Have you ever felt ‘too old’ to follow your passions and begin to build something of your own? Well, today’s interviewee is here to tell you it’s never too late to become an ‘oldtrepreneur’ – her words, not mine!
“It has always been a dream of mine to have my own brand and I have had many plans, but it never felt like the right time,” says Withnell founder, Paula Roworth. “My love for making, art, and design have been there for as long as I can remember. I have always been creative; it just comes naturally. It started with mud and environmental objects. I loved being outdoors when I was younger, and my playground was the moors, the woodland and streams where I grew up. I first learned to sew when I was at primary school, using my mum’s old Singer sewing machine. Not only did I love sewing but I loved the machine, the history, the iron work surrounding the belt and the treadle. The combination of history, functional and decorative have always appealed to me. My mum altered, mended and made new garments and she encouraged my interest and taught me the practical elements of garment construction. I was soon making my own garments and altering others. I fancied myself as a tailor!”
After leaving school Paula studied fashion and textiles at Wigan College of Art, based in Trencherfield Mill and surrounded by the history of cotton, steam and coal, before moving on to study Fashion and Textiles at Cleveland College of Art & Design. “I knew I wanted to stay in the North,” she tells me. “I loved it, worked hard and went straight into industry. My first job was with a UK manufacturer in Manchester in the 1990s. The design studio was in their head office in Denton, but we moved to one of the factories, in a fantastic old mill on the corner of Ducie Street behind Piccadilly. I designed ladies wear dresses and blouses. After this I moved into childrenswear design for several UK manufacturers, which was fun and more varied, covering babies, boys and girls wear, for most of the UK high street stores.”
The pandemic was a big influence on my decision. I was 54 and thought if I don’t do this now then I never will. I would always wonder what if?
“At this time I was becoming more aware of the price squeeze on British manufacturing and stiff competition from cheap imports,” she says. “Designs were diluted to meet low price points and this was the beginning of the rise of fast fashion. I became disillusioned and really didn’t feel like I fitted in with this move towards cheap imports and poor quality, so I took a step back and focused on my family. This led me down another path into teaching and I became an early years specialist and deputy head at a local primary school. Working with young children is a privilege and great fun. It is also creative, yet I felt like something was missing, and that I needed to return to working with my hands and do what comes instinctively.”
Of course, it was Covid that brought things into sharp focus. “The pandemic was a big influence on my decision,” she tells me. “I was 54 and thought if I don’t do this now then I never will. I would always wonder what if? It felt like the right time and so I took a leap of faith. Better an oops than a what if.”
Based at the foot of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, the brand that followed takes inspiration from the old parish name for the cluster of villages where Paula lives and is, she tells me, an amalgamation of all her life experiences. “I am deeply inspired by my love of nature and the landscape, and am utilising skills from my experience in both the clothing industry and from teaching.”
Withnell offers timeless handmade slow fashion garments for women and girls, each designed to be an investment piece that is made to last and be passed on. Everything is done in-house from design ideas, sourcing fabrics and trims, creating patterns and sample garments. Each piece is woven with stories of history, heritage and a celebration of the local Pennine environment, celebrating the industrial history which drove people to the area early in the 19th Century, while keeping a firm eye on the environmental responsibilities we have in the 21st Century.
“I am not naive to the damage created by the industrial revolution,” says Paula. “It was not just the mills, but the bleach and dye works that processed the woven cloth. 370 tonnes of coal per week were used to power just one local mill. Approximately 4 million gallons of water were used daily to process fabrics. Our local streams and rivers ran with the colours of the rainbow depending on the dye and chemicals being used, all without any consideration for nature, wildlife and the long term impact! As designers today, if we create a product then we need to take responsibility for the impact of that product; today, tomorrow, in 10 years’ time and in 50 years’ time. This is where Withnell fits, and as a brand we are striving to create a brighter future.”
Garment construction involves a great deal of technical knowledge and understanding of body proportions, and Paula tells me that she loves to construct patterns and tinker with them until she can create something that will be comfortable and make the wearer feel good. “I mindfully design our pieces,” she says, “to be simple with quality rather than quantity as our priority. Design ideas become an instinct that I need to follow. I will begin to explore different shapes, always considering the human form, comfort and ease of movement. Sometimes I am not happy with the results and I will keep returning to the pattern until I am satisfied.”
“Our heritage and the natural environment has a huge influence on my work. I try to get this across not only in the colours I use, but also the materials and the imagery. I tend to be drawn to calm earthy tones; sometimes colour is the first part of my design process! It might come from a plant, grasses and moss or dry stone wall, an animal or even how the light plays on the land. I’m surrounded with a palette of colours in the Lancashire landscape. Other times I am influenced by shapes and forms. I tend to create curves in my silhouettes; a slightly rounded sleeve or a curved outside seam on a trouser. There are not many straight lines in nature. Development is a long process but one that I thoroughly enjoy. I think that it’s important to understand how different fabrics feel, what they are like to sew and how they will move on the body. The feel of the garment on your skin is very important to me; clothing should be a sensory experience.”
Sourcing materials for her collection involved researching the history and the background of different manufacturers and merchants. “I like to work with companies that have provenance,” she tells me, “although sadly many heritage manufacturers have now become merchants in order to survive. I strive to support as many UK manufacturers, makers or merchants as possible, helping to keep skills alive in the British Isles. I use Linen from Northern Ireland because of their strong heritage and skill, and because linen is naturally one of the most sustainable materials available. It grows well with little to no fertiliser, needs only rain water and actually replenishes the ground it grows in. Sadly though, Irish linen is no longer grown and processed in Ireland; instead it is grown and processed into yarn in Europe. It then goes to Ireland to be woven into cloth and dyed using traditional techniques and in this way is helping to keep their heritage alive.”
“The impact of fabrics is very important, and I have chosen to work mostly with mono fabrics, i.e. those of one origin that can easily be recycled in the future, and that will naturally biodegrade. I only trusted merchants who are transparent about their sources and will happily discuss their sustainability, utilising organic cottons for many of our designs. This cloth is naturally more expensive and one dress may use upwards of three metres of cloth. I then use natural threads rather than polyester, and my labels use woven cotton made in the UK. All of our packaging is sourced locally, made in the UK from natural materials and biodegradable. Every item has been carefully considered. There is always room for improvement though, and I will constantly adapt and change. In the future I would love to introduce wool and work with some Yorkshire woollen cloth manufacturers.”
“Sustainability is complex and people struggle to know what to believe. I think it is much easier to think about waste as the biggest problem. Over-consumption creates a great deal of waste. It is encouraging to know that many consumers are more considerate of their purchases now, and actively seek out sustainable and ethically made products which are more expensive but will last. The most sustainable clothes are the ones we already have. To sustain means to keep going, and I have considered ways to keep our garments in use for as long as possible.”
“Firstly I have a made-to-order business model so that precious materials are not wasted, and I create dual size patterns so that garments fit even if your body shape fluctuates over time. I consider my designs to be ageless and timeless and I don’t introduce seasonal collections, instead I tweak existing styles and introduce new pieces when I imagine them. I provide a repair kit with every order to promote mending and we make the repair kits using our off-cuts. We also offer lifetime repairs. A ribbon is inserted in every garment to embroider the name of the wearer. This way we are showing that our garments have a value and they are part of the wearers journey. The ribbon has a motto – ‘love me, wear me, share me’ – to encourage longevity.”
Paula tells me she chose to start with womenswear and girls wear because that is what she was familiar with. “I didn’t want to get too complex too soon – sometimes it is better to do one thing right and do it well, but organically this may change over time. Unisex would definitely fit our ethos of versatility and longevity.” Short term though, she wants Withnell to slowly grow. “I started this journey during strange and turbulent times,” she says, “and if we can survive the next 12 – 18 months whilst growing a following of like minded people I think we will be in a stronger position. Already we have repeat customers, which is a major boost knowing they like and trust the brand. In the future I would love to have a studio away from home where people could also visit and shop. I would also love to be in a position to employ other like-minded creatives in the local area – a micro factory.”
Photography © Rebecca Royle, Julie Thompson & Gemma McKell for Withnell, all used with permission.
Kate is the founder and editor of Fabric of the North, borne out of her passion for supporting mindful, aesthetic and sustainable small businesses. Based in the North West, by day she helps thoughtful small brands and solo business owners achieve meaningful growth through 1-2-1 guidance, intentional strategy and considered content creation. She is also a veteran blogger, having launched her award-winning interior lifestyle blog Fabric of my Life back in 2009.