I was delighted to be interviewed by the UK’s top sewing magazine this month!
It was fun to trace the development of my business right back from the beginning, through its various stages to the present, and the publication of my book, Felt Ornaments For All Occasions.
I’d been meaning to write about this on the blog, so I’m reproducing here the questions I was asked, together with my original replies before they were edited for space on the magazine page.
There’s plenty of material so I’ve divided it into two separate posts!
The finished interview is in the May edition of Sew Magazine.
Hi Sylvia! Can you tell us when you picked up your first needle? How did you learn to sew?
I sewed my first soft toy at an age when I was still playing with them. It was a very simple cat with button eyes, and from that moment I was obsessed with creating handmade versions of the animals and characters who populated my vivid imaginary world, inspired by all the story books I read.
Growing up on the Isles of Scilly in the 70s and 80s, I had no access to craft or fabric shops so I sewed with any scraps or pieces of discarded clothing I could get my hands on. Felt was an unobtainable luxury, which is perhaps why I love using it so much now!
My sewing really took off when my Dad made me a wooden sewing box for my 8th birthday and my aunt and uncle, who owned a dressmaking business on the mainland, sent me parcels of fabric offcuts and haberdashery. I started making clothes for my Sindy dolls, then my Mum bought me the wonderful book “Toys from the Tales of Beatrix Potter” by Margaret Hutchings, and there was no stopping me!
What are your favourite projects to stitch and why? Do any of your ornaments hold special memories for you?
My puffins were inspired by a little painted wooden puffin ornament that I bought on a return trip to Scilly after moving to Ireland. They became my best-selling product and I must have stitched hundreds of them over the last few years, but I still like making them!
Customers often request personalised versions of my dog ornaments to celebrate their beloved pets, and it’s satisfying to make something which is so special to someone.
Last year I designed a pattern for a mouse wedding couple, which took me right back to the beginning of my business, when I made felt mice in lots of different outfits.
Your designs are inspired by the gorgeous Irish coast and sea. Why is this landscape so special to you? How do you incorporate it in your work?
Being by the sea is essential to me. I love the sea air, the sound of the waves and the wide-open views, and spend as much time as I can on the beach and up on the cliff paths among the birds and wild flowers. The coastal scenery and colours feature in many of my designs, which include the mountains and beaches, cottages, puffins and gulls, and my favourite flowers, the thrift or sea-pinks which grow all along the shore. The Tilly and Puffin dolls are dressed in coastal style, including the stripy tops so popular in seaside places!
You’ve built a successful online store called Tilly & Puffin. What led you to down the path to building a creative career? Were you always looking to launch your own business?
I always had ambitions to build my own creative business. I started selling soft toys and animal figures when I was around 15, then developed my range of felt and fabric mice dressed as local fishermen and in lots of other costumes, including some sitting on crescent moons wearing very fancy dresses and flower-trimmed hats! Settling back on the island after college I named the business Moon Mice and opened a little shop, which was a dream come true.
When I moved to Ireland I started making applique wall art, inspired by the colourful buildings in Dingle, the coastal wildlife and the dramatic landscape. My business was renamed Puffin Patchwork, and I sold my work in a local craft gallery before discovering Etsy and beginning to sell online. I then changed my focus to felt ornaments, launched my own website and started creating sewing patterns of my most popular designs. I’d been wanting to design some felt dolls for a while, and when Tilly and her friend Puffin the cat came along, the business had a new name!
What kind of products do you offer at Tilly & Puffin? What’s your best-selling item and why?
The best-selling products are the puffins and the Irish cottage hearts. Many customers tell me how these ornaments remind them of special visits to Ireland, or trips to see puffins in the wild.
My Tilly pattern is the most popular among the dolls. I kept seeing beautiful handmade dolls on social media, which involve a lot of time and skill and are quite rightly priced accordingly. For people who wanted to make their own, there were a lot of quite basic doll patterns available, but I couldn’t find patterns for dolls of this standard. I wanted to create one that would satisfy stitchers with more skill and ambition, while still being achievable for anyone with some sewing ability.
How do you connect with your customers?
In my monthly newsletter I share new products and projects that I’m working on, as well as new ways to use my patterns, and I create more detailed tutorials on my blog at tillyandpuffin.com. My Pinterest boards are full of all sorts of sewing and embroidery inspiration, as well as my favourite coastal interiors, gardens, and craft spaces. I love to connect with other sewing and felt enthusiasts on Instagram, and I’m always happy to answer questions and help with the patterns by email. I particularly love it when people send me photos of their finished dolls or ornaments – it’s so exciting to see how other stitchers bring them to life!
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Thank you, Mary Jane!