30 December 2020

2020 at Tilly and the Buttons

Tilly and the Buttons organic jersey fabric

Well, 2020 is coming to an end, and I know I’m not the only one hoping for a better new year!

This has undoubtedly been the most challenging year we’ve faced since I began this small business. We thought Brexit was the big issue we would have to grapple, and then along came a global pandemic, which was never in the business plan!

It wasn’t all bad though, and we are still standing strong. In this post I’m going to take a trip down memory lane, looking at what we achieved at Tilly and the Buttons in 2020, along with some of the challenges we faced. I’ll also share a sneaky peeky at some of our plans for 2021, so read on…

The challenges

Like other small business owners, it’s been a year of sleepless nights for me (and not just because I have a todder!). Think of a small business like a swan – while all may appear well on the shiny surface, there’s a lot of frantic paddling going on behind the scenes!

The first month of lockdown was incredibly stressful as we had to cease orders of physical products that require posting (the vast majority of our income), and the wholesale, advertising and retails shows aspects of our business all took a big blow too. We gradually reintroduced UK orders, and later international orders, thanks to the dedication of Kate and Frances to the company. Since then we have had some record-breaking months of both shop and wholesale sales, as people get settled into staying home and crafting. While bricks and mortar-only shops and sewing schools have suffered a terrible blow this year, we have been in an incredibly fortunate position to be an online business selling products related to a home-based hobby.

Despite the ups and downs on the balance sheet, I’m proud to say that we kept all our staff on full pay this year. The team have mostly been working from home since March, so we have become well-versed in Zoom meetings and Whatsapping for the smaller queries. On a personal level, I became even more focused and efficient than usual as I had no childcare for a few months so was squeezing running a company into even smaller pockets of time.

Our product releases had to shuffle around quite a bit this year, particularly while we had limited (or no) shipping capacity and when our stockists were shut. The Jaimie pyjamas came out a few months later than planned, and we had to cancel the printing of the Alexa jumpsuit and release it as PDF only – which was a shame, but at least we could get it out there in some form.

Stevie add-on sewing pattern - Tilly and the Buttons

Another process that had to change was how we conduct photo shoots! Fortunately we already had lots of photos banked, since we work a few months ahead of release. The Stevie add-on pattern was the first time we had to face a remote photo shoot. In the end we did a virtual fitting on Zoom, and then our real-gal model Kathy of Sew Dainty made some adjustments to the garments herself (just one of the benefits of hiring a sewist as your model!). Her husband took the photos of her in her sitting room, and our freelance graphic designer Fanni edited them to feature our familiar colourful backdrops. Smoke and mirrors, guys!

Jaimie and Joe PJs sewing pattern - Tilly and the Buttons

When it came to the Joe pyjamas, I wanted some pictures of them modelled alongside the womenswear version Jaimie. To conform with social distance rules, the models would have to be people who lived together, so we enlisted our Product Manager Nikki and her husband Dan – and they did a great job! Then for the Billie sweatshirt – as well as our next pattern (more on that below) – we hired Marcella Solarte of Mama on a Sew fame, who lives walking distance from our studio, to get around any travel issues. Oh and also because she is absolutely gorgeous!

With the global pandemic going on, it was pretty easy to forget that Brexit was looming. At the time of writing, we are in trade deal limbo, with border closures, post ceasing to the EU, and uncertainty over how VAT and lots more boring stuff like that is going to work. The next few months is going to be another learning curve and time of change, for sure.

In addition to global events, we faced some other challenges closer to home. One that springs to mind is that, due to a sudden surge in price, we had to find a new printing house for our patterns, as well as a new storage site for our stock. While it was stressful at the time, I’m now pleased that this happened as it forced us to rethink our operational approach, streamline our stock levels, and resulted in us getting more control over access to our stock, and finding a new (smaller) printing house who we love, and who offer a speedy turnaround.

There have also been some staff changes, including our pattern cutter moving abroad – again! But this has also turned out well as we have recently started working with a very experienced freelancer who also makes patterns for some very well-known luxury brands. Lucky us!

Bobbi sewing pattern - Tilly and the ButtonsJaimie sewing pattern - Tilly and the Buttons
Lotta sewing pattern - Tilly and the ButtonsBillie sewing pattern - Tilly and the Buttons

The highlights

Despite everything that was going on, we still managed to get some really great products out into the world this year, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Team Buttons. Take a trip down memory lane with me in this video in which I look through everything we released this year…

In total, thanks to working far ahead, we released four printed patterns, two digital-only patterns, two add-on patterns, two online workshops, one book and a fabric collection. Phew!

What’s more, all of the patterns we released this year, as well as the patterns included in my new book Make It Simple, now include a wider range of sizes, up to a UK 24. We also increased the size range of the patterns we reprinted this year – Cleo, Coco and Dominique – making a total of 18 patterns in extended sizing. We have other plans afoot for extending the size range further, which you can read a little more about below…

Before lockdown I went on Create and Craft TV to showcase my new book and our fabrics, and demonstrated sewing the Tabitha T-shirt (from Make It Simple). We held a press and influencer workshop in our studio in which we taught a group of lovely women how to sew the same T-shirt, and thanks to this we got a nice mention in the Guardian – the dream! Lockdown later encouraged many people to do more Instagram Lives. I did a few myself, including one with small business champion Holly Tucker, and nearly died of excitement when her next guest Sophie Ellis-Bextor came on and said my name!

Make It Simple book - Tilly and the Buttons

In a year in which charities struggled to fundraise, we are proud to have made two contributions these past months. In the Summer, I filmed a sewalong for the Safiya trousers (from my book Make It Simple), which raised money for Age UK. You can still find the sewalong on our IGTV if you would some help making the trousers. Then in December we participated in Christmas Jumper day and donated 10% of pattern sales from our shop over three days to Save the Children.

Towards the end of the year, we heard the lovely news that we had won four British Sewing Awards! We won Best Independent Pattern Brand, Pattern Launch of the Year 2019 for Indigo, and Make It Simple won Favourite Sewing Book 2019-2020 and New Product trade award. We put so much love and hard work into our products, so it’s an amazing feeling to have this work recognised. Thank you so much to everyone who voted for us – it really does mean a lot to the team and keeps us motivated in what we do.

Make It Simple book - Tilly and the Buttons

What’s next?

At the time of writing, there is still a Brexit trade deal limbo, and London along with much of the UK has just begun another Covid lockdown. We have learnt to expect the unexpected, and that plans will probably change over the next few months as they have had to this past year. In addition to world events, closer to home I am expecting a second child in early Spring so, all being well, I will be on parental leave followed by working minimal hours for much of the year. For all these reasons, our output may not be as abundant in 2021 as in previous years, but we are working harder than ever behind the scenes to get some lovely new sewing goodies out to you. We have long lead times to develop our products, so much of what we have planned for next year has already been in the works for months!

Make Friends with an Overlocker or Serger - Tilly and the Buttons

First up, we have just launched a new online workshop, Make Friends with an Overlocker or Serger. The aim behind creating this course was to get you feeling confident using this machine, as I know many people struggle with threading, balancing the tension, adjusting the settings for different fabrics, and more. The workshop has already proved extremely popular, so I hope lots of you will get over any fears you have with overlocking and start using this machine regularly to up your sewing game :)

The first pattern we have planned for release is one for the improvers out there – in other words, those of you looking to take your skills beyond beginner level. We have been working on lots of free tutorials to hold your hand through the steps if you haven’t made this type of piece before. Without wanting to give too much away (you want a surprise, right?), it’s a garment that is both classic and very on-trend at the moment… and drop-dead gorgeous!

Ever since I drafted a bear sweatshirt for my little boy a couple of years ago, we have been slooowwly working on developing a small collection of mini patterns! We get a lot of requests to do different types of things, and sewing patterns for children has been one of the most popular requests, so I hope to see lots of little Buttons sporting their handmade clothes soon. The first collection features three patterns, all of which will be for 0-5 years, and two of which will also have a 4-12 years option too.

Another new venture for us which we have been working on is creating some of our patterns in a wider range of womenswear sizes. While we have been gradually adding larger sizes up to a UK 24 to our new patterns and reprints over the past year, we also know that there are sewists – and potential sewists – out there who don’t fit into this range. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as adding even more sizes to our existing products, as the proportions would end up a bit squiffy, so it means starting from scratch with drafting, toiling, grading, testing, formatting, photography etc etc. It’s a long process for our very small team (read: one Product Manager), and involves a big investment, so will take some time – but we are excited to be able to offer some of our most popular patterns in a new size range.

In addition to product development, we’ve been working on more free tutorials to add to our ever-growing resources that are our blog and YouTube channel. So keep an eye out if you want to learn some sewing tips, techniques and hacks!

I’ll keep the rest of what we have planned under wraps for now, not least because we have no idea what 2021 will bring and don’t want to promise too much!

Team Buttons

And finally…

I want to say a huge, heartfelt thank you to each and everyone of you who has supported us this year, whether through buying one of our patterns, books or online workshops, engaging with our tutorials, or sending us thoughtful messages to keep us spurred on. It really means so much to me and Team Buttons!

Whatever you have been through this year, we hope we have managed to lift your spirits and keep you somewhat positive through creativity. Here’s to a better 2021!

P.S. Liked this? You might also be interested in a look back at the first decade of Tilly and the Buttons.

Author: Tilly Walnes
Photos: Jane Looker