I learned to sew when I was really young. My mom set an example as a wizard with the sewing machine, and I took it up to learn my own techniques. That set the precedent for a career in fashion, which led to me starting my own business making textiles and pillows. And now — huzzah! — my business has evolved into a full-on retail and micro-manufacturing operation. In today’s Design Talk, I detail how I got my start in manufacturing my own product, and how NYC is a beautiful, though challenging, place to be operating from.
There’s a recognizable pattern in building up a brand when you’re also a maker, an inventor, a creative, a designer, or the like. First, an idea strikes. Then you figure out how to make that idea work, come to life, or function. The next step is acting on that, and actually making it. What follows is teaching someone else how to make it, sharing your insight and the operations of your idea. Lastly, which doesn’t always happen, you outsource the whole project separate from your immediate oversight.
My story follows this trajectory. I had the idea to make pillows, and to develop the textiles for them. I figured out how I could do it: what fabrics worked, what sewing techniques to employ, and how to produce cost-effectively and sell to vendors. I brought on a seamstress to help me, and taught her the specifics of my designs. That has blossomed, and though I haven’t outsourced, I have a larger staff working with me in the manufacturing of my designs, which now encompasses everything from textiles and pillows to wallpaper, lighting, and furniture.
Amid reports (and visible realities) that manufacturing jobs are exiting New York City, there is still a lot to be said for making, manufacturing and micro-manufacturing, and growing a maker-centered business here. In 2016, The NYC Center for an Urban Future released a report detailing the five boroughs’ current climates, in their pros and their cons, for manufacturing industries. Three sectors were ripe for growth: 3D printing, metal and wood fabrication, and food manufacturing. Not that these fields apply to everyone, but I believe witnessing how these sectors continue to see growth within the NYC footprint reveals a positive, reassuring moment for makers at large.
In the next couple Design Talks by MV, I’ll be sharing my full micro-manufacturing story, with great credit due to each of the people and partners who’ve helped me along the way. Granted, my story begins a little bit ago, in another city still full of lucrative industrial practices: Detroit. (Betcha could’ve guessed that one!)
One of the things I didn’t recognize as unusual growing up, but which I now realize wasn’t everyone’s case, was that my family actually made things. It was partly that we didn’t have a lot of resources, and partly my parents’ natural inclinations. Both my Mom and Dad (eventually we were recruited to help!) did all of our turn of the century home's renovations and repairs themselves. We learned about electrical wiring (our house still had cloth covered cords around ceramic coils), framing walls, hanging drywall and even some plumbing.
My mom made our Halloween costumes—and because I’m a triplet, that meant three costumes for three girls, always in three different styles. She would use bed sheets to make detailed Victorian dresses with plume-like ruffles, or elaborate pintucks to make them something more than the least expensive fabric she could find! Mom was never, and still isn’t, necessarily domestic or “housewife-y,” she just had the craftsperson wherewithal and, by necessity, needed to be resourceful as a mother of three. She taught my sisters and me, from a really young age, how to sew. We made patterns, cut fabrics, and used a sewing machine that she kept in her bedroom. I really took a liking to it. At first I would make basic designs, then it got a little more sophisticated as I got into darting and such. It was an organic interest and an organic skill, built up from the enjoyment of practice (can’t say I don’t have a bit of thanks to give to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, my favorite book series at the time, which inspired the same sort of girl power, “make-your-own” mentality).
Many years later, after some time working in the fashion industry in New York, I realized I wanted to start my own business. I already had the skillset required to work with fabrics, and because of my work experience, I already had connections in the textile industry. Back then the garment district was still housing a lot of manufacturing facilities, so New York was a strong hub for those sorts of resources. By recommendation or word of mouth, I had thrown business to the sample rooms and fabric suppliers, so not only did they already trust me, they believed I might actually be someone worth investing in, and they were willing to make exceptions for me to work with them. For example, because in fashion you usually have to buy a whole roll of fabric to get samples, they would waive the rule and let me buy as little as a yard. I was able to scale slowly, which was the only realistic route for me at that point as a self-financed sole operator. Just like Egg Collective advised in last week’s Design Talk, the benefits of becoming entrenched in my industry before going at it alone really paid off, and allowed me to start my business with much less overhead (and much more support) than usual.
One of the many perks (aside from the many challenges!) of sole proprietorship was having 100% aesthetic control. I was able to experiment with unconventional designs like elaborate scrims and massive hanging mobiles. Eventually, I stuck with pillows because they were the most economical to produce, from fabricating through shipping, and they still allowed me the creative experimentation I craved. I began sourcing fabrics from stock, because I had access to them with virtually no minimum: silk, charmeuse, velvet, felt and ultrasuede.
I’ll leave you with that aesthetic cliffhanger, and dive right back in next week with a look at how resources, or the lack thereof, forced my hand in some design decision-making, which ended up, down the line, refining into a holistic sensibility. After all this “figuring out how to make it” stuff comes the perfection of actually making it, and then teaching a team how to make it alongside you. Tune in next week for that full story!
Till next week,
As told to Emily R. Pellerin