Meet Isobel Robinson from Lillibets Millinery
Isobel Robinson from Lillibets Millinery is a maker of bespoke and ready-to-wear millinery and jewellery, whose designs have been seen at Royal Ascot and featured in Tatler. Although she works across two distinct crafts, her pieces are united by their classic styling and contemporary edge. Here Isobel talks to fellow Folksy seller Louise Burgoyne from Samfire Handmade about her creative journey, her dream client (clue: she’s a royal) and the confidence that can come with wearing a beautiful hat made especially for you.
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After hours of painstaking hand sewing the brim of a hat, it’s a welcome release to take a blow-torch to some silver!Isobel Robinson, Lillibets Millinery
Hi Isobel. I love your work. Would you be able to introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Hi I’m Isobel, the designer and maker behind Lillibets Millinery, a hat and jewellery design studio based in Yorkshire. I started creating jewellery in 2012 as a sideline to my job in the National Trust, but fell in love with millinery after attending a taster course. After leaving employment to start a family I took the opportunity to expand into both crafts and turn my ‘little hobby’ into a full time business. I now create a variety of headpieces which have been worn to events around the world, including Royal Ascot, the Kentucky Derby and even to meet the late Queen.
I still love designing jewellery and work almost exclusively in sterling silver, using recycled silver wherever possible and melting down all the offcuts so nothing is wasted. I tend to make quite minimalist geometric designs, using a variety of textures and patinas to add interest to each piece.
You practise what could be considered two completely different crafts. Do you find it keeps things fresh and that they influence or inspire each other?
They say change is as good as a rest, and that’s certainly the case for me. After hours of painstaking hand sewing the brim of a hat, it’s a welcome release to take a blow-torch to some silver! I find my millinery and jewellery designs are evolving into fairly distinctive styles and, in fact, I’m considering either changing my shop name to be more inclusive of both crafts or splitting them entirely. It’s a difficult decision when you’ve built a brand over 10 years, so I’m taking time to ensure it’s the best decision for my business.
How do your pieces start out? Do you keep a sketchbook or start with the materials and work from there?
I’m honestly a terrible design planner and much more of a hands-on experimenter. Inspiration can come from anywhere and once an idea is formed I have to get started. That said, I often find that once a design begins to come together it leads to a series of related pieces, and at that point I will fill my sketchbook and form a new collection.
It was the taster millinery course that started your journey with hat making, but how did you learn the skills to start making jewellery?
I grew up in a very creative house – my mum would bring us all sorts of craft kits and I loved trying them all. As I got older I would make gifts for friends and family, learning mainly from craft books, and I think this is where my jewellery making started. My early designs were very simple beaded jewellery, using copper wire, which is much more economical for a start-up business. As my skills progressed, I switched to sterling silver and enrolled in online jewellery courses to learn new techniques. There’s a plethora of knowledge on the internet that means you can master a new craft from your own home, at your own pace, and I think this has opened up so many possibilities for people like me to start up their own business.
Hats are often the first thing you notice about someone… When you have a hat specially made for you, it boosts your confidence, makes you stand tall and makes a special occasion that bit more memorable.Isobel Robinson, Lillibets Millinery
Having achieved so much already, what would you choose as your proudest moment?
I’ve been lucky enough to have my designs featured in various magazines, and I have even spotted them on TV at racing events, but I think the proudest moments are when someone takes the time to write to you after an event to say how much they enjoyed wearing their piece and how many people complimented them on it.
Hats are often the first thing you notice about someone, that stand-out accessory we love to admire at formal occasions. When you have a piece specially made for you, it boosts your confidence, makes you stand tall, and can make a special occasion that bit more memorable. It’s a pleasure to play a small part in making someone’s day.
Where do you see your work going and growing?
I became self-employed at the same time as starting a family, so my work-life balance has always been a struggle. Just as my youngest was due to start school full time and I could look forward to a little more structure to my day, covid struck and I became a full-time mum and home-schooler, with a millinery business that effectively closed down overnight.
Without weddings and horse-racing events, the business that had grown year on year suddenly collapsed, and I sold just six hats for the rest of the year. Thankfully I still had the jewellery side of my business, which continued to flourish, but it was a difficult time and I saw many fellow milliners stop trading. It certainly knocked my confidence and creative enthusiasm for a while, and I ended up taking a break from hat-making for a year to refocus.
As we came out of lockdown my aim was simply to build the business back up to where it had been in 2019. This has taken a while as people were initially reluctant to prepare for an event which could have been cancelled last minute. Thankfully, 2022 has been a little more predictable for weddings, and I’ve rekindled my love of designing hats by doing a variety of millinery courses and experimenting with new techniques. After the ups and downs of the last few years, my range of hats is smaller than I would like, so going forward I’m working on a range of new headpieces, including some blocked headbands that are currently on my workbench.
What do you think was the best decision you’ve made for your business?
Hmm, that’s a hard one! I don’t think there’s a single decision that’s had a dramatic impact, just lots of small, everyday choices that’s helped my business evolve. One thing I found that helped me a lot personally was to create a dedicated workspace at home. Like many small businesses I began working from the kitchen table, making it difficult to have a separate work and home life. We don’t have a big house and I still needed to be in the living space to take care of my daughters, but we managed to transform a corner of the living room into a workable space with a desk and enough storage for essential tools and supplies. We turned the small bedroom into more storage as the business grew, with the idea that eventually it will become my dedicated studio space. It’s helped me mentally to create a distinction so that once the children are home I can walk away and enjoy time with them, even if it is just the other side of the room!
The dream for any milliner is to have a piece worn by Catherine, Princess of Wales. I think a teardrop-shaped percher hat in pale blue felt, worn with a princess cut coat in the same shade of wool, would look stunning for a winter occasion.Isobel Robinson, Lillibets Millinery
If you could get anyone (famous or not) to wear one or maybe two of your pieces, who would it be and which piece would you choose for them to wear?
I think the dream for any milliner is to have a piece worn by Catherine, Princess of Wales. I’m so pleased the Royal Family continues to promote traditional millinery, which had been falling out of favour for many years. When I design a hat for a client, my aim is to find something that complements their style and personality – the hat should enhance their natural beauty, not distract from it. Catherine has a face shape that suits so many hat styles, plus I’d want to show off her gorgeous hair, so something that perches off to one side of the head would be perfect. I think a teardrop-shaped percher hat in pale blue felt, worn with a princess cut coat in the same shade of wool, would look stunning for a winter occasion.
Finally, with your wealth of knowledge and experience, do you have any hints or tips you would give to anyone starting their own craft business?
The best thing about running a small business is the connection you have with each and every customer. You have control of every step of their order, from making the piece, packaging it beautifully and offering personal correspondence if needed. Use that to your advantage and make your business stand out. Perhaps a handwritten ‘thank you’ note, free gift wrapping or offering a return customer discount code. It doesn’t have to cost a lot – I wrap my jewellery orders with tissue paper and embellish with a sprig of dried lavender. A lot of the lavender is grown in my garden, so it costs next to nothing but adds that unexpected special touch that is often commented on in reviews.
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Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is Louise Burgoyne from Samfire Handmade. Louise designs high-quality handmade cards which are bold, cute and sometimes a little cheeky. Read more about Louise here >