In the latest of our features on women who have reinvented themselves in midlife, we talk to Rachel Hart, the owner of gorgeous London haberdashery emporium and sewing school, Ray Stitch.
An interview with Rachel Hart of Ray Stitch haberdashery emporium
How did you come to set up your own haberdashery shop?
I was an architectural model maker for about 15 years. It was a great job, really creative, workshop based, great environment. But you’re a tool for the designer, realising the designs of the architect in 3D form, rather than actually designing the building. The creativity comes from choosing the materials and the scale etc. Ray Stitch is a completely different medium, but it’s the same kind of thing. The shop is where you select materials, fabrics, trims, finishing touches and make a 2D idea into something 3D.
I’ve always made clothes and been a maker of all things, architectural models, furniture, knitting and sewing. I gradually became more interested in printed textiles and saw there was a big difference between what you’d find in bog-standard high street fabric shops or on a market stall, and the designer printed textiles you’d see in Elle Decoration, for example. There wasn’t really any way you could get those nicer textiles on the high street. So five years ago I decided to change that!
Why did you wait until you did to make the change?
I liked what I was doing as a model maker and explored going back into architecture once my children were bigger. But then I came up with the idea for the shop. I needed funding obviously and my grandfather left me some money in his will which helped me get started. In a way it was quite good that I started the shop when I did because it does seem that sewing is having its moment now. There’s a huge on-line sewing community which has helped the business enormously. With the girls a bit older it’s been the perfect time for me personally to focus on the business too.
I went away with my friend Emma Sewell (of textile design studio Wallace Sewell,) and we came up with the idea for the shop on a long walk. Emma has her own shop, so she knew what was needed. We thought about how we’d like it to look. I wanted the kind of shop that inspired me as a model maker. A traditional art materials shop has the whole range of card in different colours, pots of paint in loads of colours. You’re overwhelmed by the range of materials on offer, but in a good way, because it’s all very ordered rather than being a big jumble. So not a big scrummage of raggy taggy rolls of fabric, but a very ordered, modular arrangement of everything you need. That appeals to my sense of orderliness and architectural sensibilities! There are billions of gorgeous textiles out there, but we choose a selection for our customers which they seem to appreciate.
You run sewing courses too – how do they work?
Our courses are very popular. If you’ve never sewn anything before in your life, you can come in and have a three hour introduction to sewing class. At the end of it, you walk out with a gorgeous tote bag or a cushion cover you’ve made yourself. Something to be really proud of. After that you can do a six week introduction to machine sewing course and follow it up with a six week introduction to dressmaking course. Then you’ll have made yourself a sleeveless top, a skirt with a waistband and a zip and a tea dress with a collar. Not bad for a relative beginner!
We also have pattern cutting courses – because women come in all shapes and sizes. If you sit round a table with six women and look at each other, you wonder how anyone could fit into a standard size because everyone is so different. In the pattern cutting class you make your own pattern block. You take your measurements and make a template. So an upper body block, for example. Then you learn how to adapt any pattern with that basic block – it becomes all about you. But that’s quite advanced. When you’ve done a standard pattern a few times, you find you want to make it specific to your own shape.
A lot of quite high-powered women love coming to our courses because they get to focus on what they’re doing with their hands and can switch off fully from the stress of the day job.
How did your family and friends react to your change of career?
They were a bit bemused but pretty hopeful that it would work out. No one said get a proper job, thank goodness!
How has life changed having gone down this path?
My life has changed massively. I feel very empowered by the business. I made it and I can make it work. I created something but now it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s grown in popularity but it’s also evolved. It’s great for a woman having your own business at this age; it gives great flexibility and confidence.
What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
Have faith and if the idea really grabs you, go for it. Run it by people yes, but if you think it’s a good idea, just go for it.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
So many many things! Probably most crucially that everything will work out in time.
What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
The people that you work with are massively important. I want my business to feel like a community. The people that support the business are a lovely group and they’re really enthused about the product. That’s one of the most special things I’ve found. People who come in the shop know the staff and it’s a great environment. Look after your staff!
Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
“You get what you settle for” – which is what Thelma said to Louise. So don’t settle!
Which woman do you most admire and why?
This sounds very cheesy but I admire my women friends, the women I’ve become close to over the years. I’ve seen everything they’ve achieved and the choices they’ve made. I admire women like Anita Roddick who set up her own business, of course, but it’s the amazing women I know well, who I admire the most.
Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
People think I’m reckless and rush into things without thinking them through. Which is true! But it’s important to be decisive, to set your sights. Indecisiveness is such a waste of time! You should make your decision and then make it work. No dithering!
How can Mutton Club readers find out more about your shop and courses?
Readers can visit our site and sign up for our newsletter. We’re also opening a second shop soon so watch this space!
You may also like Passing On Skills – A Dressmaker’s Life and Mary Jardine, A Real Life Bag Lady.