Listen to Grandma


Fighting to get your craft business established? Then put the MBA on hold and listen to grandma for a moment

Grandma has listened carefully to all your hopes and plans and sees how very hard you’re working to get things going and has some little bits of advice for you.

“Always to do the task you are most ANXIOUS about first”

“Don’t be mean about putting on the HEATING.  Dress up as warmly, then heat on. It’s a false economy if you’re working poorly because you’re cold.”

“My dear, always STAND UP to make difficult phone calls.”


“Use the common sense you were born with, don’t blindly follow so called EXPERTS.

There is driving and driving instruction and they are not at all the same thing.”

“Do try not to get LOST in aspects of your business;  keep looking at the whole.”


“Sweetheart YOU are the most vital piece of MACHINERY your business owns, promise me that you will maintain it properly, it needs rest, food, warmth, stimulation, you mustn’t skip on any of these.”

“Always INTERRUPT what you are doing for the key people in your life; you will loose less time and energy that way than in the  ensuing row if you ignore them.”

“Familiarity breeds contempt, knives cut, flame burns, take care, you NEED your hands and eyes.”

“Above all dear, be patient, be persistent, but not stubborn and wait for some LUCK to turn up and all will be well.”

 Always remember that other things are more IMPORTANT than  the success of your business.”

“Now that’s quite enough advice I think we should have that cup of tea now, but before we do that, could you just pass me my bag?”

“I have £100,000 in there which I have been meaning to let you have for ages”



What did I learn for my business from my favourite Grandmother ?  She  cheated at cards when playing  with her grandchildren, which delighted us beyond measure. That taught me, to think outside the box and that sometimes something that seems wrong can be right.

What’s the best bit of grandmotherly common sense advice you’ve used as a craftsperson? Put it in the comments, I will repay you with a quick online look at your business and a bit of honest feedback, so subscribe to the comment feed so you don’t miss it.

Mosaic Artist

Mosaic Artist at work

Janine Nelson has a big studio in  South London, she runs mosaic workshops and makes small-scale mosaic pieces from old china under the name of Smashing China. She hosts school visits at a local  museum three days a week and works hard in her studio for the remainder.

“I think I’m feeling in a fairly good place even though I’m not making money or selling much”

Back Story

When Janine talks about her career it seems more like a swirl than a progression. Jamaican born, she was bought up in rural Hampshire and did Fine Art at Camberwell School of Art ,   went on to do  teaching training at Goldsmiths College then taught   secondary school art. She subsequently did a self funded textiles MA at Goldsmiths before falling for mosaics

“Everything I wanted to do has been self funded by teaching”

Her teaching hours have fluctuated according to the fragility of her bank balance there have been interludes when she has been able to spend all her time on her mosaics  using capital saved from her teaching income. In 2007 she had accumulated capital that has now evaporated by half. She also has her part-time museum job 

“For the past three years what is coming in doesn’t match what is going out.

 This year I havent used my savings and have managed by cutting running costs  but this is only to be expected given that I was working as a full-time teacher and went down to part-time museum work!”

She is lucky to have  economic studio space, she rents a double unit at the Lewisham Art house  co-op for  a minimum of 5 monthly hours  running the organisation and £150 a month rent.

Janine’s partner is a fine artist with a studio in the same building so they are acclimatised to this hand to mouth way of managing.

“You never know what is going to happen – the next email, the next phone call”

Reality Check

All crafts people have to be determined about pursuing their craft, you can’t give up just because you have a meagre income, it takes time to find out  what sells, and how you need to spend your time . You learn as you go and you keep evolving your product and the way you sell it, until you hit on something that can produce a living wage. Even then you get feast  and famine, it’s never a smooth income.

However Janine had absolutely no record of her costs and income, not even a simple total. She thought she might have made “£400 to £500” this year. She is trying to get her business off the ground with her eyes tightly shut. Each new direction is looked on as the turn in  her fortunes.

You have to analyse your figures, you can’t hide from the reality,  it allows the worry and self-doubt to bed in deeper, it doesn’t evade it.  There are so many unknowns, its at least worth using the knowns that you have actually experienced.

Where is the money coming from that she has made? Product sales? Teaching? Where is the money going to? Materials? Overheads? Travel? Fees?

With some answers, you can tweak, for example the products that have sold, could they be priced a bit higher in future? Are you buying materials in bulk to get good unit costs but carrying a lot of stock you may never use? Lots of questions sit in the figures, they contain the clues, you need to look at them carefully.


I like a lot of what Janine makes, I like her mosaic additions to vintage plates I think they would look stunning on a dresser.

They are very pretty and understated, you come to notice her additions as a delightful extra, your eye has a private feast.

Look how the Heron stoops under the foliage, he is so delicately done  and is so at one with his landscape

Flying Duck plate

And here is a most solitary duck struggling to fly

 These plates should surely sell, they are absolutely on message, for the vintage, retro upcycling fashion of the moment. Tea time and dressers and cake stands and Cath Kitson. They are thoughtful, individual pieces with a bit of character and a real eye for pattern. The maker of these should be making far more than she is

So why isn’t she? The answer is simple the public would have great difficulty finding them. They are beautifully displayed on Janine’s cleanly designed attractive website Smashing Chintz but you can’t buy from there. She very occasionally goes to a fair but then she has to absorb the costs of taking part.

Online Craft Market Places

Her latest move is to put  some of her work in an online shop which she has asked me not to name.

This sweet little Scottie dog embellished plate costs £45 through the online shop. When I spoke to her she had sold 3 or 4 plates through this site and had been on  for five or six weeks. Given the quantity of produce the visitor has to pick from, that is a good response.  

Janine says that she was approached by the online shop after taking part in a craft fair at Bovey Tracey. They said that they had a special offer on and she only had a limited time to decide. The deal on offer was £400 joining fee and  30% commission or £600 joining fee and 20% commission

 She took the first deal. So she makes £31.50 if she sells that plate. Here are the sums:

  • The vintage plate is worth about £3 (that is the price of a  similar plate is on eBay)
  • Materials (grout, template, glue )
  •  Tools to make the mosaic
  •  Studio overheads
  • Three hours making time
  •  Time to process the order itemising and photographing it for the website.
  • Delivery and packaging costs and time ( the site encourages vendors to make this free to the customer for standard UK delivery)
  • Eventually she will have recouped the £400 entry fee, but at this stage she is working entirely for the good of the online shop.

So money made =NONE

Not on the High Street is not unusual there are a lot of online presences that tempt the novice but there is an optimum size for these operations.  You can get swamped by other products so that even if the whole world is coming to the site you havent that much chance of a sale. Think of Etsy.

The site’s interests are still served as they continue to take on new recruits and entry fees, they are selling product so they have commission coming in. You can always try to buy your way to extra sales by buying  catalogue space but then you are  again reducing your margins.

I think that the small craftsman needs to be in control. Janine has a great website, she simply has to import something like PayPal and she can sell directly.

She takes workshops, so can collect contacts and tell them when there is new product. Twenty interested people who are visiting to see your stuff and no one else’s are  likely to produce more sales than a thousand casual visitors who flicker through a gigantic site.

 Craft websites are not a  numbers game, its how long do your visitors  look and where did the interested ones come form? All this stuff can be discovered through linking your site to Google Analytics which you can do for free. They provide oodles of geek speak info but after a while you get to understand enough for it to be useful.


There was something else that Janine said that worried me and that was about how much time she was happy to spend making her mosaics. She explained that cutting the china and using the grout meant you are exposed to cement dust. You need eye protection, rubber gloves, goggles and a dust mask which she uses, but she says she can still feel it in her lungs and for that reason she wouldn’t like to spend more than two or three days a week actually making.

I am concerned that two or three days making leaves very little time to experiment and try out new ideas, you need time to play around to see what else you can produce, is there another way of doing things?

“It’s quite rare to have a making day as I am doing all the other stuff on the computer and ordering materials “

That means she cannot produce enough stock at her current prices to make a living even if she sold it.

This cow takes four or five hours to produce ( he is still ungrouted in this picture) he sells for £80. If you make for 2.5 days you could produce only five cows which would mean a potential sale of £400 with all your costs to come off that. 

That means if you sold everything you could make ( which nobody ever does) you would have a gross income of £20,000 a year less all your costs.  So prices have to go up or making time extended at a risk to Janine’s health.

Very sensibly Janine is looking at developing her product

She still has technical  issues to overcome but she needs another product which is less labour intensive. It would be nice if it related closely to her mosaics because they are rather lovely

Works 4 days a week , income from sales about £500 this year, teaching fees are in addition to this figure

Pig Farmer

Indomitable Tracy Mackness started “farm to fork” The Giggly Pig  Company four years ago. She rears her pigs on leased acres in Essex and hand produces their bacon, sausages and meat, selling most of it herself through farmers’ markets and hog roasts. She lives on-site in a mobile home with her boyfriend and three Jack Russels


Tracy is the sort of woman who throws herself at life, she is warm and tough.   She is endearingly upfront about the mess she has made of things in the past

“I am no angel, I always liked money,  I got champagne tastes on a lemonade income. My dad was in fruit and veg, we had a farm and horses , my brother and I didn’t have much education but we worked for him and I aways had what I wanted. Then when I was 14 he went to prison and my mum left him, he met another woman and sold everything. I am not the type who can work for someone else, so I had no job, loads of failed relationships, divorced twice and had mental breakdowns and made two suicide attempts I ended up in prison.”

Tracy spent three months on remand in High Point. She didn’t expect to go to prison but her fellow accused  arranged it so that she took the brunt so she went down for ten years for conspiracy to handle cannabis with a street value of £4 million pounds. Her boyfriend left her, she suffered huge weight loss and mental illness. “I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up” Miraculously prison was good for Tracy, she was a trusted prisoner  and picked up on her missing education, doing 52 courses. After three and a half years she was moved to an open prison and got involved in the prison pig farm and learnt everything she could about the business  which sold its sausages in the local market. That was the model for The  Giggly Pig Company.

"Failure is the Mulch of Success"

The quote is from the founder of  The Big Issue John Bird and for Tracy that was how it worked. Prison gave her the chance to start again, it literally taught her the skills she needed for a new life. In fact it did it twice, originally she qualified as a gym instructor, then fell for the pigs and the idea of her own pig farm. It gave her training and hands on experience, she provided the hardiness and determination.

When she came out in 2007 she was lent an acre of land; bought 30 saddleback pigs which she had bred in the prison farm and rented space in the local butcher’s shop.

In the same year she won The Barclays Trading Places Award which gave her £5000 in cash and another £2000 of  Thomson Directories advertising. It also attracted some pretty naf headlines like “Pig Woman of Alcatraz” from The Sun and “Prison Saved My Bacon” from The Meat Trade Journal.

Everybody likes a Rags to Riches story, so Tracy’s past worked for her and her what -you- see- is- what -you- get quality works brilliantly as a sales pitch. It might be a problem if she was selling diamond necklaces but for sausages at the farmers’ market, its magic dust.

Harsh Reality

“People imagine I’m some Pig Baron but I live on the farm in a rabbit hutch of a mobile home. I need to be on site because  there are dramas everyday. If I want a bath I have to go round to my mum’s, it takes real bravery in the cold to take a shower, sometimes you can’t even do that ,as the cess pit is full. Even if I cook a roast dinner it takes twice as long on the caravan cooker.

I spend my whole life being cold, we spent £100 a week on bottled gas this winter and we were still cold. I’ve done a day’s work before I even get to work and every thing is cold: cold farm: cold van: cold market  then when we get back we have to unload the vans and feed the pigs. On market days we start at 4am and finish at 10pm. Some days I could cry I am so tired”


On the face of it Tracy has done extraordinarily well. She has constantly expanded. She now has her own leased land, 600 pigs in good newly built accommodation. She has a fleet of vans and does about twenty farmer’s markets a week and now leases the entire butcher’s shop in Romford.  She has  twelve staff  and all that was achieved in the space of four years.

She expanded to make the figures work . For example she found she had to sell hot food at the farmers’ markets alongside the packed meat so that she took enough to cover the costs, but that means she needs two staff, one to handle the cooked and one to handle the raw meat.

Then she needs vans to get the produce and staff to the markets which are not close enough together to make drop offs workable so she has a monthly £800 van insurance bill  and tries to kill two vans and replace them with newer ones each year.

Then, this year, the outdoor pens were so wet that she needed extra shedding, she built to last and that was £15,000 out of the kitty.

Feed costs have rocketed, so in order to get the cost down she invested in  a feed silo so she could buy it unbagged at a better rate.

The Dangers of Problem Solving

Tracy is a problem solver and she is monkey baring her way to a better business. She sees the problem, she pushes to the solution. But the solution always takes time and money.

When I visited her, her boyfriend was off to Warwickshire to pick up a strong box that Tracy had bought on Ebay. The strong box was needed because fire extinguishers, sat navs and safety logs were going awol and Tracy saw that if she numbered them and formally issued them and took them back in after events she could sort the problem. Makes perfect sense, but it was a worker off the farm for most of the day and more money outlaid albeit at a better cost than buying new.

What ever the problem she unstoppably drives to the solution. She spends her days firefighting  the problems. She is not choosing her battles she just fights what comes up, effectively and with loads of common sense and ingenuity.

She even takes on her workers’ problems. She can see them going wrong and can’t stop herself getting them sorted, on the basis that if you have a personal crisis it stops you from working effectively. But this is energy and time she can ill afford but she can’t stop herself. She has had rough times herself, sees she can help, so does.

The trouble is that this spirit of attack means you are always reacting, rather than being proactive. The money comes in and has to rush out on the next problem. There is not enough  stopping and looking round and saying this is my priority. Choosing your battles,  and making some things wait even though the solution is sitting there in your mind.

Risking Your Main Asset

While Tracy goes full tilt she misses the blindingly obvious. The business has one key asset which she is shamelessly abusing . It is an asset which, if it cracks, could effectively kill the business and that’s herself.

She is living in punishing conditions not helped by the activities of her beloved Jack Russells , Sausage, Mash and Gravy who have a fantastic time whopping it up in the open plan mobile home.  She is working every hour of the day mostly in  the cold and wet. When I met her she told me they had just endured the worst five weeks so far , cold wet weekends so takings down, with a £1000 bill for the re-modeling of her website and the taxman wanting his £3200 not to mention the money for the strong box.

She had a catalogue of mobile homes, there was one circled that she really wanted, but pushed it away as not to do now. I think I managed to persuade her that it was a crucial investment that she could not put off. She promised she would drive down and see it with her partner. I  hope she does. I can only show you a picture taken when we talked about it. Look at her face, she is beginning to believe that her life is going to be better

It is a really crucial bit of the jigsaw if you are going to succeed in a handmade business, you have to look after its main asset. It’s too easy to sacrifice all to its success and knock yourself on the head, so there is no longer a business.

Look up at the Horizon

There are goals and there are dreams Tracey has dreams of a villa in Spain, of being able to travel, with her brother running the business day-to-day. Her instinct is to always “keep it close, I don’t trust many people”

Her goals are rather more changeable, she thinks she sees an opportunity and charges for it and sometimes finds its not going to work that way, and brings in new directions.

She is not a toe in the water woman, more of a tombstoner.  She races ahead with infectious energy, the overall direction is very positive, she has achieved an enormous amount in four short un capitalised years, but she needs to slow as her business grows, as there is more at stake.

Fairy Tale Pigs

Squeaky Clean

Faintly Amused Duo

How Could You?

The Giggly Pigs are very well looked after, they are well fed on the best food and treats and have fresh dry straw at night,  space and company and don’t want for anything – but when they are a year old they are for the chop. If you leave it any later the testerone  changes the taste of the pork.

That has to be the hard bit. So exactly three months three weeks and three days in the sow and out they pop. One year’s life and then its sausages.

“The first time, I went to the abattoir with them, it was so quick, so humane, they really didn’t know about it.  Its only three miles down the road and the movement settles them.

In the last two years since my miscarriage I don’t load them up, as I feel differently about it. But the difficult ones I simply can’t wait to get rid of, you need real man force to get them  on the trailer”

Hard Graft

Monday to Wednesday Tracy works 8am to 8pm, on market days Thursday to Sunday she works 4am to 10pm.

— Works  108 hours a week — Pays herself £400 a week—

 Giggly Pig website



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”


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Knitwear designer

Polish knit wear designer  Gosia Dzik-Holden lives with her English husband and three young children in an East London terrace. She is the creator of Stitchville which offers knitting teaching; knitwear designs; natural yarn  and knitting  holidays.

Getting Going

Gosia has fought hard to be where she is now. She started freelancing when her youngest of her three children was one.

Having kids freed something up in my creativity. My parents had not let me go to art school but I realised that it was a really important part of my life and it was something I really was not prepared to compromise on, it would take sometime but I was sure I could find a way to do it.

Growing Stitchville happened at an incredibly slow pace. I would always find at least an hour to work on my designs each day but I felt that it wasn’t moving. I would realise that I had been working on a sweater for two months and it still wasn’t  finished, but however slow it felt, I concentrated, kept going and held my focus.

I am lucky that my husband is really good at making money so I didn’t have worry about the family going without while I found my way.

I hit some dead ends, for example I contributed designs to a series of knitting books but I came to realise it was an appalling  financial deal as you don’t have any rights to your pattern and the publishers are free to reuse and  resell it. I was paid £300 for the first two projects , then £250 a project for the next four. I learned to be economic with what I produced but it takes four solid days  writing a pattern and you can’t be interrupted as it needs complete concentration.

Having learnt the hard way Gosia is now writing a book of her own on seamless knitting which she will publish and market herself.


Style Guru,

Gosia is sure of her taste  is very particular.  She insists on natural fibres, hating anything fuzzy or sparkly, acrylics, harsh colours or one-dimensional blacks.  “If you start with the right fibres you are half way to making a good garment”

She makes real money from her on-line yarn boutique and is in the process of upgrading her site. Begun as a way of selling on her own surplus yarns she now buys specially and makes her own distinctive notes on each yarn . Last year she made £6000 from the yarn sales.

When it comes to clothes she is a demanding shopper

“It has to be impeccably made and if there is one detail wrong then it kills it for me  I am not interested in fashion trends I want to make something personal and timeless, clothes should enhance your experience and make you feel great about yourself.”

Remarkably sure of her intuition she says she often foresees trends. Her certainty is a huge asset as it makes her the sort of person people gravitate to.  Most people are unsure of their taste and their confidence is boosted by Gosia who knows exactly what she likes and why. Her students stay with her for a long time, probably because they are stimulated by her gentle company, her way of examining things and her positive drive. She has the imagination to understand their knowledge gaps,  the bit the pattern writer assumed they knew and they didn’t, the bit between the lines that the learner needs explaining.

Her teaching is done either on a Saturday in her husband’s company’s meeting room in Islington  for which she charges £20 an hour or during a home visit for which she charges £20 an hour with a £10 travel fee.

An extension of her teaching is her newly established  Stitchville holidays which take place in Landmark Trust venues the first holiday ever is at the end of  January in a remote Scottish castle. This is fully booked with one last-minute cancellation. This first holiday is already self funding making a modest profit which will be rolled over into the next venue, another castle booking just outside Edinburgh in November

Getting It Right

A Single Identity The creation of the single Stitchville identity that can over arch Gosia’s various projects makes sense, she is the sort of person who will always be developing a lot of different strands but all of them can be fed from the same customer base.

Clear Focus If you have a lot of strands you have to be very clear about your focus.  Gosia could reel off exactly what she wanted to do with next year, where her major effort would be and a set of specific goals.

Work Routine You need to carve out a working day from other demands on your time. Gosia makes herself get up at 6.30am because she is very productive in the morning and will have ” loads done by 8am” when she does the school run She is back at her desk by 9.30 and works until it is time to pick the children up from school. In the evening she will be “pottering about” Even when the children were still at home all day she plugged on accepting that it might just be an hour a day but it would add up and some progress would be made.

Certainty You can’t make it if you don’t have a very clear aesthetic.   Every thing you do has to be coloured by that, if customers like one thing they will like another, that way you can build yourself a base. You have to transmit your certainties to your customer, think Trinny and Susannah. Gosia doesn’t dominate but her certainty is magnetic and bankable.

Patience Getting things right takes time. Gosia says she is still building the ramparts but six years ago she would not have believed it was possible. From assistant manager of the John Smedley Brook Street flagship store to knitwear designer is a big stride but its made by talent and persistence

— Hours worked 35 per week—-Income £12,500 a year—