Starting a new business can be a challenge at the best of times, but starting one in 2020 has certainly presented a whole new set of challenges to overcome!
Whether it’s from sheer determination, or in response to having unexpected time to grow and experiment, many budding entrepreneurs across the North of England have used the past few months to launch, pivot, or grow their businesses, creating something purposeful and positive in the midst of all the uncertainty. I spoke in my introductory Editor’s Letter about just how unique the time right now is; with the slowing down of society en masse, and the resulting time and space that has allowed thoughts and ideas to form, bubble and ferment. There’s a palpable desire to support new local businesses too, as quarantine pushed people to look closer to home for resources and discovered a wealth of homegrown talent on their doorsteps.
In this post, Fabric of the North meets five new Northern based businesses who’ve set up shop in 2020, to discover what drives them, how they’ve weathered the recent storms, and what their plans are for the future…
Nettle + Tansy
New Lake District based glassware brand Nettle + Tansy were inspired by a desire to bring together a range of homewares that complement the glassware designs of founder Emma Mackintosh, whilst reflecting a more sustainable, locally-based “connected” way of living. Emma had been growing increasingly frustrated with the fast, disposable and impersonal nature of modern living, disconnected from the natural world in which we should live, and was keen to craft a brand that married her ethical and sustainable principles with the type of artisan glassware pieces she has been crafting for more than a decade.
Her glassware is flameworked; a method of working hot glass using a hot, gas-fired bench torch. “I use a combination of scientific flame work techniques, which as a skill is on the red list of endangered crafts in the UK,” she tells me, “and a more artistic approach to develop a style and technique which are unique and personal.” For Nettle + Tansy Emma has developed a line of drinking vessels across 3 core collections – Forest, Water and Mountain – which take direct inspiration from the Lake District landscape that surrounds her workshop. Forest is a pretty direct translation, using foraged plants and foliage to imprint onto the glass and give a very organic look and feel. Mountain has a more traditional look and has been free-blown without the use of moulds. Thin lines of clear glass are melted and drawn on to the glass during the blowing process, leaving a raised mountain landscape design. The result is a subtle, more classic design which still retains that connection to the landscape. Running alongside these two collections is Water; a range of tumblers that have allowed Emma the freedom to experiment. Some of the designs in this collection use the same techniques as in Forest and Mountain, while others have been blown in entirely different ways. “Water – flow – range,” she says, “this collection has been about encouraging the flow of creative ideas.”
Water – flow – range. This collection has been about encouraging the flow of creative ideas.
While the glassware is blown in the Lake District, unfortunately there is no longer a UK manufacturer of the type of glass Emma uses. Instead, she uses a UK company to supply glass made in the Czech Republic. “This arrives as clear tubes and rods,” she says. “Unlike other types of glass, this glass can be reused and re-melted if a mistake is made, meaning that there is very little manufacturing waste. I then use natural, locally-foraged plants to texture the glass.”
As a small, micro-enterprise Emma tries to employ the same principles of sustainability that she grew up with in North Wales. “I support my local shops and artisans, and grow my own produce. I grew up in North Wales on a smallholding with hens, ducks, pigs,” she tells me, “my parents grew their own vegetables, and we foraged nuts and mushrooms locally.”
Having launched less than a month ago in late June, Emma’s aim is now to add local artisan products that complement her glassware to the store, before looking to incorporate organic hamper bags of glasses and local drinks brands to the mix to create a celebratory package offering for special occasions. The bags have already been designed by her partner’s daughter, a talented illustrator, and Emma hopes to be able to offer them for national distribution, as well as local delivery and collection. Watch this space!
Images © Nettle + Tansy, used with permission.
“The inspiration behind uva is built on our need for something practical, and for the everyday but still desirable,” say founders Lottie and Jasmin. “To create pieces that we love today and will continue to love in the future.”
The aesthetics of the Manchester-based brand are slow and dream like. Their everyday tote bag shoppers, in cream towelling and chintzy gingham fabrics are the perfect holdall for every eco-fashionista to carry their zero-waste shopping containers about town, and stock up on loose fruit and veg.
Lottie and Jasmin met through working in retail and soon realised they had the urge to do something creative together, and make something they themselves would want to buy. “It was an idea we had for a long time, but having the free time in lockdown gave us the push we needed to start creating and putting our ideas out there,” they tell me.
The introduction of our reusable masks was a nice way to use up the excess fabrics from our bags.
“We spent lots of time in the early stages playing around with different designs and shapes, but as the process progressed the design became simpler and simpler to fit our idea; practical and for the everyday.”
They source their fabric from local fabric shops, choosing textures and colours inspired by the summer in Manchester. They have tried to be as sustainable as possible by ensuring all of their fabric is used up, in one way or another. “The introduction of our reusable masks was a nice way to use up the excess fabrics from our bags,” Lottie says. “As a new brand we are striving to better understand how we can make our brand and products more sustainable as we continue to grow,” continues Jasmin.
Currently they sell their bags through Depop but have plans to expand in time. “Depop enables us to put our bags on the market quickly and easily,” says Jasmin, “but a webshop is definitely the next step. We love working with different fabric and patterns, and the uva shopper is just the start. We’re currently working on different sizes and styles to appeal to more people, and we definitely have ideas beyond bags for the future.”
uva images © Nikki Jalali, used with permission.
Shrimp’s House is a North Yorkshire based online store curating quirky, colourful homeware and lifestyle products from independent designer-makers, with a focus on sustainability. Founded by Elle Judge in January 2020, the online store actively supports women-owned brands and makers to inspire interior creativity. “The only prior experience I have working in retail was when I was at Uni in London, working part-time while I studied Fashion Photography and did internship to internship,” Elle tells me. “I ended up spending the next 10+ years in the Music industry, but always had an interest in interior design, which is something I finally pursued years later, after I had my son.”
When she relocated to the North East from London last year, she realised there was a huge gap in the local market for a curated store showcasing the type of “cool” independent makers she had been used to discovering near to her Stoke Newington home. “Living in London you’re exposed to a whole high street’s worth of independent shops. I’d spend most of my time after nursery drop off exploring Search and Rescue and Nook, looking for cool little pieces for our place. When we eventually moved to North Yorkshire, I really struggled to find similar shops and brands, so decided to bring it with me in the best way I could.”
In setting up her online store, she hopes to offer a bigger platform online for people to discover amazing UK makers they may not have had access to before. “When I bought my first few brands, my initial thought was ‘would I have this in my home?’,” she says. “I really have to love what I’m stocking, otherwise I don’t think I can really do it justice.” She strongly believes that the creative industries still lean heavily towards raising up male creatives and celebrating their successes, so she has purposefully made Shrimp’s House a space that champions female-led brands and makers. “There are so many women who are really killing it in their creative professions, and the support network is incredible,” she tells me. “I was pretty much an outsider as far as knowing artists or makers when I started the shop, but everyone is really supportive of each other. All the women-owned brands champion each other; when one does well we all celebrate. It’s really unlike anything I’ve experienced before, so it’s great to be able to pay that support forward with Shrimp’s House.”
“We’ve got a long way to go before there’s real equality within art and society in general, but I hope I can contribute to help level the playing field in even a tiny way by helping support women in the arts.” While her curation of products currently contains just a couple of Northern-based makers, it’s something she’s planning to address going forward. “We’ve just started stocking Millie Rothera,” she says, “who is an incredible textile designer from Leeds. She made Shrimp’s House some really cool wash bags with a great bold, graphic design. Millie has a great eye for laying patterns in a really playful and eye catching way, I can’t wait to work with her more!”
There are a lot of ups and downs with small businesses, one week you can’t keep up with the orders and the next you’re praying someone just orders something, anything!
Elle runs Shrimp’s House out of an office she shares with her husband and new puppy Juno. “Which does sound ideal to a lot of people when you dress it as plainly as that,” she laughs, “but what a lot of people don’t see behind the curtain of a small indie biz is that one room in our home is an office, another a stockroom, and then we need a place for picking and hand packing every order, plus a photo studio!” Having launched early this year, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown naturally played a huge role in shaping the early months of Elle’s business. “The shop launched just as lockdown started, and I had to handle childcare full time for my son when the nurseries closed, so it was pretty crazy! Given we were all in the same home, I would have had to completely shut down should any of us begun to show symptoms – which thankfully didn’t happen! Packing became pretty serious too, just due to having to make sure everything was done as cleanly as possible for customer safety. It was definitely a learning curve!”
“I hope going forward the interest in small businesses stays strong,” she says. “We don’t have the staff power of big brands who can sell similar items off a production line for a fraction of the price. Nearly all the small business owners I know do it all themselves. Branding, packing, customer service, marketing… the list goes on! There’s a lot of love that goes into what we do, and we really are over the moon with every single order! I get so excited to see what people pick for themselves, or when I get to write sweet notes for friends and family gifts from my customers.”
Weathering the Covid-19 storm is obviously a top priority, but moving forward Elle is keen to expand her product offering. “I’d love to support new brands and makers,” she says. “Shrimp’s House is a business, yes – I need to pay my bills like everyone else – but I really want to create a shop where customers can discover some brilliant new makers they really love, and then follow the careers of.”
Images © Shrimp’s House, used with permission.
“I’ve always been in love with all things Scandinavian and generally minimal in design, from fashion to interiors, so I thought I’d put my mind to creating my own pieces”, says Narvi Design founder Rebecca Boulton.
She began watching DIY plant pot videos on YouTube in 2018, trying her hand at her own Scandi-style creations in her parents garage in North Yorkshire, and creating a small collection of concrete pots to showcase in a local gallery in York, the inimitable According to McGee. “Then the usual excuses of full time jobs and lack of free time caused a year long break from my pots,” she tells me. “It took a global pandemic to get me back mixing concrete and testing out far too many batches of cement, sand and aggregates to finally happen upon a workable formula. Silver linings and all that – like many I just tried to make the best of a difficult situation,” she muses.
Concrete is hard and tactile, and I want these pieces to last and characterise with age.
Posting her first batch of “quarantine pots” on Instagram in late April, she has since grown her following to over 1k, proving there is ample demand for her creations. “I was pretty determined to make something beautiful out of a material that is usually used for relatively harsh industrial purposes,” she tells me. “It takes a bit of time and testing but by using the right mix of cement, sand and aggregate, plus a trickle of pigment I can cast some pretty shapes and practical trinkets which I like to think of as functional art. It’s simple, but I hope it’s powerful.”
Working with a base material that is rooted in sustainability inspires Rebecca to extend these principles to other areas of her business. “Sourcing packaging from local suppliers and using as much recycled material as possible was key,” she says. “I particularly love the shredded wood wool used to cushion the products in transit.”
The idea of bringing something as industrial as concrete into the home living space really set the course to make her creations as purposeful as possible. “While hopefully beautiful, my pieces are eminently functional,” she says. “Concrete is hard and tactile, and I want these pieces to last and characterise with age.”
She’s yet to set up an online store and currently sells directly through her social channels. “Instagram is a great start and has served me well so far,” she says, “but the next step is to be able to sell online through my own webshop – it’s in the works right now!” Long-term her hope is to get the business to a stage where she has her own workshop and doesn’t have to worry about damaging the flooring in her flat with any stray concrete! “Ultimately making a living off of something I enjoy doing is the goal,” she says, “as I am sure it is for many!”
Images © Narvi Design, used with permission.
Another brand to launch during lockdown is Klay Made, founded by Manchester-based artistic couple, Kya Buller and Luke Passey. Luke is a visual artist, usually working with bright, colourful palettes, while Kya is a writer, primarily of personal essays, as well as the founding editor of Aurelia Magazine. “I have been collecting beautiful earrings for years,” Kya tells me, “so the creation of Klay Made was quite a natural thing for us. It combines Luke’s love of pattern and colour with my own love of statement jewellery that tells a story. We found ourselves with loads of free time in lockdown, and did the research, bought the materials and spent a full night making. Fast forward to now, and we’re loving our creations – and the response!”
It certainly was a whirlwind start for the brand, who sold out their debut collection on Etsy in under 24 hours. “Selling out as quickly as we did was a surprise,” says Luke. While they don’t plan to rush into another release, preferring instead to relish a slow process of making and bringing an entire collection to life, they are already taking on individual orders and commissions via Instagram. A new collection is likely to drop in late August or early September, they think.
It’s a beautiful partnership. I’m so glad we’re doing it together, because I feel you can really see both our personalities in the earrings we make.
“Our creative process is really quite spontaneous,” says Kya. “Luke will just randomly choose colours and play around with techniques, coming up with the most beautiful and striking designs ever. Sometimes I sit with a notebook and sketch out shapes or put together a palette, but usually during the actual making process, things will change and the finished pair will look different to how it originally looked in my head. It’s a beautiful partnership; I’m so glad we’re doing it together, because I feel you can really see both our personalities in the earrings we make.”
For now, they’re content to continue selling on Etsy. “As a new business it’s preferable to have a small fee taken with each purchase rather than think about yearly fees,” says Luke. “Our own webshop is something we’ll eventually have I’m sure, but for now Etsy is ideal.”
“I’d love to do pop-up stalls and markets,” Kya says, “and also to collaborate with other small businesses in some way, whether that’s designing jewellery together or offering bundles. This was such a quick process for us that we’re still figuring out – in the beginning we didn’t even expect to be selling them – so I’m still in a bit of shock, and taking each day as it comes!”
Klay Made images, including article lead, © Luke Passey, used with permission.