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”


Continue reading

Dress designer

Dress designer Tessa is  just into her fifties and lives in a pretty terraced house in a Camberwell backwater with her daughter and partner.


“No one tells me what to wear!”

Tessa  built up her huge know-how from her mother who was a fashion student in the fifties at the Royal College.

She used to make my clothes,  I didn’t want her to dress me so I learnt how to make things for myself.  My mother is very confident about tacking any practical task. I remember her deciding to drop down the kitchen floor with a  Kanga hammer then barrowing  the clay down the garden to make a pool. I still call her if I have a technical problem .

Tessa did an anthropology degree at UCL and worked on various vintage stalls on the Portobello market then in her final university year a friend asked her to make her wedding dress and  she took her own stall on the market.

I was youthful, optimistic and energetic. I had to sell a lot to make it worthwhile and because it was the market, it had to be cheap. Then I shared a huge studio in Swiss Cottage with Jenny who was a Goldsmiths textile graduate. I was enthralled with her work, it  was far more consciously arty than mine, I was far more bish, bosh, bash it out. We had contrasting interests and we learnt  a lot from each other.

Rolling in Cash

We took a stall in Camden Market in the early eighties and designed a pair of share cropper jeans – they were huge and belted in at the waist, black with white stitching. We called them Dog on the Rocks, asked £30  pair and they really sold.

We had 200 pairs made up by a factory near  Brick Lane run by a Moroccan guy. But later we found he had cheated us; he told us it took 2.5m of material to make them up and actually it was 1.3m and he would make up the extras to our pattern and sell them himself.

In London fashion week the Japanese buyers came down to see us and placed big orders , so we got an Iraqi man to handle the production for us and paid him £1 a pair. The Americans bought and the Germans and we had people working for us on our Camden Market and Petticoat Lane stalls.

It lasted about five years and there are photos of us rolling in the cash takings from the stalls. I loved the moment of making money but Jenny didn’t like the sharp end of the rag trade,  I bought her out and I ran it into the ground. It was a one trick pony, other people copied the jeans and we didn’t have a way to defend it.  We didn’t really know what we were doing but success was a real laugh.

Continue reading

Vintage Button Seller


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 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.

Balance Sheet

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 –