Interview: Libby Summers
Libby Summers is someone I haven't known for long, but the minute we started chatting online, I was instantly in awe. Her incredible energy flies out of her emails - warm and friendly (particularly good, as I was asking for yarn support for an upcoming design!), we have had countless emails about yarn, our shared struggle with estimating yarn for a project, crochet, and even yarn winders! One gets the sense that she is someone who spends most of her time in motion! That energy has just been channeled to relaunch her website - http://www.libbysummers.co.uk/ - filled to the brim with gorgeous yarn, new patterns, and kits. He designs have been in John Lewis! I am thrilled to have her here today to share her incredible story. (also, she happens to be learning to crochet right along with us at Crochet Camp!!).
I am really interested in your work and business and how it has developed and grown. Can you tell me how you started out designing?
I started when my children were very small, even before my youngest one was born, by making things for them. I found that I couldn’t find patterns for designs that were in my head - things I wanted to see them wear, and so started making them up myself. I remember making one particular hat for each of them, and photographing them wearing it in the churchyard of the Norman church we lived opposite, and being really pleased with the results. then I started making handbags, as I have always had a fetish for bags, like many women! When my daughters moved school, I met some really interesting mums who were linked together by their creativity in different crafts, but we all of us knitted, and used to meet together at ‘Stitch and Bitch’, run by the now famous Gillian Harris. Looking back now, living in Lincolnshire (which is quite a different kind of place) I am quite touched at how welcoming they were, how open to new people, and how friendly. I was inspired by all of them, but in particular by Ruth, who had a company making bespoke handmade lampshades. She was particularly encouraging, raving about my bags and insisting I could sell them. Another friend’s husband helped me set up my website, and it all grew from there.
I think that many of us who are working in the industry are weaving many threads together to create sustainable businesses. You are no exception. Can you tell me a bit about the strands in your business and how they all fit together?
You are absolutely right. We have to be so flexible and adaptable, always keeping our ear to the ground and our eye on the web! It is so much more challenging now. When I started out in 2007, my website was top of page 1 of google for any search which included ‘hand knitted’ but now there is a plethora of websites and a multitude of people designing, making ready made knitting and selling on the web. It is not enough to have a website, an Etsy shop, a Folksy shop and so on anymore. That in itself does not bring in sales.
So I diversified. Ready Made is taking a back seat, and designing is taking a front seat, at the moment. But that may change again. The recession only really started having an impact in 2011, but it did then affect my business, and sales at John Lewis were down on the previous year. So in 2012 I took on more designing commissions, and also increased my other work. Between 2007 and 2012 I was juggling running my knit design business with teaching the violin AND doing press work for a major public school. I even went full time with the school for a term in 2012 when my business was at its lowest ebb and I was in a panic. So there have been ups and downs, and I am still learning.
You have had your designs featured in many places, magazines, and even sold in John Lewis. Can you identify your "game changing moment" - the point where you felt like you'd hit your stride?
I absolutely can! I remember it so clearly. My personal life was falling apart. My first marriage was failing. I was at a low ebb. It was just the week before Christmas in 2009, and out of the blue I had an email land in my inbox from the Beauty Buyer at John Lewis saying he was interested in stocking hand knitted alpaca hot water bottles and could I give him a call. I will never forget that phone call. I caught him just as he was putting on his coat to walk out of JL HQ for his Christmas break, and he practically gave me my marching orders. “I want samples on my desk the first week of January, and I want a luxury box - it has to be in a box”. I was quaking in my boots! I spent my entire Christmas trying to find someone who was still working who could give me a quote for boxes, and knitting up hot water bottle designs. It was a struggle at that time of year, but I did it, and I didn’t just send them in the post, I escorted those woolly babies down to John Lewis HQ in person!
Looking through your Ravelry portfolio, your patterns are largely self-published with a few partnerships with yarn companies. Has it been a conscious decision to remain largely independent?
When I initially set up in 2007, I really wanted to focus on ready made hand knits, and so I wasn’t really looking for design commissions. To be honest, it was only at the beginning of 2012 when I stopped supplying John Lewis that I started to look for design commissions. Jenny, from Artesano Ltd, was my main backer, as she loved my designs and believed in me, and she was such a help in getting that off the ground. In 2012, I probably did more commissions than I did my own designs, so maybe the ravelry ‘snapshot’ is not quite representative of reality!
I am so excited by the launch of my yarns. In 2011, I needed to source some baby alpaca for my John Lewis contract, and wanted to improve on the very small margins of the previous year. I recognised that I needed to source my yarn outside of the UK and get it directly from the manufacturer rather than companies in this country selling wholesale to me as if I was a knitting shop. Because I was dealing with a large quantity of yarn, particularly in this second year of the contract, I could seriously look into going down this route. Now, I am getting a bit fed up with Facebook these days, but in 2010 I had just joined it and people were hooking up with old friends from their past through facebook, people they had lost touch with for years, and I was no exception. One of the people I found on facebook was an old friend from University who had made his home in Peru. We got chatting, and then met up for lunch when he was over in London. He helped me find the manufacturer I needed for my contract with John Lewis by visiting yarn producing companies in person in Peru, and so I established my relationship with my supplier then. I approached them a year later about launching my own brand of yarn.
What has been the biggest challenge for you in embarking on this path?
The biggest challenges in my life over the last 13 years have been personal, having made a decision to get married at a young age of 23 to a very traditional man who wanted me to have children and stay at home. I struggled to work at all during the the first decade of my marriage, due to having young children, which was compounded by my husband’s attitude and a difficult marriage. In the last few years of that marriage I started to break out and carve a path for myself, which just compounded my personal difficulties, as my marriage came to an end. Any challenges I have faced as a business woman have been minuscule compared to this. I think it gave me an incredible resilience to stress and problem solving, and meant that I have tackled things head on in the business. It has been a breath of fresh air for me to find a positive world of work, where people behave in a straight forward way and treat me with respect. I am hoping that once my business is really off the ground, I can support other women to start their own business and find a voice in the world of work. I am particularly passionate about the work of Woman’s Aid, and would like to get involved to support them, when I find the time!
This is the first time I have spoken up in public about my personal struggles, but I thought it the right time to speak up, and I hope that what I have said will give some other women the courage to find a new confidence and a new lease of life in realising their talent. Its about keeping on pushing doors to see if they open and not being afraid of failure. For me, when I went down to John Lewis for the first time, I was thinking, this is so unimportant compared to what else if going on, but because of that, I am going to give it my all, and I don’t care if I fail. In the end, it turned out to more important than I had ever imagined. It wasn’t about me, but it was about the community of knitters who walked through it with me and it was about the beautiful product that I was creating for other people. A lot of passion went into that. Packing 1000 hot water bottles up kept my head above water at one of the most difficult times of my life.
I don’t know what’s around the corner. The landscape is still changing rapidly, but I am privileged to be doing what I love, surrounded, now, by people I love, and lots of people in the world of knitting that I like. Knitters really ARE just simply lovely!
Thank you so so much, Libby, for coming and sharing your incredible story! You can find Libby's website here.