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Most of the clothes we wear today are manufactured in the Far East. What happens when you decide to champion creating your clothing brand in the UK?

Today’s guest is Genevieve Sweeney, the founder of her eponymous luxury British knitwear brand. Genevieve designs and manufactures British knitwear for womenswear, menswear, accessories and socks. She champions and celebrates British manufacturing with heritage, craft and innovation in the industry using responsible fibres and sustainable practices. 

Learn more about the process of designing and creating knitwear by hand, and how Genevieve is championing the rediscovery of lost skills. We discuss the importance of slow fashion, and the steps that can be taken to reduce the environmental impact of creating clothes. We also cover the logistics of running a thriving business when you have a young family, and why Genevieve is passionate about developing an apprenticeship scheme for her company.

It’s a wonderful rallying call to the benefits of manufacturing in the UK. 

The Bring Your Product Idea to Life Podcast  – Best Business Podcast Award, Independent Podcast Awards 2023

USEFUL RESOURCES:

Genevieve Sweeney Website

Genevieve Sweeney Facebook

Genevieve Sweeney Instagram

Genevieve Sweeney LinkedIn

This episode is sponsored by Cara Bendon Brand Consultancy

If you need branding & packaging for your product, Cara is my go-to. She and her team create beautiful and unique branding so that your product will impress retailers, stand out on the shelf and look great online.

They also offer packaging and e-commerce website design, so that you can get everything set up and ready to launch, confident that it looks brilliant.

Cara is fantastic at helping guide you through the process and has been a guest on this podcast twice. In fact, she even designed this podcast artwork for me when I worked with her on my branding back in 2021, and I can’t imagine not having this brand now!

If you’d like to chat to Cara about branding for your business, she’s offering a free no-obligation call with any listeners. You can book your free 30-minute call here

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Transcript
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Welcome to the bring your product idea to Life podcast.

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This is the podcast for you if you're getting started selling products, or if you'd

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like to create your own product to sell. I'm Vicki Weinberg, a product

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creation coach and Amazon expert. Every week, I share friendly,

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practical advice, as well as inspirational stories from small businesses.

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Let's get started.

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Hi. Today on the podcast, I'm talking to Genevieve Sweeney. Genevieve is

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the founder of her own luxury british knitwear brand.

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Genevieve is devoted to championing and celebrating slow fashion,

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british manufacturing and sustainable design. I hadn't actually realized

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what an artisan craft creating

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knitwear was. And Genevieve speaks a lot about the process of designing

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and creating knitwear by hand. She talks about

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how her knitwear is sustainable, about slow fashion,

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and about how she keeps the manufacturing of her knitwear in the

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UK and why that is so important to her. So I would love now to

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introduce you to Genevieve.

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So, hi, Genevieve. Thank you so much for being here. Hi there. Thanks for having

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me. So, can we start with you? Please give an introduction to you,

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your business and what you sell. Yes, of course. So, I'm Genevieve and I'm

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the founder of a luxury british knitwear brand called Genevieve

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Sweeney. And so I design and manufacture

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british knitwear for women's wear, menswear, accessories and

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socks. So I champion and celebrate british

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manufacturing with heritage, craft and innovation in the

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industry with responsible fibers. That's

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amazing. Thank you. And I've got so many follow up questions.

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Let's start with talking a bit about being a

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knitwear designer. You know, your background and how do you become a knitwear

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designer? It's quite niche, definitely. So I.

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Yeah, as a lot of people, I knitted as a. From a

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young age, from five, but I always knitted secretly

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because it wasn't a cool hobby then. So, yeah, I knitted

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all my life and I was never kind of ever not

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knitting. Even in the car train journeys, I was always knitting. And

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when I was doing a Saturday job, when I was about 16, I met a

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student who was in her second year of a fashion knitwear

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course. And I was like, oh, my gosh, this is it. This is like, my

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path is set. So I went to university, Nottingham

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Trent, and it was a four year degree

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in fashion knitwear. So you learn how to knit

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on the machines, you learn kind of all the design concepts

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and inspiration, and you also do a year in industry. So

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I did a year in London. I worked for

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a swatching company where we designed kind of like mini mock

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ups. Of designs that were sold so designed

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to, like, gosh, like H and M, Abercrombie and Fitch,

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kind of all Scandinavia and us. And it was just an amazing

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experience of kind of like, understanding my handwriting

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and just understanding what other brands were looking for.

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So, yes, after I graduated,

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I then went on to work for other global brands. So I

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went to New York and worked for Rag and Bone and then

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Hugo boss in Switzerland, and then came back to London and worked for

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Burberry and Lance Scott before setting up my brand.

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Well, that's amazing. Thank you. Gosh, you've got so much experience.

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Yeah, I packed a lot in, definitely, but, yeah,

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I've always loved knitwear and the kind of

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the physical process of knitting, so I've. I

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always knew I wanted to set up my own brand, but I just had no

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clue how to do it in a kind of commercial business, I

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guess, or so all my jobs kind of really

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taught me the lessons I needed to learn how to design

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production. Yeah, kind of learn everything,

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which is great. And I'm going to ask what is probably a really stupid

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question. So, forgive me, but is knitwear design

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about designing how the garment sort of looks and

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fits, whether it's a cardigan and whether it has buttons or zip and that kind

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of thing, or the design, like the patterns on

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it, or is it a bit of both? So it's both. I think

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what's really beautiful about knitwear is that you're creating the fabric as well as the

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silhouette, so it could be a jacquard,

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and so you'll be doing the fashioning of the silhouette as well as the

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pattern or the cabling of stitches. So it's a bit

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of both, which is really nice. And sometimes it could be like a

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much more simple style. But you're showing the beauty of the wall.

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Yes, I guess that's what I love about it. You're doing both things at

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once. And actually, as you were answering that, I was thinking it makes sense you

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would have to do both things at once, really, because I suppose it depends on

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the wool you're using, and I'm sure there's so many factors that are involved

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in sort of how a piece of knitwear sort of looks on your

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body. Yeah. And I think, well, cheap knitwear

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will be custom sewn, but obviously, there's a lot of waste with that. And if

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you're using a really expensive yarn, you don't want any waste,

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and also sustainably, you don't want any waste. So, yeah, so creating the shape

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is where that goes. In with the, with yarn as well.

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Thank you. And so what inspired you to start your own brand?

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So I said, I've always wanted to, but I never

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knew what I wanted to say, what I wanted it to be.

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And when I moved back to London, I had my own studio,

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and I used to buy old machinery from eBay, from

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Gumtree, and, yeah,

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set them back up again into working order and knit just for

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passion, but from buying these machines, I was traveling around the

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UK and mainly in Scotland, and the people I was buying these machines from

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used to work in the knitwear industry, but lost their jobs when

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all production went to the Far east in like the seventies,

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eighties. So I met all these incredibly passionate,

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talented people who just had this huge love for knitwear

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and had no outlet, like, they had no jobs. And it was

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like whole communities had completely lost their

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jobs, like, overnight. So it was really heartbreaking to

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see. So I started doing kind of,

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I guess, projects with them where they, I was kind of introducing them

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to more modern handwriting and trying

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to kind of get them knitting so they had something to show to give to

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other brands. And I think the first

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kind of project in, I realized that this was the start of my

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brand and this is what I wanted to do was really champion these artists,

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land across the UK and kind of

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revitalize and revive the industry.

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That's amazing. Thank you. And so how does that work

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now? Are you still working with some of these people that you met all those

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years ago? Yeah, yeah, definitely. So I'm still working with some of them.

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Some have retired. So I guess the age range of the people

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I met were literally like 50 to 80.

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It was like ten years ago. So some of them aren't working anymore, but some

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of them are. And yeah,

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it's from that, obviously. Some. Some of them

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only did the knitting. They didn't do the linking or the washing. So I

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then had to kind of find this kind of infrastructure around

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because some people still could link from home, so people can knit from home. And

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then I had to find other factories to do the finishing. And so

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I then had to start building this kind of, like, infrastructure and kind of

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get all the kind of clogs together, which was really difficult.

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And most people kind of like, laughed, laughed, and I told them what

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I wanted to do. It took a couple of years, but once it was together,

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it worked really well. But I then also started approaching other

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small factories, family

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run factories might just be like one or two people running it, all kind of

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larger factories as well. To then do the knitwear

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and the manufacturing or kind of help with the processing of the

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washing of this kind of arthrogram pieces?

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So what does, if you don't mind me asking? Thank you for explaining that.

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What does washing and linking mean? I'm really sorry, but I don't know. It's

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all. I know nothing about this. This is so interesting. So I know

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nothing about it. So when

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the jumpers are knitted, they're knitted in panels, and then the linking is

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the kind of construction of it. So they're putting the seams together, putting

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the collars on, and then the washing of it

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can be really, really skilled. If you're washing something like

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cashmere, the knowledge is just

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incredible that they just know by kind of like, hand feel. And if you wash

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it like 2 seconds too. Too much, that's it. It's gone. It's

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ruined. And so that's kind of really key. And in Scotland,

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they just know just the perfect way to wash it. And they don't wash it

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in a super soft way because then it pills. You get

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all those kind of like, bumps on them, all the bubbles. So

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they wash it in a kind of

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less kind of soft way. That means that you then break it in. So when

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you wear it, it kind of gently softens on your body and you

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don't get any pilling. And it just lasts for like 20

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years, like 30 years. It is incredible. And it's just that knowledge

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is just really hard to find. And the link is as well. It's

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really a skill that's massively disappeared. There's not many people doing

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it. And now modern technology is coming in with,

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like, whole garment knitted machine.

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So, like, the whole garment is knitted in one, like no seams or anything. So

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then the link is not needed anymore. So that's a real shame.

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So, yeah, that's where I'm kind of really

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wanting to kind of help revitalize is to keep these skills here and keep that

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knowledge here. That's amazing. And so,

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okay, so from understanding, you have people who work for you, who do the knitting,

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and other people who might do linking and other people who might do washing.

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That sounds like, logistically quite, quite a

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challenge. Yeah, it can be. And at

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one point, it was kind of

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very challenging because obviously people are different

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ages and have, I don't know, family commitments. Sometimes that can be

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quite hard, which is why I try and keep then kind of take,

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if a kind of chain breaks, I guess I then have the kind

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of factory to be able to do it there as well.

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That's amazing. And so, yeah, I'm.

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Yeah, I'm just really quite fascinated by how you've put together

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this model and I think it's amazing. And I know that you're such a champion

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of british manufacturing and I guess this is really,

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really demonstrates that. Yeah,

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yeah, it's. Yeah. So in my studio, I've got

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kind of some of the machines that you would use for the linking. I've

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got three of them here. So I do some of the linking and one of

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my goals for this year is to start an apprenticeship, to teach.

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To teach linking here as well. So,

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yeah, it's nothing. I think we do a lot of tours here in my

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studio on the site that. I mean, like a

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heritage craft site. So there's lots of other creatives here as well and we do

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a tour once a month and it's just amazing to be able to show people

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how these machines work, what they do, and it kind of helps, kind

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of, I don't know, build that understanding of the

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complexity of manufacturing and the importance of

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it. And even though that you're using the machines, it

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still feels like a very sort of intensive process, as in, there is still

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a person involved. Is that. Is that right? Yeah. So it's

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still. It's a kind of. It's like a dial with lots of

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points for the linking and someone still has to put

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every stitch onto each point. So it is still

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led by hand, which is. Yeah, which is really

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beautiful. Really beautiful. I love watching. It's one of those kind of

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really hypnotic things to watch.

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It feels like a real skill. It is, it really is.

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And it's also a really well paid job, like in Scotland,

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you could. It's a very highly paid. Well, well

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paid job, especially in Scotland, where

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sought after. That's so interesting. And I'm assuming, though, that

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despite being well paid in a skill and skill, there aren't that many

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people in these roles, as you say, that some of

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the. Some of the fact. I'm sure there are factories abroad, as you say, who

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are knitting whole garments for machines now with very little

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human intervention. So it's really great all you're doing to kind

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of encourage people just to still do this. Yeah,

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yeah. And a lot of factories stopped doing the apprenticeships because

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they would train someone up and then another factory would come along and kind of

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pinch, you know, poach them. So then that kind of stopped,

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that kind of passing on to another generation and.

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Yeah, so, yeah, that's, I guess, where we kind of,

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like, got a little bit stuck in this industry with

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the teaching. So, yeah, it sounds like there aren't that many new

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people coming up and learning these skills. Yeah, yeah. But when you

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do, like, I went to Scotland about

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nine months ago and I was speaking to a young girl who

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was 18 19 and

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learning how to link and she was so proud of what? Of her skill and

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what she was doing and it was just like, just so wonderful to sit there

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and like talk to her and just kind of really feel her passion and

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energy for him. That's amazing. And talk to us a little bit

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about your apprenticeship. I think you're the first person I've spoken to who's

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doing any kind of apprenticeship scheme. So do you have any ideas

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now on how that will work? I'm still

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kind of putting it all together because I need to. I'm trying to get

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investment for a machine to be able to do the knitting here as well

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as the linking. But I'm speaking to

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quest at the moment and, yeah,

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I'm hoping that it will be together by November time.

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I'm hoping that. I've just moved into my studio space

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about six months ago. So it's great to kind of have the dedicated

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space for it. So it's kind of like, yes, taking small steps at a

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time. That's such a wonderful thing to be able to offer.

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Yeah, well, I feel that, like, I don't

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know, governments don't really help too much with

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the kind of issue that the British manufacturing is disappearing. And I

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felt like if I don't do something about it, no one will. And that's

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kind of how, how I feel about it. For small

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businesses, you either have to work with a factory in the UK with huge

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minimums or you're working quite a small scale, but it's very slow.

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So it's very hard. Yeah, it's very hard to scale

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as a small business with those kind of two options. So I feel

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that the more kind of experience that comes

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into the industry, the kind of more flexible it'll become.

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Yeah. And then the better it will be for everyone in the industry as well.

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Exactly, yeah. Well, I know that you're such a

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champion of British manufacturing, but I know some of the other things you champion

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are slow fashion and sustainable design. So do you want to talk

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to us about that a bit? Yes. Yeah. So when I

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started my brand, it was kind of slow. Fashion wasn't really talked about,

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but it was really the kind of pillars of my business.

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I'd worked in the fashion industry for about

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ten years and was just generally shocked by

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just the kind of things that were kind of generally acceptable.

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Like you had a colour swatch and someone would expect

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that colour swatch to be sent to china within 24 hours and for it to

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be reviewed. And you're just thinking that's just a crazy amount of air miles

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and just ordering huge minimums because it was just the standard

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of what businesses did and kind of not, not really thinking

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about you're ordering tens of thousands of pieces,

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not kind of expecting to sell it and it going to an outlet store.

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So I was just really shocked by the kind of, yeah, mass

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overproduction, just the waste of energy

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and materials. So it kind of really.

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I guess. I guess it really affected me. And so when I started my

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business, I just didn't want anything to do with that and kind of set

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that, you know, so I wanted to work locally so

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I could have less carbon footprint and also to

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be close to my manufacturers. So if there was anything wrong or

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if, you know, there needs to be changes made, I could be there quite

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quickly and not have to have kind of like, I don't know, like a

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prototype going backwards and forwards for three months across

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the world and. Yeah, and then

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also working with responsible wool and

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responsible fibers. I've always

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been very aware of animal welfare and how

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the land is cared for. So I work with really amazing

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mills that really kind of respect and

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care for the welfare of the animals and the land they graze on.

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So all the yarn I work with is certified

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and. Yeah, and yeah, really kind of

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fantastic mills that even when you go and visit them in the factory, they

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all run by solar panels, they kind of collect all the

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dust of the cotton and turn that into paper for their office. And it's just,

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they do really incredible things. All the water is

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all recycled and used again for agriculture. So

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kind of everyone really cares about each part of their

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process. That's amazing. And actually, I didn't know that some of

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those things were even possible. So turning the dust into paper, that's

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just. That's bloke my mind a little bit.

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Yeah, no, it's amazing. It was a cotton mill, so I guess it does kind

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of go, when it's spinning and being twisted, it does kind of go into the

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air. And I don't think it's like a bad enough for you to breathe

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and for it to affect you, but they do kind of extract it up and

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it goes into this paper making facility. It's

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fantastic. And it's those small things like I

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find it's really important to go and see where you make your product,

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where your raw materials come from, because

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you learn kind of each process and you can see kind

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of like the good or the bad for doing. I guess it's both. And you

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have a better understanding of your products from start to

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finish. Yeah, that makes absolute sense. And I can see as

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well that you, you know, you, because you're.

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The process of creating your products is, you know, there are all these

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pieces. I think it must be even more important that you know

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each piece, you know really well so that you

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can tie it all together. Yes. Yeah, definitely.

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Like, I feel like to be able to confidently say that

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you create a sustainable design, you have to make sure that it's sustainable from

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the start to the finish as well. So I do

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use all kind of natural

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fibers and I do use some sparkly yarns, but they're

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all

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se certified or recycled.

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So even the kind of ones that aren't very natural, they

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all are certified and kind of. Yeah. And

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made from these factories that kind of do fantastic things to

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like the solar panels and the recycling of the fibres.

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And I think what's great is that you're so close to everything that you know

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all of this. Yeah, yeah. I mean, my happy place is

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being in the factory, whether it's knitting or in the yard mill. I love it.

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I love being around the people that make it all. But I

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think that's really good because I think it could be know, I think a lot

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of us want to be doing, want to be doing good. But I think what's

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really nice is you're so close to every part of your business that you, you

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know, all of these small details, which I think can be

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not lost. But I think, you know what I'm saying, that

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sometimes, you know, you might find a manufacturer, but how deep are you actually looking

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into them, if you see what I mean? How much do you really know about

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their business? Yeah, no, definitely. And also, like, when

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you go and see them regularly and you have a cup of tea, you kind

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of learn, you know, how the staff are, how they're, you

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know, how they're looked after. It's those kind of small things I think are really

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important. You learn much more from that than you

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do like an audit form. But I completely understand if you

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manufacture, you know, far away, it's quite. It's hard, it's

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harder to go and see. But I guess that's what's really amazing about manufacturing the

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UK is that you are so close and I think it's. Amazing you've

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been able to do that as well because I know for lots of people that

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is the dream, to be able to manufacture in the UK, but for

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know, certain products or product types, it's just not possible. So I think

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it's such an advantage to be able to do that as well and be so

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close to it all. Yeah, no, definitely.

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And I'd love to sort of pivot slightly, if that's okay, and talk

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about how you found building your business around a young family, because

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I'm, I think I'm right in saying your children are still really young.

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Yes. You've got your studio, you're running your business,

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you're doing a lot. How have you managed

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that? Yeah, it's not

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easy. I've got an 18 month old and a four year old,

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and they've just grown up with

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two family businesses. My husband has a business in Quiddo, I

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guess, just what they've grown up with. But Hester, my eldest, was born

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three days into lockdown, so it was kind of

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unusual. And then carrying on working as well. So

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he basically had the first year of his life in my stock room and

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not doing much else. So he's not too, he's not too

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induced by socks or knitwear. But Hugo, obviously,

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because he was born outside of lockdown, he's had a great, like, experience.

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He's been to the factories, he's been on photo shoots, and he's really kind of

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seen the fun side of it. But, yeah, it is

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really hard. I didn't have the time to leave for either, so I was kind

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of back at work after a couple of days. But, but

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I guess with it being your own business, you can

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take to do it your own time. Like, you know, I don't, I don't have

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anyone to kind of, you know, telling me what to do or,

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you know, if my deadlines, me pushing, that's been me pushing. And luckily,

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my, my knitters were all really, really supportive and

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kind of really helped me kind of keep things

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ticking along in the background. And I've got an amazing assistant that helped

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as well, kind of keep, keep things ticking. So I definitely had,

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yeah, I couldn't have done it without all of them, but it was challenging at

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times, that's for sure. Yeah, it sounds. And, yeah, I didn't realize

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you didn't get any maternity leave, so that's, that's quite a big ask

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to have to have a baby, particularly when you had your first, and then to

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just keep going because it's such a huge life change.

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Yeah, definitely. But I guess I think also, because it was Covid, it

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was probably quite nice to have the distraction of both.

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I think that was probably quite needed, so.

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Yeah, it was. But I do have a really fond

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memory of Heston being. I think he was like four days old

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and we kind of had this kind of conveyor belt of packing, my

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husband and I, and estimates kind of like laying there asleep. And it is a

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really fond memory of kind of moments like that.

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And, yeah, they come most weekends they're here at the studio, but

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they now they kind of start to make a bit more of a mess and

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there's cars everywhere. But it's good. It's a good balance.

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No, it is. And as you say, the great thing about, I think, creating a,

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selling products particularly, is that you don't really have to be

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anywhere at any particular time and there aren't really any

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deadlines. It doesn't really matter if you're packing orders to go out at

09 00:24:22

00 in the morning or 10:00 at night. I think there is a lot of

09 00:24:25

flexibility. Yeah, no, definitely. And I do kind

09 00:24:29

of share the scene behind the scenes in my life. So

09 00:24:32

I think a lot of my customers are aware that I have kids, so they're

09 00:24:36

generally quite relaxed with things like that.

09 00:24:39

And also because I do show the kind of behind the

09 00:24:43

scenes, they see everything from the making and then the kind of

09 00:24:46

studio life as well. So, yeah, it works well. And I think

09 00:24:50

it's nice as well for the children to see what you're doing because

09 00:24:54

I started my first business when my youngest was about

09 00:24:58

six weeks old because they still, as you know, they still sleep quite a

09 00:25:02

lot and doing things in nap times.

09 00:25:06

And I think I actually really like the fact that both my children see me

09 00:25:09

whack and know what I do and have an understanding of what I do. And,

09 00:25:13

yeah, I just quite, I just quite like that, that I'm not disappearing somewhere

09 00:25:17

every day and then coming back and, you know, it feels like just

09 00:25:20

part of our lives. And I do really like that. Yeah,

09 00:25:24

definitely. I think seeing them, seeing that process, isn't it like

09 00:25:28

they, like, I don't know, they see a cone of yarn and then they see

09 00:25:31

it something and then they seeing it being packed and then I might show them

09 00:25:34

a picture of a customer wearing it. And it's. Yeah, it's that understanding of, like,

09 00:25:38

I find it really important understanding that something is made. It's not

09 00:25:41

just bought in a shop. And it's. Yeah, I'm trying

09 00:25:45

to kind of teach that with food as well. We're trying to grow vegetables.

09 00:25:49

I'm not very good at gardening, but I'm trying. But I guess it's that kind

09 00:25:52

of understanding that there's a process, isn't there people involved within

09 00:25:56

it? Yeah. And I think you're right. That is really important.

09 00:26:00

So thank you for all you've shared so far. Genevieve, I have one final question,

09 00:26:04

which I ask everybody, which is, what would your number one piece of

09 00:26:08

advice be for other product creators? And

09 00:26:12

so my number one piece of advice is to kind

09 00:26:15

of. I find it really important to have friends that

09 00:26:19

are founders, other business makers. And one thing that

09 00:26:22

me and a few friends are doing is sharing our

09 00:26:26

highs. And so we have a kind of WhatsApp thread, and they could

09 00:26:30

be something so mundane to like family and

09 00:26:33

friends, but to you, as a business owner, it means a lot. It could be

09 00:26:37

something that you've worked out, a logistical solution, or

09 00:26:41

you've won an account, or you've sold something that wasn't working before. And

09 00:26:45

it's. I just find it so amazing to have this thread with my kind of

09 00:26:48

other founder friends. And when you're having quite a low moment, it's

09 00:26:52

just amazing to look back at it and think, oh, well, what I've achieved, you

09 00:26:56

know, the small and the big things. So I just found that really

09 00:26:59

important and gained a lot from it. That's really nice. And I

09 00:27:03

think it's also really nice because you're all celebrating each other's success as well.

09 00:27:07

And while it might be sometimes, like a small win, sometimes those

09 00:27:11

are the ones that are even more important, because I think, hopefully,

09 00:27:14

lots of us are good at celebrating the big things that happen, but

09 00:27:17

sometimes the small things, you just kind of. They just happen.

09 00:27:21

And maybe you tell someone, but

09 00:27:25

you know what I mean? It could be really easy just to overlook those things

09 00:27:28

are how nice that you've got a record of it as well, that you could

09 00:27:31

go back and say, oh, look at all these things I did last year or

09 00:27:34

last month, whatever. Do you think that's really good? Yeah, definitely.

09 00:27:38

And, like, you know, as a small business owner, like,

09 00:27:41

sometimes your friends don't get it. Like, or your family don't get it. But to

09 00:27:45

have people that understand, yeah, the smallest of wins is. I think

09 00:27:49

it's brilliant. I think that's amazing. Thank you. And thank you so much, everything

09 00:27:52

you've shared. No, thank you very much for having me.

09 00:27:57

Thank you so much for listening. Right to the end of this episode, do remember

09 00:28:00

that you can get the full back catalogue and lots of free resources on my

09 00:28:03

website, vickiwineberg.com. please do remember to rate and review

09 00:28:07

this episode if you've enjoyed it, and also share it with a friend who you

09 00:28:11

think might find it useful. Thank you again and see you next week.