Interview with Ailsa Wilson, founder of Tiny Bird Textiles

Read how a craftswoman on the streets of Mexico inspired mum of two Ailsa Wilson to launch her design business Tiny Bird Textiles.

What’s your career background?

I was blown off my creative course by money and gin. Student loans were kicking in in my final years at university and my primary concern on graduating was to find any job to pay off my loans.

I had completed an art foundation course, then studied design history at university, but spent a fair few years working in totally unrelated industries to clear my loans. After returning from six months in Mexico, I renewed my efforts to find a job in the design industry and my perseverance paid off. I began work as a project manager for a brand design agency and loved it.

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That’s where the gin came in – the company did a lot of design work with alcoholic beverage companies, requiring a sample or two of gin before lunch. As the recession hit in the late ’90s, redundancy followed and I moved on to a big accountancy firm.

I went on to manage their print and digital design teams in their marketing department. I wasn’t exactly corporate material. I was the one in the lift wearing a faux-fur leopard print coat getting sideways glances from the accountants.

It was a different world, but I enjoyed it. I worked hard, perhaps too hard and after a few years I moved on. More design management, more watching other people do the designing. Then suddenly life changed.

How did your career change after having children?

Within the space of a few years I married, I lost my dad and I had to come to terms with probably never having children. After years of trying for children, we were referred for IVF treatment.

Our initial joy at getting pregnant turned to sorrow when we lost the pregnancy a couple of months in. We were told further treatment wouldn’t be an option due to abnormalities with my eggs, identified after the pregnancy. So that was it. It was unlikely that we would have children.

We were heart-broken, but we had to move on with life. My husband was offered a job by a Dorset-based charity and we hoped it would give us a new start. Which it did, but not in quite the way we had envisaged.

A few weeks later we discovered to our amazement we were pregnant. We tempered our excitement and kept our fingers crossed. Our daughter was born the day we got the keys to our new home. She was happy, healthy and was followed by a brother 13 months later (he appeared six weeks early and on what would have been my dad’s birthday). There was no way I was could to go back to my old career with these two!

As the children began nursery, I began planning. Going back to my old career wasn’t compatible with having children; the hours were too long and the demands too high. Between us we worked out how much we would need to survive financially.

The deal was I would support the children through school and in the time left I would finally be able to get back to my creative roots. Rather than watch other people create, I would start my own creative business: Tiny Bird Textiles.

Where did the idea for your Tiny Bird Textiles come from?

I’ve always had a weakness for beautiful, vivid, hot colour and in Mexico I found it. While in Mexico I came across a craftswoman who, while sat on a street corner, with her two children, made and sold her crafts. She nimbly wove little animals and birds from discarded packing ribbon, making money by turning someone’s rubbish into tourist keepsakes.

I was struck not just by her creativity but by her vision and fortitude. Mexico is not any easy place to make your way – it takes courage and determination even to just get by.

I bought two tiny birds (hence the name Tiny Bird Textiles) and I still have them. They remind me of what’s important to me in my life; integrity, being true to myself and being master (mistresses?) of my own destiny.

They also remind me of the power of hard work, creative thinking, innovation and seeing things from a different angle; that it’s possible to make something out of nothing.

I figured, if that mum could manage to do what she did, I surely should be able to give it a good go, given the support and resources I have available to me in my nice comfortable life in Dorset.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

My long-term vision is to build a modern, funky, bold and colourful homeware brand. I wanted initially to design, print and make textiles for the home so; cushions, table runners and mats that could all be made in my retired beach hut studio in my back garden.

I researched the existing homeware market, how people made, sold and bought in small quantities and I identified there was a niche for the kind of products I wanted to offer.

I wrote myself a business plan, using resources I found online and began designing, printing and making. The plan is to work with UK based manufacturers as the business grows and develops. It’s a work in progress, but then, so is life.

What’s your USP?

I design textiles and homewares that wouldn’t look out of place on the kind of sofa you sometimes see on Grand Designs and Restoration Man; bold, modern, visually impactful, but reasonably priced.

The great thing is, as the majority of my sales are online, to social media savvy customers, I’m often tagged into pictures shared on Instagram or Twitter, of my cushions in their new homes and I’ve been delighted to see that they have indeed ended up in modern, funky homes, sat on Eames chairs and modern sofas.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I am part of a growing, supportive, dynamic, creative community of online designers and makers. I sell on Etsy, which is very good at coordinating local groups who share knowledge, tips and host local sales and we help cross market each others work.

I would love to do more trade shows. I’m quite a sociable soul and love meeting people, so being able to share my story and my designs at trade shows would be a natural, logical next step for me.

Having done a few small craft and design events early on, I found it a challenge with children in tow. On my own I relied on help from friends which was a big ask and not a replicable longterm strategy. I also have website that I use as a sales channel but also to share what I’ve been up on my blog.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

It’s ironic that for a sociable creature like myself, most of my marketing has been done via social media from my desk.

Twitter has been invaluable for me in raising the profile of Tiny Bird Textiles because its reach is so far. I use it as a sales tool, sharing pictures and links to my products but also to make contact with people who might be interested in what I’m up to.

Without a doubt I have made sales via Twitter but also generated a fair few magazine features and articles (I discovered Talented Ladies Club community via Twitter!). Another aspect of using Twitter is that I have made some great, collaborative, mutually supportive friendships with kindred spirits which I hadn’t expected at all.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

For me it’s been ambition and knowing what I want to achieve, versus the time I have available to fulfil that ambition.

Right back at the business planning stage I knew I would have to be content with growing incrementally, in small steps while my children needed my support through school. I’ve learnt that slow, steady progress is good. I’ve learnt not to fret about progress yet to be made, as long as I’m going in the right direction.

In the meantime, I try to use my time as effectively as possible and when I have more time I know exactly what I need to do next.

And your proudest moment so far?

Last year I was commissioned by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to design their kitchen range which sells in their shops. It’s called ’25 Knots’ and is inspired by some of the finer details from their Shannon Lifeboat.

The repeat patterns I designed have been applied to a range of homewares including tea-towels, bags, mugs and stationery. As a result of this work I was contacted by the Arts University Bournemouth and I am now tutoring their ‘Repeat pattern and hand-printing’ short-course, which I enjoy immensely.

How do you balance your business with your family?

My own mum was a teacher, so she was never able to make it to any school events. The first time I went to see my daughter do her bit in her class assembly, it was so clear it was a big deal to her, to have me there to support her. For my son too. I know I’m lucky – they know they’re lucky.

It does mean we often have to do a post-school dash to the post office to get orders out, or I’ll be already at my desk working when they appear for breakfast. But that’s fine. I just try to make effective use of the time I have available.

For a creative, my approach to my work is quite structured. All of my tasks are mind-mapped, which gives me a good overview of what needs done and the progress I’m making. I divide tasks into those that need high-quality time (i.e. while the kids are at school) and those that can be squeezed in when tea is in the oven. I often use my phone timer to keep me on track and focussed.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Hold on tight to that gem of an idea that got you started

Don’t underestimate the emotional rollercoaster you’ll go on. There will be times when, for whatever reason you will have the wind sucked from your sails. When it happens, remind yourself of the essence of what you’re trying to achieve, the reasons, the motivations. It will reinvigorate and renew your energy and determination. It will fill your sails again.

2) Progress, however small is progress. Celebrate it!

Every time you achieve something positive, write it down, however small. Overtime you’ll have a fantastic record what you have managed to achieve. Reading it will remind you of how far you’ve come.

3) Be flexible

You’ve got your grand plan. You know what you want to achieve. But developing a business is an organic process. Don’t be afraid to follow opportunities where they lead even if they’re slightly off track. I’ve come across so many people who set out with one aim and overtime developed success in a different direction. So be flexible and agile in your thinking, be open to suggestion and collaboration.

You can read more about Tiny Bird Textiles on their website