Helen Snell, owner of 20th Century Cloth, designs unique vintage and mid-century inspired patterns available in fashion fabrics, interior fabrics and homeware. We talk to Helen about her business and her passion for keeping it Made-in-Britain.
Helen, can you tell me about your journey to become a designer and your experience in the textile industry?
I have always been an arty type. As a child I was always drawing and most of my earliest school memories are of various drawing and art related projects. It was only when I got to the stage of taking my A’ levels that I met an older sister of a friend who was at art college! She was also studying textiles and to learn that I could actually take a course where I got to learn how to make repeating patterns was my idea of heaven.
I then went on to study for a degree in printed textiles at Winchester School of Art and after graduating worked freelance for various London agents, who sold my designs all over the world. Looking for a little more stability, I went on to work full-time for a couple of Marks and Spencer suppliers designing prints for various departments.
I learned a lot during this time and it was this experience that fed my passion for manufacturing in the UK when I started my own business.
At that time the company I worked for still had UK factories. I knew things were difficult and we were facing huge competition from other businesses manufacturing offshore, but even now, 20 years or so later, I can still remember in detail the day that we were all called into the design room for a meeting to be told that our last remaining factory was to be closed. We could no longer meet the targets we were being set manufacturing in the UK. It still makes my hair stand on end thinking about it. Funnily enough, the tech guy at the printers I now use used to work for Courtaulds Textiles (one of my ex-employers). I am very proud to think that I am doing my tiny bit to try to keep these people in jobs and to help the industry survive.
Why did you decide to start your own business and how did you find the transition?
I gave up full time employment when my children were born and took a career break while they were small. When the time came to get back to work I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I have also always been interested in sewing and my husband and I are into the vintage scene: cars, music, fashion – the works. I used to sew a lot of my own clothes from vintage patterns but found it difficult to find fabrics that suited the style. It suddenly hit me that I should start to design and print my own. It took several years to get to the stage where I was ready to go.
I used a printer with whom I had worked when I was employed, but finding textile design software proved tricky. I know a lot of textile designers use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, but I had been trained to use specific textile software and wanted to carry on using that if at all possible. I found one off-the-shelf package that did the job but after using it for quite some time the company went bust, so I had to start looking again…
Where do you find inspiration for your designs, are there any particular designers which have influenced your work?
My inspiration can come from anywhere. I am particularly drawn to textures and love the work of the female textile designers of the 50s such as Marion Mahler, Jacqueline Groag and of course Lucienne Day. I love the hand drawn, often naive, imagery that they use combined with interesting textures.
You do a lot of designing by hand, can you tell me more about your process? Do you use digital methods at all?
I do particularly enjoy designing by hand. Initially, all my designs start by hand but I will eventually scan in the beginnings of a design to enable me to manipulate the repeat and also produce colourways – I certainly couldn’t sit with my tracing paper drawing up a repeat or hand painting different colourways nowadays – digital certainly has its uses!
You’ve recently expanded your range into interior fabrics, what influenced this decision?
It was in response to customer requests that I have recently expanded my range to include interior fabrics. I had so many people asking for heavier weight fabric to use for curtains and cushions that eventually I thought: ‘well why not?’
Are there differences between designing fashion fabrics and interior fabrics?
It was interesting designing for interiors – the scale of the print obviously has to be larger. I did a stint designing interior fabrics soon after I left college so did have some previous experience and I also had to think a bit more carefully about colour choices. I know my designs are a little unconventional anyway, but I wanted the colours to suit a variety of interior spaces and not be too garish or overpowering. I hope I have achieved that.
All your products are made in the UK, how have you sourced your suppliers and manufacturers?
I do feel that I’ve muddled along really trying to find manufacturers. With my new coaster range that I’m launching soon I literally spent 3 days on Google trying to find the quality I wanted at a price I can make work.
It was really worthwhile though, because the company I’m using have been very supportive and completely understand what I need. Nothing has been too much trouble for them. The printers I initially used didn’t really treat me very well at all and I have since found an alternative company who seem to understand my needs as a small business.
Do you have any advice for other brands looking to source a UK manufacturer?
My advice would be to go and meet people that you want to work with face-to-face. Nothing beats sitting down for a chat over a cup of tea, and you often find that they have suggestions or alternative ways of doing things that you may not have thought about yourself.
What challenges have you faced by keeping you manufacturing in Britain?
Costing has been one of my biggest challenges. I only had a basic understanding of pricing when I started my business, i.e. cost price, wholesale and trade prices, so learned a lot on my feet and through taking courses. I was asked very early on if I would wholesale some of my products and wherever possible I am doing that, but some products just cost too much to produce and I can’t make wholesale work.
Another big challenge is time, or rather lack of it. I am a one-woman business (with help from my husband) so I am the designer, marketer, post and packer, bookkeeper; I literally do everything. Luckily I am a very organised person but sometimes it does feel as if I will never get to the end of my to-do list!
What have been the benefits of keeping your manufacturing here?
The main benefit for me personally of keeping my production here is to support UK industry, but I also love the fact that I can pop up to see my suppliers. The other thing is that they will print as little or as much as required. Obviously it is cheaper the more I have printed but I can print as little as 1 metre for instance to check colours. I have just been asked by a US customer if I can change a colour in a print to match a paint colour. She has sent me a swatch and I can have a single metre printed for her to see the print with her colour before committing to a length of fabric. I think this would prove more difficult, or at least a more long winded process, if my printer were in China.
I also know of other companies who have had quality issues (with overseas production) too, where bulk hasn’t matched the same quality as samples provided. Maybe a bigger company could cope with those issues but for me being so small it could be make or break.
To be perfectly honest, if I couldn’t carry on making in the UK I would close my business – I feel so strongly that I just couldn’t manufacture anywhere else. It all goes back to that early experience and understanding the impact the factory closures had on the people I worked with at the time.
Do you export any of your products?
I would love to see 20th Century Cloth products stocked in more shops. I have sent a few export orders to Norway and Sweden and I do get great feedback from my Scandinavian customers.
I’ve also had a lot of interest from the US since I launched the interior fabric. Lots of samples have been ordered which I am hoping will turn into real orders.
Where do you see 20th Century Cloth in the future?
I just want to build on what I have achieved so far – there are other product areas that I would love to get into but for now I’m concentrating all my efforts on letting as many people as possible know about my business.