Donna Wilson is hands down our all-time craft hero. A pioneer of the designer-maker movement and passionate about craft, she started selling hand-knitted animals 13 years ago while she was at the RCA. Although her brand is now global and she collaborates with big-name retailers like John Lewis, she is still involved in every part of her business – from designing and making samples to admin and marketing. On top of all that, she also has a new book out, 35 Knitted Animals and Other Creatures, where she’s put together 35 knitting patterns for her kooky creatures. So when they opportunity came along to talk to Donna about her creative business and how she grew it, we jumped at it (flying fox in stripy scarf and superhero mask style).
Did we mention, we love her?
My work started off as the long leggy dolls and evolved into the slightly more disturbing knitted creatures each with their very own character… the more peculiar the better.
How did you start your business?
I set up my company in 2003 after making odd knitted creatures for my final show at the Royal College of Art. I had fantastic tutors there – Freddie Robins and Karen Nichol. While I was at the RCA I started making products and sold them in shops like Couverture in London (that was the first shop that stocked my work), so by the time I left the RCA, I knew that I wanted to start my own business. My work started off as the long leggy dolls, which are still in my collection, and evolved into the slightly more disturbing knitted creatures with two heads or extra-long legs, each with their very own character… the more peculiar the better for me.
Was there a big break that helped catapult you to success?
My final show at the RCA sold out, which was very encouraging and it gave me the confidence to exhibit at a public show called Designersblock, which opened my work up to a wider audience too. I would never have done that if it wasn’t for the RCA.
How did you get your name out there back at the beginning?
I had a website pretty much straight after leaving the RCA. I felt it was important for shops and customers to see what I did. The first site was very hand drawn and had a little animation of the creatures. I wasn’t trying to pretend I was a big company – I liked the fact that I was just starting out and that I did small numbers and small quantities. It was important to me to show customers and shops that I was an independent small business and that I was a real person behind the brand – that I was approachable and personable.
I do find it hard to delegate certain parts, and I still do most of the design side myself as it’s so important to ensure I don’t lose the signature personality of our style.
You business still feels very ‘you’ even though you’re now working on a much bigger scale. How did you manage that?
It’s taken over 12 years but we’ve now built up to a team of seven. We’re a pretty creative bunch of women! I still remember working on my own when I first started out, and I did everything from designing, making, packing orders, press and going to the post office. It was more of a lifestyle than a job. I loved those days but I wouldn’t want to go back to that now. I really love our team, and everyone has different skills to offer so that we run an efficient working studio. I want everyone to feel part of the company and for us all to be motivated and inspired when we come into work.
I now still do a bit of everything – selecting colours, mood boards, designing and making samples, production, marketing, admin, and everything to do with the day-to-day running of the business – and I’m still learning as I go along. Managing the business side of it is challenging, as is making the right decisions about what to spend our time doing. It’s also a part I really enjoy though, as I never thought that I’d be good at it but as we’ve begun to have more success I think I must be OK.
I do find it hard to delegate certain parts, and I do most of the design side myself as it’s so important to ensure I don’t lose the signature personality of our style. The hardest thing is to communicate what I want, so most of the work is done by trying things out and seeing what works.
So many people have been introduced to my products through retailers. Selling through these shops allows me to present my brand and products to a wider audience than I would have been able to reach otherwise.
Do you think it’s essential to sell through shops if you want to make a living as a designer and maker?
This goes without saying, but having a website that really expresses who you are and what you do is invaluable. Other tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram help to make you more approachable to the public and help them to get to know who you really are. However, big-name clients like SCP, Liberty, and John Lewis have had a huge impact on my career. Their continued support and the business they bring me are important because they allow me to present my brand and products to a wider audience than I would have been able to reach otherwise. So many people have been introduced to my products through these retailers, so the partnerships I have with these clients have been essential to the growth of my business. I’m very grateful for that.
How do you choose which shops to stock?
I think it’s important to visit the shops you sell to, and see what the customer is buying and what the competitors are doing. It’s easy to forget to do this is when you’re working very hard in your studio, but it’s good to know what’s going on around you too. We do frequently have to say no to shops, if they are too close to existing retailers – it makes no sense to sell to two competitors, as they have the same customer base. We really try to keep loyal to our stockists as they are the people who buy, display and sell our products and we have had 10-year relationships with some of our best customers.
We love the children’s clothes you’ve designed for John Lewis. Can you tell us more about that collaboration?
As a mother now I do feel like I have first-hand experience of shopping from a mother’s perspective and I can design knowing what mothers might look for when shopping for their children. Naturally I do pay more attention to children’s clothing and toys, as I consider what I would want for my own little boys and have found myself making jumpers and toys that I would like to see them wear.
It was great to work with John Lewis as it enabled me to create a range that was affordable. If I had done it under my own brand I wouldn’t have been able to get the scale it takes to get costs low enough. It’s been interesting learning which pieces have been a success too, as they weren’t always my favourite styles!
I have had companies, small and big, copy my style and aesthetic and in one case, even my bio. It’s really sad and annoying because I feel that, as designers, we should help each other, not rip each other off! But the way I look at it is… time for me to move on and keep ahead.
How do you come up with new products?
My design process usually starts with sketches in a notebook. They often look like little cartoons. For example, when sketching out creatures they’ll sometimes have tiny bodies with huge exaggerated heads. I get their look and idea on paper first, then start knitting. Usually they turn out very much like the drawings but occasionally I’ll make some out of the scraps or off-cuts and sometimes these rejects are just as successful as the planned ones.
Now that we do trade shows at certain times of year, we do dedicate time to work on new collections to coincide with launching things at the shows. But if I come up with an idea at random, sometimes those are the best, and we’ll add it in to the collection whatever it may be! I don’t think you can always design on demand, sometimes if you feel it you just have to go for it!
Where does your inspiration come from?
My inspirations come from all over the place: the landscape, music, dreams, magazines, ceramics, Scandinavian design and the people around me! Sometimes I just see a tiny snippet of something that triggers an idea, which is then developed into a product.
How do you find and choose your suppliers and manufacturers?
It’s important to me to produce things in the UK on several different levels. For example, I want to promote local manufacturing and help keep British craftsmanship alive. There’s too much disposability in products and consumer goods nowadays and it’s environmentally irresponsible. I believe that if you have something that is handmade, it’s somehow more special than something made carelessly or mass produced, so you’re more likely to keep it for years instead of throwing it away. I want to make things that people use, keep and treasure for years – things that don’t end up in a landfill.
People have asked me why I don’t get them mass produced, as it would certainly be less time consuming, but for me I think they would lose their charm, identity and oddness.
When a maker becomes successful, we often see people starting to copy their work. Has that happened to you and how do you deal with it?
It has happened. It’s really sad and annoying because I feel that, as designers, we should help each other, not rip each other off! But the way I look at it is… time for me to move on and try to keep ahead of the competition. It’s not always easy but I try to use it as a catalyst to move me forward rather than getting bitter and twisted about it! I have had companies small and big copy the style and aesthetic, and in one case, even my bio, which was a bit strange, but ‘move on’ I say!
Striking the right life-work balance is really hard. I think it’s good to have cut-off times, so you dedicate a certain number of hours or days to work and then when you get home that’s it, it’s family time.
How do you fit everything in? Is there a secret?
Striking the right life-work balance is really hard, especially if you’re just setting up your business. A new business needs a lot of time and you have to think about things constantly. It’s like another baby! It’s hard when your head is in two different places, so I think it’s good to have cut-off times: dedicate a certain number of hours or days to work and then when you get home that’s it, it’s family time.
I was a bit of a workaholic before having my first son. Now my time to work is so limited but as a result I feel I’ve managed to step back a bit from the daily routine and see where I want things to go more clearly. It’s made me delegate and let go of more, which I think has been a good thing. I’m lucky that my business was a bit more established by the time I had my first baby, so I had lots of help from my team. One thought that keeps me sane sometimes is ‘you can’t get everything done, so don’t feel guilty about it, just do what you can do.’
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?
It’s a gradual process and I’m constantly learning and adjusting, but I think the main thing is to work hard, be nice to people, nurture relationships with customers, collaborators and work colleagues and always be determined. It’s not always easy to do all this, all of the time, but I try my best. I think there is always room for more creativity, as long as you’re being true to yourself and finding your own voice.
Have you got any tips for makers who are struggling to grow their businesses?
If you can’t make enough money from your business, my advice would be to have a part-time job on the side to help subsidise and ease the financial pressure. Use that job as a learning tool, as you can get tips on how to run a business no matter what field it’s in – the basics are the same!
People seem to have had a reaction to the whole technology thing and want to get back to using their hands to make. It’s easy to lose touch with the tangible, physical world around us. Knitting and home crafts allow people to take themselves back to the physical world and remember how joyful it can be to be creative.
What do you think of the UK craft scene at the moment. Has it changed since you started out?
I think there is more of a craft scene now than when I started 13 years ago. People seem to have had a reaction to the whole technology thing and want to get back to using their hands to make, which I think is really positive. It’s easy to lose touch with the tangible, physical world around us. So I think knitting and home crafts allow people to take themselves back to the physical world and remember how joyful it can be to be creative. Knitting is a very healthy, creative and satisfying habit.
Do you have ever have any spare time just to make – not for work but just because?
Yes, I’m trying to find time to make some clay things in my spare time, and I’ve always loved working with wool. I’m enjoying making prints at the moment too.
You are one of our biggest design heroes. But who are yours?
I like Alexander Girard, Stig Lindberg, My grandma (but she wasn’t famous). Another designer I admire is Hella Jongerius – I love the sofa she did for Vitra a long time ago with the odd buttons. I’d never seen anything like this and I loved the way she used textiles and colour in her work. Her designs are clever and thoughtful and have that human element.
35 Knitted Animals and Other Creatures by Donna Wilson, is out now, published by CICO Books, price £12.99.
Photograph credits: Geoff Dann © CICO Books, Carmel King, Gareth Hacker