My Fabric Designer Journey

I have many designers contact me and ask me how I started and run my business. I am flattered to be asked about my business but on the other hand I find it strange that designers ask me for a magic answer of running a fabric and wallpaper business! there is no magic answer so I have decided to add my journey account to this blog so budding designers can see how I started and run my business.

In 2003 I set up a business from scratch called Crafty Computer Paper, it was a niche business only selling online, specialist inkjet papers which could be used for many kinds of crafts. I ran this business for 8 years and learnt many skills along the way. I built my own website before it was professionally created, I maintained the website at all times. I learnt how to employ people which I found very difficult. If there are any problems, it is always the employees who can create them and not the running of the business. There was a great deal to learn running this business and it was started during the early years of the internet. I was lucky and I worked hard to create quite a large business. I sold it in 2010 because I could not take it any further and my family needed me at that time. It gave me the confidence to run a business and also showed me areas I needed to avoid in the future.

I always regretted never doing an Art Foundation course when I left school, I was desperate to leave home and ended up going to Manchester University reading a very boring subject! I bombed out after three years of failing my exams, it was a waste of time and I ended up with nothing. All my siblings had gained good degrees and I was the only one who stumbled. After I sold my business, I had the opportunity to go to the local college (Newcastle) and become a mature student. I remember looking at the choices and there was Textile or Fine art, I rang the textile department first and was asked to come in and show some of my work. I met my lovely tutor Libby who after 5 minutes said I was in! I had never been to art college before, so it was all totally new to me. I loved it from the first day and it really did open up my creative ambitions. We started just sketching in sketch books, I didn’t really know what we were trying to achieve, later on I realised how important sketch books are. Each module was a simple process of research, sketching, development of the sketches and then the final outcome. I still follow these principles and the process can take quite a long time. Textiles is a large subject and I was amazed at how many different techniques were involved. I have choices of paths I could take, could I be a constructed textile designer, or a print textile designer. I loved both areas but decided to do print. The only problem was the print room was not my favourite place and I didn’t really gel with the man who ran the department. The facilities were very sparse, so I taught myself to do screen printing at home with various, lights and leaving screens to dry in the dark in the bathrooms. I was desperate to learn to do repeat patterns and I just did not have the facilities or a long print table and big screens to be able to achieve this. When I ran my previous business, I learnt how to create graphics using the Adobe programs. These skills proved invaluable, so I started to use a digital method to create my designs. I was very frustrated with the college digital printing set up, so I got my designs printed by SpoonFlower in the US. I never had one or two designs printed off but always did about 10 to 20, it was quite expensive, but it worked so well.

Early designs from college

By the end of my degree I had written up an academic business plan and created my first collection which I still have today. This process took a whole year to do and it was well worth the time and effort. I did think at one point I didn’t want to sell my own fabric and wallpaper and thought about just selling my designs in New York twice a year at a show called Printsource. I went to this show to see what it was like and I was so disappointed at how I reacted. I saw all these designers giving their designs away for very little and having no control over them once they had been purchased. I did write an in-depth blog about my experiences at this exhibition if you look further into my blog posts. This was not for me, so I went back to my original plan and decided to sell my own fabrics and wallpapers.

I was pleased to finish my textile degree with a first, but I loved every minute and sucked up as much information as possible. I eventually got my degree so my father would have been proud of me! It was 2016 and I had to start getting my name out there which is the hard bit!

Just before the end of my degree I organised a team of us to go to a show called New Designers it was at the Design Centre in Islington. I have to say I hated it and was so disappointed that we had the darkest stand available on one of the balconies, nobody came to see us it was horrible! It really made me lose my confidence, but I just had to pick myself up and tell myself I was doing the right thing. Looking back, it was good to have this kind of experience because it really makes you appreciate any positive feedback or any feedback at all.

These cushions I took to New Designers in London they were of my first collection Hermitage

It’s all well and good designing a collection but you have to have it physically printed. Colours are so important and this needs to be consistent. I started using digital printers who had the customer services of a Nat and every time I unrolled a roll of fabric it was a totally different colour to the sample, I had sent my customer. The whole process was expensive and very worrying, I changed my printers more than once and I now have the nicest printers in the world. I am not going to give you any names because it is important designers find their own printers because they may have different needs to me. I had to buy a lot of sample fabric to cut up and send out to customers. 

Investment is an important section I need to mention, I invested substantial sum of money into my business at the start, I used this money to have samples printed, set up a website, hire a photographer and stylist and create a fabric book etc. This was money well spent, and it has paid off ten fold. I was lucky that I did not have to pay for skills I already had, and I was able to create my designs from start to finish and send the print ready files to the printers. I also had the ability to create my own website, stationery, logo, product cards and brochures. I outsourced the areas I was not good at, this was so I did not have to employ anyone directly it was just me running the business. One thing I always said if I started a new business was to spend money on a PR agent, this has been a Godsend and again well worth the money. I work together with the PR agent and create photos of the new products, they work the words and know the contacts and that helps me get into the press.

This was one of my first press shots taken by the professionals

Two thirds of the time in a business I would say is working towards your brand and exposure. I still work very hard on this subject and there are many designers who might not realise how time consuming this is and how important it is. One of the best investments I made in the beginning was paying for a professional photographer and stylist to come all the way up to Northumberland to take photos of my first collection. It was great and I let them get on with it! they knew what would work for the magazines and they produced some amazing images. At the time I did not have a PR agent, so I wrote a simple press release added the photos and emailed as many magazines as possible. I was amazed at the response and this was the beginning of my road to being in the press. It has really helped my brand grow and I have met some great people along the way. Now I try to take my own photos and have educated myself in becoming a better photographer.  Social media, photographs are classed as currency and are really important to get your message out there, it is a skill worth investing in. I love it because it is creative, so I really enjoy it much more than I used to. I have spent money on a decent camera and lenses, and I used my iPad as a monitor, it is easier than you think if you can get your head around a few numbers.

It was all well and good getting into magazines at the start, but I then had to try and sell the fabrics. It was very difficult to start off with and I had to send out a lot of samples. I started selling on a website and sending out samples to whoever wanted them. I sent them for free and soon realised that I was providing samples to the national patchwork and quilting community. It was all very soul destroying. It seems I sent out so many samples and did not get much response back, sales did start to come but I remember it was like climbing up a mountain. I got myself into such a state and really questioned what I was doing! I think what saved me was an attitude shift and I started to make myself relax. I was expecting too much too quickly and once I relaxed about everything things started to change. I realised that when customers were asking me for samples there were probably asking about 5 designers for samples as well, nothing happened quickly, and people take ages to decide what they want in their houses. 

One aspect of my business which became a turning point was becoming trade only. I stopped making my samples available on line and decided to sell via stockists instead of trying to complete with my stockists by selling the fabrics on line. I met my America agent at Decorex and he told me that the US would not deal with any company who had prices on their website. I did think it was a bit of a risk but it has paid off so well and my turnover took a significant jump. Pricing is difficult and they can vary depending who and where you are selling too. I have different prices depending on who the customer is. If they are a stockist and have invested in my sampling, they get the best price, if they are a one-off purchaser and not a stockist then they get a different price. I really need to keep my stockists happy and it is important they have an advantage with regards to price, it encourages my website visitors to find their nearest stockist in their area.

In the early days I created a fabric book which was so expensive to produce. I could not really justify this expense so I started creating sample boxes. Sampling is such a nightmare and I have now gone full circle and am starting to produce a book with my designs. The sample boxes work for some customers but not for others, the boxes we produced ourselves but they were so time consuming to make I gave up the will to live because we seemed to be spending so much time making them. I now offer a book which is an edit of all 5 collections, large shops and designers like them and find it much easier to sell the fabric.

This was my first fabric book, Hermitage collection

Another important selling tool I created was a brochure, I never do things by halves so I started off with a 28-page brochure showing all the fabrics and wallpapers and showcasing some inspiration. Printing is expensive but I leant the skills of creating my own brochure, incorporating my photography. I only have small print runs so I am always updating each edition. I always send out a brochure with every sample order, I incorporate the cost into my marketing budget, it’s a great way to express your brand if you only have a website. Keeping it up to date is very important, often if I have a new collection, I curate the old fabrics and take out the ones which do not sell as well as the others. I try and have it printed on good quality paper so it looks good before you open the first page.

Trade shows have been a real stepping stone for my business and I have always had the attitude of doing the biggest and best! in my first year I did Decorex, I wasn’t really planning to do it so early but it was a good and bad experience. I had a horrible small stand in the furthest area you could possible go! I had some great people around me who were at a similar stage and I still keep in contact with them all. By the time we had some customers they had had to use GPS to find us and needed oxygen and a camp bed for a rest! it wasn’t the best experience but it really helped to expose my business to all sorts of people from posh London designers, more press and the international community. I forgot to mention that having a stand was a fortune, not just the stand price but all the extras, time, travel, food and accommodation. I have done it again since and loved it the second time and my business really started to take off. You have to make the most of the opportunities and this is where I started my American and Australian journeys. You have to shell out more in samples to send to all sorts of people but they do come back and I still have people who contact me from when they saw me at Decorex. I did not exhibit last year but I am really looking forward to doing it again this year at Olympia. 

This was my first stand at Decorex, very small indeed!

I am about to enter my 5th year of operation from back in 2016, I still love what I do, I have learnt by many mistakes along the way. These mistakes have been smoothed over and I now have a good sturdy business model based on experience. I try and design a collection each year so I always have something new and fresh to work on for the following year. To any up and coming designer reading this post, remember it is down to your hard work and determination which will make a success of your business. If you can find good help then make sure you hang onto them. Learn as many skills as you possibly can from computer programs, business development, accounts, marketing, photography, customer relations etc just to name a few. Even if you can afford to outsource these skills it is still a good idea to have some knowledge of them so you know if you are being led down the correct path.

One thing I have not mention here is about the customers, you never have one type, you may have at least 3 to 4 different types of customer. Get to know them and find out what makes them tick, quite often they will be similar to you and like what you like. It is the ‘Holy Grail’ knowing who your customer is but if you can create a profile it helps in all aspects of your business.

Lastly, I want to mention social media, it is a great platform and has transformed the way we can find new customers. In the old days we relied on Google AdWords which cost a fortune, now marketing on SM platforms is so much more affordable. I use Instagram as my main platform and second Facebook. It has taken me years to build up my following and I always think carefully about what I post and always have a reason to post. I try not to do the hard sell and offer something interesting or inspirational instead. The people you get in contact with can be amazing and it is a real community, I keep my posts to business and try not to post an empty beer glass with the sunset behind if possible. I love the contact I have with people and I think if you keep it respectful you always have a good honest and kind following. It is so worth building up your following and creating relationships but it does not happen overnight. 

I hope you have enjoyed the outline of how my business works. I am sorry I cannot reply to all those who write to me asking for advice of how to set up their businesses as a fabric designer.
I have learnt the hard way but I have enjoyed every minute of the rocky road to becoming a British fabric and wallpaper designer 

Thank you so much for reading this post 

Charlotte X