Running a creative small business could be seen at its base, as an act of defiance. It rarely starts with this, but I think all small business owners eventually recognise this feeling. Any arts and craft retail business of course starts with idealism. Thoughts of independence and carving out ‘spaces’ to allow creativity to blossom. Money isn’t the end goal (of course it is), because the money will come as a by-product of ‘building community’ (it’s not and it doesn’t)
To build a community is a noble goal, yet I am not even sure what constitutes a community and when you are even part of one, let alone help build such a thing. Do you need to know everyone? Should you have had some kind of transaction with everyone? Is a community an essential part of a business or is it nothing to do with it? Are you in the Starbucks or Barclays or Amazon community?
Small business owners struggle to weave together the ideals of community and creativity as pillars to hold up both our dreams and as reasons to validate the generation of income. The tension between the cold logic of making a profit from your venture, versus building community and maintaining ideals can be startling. Its no wonder then that soon enough imposter syndrome sidles up and just hangs around moaning at you, as you attempt to clarify your ‘mission statement’ and your ‘unique selling point’. There is possibly the feeling that well-meaning friends and family are outwardly supportive yet inwardly wary of your grand project. Protective of our apparent naivety as we struggle to balance ideals and small business in a globalised world geared towards the ‘Corporation’. It’s not the fault of friends and family, it has become an economic axiom that small business is not truly viable when compared to the corporate route.
Scotland is a beautiful country and we are lucky to have such depth of culture and tradition, yet within that colourful history is a vigorous skepticism that has evolved through our ancient totems of Law and Accountancy. (The first professional body of accountants was formed in Edinburgh in 1854. Scotland also has its own unique legal system) And the inevitable snooty nose pair of Finance and Banking are right behind them. The Panama project also known as the Darien Scheme from the 17th Century which (almost?) bankrupted Scotland, might start to explain the stereotype of Scots as prudent or financially cautious. Or maybe it was Sir Walter Scott and his shrewd magistrate Baillie Nicol Jarvie. Whatever the reason, could this be why society seems to broadly accept that small business is generally untenable for the ‘serious’ individual? The Arts is something that flourishes in times of plenty, and we do celebrate our most successful creatives, but in a country that has a deep affinity with bad weather, then it is natural for the arts to be seen as the excited but naïve optimist. Good for parties, but not something that will pay the bills.
Here is the feeling of defiance. I believe there is a need for people to follow and explore crafting and arts now more than ever. I believe that handmade crafts and creative arts are reflections in which we can see and often find ourselves. The things that literally make us human and grounded to our surroundings. They are not the ‘…icing on the cake, but are the cake itself...’ ( this quote is attributed to many sources and I like it a lot)
I started my career in the arts many years ago, then made a pivot to the corporate world when the going got tough and I worried about supporting my new family. Regret is a strong word, but it’s there in that pivot I made and has become part of the drive to return to creativity and make it my ‘main thing’. To be the answer to the question ‘so what do you do?’
In 1987 the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, gave an interview to ‘Woman's Own’ magazine in which she famously said ‘There is no such thing as society’ The full context of the quote is as follows:
“I think we have been through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
We could deconstruct what Thatcher really meant here, but the effect has been felt for decades that we are essentially an individualist society. This statement and the consequent Conservative approach to business has had such impact, that to open any discussion about community and how they make up a society is inevitably refracted through the Thatcher lens and gets mixed up with self-sufficiency versus a support network. This runs deep in UK culture and impacts our choices about say, university or art school, accountancy or drama college, building our family and career or dare I say the unspeakable ‘vocation’ (does anyone still pursue this?) All these choices are made through the prism of supporting yourself and the opportunities available to you to do that ‘thing’.
Community then is something I struggle with, but something I defiantly think is deeply important. I would go so far to say you are de-facto part of a community even if you spend all your energy trying not to be. I hold an overwhelming belief in the equity of all pursuits and none, to climb a mountain or sit at basecamp making the tea.
I would like to take you along the meandering path The Orry Mill has taken to get where we are today and inform where we might be tomorrow. These are some of the independent businesses that have inadvertently or directly helped along the way, or people we have simply nodded to in vague acknowledgment of ‘esprit de corps’. The list is also just those in our immediate geographical location of Glasow and West Coast Scotland. I would like to talk further about Scottish and British crafting in future blogs, but for the moment here are fellow businesses that may or may not constitute a ‘community’.
Before the website was the shop, and we needed a sign: Erin Bradley Scott hand-painted our shop sign and designed our logo based on old photographs and drawings of the actual cotton mill chimneys that once stood in the middle of the village green known as ‘The Orry’ (hence our name The Orry Mill)
The Village Gift Company opened next to us around the same time as we started and weathered the lockdown and all the uncertainty that almost instantly followed.
Quench & Pickle and JK Jewellery are designers and makers also in the village of Eaglesham and we have had chats about business, bought birthday presents from them and generally had little shared insights. They also run classes and make items to order.
Townfoot Yarn was the very first independent yarn producer we had in the shop; they have a farm nearby. Townfoot was also the very first ‘trunk show’ we did. A trunk show is essentially a pop-up stall within our shop usually lasting for a day or two and always great fun to host.
For the Love of Yarn was the second hand-dyer we ever had, and is now based in Glasgow. Also known as ‘FTLOY’ (we tend to say ‘Floaty’ I hope they don’t mind). FTLOY runs classes in hand dyeing, sells all over the UK, and regularly shares insights into their process and business on social media.
The Yarn Cake is a fellow LYS ‘Local Yarn Shop’ and is one of the most popular in Glasgow. It's no wonder, as they are also the founders of the Glasgow yarn festival known as The Glasgow School of Yarn, now an annual staple in the crafting calendar.
The Wool Haven is another LYS, but this time nestled in the southside of Glasgow. It recently changed hands after the original owner retired, so its fantastic that there is an appetite for continuing the business and supporting the knitters of the southside.
A departure from the wool for a moment, with Three Four Five who are a bespoke but highly affordable furniture maker in Govan. They built both display furniture for our shop and personal items for our home.
Three Four Five then introduced us to Wild Knits Glasgow, a knitwear designer and content creator based in the city.
We are most proud of this next maker as they came to the shop to explore and get an introduction to needle felting and have since gone on to become a huge talent and build a lovely business in needle felt art.
Exploring the west coast of Scotland, we met another LYS in Prestwick known as Fankle Yarns, there are other wool shops on the west coast, but Fankle specialises in hand-dyed and stocks lots of independent producers.
By far the best example of a ‘Crafting Community’ balancing business and the arts is the West Kilbride ‘Craft Town’ - Home - Craft Town Scotland This is a fascinating concept and certainly worth an entire blog on its own in the future. In terms of yarn, it is home to the famous ‘Weft Blown’ who specialise in looms and hand weaving as well as yarn for knitting and crochet.
A hand dyer we haven’t (yet) stocked is Woollen Flower, they are Glasgow-based and specialise in plant-based dyes for yarn. Woollen Flower is a horticulturist and takes eco-friendly production very seriously. For me a great example of small business forging a path in the new world of true sustainable fashion
I promised this would be only Glasgow and West I would use to explore the idea of local communities, but this last mention was important in the beginning of The Orry Mill as they took time to talk to us about starting a wool shop and the inevitable ups and downs that come with it.
Well worth a visit if you are in Edinburgh
There are many others I haven’t talked about, but I will explore East Coast and Scottish crafting communities in future blogs.
Let me know what you think.