Founders and owners of the recently Eco-Age Brandmarked Selkie Patterns, Alexandra Bruce and Caroline Akselson, share the story and inspiration behind their sustainable sewing start-up, and why we all need to learn the life skill of sewing.
What inspired you to launch Selkie Patterns?
We both had careers in the costume industry when we felt ready for a new part of our working lives where we could have more freedom to create and grow. We started talking about starting something of our own in August 2017, we started planning in January 2018 and launched our business in December of the same year. We wanted to launch during this amazing time of rapid change in the conversations surrounding fashion and sustainability and we also felt that if we were to bring new products into the world (rather than recycled or repurposed products), we wanted them to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We set out to be the first sustainable pattern company and we feel inspired to adapt and learn as we grow. Starting our own business was inspired both by personal life goals as well as the ambition to create a startup we feel 100% proud of.
What are your sustainable priorities for the business?
Our business is currently twofold: we produce sewing patterns as well as fabrics. Our priorities for our patterns is to provide customers with information how to save on materials, to create timeless styles that will lead a long life, and to inspire people to make easy fabric versions of single use items in their homes and daily lives. With our fabrics we choose natural fibres, we print digitally to save on materials and water, and we only print to order to never overstock. We also prioritise working with local people and local businesses. Although the base fabrics that we print on are imported, we are happy to say everything else is currently done in England.
When we are not creating new products or maintaining the business, we like to talk to people about the relationship between their clothes and sustainability and you can find lots of information regarding this on our website.
When we started our business, we looked at as many aspects of our business as we could, including who we bank with, how we package our products and how our website is hosted. We received a plastic free award this year for our efforts! We are not a perfect business but we try to learn and improve as much as we can.
How has your eco strategy developed as you have grown?
Because we are such a young startup still, so many things have changed from our initial plans. It’s about seeing what works and what doesn’t and then letting go of personal opinions or ego and adapt. Since starting, we don’t print our sewing patterns in paper versions anymore, we decided to make fabrics available on a pre-order basis only and our website developer made some changes to our website to make sure we improved its energy usage. We have also found that certain things that we found hard to source 1.5 years ago are now more readily available, so we feel encouraged that businesses like ours will be able to continue improving as the market grows with us.
What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?
We funded the start of our business with a Kickstarter campaign, which was a very rewarding and exciting experience. That’s the only funding we have had so far and we ended up raising double our target. For us it was a test to see whether people would be interested in what we thought was a great idea. Many people who pledged have become regular customers, which is a great feeling. We came in with no experience in business and did a lot of training to prepare, so that was definitely a highlight for us. This year we received a plastic free award for our efforts to eliminate plastic from our business (we have completely plastic free packaging), which was important to us as we didn’t feel comfortable packing our products in plastic and undo our efforts. We were also thrilled to join the Eco-Age family in September this year and feel so welcomed by a company we admire so much, so that was definitely a massive milestone for us that came out of nowhere. At the moment we are working on a high profile project that is coming out early next year, which is taking up most of our time.
Next year we will wear even more hats as next to our roles as business owners, best friends and teachers, one of us is entering marriage and one of us motherhood. So it’s never a dull day at our company at the moment!
What have been the main prohibitors to your progress in building a sustainable business?
It can be difficult for a small business to reach minimum orders needed to order from a supplier. We currently have no outside investment so cash flow can be a prohibiting factor. Outside of that, which challenges all small businesses, it’s not been as straightforward to start a sustainable startup from scratch as it took us more time to consider product options, find professionals who could give us the right advice or support, and find suppliers we were happy to work with. When an industry is fairly small and growing, it’s just not that easy to find the right information. Building a sustainable business is sometimes slower, but hopefully more rewarding in the long run. The term sustainable can refer to the product you sell, but also to your business model. A sustainable business should outlast a quick sell and benefit more people as it grows. Another factor when starting a sustainable business can be that your audience has to get used to the way you work: your prices might be slightly higher and the shopping experience might not be the same type of instant gratification that we have come to associate with internet shopping. Finally there can be the situation of being faced with criticism, where you are challenged on the things that are not perfect instead of being recognised for the many things you already do. We have not had much of this, but it’s a common occurrence in this industry.
How important do you think it is for people to have not only the option but the skills and tools to make their own clothes?
Sewing is such a life skill, that to us it doesn’t really matter whether you end up sewing your own clothes or not. We fully understand not everyone ends up making their own wardrobe, but having some skills is an important step to understand the worth of clothes. Many people today seem not to understand that in fact all clothes are handmade: everything we buy on the high street has been sewn by someone, and if you understand what has gone into making a garment you are more likely to understand what clothes are worth in money and time. Having basic sewing skills is also an important factor in being able to give your clothes a long life: mending, fixing hems and reattaching hems are all fairly simple skills that can literally make a world of difference!
The Lin is the latest pattern to drop, what inspired it?
Throughout designing the Lin we thought about elements that we haven’t seen much in independent sewing patterns such as the princess line bust seam, the square neckline and the way the bust seam continues into the pocket seam. The way a design comes about is always an interesting process: our designer Alexandra will come up with the design and elements she would like to see or the type of pattern she would like to bring out, and then our pattern cutter Caroline gets to work on making that a reality. In between those two processes we usually come up with some changes to make the pattern more wearable or we change our minds about a certain aspect once we see the sample. It’s a really fun process for the both of us. The Lin jumpsuit was designed to be practical in a sophisticated way, which is what we aim for with all our patterns. The maker’s fabric choice will determine how dressed up or casual the jumpsuit looks, making it suitable for any occasion and also ensuring it won’t go out of fashion. The word ‘lin’ means linen in Swedish (half of the team is Swedish) and we made up all our samples in linen, which is a great fabric for both your skin and the planet.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?
Do lots of research! Also be prepared to dig for information from suppliers and don’t take no for an answer, because it’s hardly ever the end of the road. Surround yourself with supportive people, as not everyone will understand your new life, let alone the drive to make it sustainable. Also many people won’t immediately understand how or why your business is sustainable, and it’s important to not lose patience. We have also found it very useful to make contact with other business owners in a similar field as you are guaranteed to be able to share experiences, contacts and ideas. Setting up a business can be an isolating experience in itself, and add a fairly niche industry and you have to work a bit harder to find your tribe.
This industry is made up of lots of small businesses, and mainly women in our experience, so it’s only by coming together that we can make more noise.
Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?
Offset Warehouse inspires us in the way they offer fabrics based on availability or pre-order, and how they display the fabric credentials in a very honest and transparent way for the customer. We admire the team at Pebble Magazine for building a platform for people interested in sustainability in all areas of life, and we were so happy to be a part of their first ever festival. Fashion label Maggie Marilyn in New Zealand makes fabulous clothes but also we admire how they tell their brand story and their inspiring local production system. We are fans of the women at organic tampon company Ohne for their bold statements, and the female founder behind the Cora Ball for their great laundry ball invention.