Interview with Sally Wilson, founder of Caterpillar Cross Stitch

Read our interview with Sally Wilson, founder of Caterpillar Cross Stitch. Sally and her team of five create by hand in rural Warwickshire, modern cross stitch kits, stitch-a-long projects, needle minders and cross stitch patterns you won’t find elsewhere.

What’s your career background?

I studied law at University, did my LPC then training contract at a private practice in Yorkshire. I qualified as a solicitor into employment law and practised until I was 29 when I went on maternity leave with my first child. I started Caterpillar Cross Stitch while on maternity leave and it launched in November of 2015.

How did your career change after having children? 

It all happened at the same time really! I did an ecommerce course while on maternity leave and studied in the evenings or during my daughter’s nap time. So everything changed!

I quit my 9-5 job as a solicitor for good and started working one day a week on the business which slowly became five days a week when the children started school. There was something inside of me that needed to be creative, and I’d always seen myself running my own business.

Being a mother and running your own business is really hard and I make mistakes every week (there is no way to perfectly manage everything), but I’ve managed to make it work for us and have never felt guilty about being a working mother. I changed in that I became more efficient with time, more proactive, I made decisions more easily, I don’t waste any time and I don’t sweat the small stuff! Having children really puts everything into perspective.

Where did the idea for your business come from? 

I’d always craved a job where I could be in control, working flexibly on my own terms, and to be fulfilled creativity, in which the possibilities were limitless. I’d always been passionate about art and graphic design from a young age, later studying fashion design and photography in the evenings after work. I was also a huge fan of cross stitching – I stitched with my mum and nan after school as a child.

I saw a gap in the market for a modern cross stitch brand, creating unique designs, manufacturing kits of the highest quality and growing a community across social media with a focus on Facebook groups and a YouTube channel – something competitors weren’t doing. Ours is really a crafty family, the customer service and overall experience is second to none – we always go above and beyond.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

I quit my job! I knew I needed that push, that fear to drive me on! If I was still working, it would have been too comfortable and I don’t think I would have felt the pressure to make it work. That route isn’t for everyone, I just like working under pressure.

I planned everything out, checked the search volume for my niche, found suppliers, checked profit margins and competitors. I knew I could make it work so I started building Caterpillar Cross Stitch. Even if it was just one small thing I did each day to push the business forward, I did what I could in my limited time.

Originally, I took my old salary and thought about my income if I worked three days but also paid for nursery for those three days for our two children. I figured out my goals for net profit and worked to that as a starting point.

I started working on the business in 2014 and launched November 2015 so it took a while! Today, Caterpillar Cross Stitch turns over multiple six figures, runs with a team of seven staff and I’m so excited to see where we can take it.

What’s your USP?

We aren’t your standard cross stitch brand. We are modern, on-trend and fun. We’re very big on community, with our YouTube channel, thriving Facebook group and weekly newsletter.

We also believe in creativity, self-care and mindfulness, which is reflected through products like our subscription boxes. We give back to charities and causes that matter to us and to our community like Cancer Research UK and Mind.  

What’s your biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome? 

In terms of Caterpillar Cross Stitch, I’ve had to overcome many challenges – some practical and some mental.

It takes courage to leave behind a valued profession and take a leap of faith but also to accept the financial risk which was all on me. There have been mistakes but I’ve kept a level head and I believe there is always a way through any situation if you take time out and think practically.

It was difficult building an audience from scratch, dealing with competitors, copycats and supplier issues. Most days are simply problem solving! There were times I felt like giving up but I knew I had to keep pushing forward.

Growing a team has been challenging too – finding the right people for the right roles, training and developing staff. Giving up control was hard and producing systems and processes so I could move into more of a visionary / CEO role rather than operations.

Moving into our first offices in 2020 and meeting the increased demand during lockdown while home schooling was really difficult on a practical level; taking care of two small children while building furniture and processing huge boxes of stock!

I’ve worked until 2am, lived off coffee and done the school run most days but I wouldn’t change a thing. It can be frustrating wanting to do it all while having many responsibilities to juggle but I try to prioritise, work efficiently and set realistic expectations.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

We give each customer a really special experience leading with the most care and attention. Those experiences spread by word of mouth and I think in our category it sets us apart so the community’s respect for us really helps build our reputation for quality and customer service.

I’ve been creating YouTube videos since 2015 which feels very natural because I love videography and editing. Our Facebook group is also thriving and a great source of inspiration and finding new customer. We also host 45 online Stitching Social classes each year in addition to real-life events where we all get together in person. We also love collaborating with other similar brands and leading bloggers in the craft niche.

Who inspires you?

Our incredible community, my family, Sara Davies of Crafters Companion (because I’ve followed her for some time and I think she’s an absolute inspiration), Gary Vaynerchuck (for his no-nonsense, direct approach to business and creativity) and Melanie Perkins (who founded Canva because she disrupted an entire industry and made design accessible for all). 

What’s been your proudest moment so far?

Hearing feedback from customers about how cross stitch has literally changed their life. The stories of stitching getting people through difficult times and the way this craft spreads around the world with people gifting finished pieces to family members abroad or stitching together over Zoom, its very inclusive.

There have been many proud moments being able to donate to charity in a short space of time, recently our community got together and we raised £3,000 for Ukraine in a day. It’s amazing being able to create products that our customers love, that they find helpful for both self-care and for their mental health.

Launching in May 2022 was also a super proud moment! It’s a web-hosted cross stitch design platform where visitors can easily use the beginner-friendly software to create their own cross stitch patterns, add text or images and convert photos, artwork or graphics into a pattern. It has all of the exciting features a cross stitcher could want but presented in a really clear, user friendly format accessible to anyone. 

Why is work so important to you? 

I’ve always loved being productive and having a project on the go from a really young age. I used to watch Art Attack, produce each project then try to sell them.

At 16, I started Young Enterprise at college and we customised photo frames from IKEA. Working has always been so important for me personally because it gives me a sense of fulfilment and purpose. I like to be independent and work on something I’m in control of and feel really passionate about.

How do you balance work with your family?

My husband and I are a partnership, a team and we take care of our children together 50:50. There have been periods when one of us has done more, but overall we split everything down the middle and give each other the space and freedom when we need it.

Sometimes that means looking after the children and house alone and not working and other times it means having the flexibility to work 12 hour days when a big project is due.

I try not to feel guilty. Things have changed so much since my parents generation and I’d like my children (one boy and one girl) to grow up seeing us both work outside of the home, being there to help with homework, cook dinner but also prioritise work when we need to.

To be dedicated to something outside of the family and committed long term which benefits us all. The children come into the office and love seeing how everything works. I hope that it inspires them to be able to create anything they too dream of.

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

  1. If you want to start a business, there is never going to be the perfect time to do it. So just go for it, make it work however you can for you and don’t look back.
  2. Ignore what anyone else says good or bad – only compete against yourself yesterday.
  3. Never give up, stay strong, stay focussed and play the long game.

Find out more about Caterpillar Cross Stitch.