In the first of a new series chatting to artists and craftspeople about the process of bringing their ideas to life and starting a business, I spoke to craftsman Jamie Lewis about Flock Felt Animal Collection.
With a workshop and store on Benburb Street in Dublin, Jamie creates a range of 3D animals from natural undyed wools and coloured Merino, with hand-cut felt features. So how did these fantastic creations come to life?
How did Flock start?
Flock is a fairly recent rebranding of the felt animals I was making as part of a more varied craft business.
The animals themselves came about back in 2008 when I decided to reuse my offcuts and stuffed them inside dome-shaped pin cushions: One day the stripes on one of them reminded me of an Armadillo, so I made some eyes, ears and feet for it. Then I started thinking of other creatures I could make, and just intended to decorate my market stall with them. But then customers started buying them and before long I was selling more of them than my other products, and they became their own thing.
In the years following the birth of my first son in 2016, I realised I had to start winding down the other things to focus on just the animals and give them their own identity. Flock represents a group of animals, which is what my product is and also refers to the material – wool flocking is used to fill saddles – so it was the perfect name for the range.
“…Only do what you really want to do – if you can’t get behind your idea, you can’t expect anybody else to.”
What drew you to working with felt, and how did you get started?
My mother always had a craft business going – silk painting, stained glass etc. and when I was a teenager, she was in a felt making phase. One summer while studying Fine Art, I learned some basics from her and used wool to make useful things for myself – slippers, wallets, record bags. It was easy to do at home on the kitchen table with no specialist equipment or tools, and I liked that.
After Art School, working in bars and temping jobs unable to motivate myself to do art, I started taking my felt accessories to markets around the UK. I loved the immediacy of craft compared with the drawn-out processes and theories of art. My work wasn’t particularly great but I could make something on a Wednesday and sell it on Saturday, so there was momentum and I just kept going.
What was it like to open the shop in Dublin?
That was amazing. After several years making at home or in a studio space and taking my work elsewhere to sell, it was the dream to open a studio/shop so selling time didn’t come at the expense of production time.
I always remember a family holiday to York and buying a carved wooden slug from a guy who had a shop where he just carved and sold wooden slugs. I thought it was the best job ever, and I suppose the seed was sown then.
I obviously had a total sense of a major life goal achieved. Of course, if you do this kind of thing you always keep moving forward and it was a beginning rather than an end, most of the hard work and important changes have happened since opening the shop.
How important is selling online versus in store for you?
Right now, in the midst of this pandemic selling online is vital – there’s not much else going on! But selling online hasn’t been a big part of my business until now, the conflict was more between wholesale and direct from my workshop.
When I opened in 2014 with no children, I had all the time I wanted to be in the workshop and I was mostly interested in sales from there. I was just beginning to develop wholesale abilities. While doing a lot of childcare in the daytime, I relied on wholesale more, making outside of normal hours and leaving the sales to other shops.
I’ve always been aware people don’t really know they want to buy my felt animals until they actually come across them, and I knew people wouldn’t be sat in other countries googling ‘felt mussel’ so I neglected online for ages. While I had a website, it wasn’t customer-friendly so not much came in from it and I’d need to get a lot of product out in the old school ways to gain a following.
Then at the start of lockdown with all of my stockists closed, my own place closed and no tourists expected for the rest of the year, I spent four weeks or so getting my website in order and working on my Instagram content. I had to become an online business quickly, and now the focus is really on maintaining that. I’m sure I’ll always want a workshop store though.
What’s your typical day like?
My boys are 4 ½ and 1 ½ and both my wife and myself have chosen to work and earn less, and not pay huge childcare fees. I do childcare and school runs Monday to Wednesday, so I don’t get much work done before Thursday.
I try and get an Instagram post done in the morning but sometimes the noise and chaos is just too much and all I post is opening hours (or lack of them) for the day! I might try and combine an outing to a park or one of the school-runs with a delivery to a stockist, or buying packaging or stationary. After the boys’ bedtime, I like to sew small simple creatures together while watching Netflix on an iPad at the kitchen table, but it doesn’t always happen.
I start Thursdays with shipping my online orders. At the shop I’ll probably have a quick business chat and coffee with Jennifer Slattery, my studio neighbour – it’s good to have a sense of camaraderie working on your own.
I generally start with wet felting animal parts which I need time and energy for. I work on whatever I’m in the mood for, so I stay motivated and feel productive. I work on a mix of things I’ll need to finish soon, and things to store and finish further in the future. I do short repetitive tasks that I can keep up if customers are in talking to me.
If I get enough done, I put them through the washing machine then I’ll shave dried pieces with a beard trimmer, iron flat felt sheets, cut animal features, sew together animal parts, label finished work and stock shelves. I try to take photos as I go and if I’ve got some clear space and enough time, I might fit in making a short stop-motion animation. I usually leave just after 4 to cook and have a family meal, and I bring something home to work on after bedtime.
“I knew people wouldn’t be sat in other countries googling ‘felt mussel’ so I neglected online for ages.”
Each of the animals has such an individual personality – do you have any personal favourites?
I’m always excited by the newest one, and that’ll be my favourite both to look at and to make for a while. Most recently that’s been the doves. More long-term favourites are the white duck and the shark. And I couldn’t do without the Christmas Robin!
What do you wish you knew when you started out?
I’ve had to learn everything along the way. Aside from what products actually work and what business models to adopt, there’s photography, branding, graphics software, building websites, accounting, social media, dealing with shops and loads more – mostly more than once!
I remember a point where I realised I had a business and not just a profitable activity, and I wished I could have explained it to my younger self! But I think the only way to really understand it is to live it, not be told. My advice [to others] would be to only do what you really want to do – if you can’t get behind your idea, you can’t expect anybody else to.
What are your proudest moments so far?
Getting my shop front repainted after 5 years and having my new Flock signage put up would certainly be up there. Like opening in the first place, it represented both the culmination of years of hard work and perseverance and the beginning of a new chapter.
Right now though, I’m proud to have established my online business. Relaunching the website during lockdown felt very make or break, but I received loads of orders straight away. Knowing people, strangers really, who had followed the making of my creatures at home through my Instagram feed, were there ready to support my business at the most difficult time was a fantastic feeling. It still is, and I’m reminded every time my Shopify app goes ch-ching.