Anyone looking to throw caution to the wind and start up their own business knows that it often comes with many challenges and setbacks. According to 2014 statistics from Startups.co.uk, 1,870 new businesses were launched in Lewisham alone. But, only 38% of these survived and made it successfully into 2015. Stitcher, knitter and creative, Jenni Wilson, is currently embarking on this process, with the aim of turning her love for all things crafty into a long-term local business idea, launching Stitch n’ Bitch Sewcials; her own take on the popular Stitch n’ Bitch gatherings, knitting and crochet books. Indeed, in 2007 Stitch n’ Bitch London presented the London Lion Scarf around the necks of the Trafalgar Square Lions in Central London and raised over £2,500 for cancer research.
Although it was not love at first stitch when Jenni was first introduced to knitting by her nan, by the time she finished art college she had completely fallen in love with it.
‘I initially learnt hand knitting at college but was also taught how to machine knit at university and spent the rest of my time there making all sorts of things. My nan passed on her amazing collection of needles and pattern books to my mum. When she saw I was turning into a keen knitter she passed the beautiful bright red leather case full of needles to me.’
Although Jenni’s ultimate plan is to open a large studio space where she can continue with screen printing and textile work and also make this available for local artists to create and sell their work, she is currently engaged in the running of weekly Sewcial groups across South East London. New to London and faced with the rapidly growing studio rent prices, she turned to social media to grow her burgeoning business. ‘Social media has been brilliant for this,’ she says. ‘I’ve posted photos from events and used a couple of hash tags and within days’ people have messaged me to ask how they can join. All hail Instagram!’
Jenni’s first Sewcials event was at her local pub in Hither Green in August this year and she now has a host of events running up until Christmas. The events are for anyone and everyone interested in anything crafty. ‘I think at first people were a bit hesitant to join as they weren’t sure if you needed experience or if you had to bring along materials. I encourage people to bring their own projects if they are working on something. However, I also love to hear from anyone who is interested in learning how to knit or who wants to meet new people interested in crafty things. I do teach basic knitting to beginners and encourage them to continue after the event.’
Given that the community is at the heart of Jenni’s aims, improving access to these traditional skills is vital. ‘It has to be inclusive,’ says Jenni. ‘I noticed that a two-hour knitting class elsewhere in London was around £65, which is simply not affordable for everyone.’ That’s why in order to encourage both local newbies and those more experienced to have a go at learning a new skill, she’s initially running Sewcials for free, in cosy local coffee shops and pubs.
Gatherings are also fuelled with beer and unlimited tea but it’s the community aspects of the Sewcials that she most values. ‘Something I miss from being a student is the camaraderie. I did a textile degree and my peers and I spent a lot of time in our studios talking about ideas, exhibitions that were coming up, doing our work and generally having a good natter. When you leave university or change jobs or even move to a new area, this community feel is something which you then have to work on again.’
Jenni hopes that she can use the local community to her advantage by bringing together likeminded talented people who can eventually sell their work back to locals. As well as her plans for a studio, eventually she would love to open her own shop that would stock work created by local artists (especially knitting, crocheting and printing) with a workshop space to run crafty events. ‘I would also love to have a small café area within the shop stocking locally made cake and coffee because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to eat cake drink coffee and browse through lovely things? The idea is that I’m still creating some kind of hub for creative locals to come and work still and the business will hopefully grow into studios further down the line.’
Jenni wanted to focus the business around her own local area of Hither Green and Lewisham, where Sewcials first took off. ‘I think the borough itself is a vibrant and exciting place with so much going on especially in the arts and crafts. The people here are also some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t want to start my business anywhere else in the world.’ With regards to actually turning this creative idea into a business, it can be hard to know where to start. Jenni found support by going to a “start-up business” workshop at the British Museum, run by the London Small Business Centre. ‘It works very closely with start-ups, offering advice and helping you write your business plan. The organisation has helped transform the Old Ladywell Leisure Centre and expand Bow Arts in Catford. ‘The mentoring scheme is brilliant and the help I’ve received so far has been essential – from advice and feedback to information on funding.’
Although the Stitch n’ Bitch Sewcials have only been running since August, Jenni already has a set of regulars that continue to come to her events to learn new skills from each other and to have a natter. ‘So far the comments and support from the community has been overwhelming. I believe that offering these work shops initially free is a great way to get something started!’
For details on Jenni’s next Stitch n’ Bitch Sewcials visit her Facebook page here