Cooperation, competition and customer service

This is Roxan. Roxan is a dressmaker who owns a shop selling haberdashery and fabric. Like me. Although that’s probably where any similarities end. Her little Aladdin’s Cave is in Saint Gaudens, in sunny SW France; mine is in wild and windblown Miltown Malbay, on the West Coast of Ireland. However, it turns out we do also share a certain attitude towards customers, and others in the same business.

I stopped in to buy some fabric that I’d seen on her Facebook page, Crea’Tissus. We chatted about her shop and mine and then, to my surprise, unprompted, she pulled a file from under her desk and wrote down the names of two or three suppliers that she thought I might find interesting.

Going back to the beginning, in the early days of my dressmaking business, I started running sewing classes. Since my learners needed supplies – and the nearest comprehensive source of haberdashery was in Limerick – I found it convenient to keep a few items in stock. My recommended starter kit consists of just seven items: fabric shears, embroidery scissors or thread snips, a seam ripper, tailor’s chalk, pins, hand sewing needles, and a tape measure.

I was buying from a wholesale warehouse in Dublin but, on my last visit, I had found their shelves empty. In spite of this, they unapologetically tried to insist on a minimum spend. Leaving, empty-handed, Wild Ireland Haberdashery was conceived in the few moments it took me to walk across the car park. At that time, I didn’t consider the possibility of a bricks-and-mortar store. My degree was in IT and I had the technical know-how to build an eCommerce site, so that’s where I began. But I needed help.

There was a little sewing shop in West London that I used to love. Not too far off the High Street, their window was always a treat, tempting even non-sewists inside. They didn’t have a lot of space, but they used every inch. They were my ‘go-to’ for all things sewing and I bought my sewing machines there – starting my love affair with Husqvarna Viking, incidentally. If I ever did have a shop, I told myself, this was the perfect model. I emailed the owner, asking for advice for my new enterprise. To my surprise, she emailed straight back … with enough encouragement, information and advice to give me a head start.

At first, I phoned or emailed potential suppliers slightly timidly but, as the positive responses came in, my confidence grew. That is, until I began to introduce myself to ‘competitor’ businesses that I admired. Suddenly, I found the shutters came down. None more so than with a quilting shop in the UK, whose owner told us bluntly that she would not help and then followed us around the shop to make sure we left. I was a bit shocked. This is not my way. Certainly, I have a lot to learn about business in general, but I’ll always do my best to help.

Forty years ago, every home had a sewing machine. But, as clothes and furnishings became cheaper to buy new, sewing started to attract negative connotations, linking the pastime to ‘make do and mend’ and threadbare hand-me-downs – the implication being that those who sewed couldn’t afford to buy new. Changes to the national curriculum meant that home economics got squeezed out in favour of more academic subjects. Sewing was no longer taught – at home or at school. It was no longer a necessary skill and the inevitable, subsequent closure of local drapery and haberdashery shops made it difficult to buy materials.

But home dressmaking, along with quilting, knitting, and crochet, is making a come-back. These days, for those who don’t make a living from it, sewing can be equally a therapeutic pastime and an expression of creativity. It’s a great way to create your own unique style and custom-fitted wardrobe, in a world where there is a dangerous over-abundance of throwaway fashion. One thing home sewing – in any form – isn’t, is a sign of poverty!

My mission in life is to get everyone sewing again and I aim to make it as easy as possible for people to find what they need to do so – whether it’s a reel of white thread or a dressmaking course. If that means sending someone to another supplier, or telling them about a shop or a college course that might be more convenient for them, that’s customer service, isn’t it? My hope would be that next time they’re looking for something, they’ll remember and give me a call. After all, everyone who sews is a potential customer.

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