"Right from the beginning I knew how important PR was to a business. I sat with my friend when the shop was still in a mess with a PR list and we called and emailed every journalist who seemed relevant."
-Lisa Comfort, Founder of Sew Over It.
Can you give us a brief overview of what Sew Over It is?
Sew Over It is a sewing cafe which encompasses all things sewing. You can drop in and pay by hour to use the machines and buy fabric, patterns and kits. And there are lots of classes. You can come and learn everything from the basics in sewing through to advanced dressmaking classes such as Mad Men dresses and a 1960s coat. Sew Over It also now has a range of commercial dressmaking patterns as well as kits. We sell both all over the world and they are stocked in Liberty and John Lewis.
Tell me more about your career before starting your business?
I have always sewn but haven’t always worked in that field. I did a French and Italian degree and worked in the City for a couple of years before returning to study at London College of Fashion. I then went on to work for Bruce Oldfield and Phillipa Lepley in high-end bridal and couture.
What inspired you to start Sew Over It?
I started teaching private sewing lessons to earn some extra money. I realised that I was enjoying the teaching more than my fashion job. My customers said they would love to come somewhere where I would be there as a support but they could work on their own projects, build their skills and make friends. Sew Over It came from these three things.
How did you manage building it alongside your full time career?
I was working full time for Phillipa Lepley as well as evenings and weekends doing the teaching. I opened Sew Over It in May 2011. In September 2010 I went down to working part-time with Phillipa so I could concentrate on Sew Over It and then by Christmas I had quit completely. I kept teaching sewing to build up customers and took on some commissions for wedding dresses and bridesmaid dresses as well as alterations. I also managed to pick up some tutoring work for French GCSE students. There was a lot of juggling!
What’s been the biggest highlight?
There have been many so it’s difficult to pin them down to just one! Getting my two-book deal was amazing as I signed this only 4 months after I had opened Sew Over It. There have also been other great moments like appearing on Kirstie’s Vintage Home, guest editing a DIY Fashion magazine for Mollie Makes and most recently winning the best Independent Retailer in the Craft Business Awards. Having our patterns and kits stocked by John Lewis and Liberty was also a pretty big high. And I hope there will be more to come.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Running the business has been a bit of a roller coaster. There are big highs and big lows. Mentally, physically and financially. Keeping my strength and a healthy life balance is the hardest thing. Like many business owners I work a lot and that takes it’s toll on relationships and on me. I am learning to get better at this though and I now have a fabulous team who help run Sew Over It which is an amazing support. But switching off is still not my strong point.
You’ve had some fantastic PR and been featured on the likes of The Alan Titchmarsh Show and Kirstie’s Vintage Home. What’s your secret?
Right from the beginning I knew how important PR was to a business. I sat with my friend when the shop was still in a mess with a PR list and we called and emailed every journalist who seemed relevant. It led to a piece in the Evening Standard and Daily Candy. They then led to more press. It was a game of probability. I continue to work hard at this and to come up with new angles about the business for press to write about us. I also try to get out and about so people hear of us. I am the face of the brand so I also go to events where I talk (Crafty Fox Talks, Ideal Home Show, Handmade Fair) to get Sew Over It out there.
What advice would you give to other women who dream of starting their own business?
I really do believe you can do anything you want if you work hard enough at it. I sacrifice a lot and to me, it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice but for others it would. A lot of my friends say, ‘I couldn’t do it!’ You have to be prepared to do that. I also think you should make sure your idea stands up. There will always be a risk to starting your own business but that can be reduced by lots of planning, forecasting and speaking to people about your idea. I had a few business ideas before I came up with the idea of Sew Over It and it took a couple of years of development before I got to it. The more you talk about your idea, the more feedback and new ideas you will get.
What’s next for you?
I have lots of plans – no surprises there! Next is releasing our patterns as PDF downloads which will help us reach more people as there are no crazy postage costs involved. I am just finishing my second book which has a vintage twist. It will be released in spring next year. I also would like to get another venue somewhere in North London but the timing has to be right and I want to make sure I have the head space to do it!
Lisa Comfort set up Sew Over It, London’s first sewing café, in May 2011 when she was 28. Since then, Sew Over It has gone from strength to strength and now boasts the widest range of sewing classes offered anywhere in the UK, a dressmaking pattern and kit range which is stocked in John Lewis.
Lisa’s first book, Sew It, Wear It, Love It, was released in September 2012 and she’s launching her second in spring 2015 which will be based on vintage-inspired fashion. She has appeared on the Channel 4 show Kirstie’s Vintage Home and ITV’s The Alan Titchmarsh Show and in 2012 was shortlisted in the Women to Watch category of Red Magazine’s Hot Women Awards.
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