This week I’m very excited to be interviewing the lovely Helen of 20th Century Cloth! Helen creates wonderfully fun, kitschy and gorgeous fabrics inspired by Mid-Century textiles and designs. If you’ve ever longed for the amazing fabric of the Atomic Age, 20th Century Cloth is your go-to shop for incredible fabric that looks truly authentic! I had a wonderful time interviewing Helen and learning more about her amazing work and I hope you all enjoy this interview just as much as I did! And do make sure to stick around til the end for a lovely offer from Helen!
Tell us about your business, 20th Century Cloth!
20th Century Cloth designs and produces our own range of unique and exclusive mid century inspired fabrics for fashion and interiors.
Our designs are also available on cushions, sets of melamine coasters, and also washbags and matching pocket mirrors.
When did you start your business? What inspired you to start it and what excites you about your work?
I started back in 2012, although I had done a lot of research and preparation for a while before that. I launched my business after my children had started full time school. I previously worked as a textile designer for some UK high street businesses but gave up my career in order to look after my children.
I had always been a keen crafter – I love to sew and knit, although I’m a very, very slow knitter. I prefer the more immediate results of sewing. I also love vintage fashions and have a large collection of vintage sewing patterns but found it difficult to find original fabric to sew with that were in large enough pieces to make a garment. As my children were getting a bit older, I was keen to get back into the workplace but wanted a job that would allow me the flexibility to still be around for them. I also wanted to do something that I had a real passion for. I had the idea of combining my skills as a textile designer with my hobbies and passions for sewing and vintage clothing to produce my own range of fabrics. I was also keen to manufacture all my products here in the UK, since when I was employed I had witnessed first hand the effects of companies closing their factories and moving their production offshore.
What excites me the most is when I see things my customers have made from my fabrics. When I first launched my interior fabric range and a customer had curtains made it blew me away to see an entire window dressed with my fabric.
What is your process? What tools do you like using? Where do you do your work? Can you walk us through a day in your life with your business?
I work from home which has enabled me to be flexible with my hours of work. Although my children are slightly older now, in the beginning I was still doing school runs so it made sense that I could fit around things like that, as well as being around for school concerts and events. My process generally begins with mark making by hand. I love to experiment with different techniques and have even been known to use a bit of potato printing! I just like to play with textures and shapes. I then scan in my marks and textures and play around with them digitally. The print repeats are always done now on computer. I also play with colours on computer.
My days are never the same. I always start by checking emails and packing orders and I do try to work to some sort of timetable. I’ll have certain days in the week that I spend designing; other days are mainly spent marketing – contacting magazines and press, shops who might be interested in stocking my products, and general publicity stuff. I always try to have at least one day a week on social media and am trying to keep up with writing a regular blog post, which always seems to fall by the wayside when things get busy. Occasionally I make a point of going into London to see an exhibition or just have a wander to feed my mind a little – it’s easy to start to get a little cabin fever when you work from home and I find it important to get out once in a while.
Then there are the boring accounting and book keeping days, the exciting product delivery days, the sorting problems on the website days. The best days are when I get lovely customer feedback – that always makes everything worthwhile.
What do you love the most about your business?
The thing I love the most is my customers – even the ones that don’t buy anything! I know that probably sounds corny but when your business is based around something you love so much, and most of your customers feel the same way about the same things, it’s amazing when I can chat online to people in other countries about my projects, their projects, their cars, interests etc. It’s amazing and makes the world feel like a much smaller, happier place.
What is the most difficult aspect of running your business?
The thing I have found the most difficult is having to put myself out there and be confident about my work. Although I am naturally a chatty, friendly person (my family think I’m a bit odd because I will talk to absolutely anyone!) I’m not naturally good at selling myself so presenting myself on social media has been a bit of a difficult journey for me. I might look relaxed in the photos on my website, but it doesn’t come naturally at all!
When and how did you first get into textile design? What first drew you to this business?
I studied textile design straight after leaving school. I remember a school friend’s older sister coming back to my school to give a talk about what she was doing at college. She was studying textile design, something I never knew existed at that time. Without wanting to say too much that was 30 years ago. I completed a basic diploma and then secured a place at art school where I completed a printed textiles degree.
I love that your fabric designs are inspired by mid-century styles, can you tell us more about that and why you wanted to bring this wonderful style back to life?
I have always loved midcentury design in all its shapes and forms. I grew up listening to the music of that era and it was only when I met my now husband that I discovered the rockabilly scene in the UK. In those days it was pretty much an underground movement, not such a big scene as it is today. We both share a love for the design of the midcentury period – we have a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. It’s not just a job to me – it’s something I really love, so it made sense that I would design fabrics that are reminiscent of that time in history.
As a designer and artist, what tends to inspire you the most? Where do you look for inspiration?
I can be inspired by so many different things, from patterns in nature to light through blinds. I take photos of lots of shapes and images. I recently took one of a light pattern that was reflected on my living room wall through a glass of wine! It might make an appearance in a new design – who knows?
Do you have any favourite mid-century artists, designers or illustrators who you would like to tell us about?
I love the work of the female midcentury designers such as Marion Mahler, Jacqueline Groag, Mary White and of course Lucienne Day
Tell us about yourself!
I am a 49 year old mum to 2 daughters aged 13 and 16. I was born in the UK county of Norfolk so grew up in the middle of beautiful countryside. After graduating from art school, I moved to London and met my husband and we have lived here now for 26 years. We might one day move back to the country though!
What do you do in your free time?
I don’t get much free time but when I do I love to spend as much of it sewing as possible. We also like to go to as many car shows as we can fit in. I love my garden, so gardening is another pastime I enjoy and I am partial to the odd drop of Jack Daniels.
Are you a seamstress yourself? If so, when did you begin sewing?
I have sewed from a very early age. I remember my grandmother buying me a childrens craft kit and I made a bag with precut pieces with premade holes to sew the thread through. I thought I was so clever!
What first ignited your passion for all things vintage?
I’m not really sure about this one. I think it was when I reached the age of 16 or 17 and started to buy clothes in charity shops (I think you call them thrift or Goodwill stores) I liked the fact that I could get bargains and that I could find things that other people wouldn’t have. Then later when my appreciation for midcentury style developed I could still pick up great pieces for reasonable prices. Nowadays it’s more difficult to find those bargains of course as the popularity has increased.
How would you describe your own personal style?
I’m definitely not a vintage purist. I love original vintage clothing but am equally happy wearing repro labels: mainly 50s with a bit of 40s and 60s thrown in. I have short hair though, as I find a pixie cut far easier to maintain than longer styles – I’ve tried so many times to grow my hair long but cannot be bothered with the faff of setting and curling! I do love the look on others though.
Do you have any words of advice for someone who might be thinking of starting their own creative business?
Do your research thoroughly: be sure there is a market for what you are producing. Know your competition and make sure you cost your product properly. I see so many businesses, particularly on Etsy, who cannot possibly be costing in their time but if you don’t do that correctly you will be working for nothing or very little. There is no point in making your product so cheap that you make no profit – that just makes for an expensive hobby.
Be prepared for long hours and don’t expect to be discovered overnight. It takes a long time to reach people even in this age of social media.
Do you have anything special you would like to promote to my readers?
I would love to offer your readers 10% off and free shipping on any order of dress fabric or washbags with code prettyandkitsch (the code will only work on my website, not my Etsy shop)
Where can we find you online?
Thank you so much Helen for allowing me to interview you and for the generous offer for my readers! It’s been so much fun getting to know more about you and your wonderful work and I wish you nothing but the very best in everything you do!
I hope you all enjoyed this interview with Helen! Have you ever tried fabric from 20th Century Cloth? What do you think of Helen’s amazing vintage inspired fabric designs? I know I absolutely adore them and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Because I love these photos and just can’t resist, I’ll end this post with a little gallery of 20th Century Cloth images that didn’t make it into the body of the interview!
(Click to enlarge images)
All images featured in this interview used with kind permission from Helen of 20th Century Cloth.