It is an honour and a pleasure to introduce you to this week’s guest, Anita Smith, founder of Sew What Manchester. Anita has a really unique business model and her love and enthusiasm for clothing shine through as does her sensitivity toward the human form in all its wonderful shapes and sizes. I basically read the whole thing with a massive smile on my face and felt like this was someone who not only understood what people want from clothing but has the skills and knowledge to follow it through.
Whether you are a brand founder, looking to work within the clothing industry, interested in female founders doing great things, or a consumer looking for your next favourite brand, you are sure to glean so much advice and insight from this interview. Please form an orderly queue for commissions!
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Anita, I’m based in Manchester and I run Sew What – a vintage-inspired sewing business. I design and make made-to-order clothing, take commissions from clients and offer styling advice. I am also currently working on a series of talks on various aspects of fashion history which will be available online.
Why did you decide to set up your business?
I had always made clothing for myself because I found high-street fashions increasingly uninspiring and the sizing a little bit depressing! It gave me really low self-esteem for much of my life because I didn’t fit the ideal body size or shape. I realised that if I was feeling this way, other people must be feeling the same, but without the option of designing and creating clothes that did fit their body or style. I wanted to share what I could do and help people realise that their body wasn’t the issue! And that they had other options – if they loved a particular style of dress etc but they wanted it in a different colour, or length, or different sleeves or neckline, I could give them that. There was also the fun element of making clothes for people with different tastes to me – I wanted to be challenged while still doing something I loved.
What drew you to this field?
I truly believe that clothes and how we dress can have a major impact on how we feel about ourselves and our bodies. Fashion is what I know and love, and I wanted to share that with others in a positive way – helping them to see fashion and clothing as something that reflected them and could be fun, rather than feeling like you don’t fit whatever the latest trend is. Another factor was my love of vintage clothes and fashions, and the idea of giving a piece of clothing another life – I don’t just make clothes from scratch, I try wherever possible to repair clothes to make sure they can be worn for as long as possible – and share these techniques with my Instagram followers (and whoever messages me with a question about sewing or mending!) to encourage others to extend the life of their clothes rather than throw them away.
What has been the biggest challenge within your business?
Initially, the main challenge was working out what I wanted my business to be – I had so many ideas and options! Now the challenge has become how to manage my time in a better way – I’m fully booked with commissions and only have three days in the studio each week to work on them, as I also have a part-time job. I’m in the process of trying to speed up the commission process because on a personal level and as a business, I want to keep evolving and developing ideas but I don’t have the physical time or headspace to pursue all the plans I have. I’m so grateful for the number of commissions I get – it’s amazing to know there are people out there who appreciate quality over quantity when it comes to clothing, and each one has helped to hone my skills and knowledge. But as a business owner, it’s important to keep things interesting for yourself, so you don’t suffer from burnout, and for me, that means diversifying what I offer.
What motivates you?
My clients are my main motivation – I put so much love and care into each piece of clothing I make, and when I receive a message from a client telling me how much they love it, it makes all the hours and all the work worth it. The feeling of knowing someone is wearing a piece of clothing I made from scratch is indescribable. My clients don’t feel like customers, they’re people that have put their trust in me and my skills which still blows my mind – our clothes and how they fit our bodies is such an intimate thing, it’s a responsibility I take really seriously. The other thing that motivates me is my passion for vintage clothing and styles, and the history behind the clothes we choose to wear. I don’t just enjoy making clothes, I love the stories behind how those clothing styles and trends have evolved over time and how they impact our choices today. By sharing that knowledge, I hope I can help people see that trends always come back around and what’s important is working out what you actually love to wear, not just what magazines or designers tell you to wear. I think that’s so important and it’s hard to wade through all the latest ‘must-haves’, but knowing how fashion history and the fashion industry have evolved and developed might help people feel more confident in their style choices, which is a huge motivation for me.
Who do you admire within your industry or as a business role model?
There are a lot of vintage clothing businesses I admire – Retro Rehab, Top of the Town Vintage and Evolve are all local to me and the people behind the businesses are all awesome, I have so much respect for what they do. They show how a pre-loved piece of clothing can have a new lease of life, and their styling shows how you can wear vintage clothing in a modern way which I really relate to. My other business role model (not fashion-based) has to be Lucy Sheridan – I truly admire the way she’s so warm, genuine and down-to-earth while being successful in a field she’s made her own and then shares her knowledge and experience to help others improve their confidence, business… all areas of their lives. She’s a real source of inspiration for me.
How do you deal with stress and big challenges?
I’ll be honest – stress is usually something I’ve created for myself! I care so much about what I do that I expect nothing but perfection from myself, which is almost unattainable in reality and so I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety for most of my life, and I’ve had to learn to be kinder to myself – in the last year, I’ve managed to carve out one day a week where I’m not working in the studio or at my part-time job, so I actually get a bit of downtime. I’ve also learnt to recognise my achievements which helps remind me what I’m capable of – physically writing down what I’ve managed to do in the last 5 years was an eye-opener!
What is the hardest and easiest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is the physical nature of the work – there’s lots of stooping over tables when I’m cutting out patterns and fabric, as well as sitting at the sewing machine for hours at a time. I’ll often find that I’ve been concentrating so hard for so long when I’m in the middle of a project that I’ve been holding myself really tense, and I have to remember to take breaks and relax my shoulders and back. The easiest part for me is laying out the pattern pieces on the fabric – I find it so relaxing and enjoyable, and it’s the beginning of seeing a piece of clothing come to life which is also really exciting. I’ve heard from other dressmakers who say it’s the bit they least enjoy but it’s like a massive jigsaw puzzle, trying to get the pieces to take up as little of the fabric as possible to reduce waste, but still making sure they all face the way they need to and that patterns will match up when it’s all sewn together – I’d happily do it all day!
What skills have you found vital to your job?
An advanced knowledge of pattern cutting has been essential for me – I use it so much and not everyone can get their head around it. The same with garment construction – I can look at a piece of clothing and work out how it’s been put together, like reverse engineering! Some garments are trickier than others but a lot of my commissions require me to make a pattern from an existing piece of clothing and make a new version without taking the original apart, so it’s something I’m really proud of being able to do. Social media skills have also been key in building my business over the last few years, although it’s something that requires a lot more time and energy than it used to, with platforms adding new content options as well as audiences wanting to see content in a wider range of formats compared to 5 years ago.
How do you manage your time?
Knowing I only have three days in the studio means I have to plan my time – I love a to-do list and I usually have a plan for the week, plus a plan for each studio day of what I want to get done. If I have a few commissions on, they’re usually at different stages so while I’m waiting for a client to let me know about the fit of a garment, for example, I can be sewing up the first draft of a piece for another client. There are often parts of a project that I can only do in the studio, but any bits that can be done at home (usually the finishing stages like hand-stitching hems or sewing on buttons) I take with me and work on those in the evening. So I also have a book with a page for each of my commissions and a tick-list of all the stages and where each one is up to! I’m sure there are more efficient ways but I find that the action of physically writing things down helps me to remember and envision where everything’s up to.
What are your goals for your brand?
I would absolutely love to have a brick-and-mortar shop at some point, where I could host workshops and fittings as well as sell a small range of upcycled clothes, made-to-order items and fabrics… however, at the moment my goal is to take on fewer commissions and move towards incorporating my love of fashion and art history (I completed an MA in Art History last year) through online talks and videos. It’s something I’ve dreamt of doing for a while now and I’m really keen to get going with it.
What does success look like to you?
Success has so many factors – financially, I would love to be able to work on my business full-time and live comfortably off it. But I also dream of having a small group of clients who come back to me time and time again – a dedicated following which is more like a community than customers. Building relationships with my clients is its own form of success – I don’t want to be a global brand or anything, it’s not my vibe! Also, to be called on as an expert in fashion history and sewing for talks, podcasts, tv shows etc would be the ultimate version of success to me – Amber Butchart is my number one inspirational person, plus she always looks fabulous and so stylish!
How does your culture/background influence your work?
I was lucky to grow up with my mum and my Nana both being very talented dressmakers and knitters (sadly, I still can’t knit, despite trying to learn a number of times!) – they taught me and I’m so grateful for having such amazing women in my life. Growing up, it was just me and my mum, so she’s always been my best friend as well as being an awesome mum. She’s incredibly supportive and allowed me to follow whichever path I chose. I get my work ethic from her, her independent streak and her ability to figure things out – all things that have been huge benefits when it comes to my business!
What would your advice be to those wanting to start their own brand/have a career in your industry?
I’m definitely biased, but if you’re wanting to design your own clothes, you should learn pattern cutting and garment construction – it gives you such a better appreciation and understanding of how a 2D design will translate to a 3D item. Don’t be afraid to follow your gut – if you see there’s a gap in the market or something you really love that you don’t see on the high street or catwalk, the chances are that other people would love to buy that! You just have to find your people – social media is great for that, but so are in-person markets and pop-ups. People don’t just buy products, they buy into you as a person and a brand, so don’t be afraid to share a bit of yourself and your story with your audience.
What’s your proudest achievement in your career so far?
I was asked to make a wedding dress for a woman in Scotland, and just knowing that someone got married in a dress that I made for them is something I am so proud of – it was all done through the post and via messenger, so it feels like even more of an achievement! It honestly makes my heart swell just thinking about it!
What do you think I’d be most surprised to find out about you?
Either the fact that I was a teacher at a Further Education college for 7 years (I taught teenagers with a range of learning difficulties including Autism and ADHD) or that I was part of the Bury and Prestwich Ladies Darts Team when I was younger!
What would be your personal tagline?
Vintage-loving fashion magpie!
Unlock a fashion industry secret for me
You don’t have to go down the traditional route of unpaid internships in London for 2 years to work in the fashion industry – you can start your own brand and do things your own way!
Thank you so much, Anita for being so open and generous with your replies!
Find out more about Anita and Sew What here:
If you’re looking to start your own brand but are unsure of the steps involved, my guide ‘How To Develop Your Clothing Line’ is the perfect place to start!