Sewing, a skill passed from mother to daughter for decades, has become a dying art in today’s throw-away culture, but a handful of Garden Route women are very successfully expressing their creativity in fabric and thread.
WORDS Janine Oelofse PHOTOGRAPHS Colin Stephenson & Raquel De Castro Maia/create photography
At this year’s Kamersvol Geskenke expo at Lourensford in Somerset West, the demitasse stand was the place to be. Three friends, Alida Wilkin, Lindsay Bennett and Louise Leggatt – each entrepreneurs with their own label and successful in their own right – banded together to collaborate under the label “demitasse”, showcasing their shoes, clothing and handbags.
Alida owns Shweshwe handmade, a clothing company, while Lindsay owns Bennett & Co shoe company and Louise owns Gypsey Lou handbags.
The trio came upon the name “demitasse” after seeing the word during a business trip. It’s French for small coffee cups and means “half a cup”.
“Besides just liking the sound of the word, we liked the positive ‘glass half full’ idea attached to it as well as the significance of halfway marks in life in general.
“We each started our own businesses in the George and Wilderness area between five and eight years ago, and we ran them individually but when we met each other, we worked so well together. We coincidentally chose something that worked together, but it was more about the end product than the actual sewing,” says Alida.
How it started “We all felt we had natural creativity and the ability to run our own business, so we brought together those elements to find an outlet for our creative drive. We all started off small and sold our products on local markets in the area.”
Since those early days, the businesses have grown considerably, with each either owning their own small factory or outsourcing their work to a local factory.
“We are still all very hands on. We still all design products, source fabrics and play a role in the manufacturing side. We also market our own products and are involved in the retail and wholesale end.
“We pretty much do everything. The demitasse range is not designed to be a perfect match, but complimentary,” they say.
How the business progressed The trio is opening a shop in the Church Corner Building in Courtenay Street in George this month (December) that will double as both creative and retail space.
“We decided after the end of November last year that although we loved running our own businesses, it could be lonely. Now we have created an environment where we are with our friends and we can bounce ideas around,” says Lindsay.
The women say they value each other’s support and understand the demands of running their own show while still juggling the responsibilities of a family.
“In between coming up with new ranges, we still need to pack school lunch boxes and change the odd nappy!”
Where creative inspiration comes from Louise says they often draw inspiration from something they’ve seen, be it in colour, texture or just a feeling.
“We’ve always said that we’d only make things that we would want to buy for ourselves, so we try to create products that have a broad appeal while still using great quality fabrics, colours and textures.”
The women collaborate on themes, from suede handbags to vintage floral shoes and stunning outfits.
“It’s not a matchy-matchy thing, but we work around a complimentary look.”
How the business was set up The women say because they started off small and individual, by the time they got together for their collaboration, they were all running medium scale workshops.
“We grew year on year and learned as we went along, catering to a steady evolution of where the businesses were headed. By the time we got together, our teething problems were out of the way. We knew our way around design, patterning, manufacturing and marketing,” says Alida.
She said none studied in the fashion industry, but they just loved what they were doing.
Where to next Opening the new shop this month will be demitasse’s main focus, but the women say they soon want to create a web presence, selling online and via Facebook.
“We’re not trying to think too far ahead. We are just taking it one step at a time, which is important in this business. If you think 10 steps ahead, you get overwhelmed. We just tackle one issue at a time and once we’ve come to grips with it, we move on.”
Biggest Challenge Cash flow and bank balances were the biggest challenges. Keeping the businesses afloat and the creative and marketing momentum going was vital.
“It’s never a case that the business ticks along on its own. Every day we have to meet new challenges.”
Greatest Achievement All three women now take part in high end expo shows, and all have featured in a variety of magazines and television programmes.
But that aside, Alida says: “Our biggest compliment comes from women loving our product. You can see they get the same thrill out of it that we would get from buying something that grabs our attention.”
Advice to others Do not go into business with pre-conceived expectations. Take it one day at a time, move forward at a slow but steady rate and be content that life will unfold as it must.
Knysna entrepreneurs Nicola Reardon and Svelka Sharp have found a way to turn their passion for needle and thread into a business that offers customers a relaxing way to while away a Saturday afternoon while at the same time making a functional and beautiful keepsake.
How it started Following 10 years in the corporate world, Nicola felt the need for a change and decided to start her own business.
Nicola says she always loved fabrics, thread and being creative. The concept of teaching children to sew simple projects and encouraging people to be creative was hugely appealing to her.
“The chance came up for me to work with my close friend, Svelka, on the quality and design of the products,” Nicola says.
Svelka, who had 14 years experience in advertising and design, created a corporate identity for the new company and in November 2010, Peg & Thread was born.
How the business progressed They have expanded their product range from 12 to 21 sewing and knitting kits.
Each kit contains all the necessary equipment to complete the craft and includes a tape measure, fabrics, yarns, pins and needles, scissors, glue, stuffing, sequins, ribbon, and patterns as well as step by step instructions. A mini glossary of sewing, knitting and embroidery stitches is included in each kit to demonstrate how to create and decorate with stitching.
Where creative inspiration comes from They get their inspiration from reading books or craft magazines, or just sewing quietly. They also attend Embroidery Guild meetings.
“It’s important to take yourself off every now and again to feed your creative soul. Go for a lovely walk and be inspired by nature, attend designer shows, visit an art gallery or just watch the world go by!”
How the business was set up Svelka and Nicola enrolled at the Small Enterprise Development Agency, which helped them learn about exporting. They also attend expos to showcase their products.
Where to next Nicola and Svelka want to step up marketing and selling in order to establish a profitable and sustainable platform from which to keep up with demand. They also want to explore new opportunities and markets in Africa and other countries.
Biggest Challenge Marketing and advertising the business effectively, and ensuring sufficient finances to take the next step in their business, were big challenges.
Greatest Achievement “When our customers place repeat orders, we love this! Tapping into the corporate gifting market this year has been fantastic,” says Nicola.
Advice to others The first step is to create a company identity. “Your logo will form part of every bit of marketing you do. Spend time on it.”
Next, find magazines or publications that will suit your product and advertise.
The women also found having an online presence hugely rewarding.
Demitasse Alida: 072 542 6649 or [email protected] Louise: 072 427 4573 or [email protected] Lindsay: 082 525 2912 or [email protected] Peg & Thread www.pegandthread.co.za Working studio address: 5 Noble Street, Knysna Industria (Behind Whitewashed and opposite Fechters). Nicola: 083 265 7730 Svelka: 082 889 3522