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Meet the Maker - Hillview Soft Furnishings

Switching career to find a more flexible role, Ellen, of Hillview Soft Furnishings is a City & Guilds trained curtain and blind maker and soft furnisher, who has added lampshade making to her broad repertoire of furnishing skills. With a passion for sewing from being young, Ellen enjoys working closely with her customers to find creative solutions to enhance their homes to fit with their lifestyle, whether it be making them a pair of beautiful wave curtains or an oversized drum shade.

We catch up with Ellen to find out how she started out in soft furnishings, how lampshade making has become part of her business and what she has learnt along the way.

Hi there!

How are you today and what’s on your workbench?

I’m feeling refreshed after a lovely family week away - the next couple of weeks though are going to be a huge sort out of my workroom, getting accounts up to date, with the hope of refreshing my website as well, if I have time. I’ll also be ordering lots of lovely fabrics, trims and poles ready for lots of upcoming jobs.

Tell us a little bit about your soft furnishing business and how you started out?

I have always been able to sew, as I was taught dressmaking when I was a teenager; fast forward several years, after a music degree and a career as a professional cellist, I completed a City & Guilds evening class in Interior Design. After that, I completed more City & Guilds qualifications in Soft Furnishings, because I wanted to change my career to something that would fit around my children, yet that still gives me the flexibility that self-employment allows.

My children were very young at the time and so I then worked a couple of days a week in a curtain workroom - where I learnt a lot about what to do (and not to do!) in running a small business.

Now I am at the stage where I am working full time running my business - I am still essentially a “one-man band” but wouldn’t change it for anything because I have all the flexibility I want to fit around family responsibilities. Work can get overwhelming at times, but I am part of a fantastic network of other makers around the country and we all feel the same thing - that it gets stressful because we care.

How do you start the design process for your soft furnishing when working with clients?

I speak to my new customers and try to judge what they’re looking for - sometimes they will come to me with a complete idea of what they would like, which can make the process easier for me, but quite often they have no idea what they would like - so I ask them about the style of their home, what furniture is in the room we are going to work on – the materials of the furniture, lighting, flooring etc. We discuss what sort of style they’re looking for and I often show them lots of pictures of previous jobs to give them ideas. I always ask what they don’t like because that makes it easier to cut down options to show them. Customers often find that an easier question to answer than saying what they do like.

How would you describe your personal style?

We moved out to the countryside 18 years ago and my style in our home has become less formal over the years, if I had to categorise it I would say its modern country. Lots of soft colours and I love good textures over pattern. Inevitably grey has made an appearance over the last few years in the odd room - but I will always try to add a pop of colour to make it more individual.

When and why did you start making lampshades?

I trained years ago in traditional lampshade making as part of my City & Guilds course, and although I love this traditional skill I found that speed was needed to be a viable business - and I wasn’t the quickest at making them! I still make the odd traditional lampshade and have been to single-day courses to refresh my skills.

I love the fact that I am in a job where learning is a daily experience - it keeps things evolving all the time. I moved on to making drum shades after meeting Jamie (aka Mr Needcraft) and his lovely dad, Martin, at a trade show several years ago. I bought some kits and tried them out. The best way to learn is to just have a go!

How has lampshade making helped expand your business?

Shade making is a great add-on to a soft furnishings business. Quite often you will have enough leftovers to get a shade out of the waste - and offering this to my customers often goes down really well - they love that bespoke look of a shade to match. Sometimes when I mention shades to customers they will order more for other rooms - and add in a few cushions which together can refresh the look of a room on a relativity low budget.

What’s the most popular shape of lampshade that your clients request?

I make drum shades the most and I have done a few ovals. I don’t offer loads of options because for me it is an additional service and so keeps stock levels to a minimum.

What type of support or resources have you used from Dannells?

Dannells are great at their videos which can be really helpful - and the Lampshade Makers Facebook group is good for tips and tricks, which the instructions in the box don’t always include - as Jamie says if they included every little tip the instruction sheet would be VERY long!

What’s your favourite part of the lampshade making process?

If I’m honest the best bit is seeing my customer's reaction when they see their new products all in place in their homes. It always makes me smile that it is so astonishing to most customers, that making a drum shade is a possibility!

Any tips for new lampshade makers in the soft furnishing industry?

I would say that if you’re starting out, then be prepared to take more time over making and don’t rush things. Try to make contact with local makers of curtains and blinds and see if you can offer your services in collaboration with them. Don’t expect to suddenly have a ready-made business once you set up an Instagram page - it takes years to build up a good customer base - and if you always prioritise the best customer service you can provide those customers will be very loyal to you and come back and refer you on to others.

How do you fit in your shade making around your other commitments?

I’m very lucky to be able to have a lovely workroom in our garden. It keeps things separate from the house but allows me to work when I’m able to, without a commute. I can coordinate my work around the demands of being “mum's taxi service” as well which can be a full-time occupation itself at times!

When are you at your most productive?

I love it when I have two or three days without any customer appointments and I can just get into the workroom and sew. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you get an early start and although it doesn’t come naturally to me to be an early bird, it’s the only way to get through my orders.

And your favourite sustenance when you’re working?

I have a cup of proper Yorkshire Tea (being a Yorkshire girl!) at breakfast and then generally I work straight through until I have to do the school run in the afternoon. Later in the day, I will have another cuppa and a few more hours sewing before tea time. I don’t allow much into the workroom because of the risk of spillages and damage to fabrics.

Could you let us take a peek at your workspace?

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

In 10 years I am hoping that I will be able to take things a little easier – maybe being stricter with my time and doing 3 or 4 days a week only instead of the 6 I do quite often these days. I don’t think I will ever completely stop!

What have you learned that’s been invaluable to your creative process?

I have learned that every day is still a learning day, which I love. I also have learnt that the best customer service goes a long way to happy customers, but also with experience, I know the very odd occasion when to walk away from a job. It is a very creative industry that I work in, but at the same time, you need to run a profitable business which can be the tricky bit without gaining some business skills as well.

Take a look at Ellen's wide range of soft furnishing services on her website and see pictures of her previous work on her Instagram and Facebook pages linked below.

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