My husband runs our other family business from a nearby farm which has converted its outbuildings into light industrial units and one came free at just the right moment. Converting an ancient lambing parlour that had been used for the last five years as a carpenter’s workshop into a professional curtain maker’s workroom took some imagination and a lot of effort. New tables, lots of shelves, extra lighting and plenty of elbow grease did the job and an annex room was turned into a mini showroom and meeting area with table, chairs and lots of sample books.
I knew from the start that the additional overheads I now had to pay meant that I had to increase my income significantly and that one pair of hands wouldn’t be enough. Employing staff was an even bigger step for me but I began with one part time workroom assistant and found a curtain fitter who would work for me at an hourly rate. For a while I used outworkers to supplement our resources when required but found it difficult to maintain the levels of quality that I insist on. So the workroom team has gradually grown and I now have five part time curtain makers and two part time fitters. My husband and I also share two office staff to help with all the paperwork and administration.
All these wages meant that we needed more work and I started to step up my marketing. I was keen to increase my trade customer base because of the volumes they bring, even though the margins are lower. My first big contract was with our local John Lewis who outsourced their hand sewn, made-to-measure work to us thanks to an introduction by my fitter. A number of other retail specialists and interior designers followed and we have helped them to create some wonderful projects. I enjoy working with designers who have creative vision and who allow me to use my expertise to create soft furnishings to match.
My contacts within the soft furnishing craft have always been so helpful. Discovering online communities of curtain makers brought a whole new dimension to my working life. Being able to swap ideas with fellow professionals, to ask questions and admire other people’s great work inspires me to push my own boundaries. My Decozo is a wonderful UK forum for soft furnishing enthusiasts and we have even managed to arrange a number of real gatherings in my workroom to share knowledge and fellowship. The US based CHF Forum is the most amazing group of curtain makers whose superb work and commitment to learning truly inspires me every day and I can’t wait to get over there and meet some of them.
I started to get enquiries about providing training in curtain making but recognised that we just don’t have the time in a busy workroom to down tools and run classes. So we came up with the idea of Observer Days where a visitor shadows one of the team during their normal day and gets to see how soft furnishings are made in a professional workroom. They can ask questions about everything they see and often lend a supporting hand if they feel confident enough.
This soon expanded into Project Days where they bring in their own fabric and one of the team helps them to construct something using our equipment. Of course we make a small charge for these days as they do impact on our productivity but we have met some lovely people this way.
The internet has become the major plank in our marketing activity. We still advertise in village newsletters and lots of enquiries come from referrals and repeat business but the main source of all new work is from our website. We had been working with a home built site since the very beginning but In 2009 I decided it was time for a professionally built web presence. We were lucky enough to find the good people at Seven Creative who turned my ideas for the look and feel into a really smart and effective website. This blog came next followed by LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. All of these have brought work directly to the business as well as finding us new friends and giving me more opportunities to expand my soft furnishing knowledge.
The period running up to Christmas 2009 was our busiest ever. Mortgage rates were at an all time low but because of the credit crunch nobody was moving house so those with secure jobs had plenty of disposable income which they were spending on decorating their homes. We were inundated with work and it was very frustrating to have to turn customers away. An adjoining unit came up at Water Hall Farm and we snapped it up.
This gave us a much needed storeroom, a dedicated entrance hall which we could fill with displays and another workroom big enough for a cutting table and another making table. We extended the main workroom table to 7 metres making it easier to handle some of the bigger jobs we get with really long drops.
This additional capacity means we will be able to grow by nearly 50% before we will have to move again. Such thinking shows how Denton Drapes has become a proper grown-up business and how my working life has changed. I rarely make any curtains myself during the week anymore because I am too busy dealing with customers, staff, suppliers and a hundred other things.
Planning the week’s work, preparing job sheets, checking fabrics and inspecting the finished product all takes a lot of time. Luckily for me, my work is also my hobby, so I am happy to spend my weekend’s blog writing or taking photos for a Step by Step guide in Drapery & Design magazine.
We have come a really long way in the last fourteen years and I have loved every minute of it. Well, most of them anyway. I have had to learn some hard business lessons and have made plenty of mistakes but the pleasure I get when I see the wonderful things that come out of our workroom make it all worthwhile.
Thank you for reading this blog and for the lovely things people have said about it. I am flattered that my personal reflections have struck a spark with others at different stages of the same journey. My next blog will return to the craft of curtain making but, as there seems to be a demand, I will try to write more about the business side of things in future as well.