting in doing the market through the low period of Winter when those hours would be better used in marketing herself and sorting out her website.

Her list shows you why. She loves to make, which is justified by continuing to need market stock, but she doesn’t like, or feel confident about, the  marketing and the business side.

The lists are useful  for planning. They show you what you must be sure to include and what you want to do the least of.

So for Rachel she should make sure that she is always creating her hats and not out sourcing that. It also tells her she needs to find work space in a studio complex possibly with a marketing arm . If she achieved that she solves three of her problems in one go: Isolation; Living in a mess and Lack of confidence in self promotion

— Hours worked 50-80 a week — Income since May £6500 —

“I whole heartedly love what I do, it makes me get up in the morning”

Readers please tell me what you think of the Two List Solution, does it work for you? Did it help you get a fix on your direction?  Have I thought up something useful? I would really like to have  your comments.

11 thoughts on “Milliner

  1. Eloise Rodgers says:

    Great article! The lists are a good idea. It’s invaluable to read an interview about how to be a successful millner, where the milliner is being very open and frank about their views and giving honest advice on what they’d do different. Thank you for posting, I’ve found it very helpful! Eloise

  2. barbara says:

    What An inspiring story. I too have started out in the millinery trade…..mind constantly thinking of hats/styles etc …..taking over my home etc and more concerned with the making than the marketing and selling !!! Your feature has given me some insights on the pitfalls as well as the reasons why we love our craft. Every best wish for the future x

  3. Nadean L says:

    Love the two lists! Great way to analyse what you are doing and whether you have found your right craft/ outlet/ environment. Thank you so much for a great blog. I am loving the supportive, gentle critique of the artist/ seller.


  4. Dixie Nichols says:

    I have decided not to comment on my own blog but this is the exception that proves the rule Rachel is making my hat for That Wedding and I have absolute belief that it is the Right Hat for Me and ( please read this in a whisper…. It cost just £50)
    If you need a hat this summer rush to her website make an appointment before she has the good sense to put her prices up. She really knows her stuff.

  5. Ann Gorman says:

    Great hats and great article!

    So glad I came across your blog, makes a very interesting read seeing I work for myself also, although mostly part time due to going back to college (fulltime) but during the summer its full time from May to end of Sept. I will be back to read more great features. Keep up the great work!

  6. Cynthia says:

    I like your two-list idea – even as I’m typing I’m mentally trying it out for myself. It also strikes me as a good exercise ahead of start up – what do you look forward to / dread – so you can plan around those things. This blog is an excellent resource – I can’t tell you how discouraged I always was by the craft start-up stories in the likes of Country Living which begin with a line like “when my fabulous wealthy auntie died and left me her stud farm in Newmarket…. ” or “when my hedge fund husband and I decided to sell that third house of ours I used the proceeds to start up…” Nice to see how real people take the plunge and manage with real sums of money (or not!). Encouraging and helpful, thank you.

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