How I got my start: Marguerite Swope & Ivy Reed

I’m Marguerite Swope, owner of Ivy Reed. Like many here, I’ve been sewing all my life (I’m 61 so that’s a lot of sewing). My mother taught herself, and she taught me. I am one to tackle a project and figure out how to do it. There’s so much I don’t know about this business and I make mistakes, but I can usually get a job done. I never considered a fashion career beyond modeling (what do you dream of in high school when you’re 5’11”—not dates, I assure you). Growing up in southern New Mexico, modeling was not on my horizon nor did I have any idea of careers for women in fashion. I went into teaching “so you’ll have something to fall back on if something happens to your husband.” Actual quote from my mother (a nurse but didn’t work), and gives you an idea of what options were available for girls in the early 60s. I sewed for myself all through high school and college and then for my family. I’ve always had something crafty going. I have been a weaver, I knit voraciously, and long ago I had so many hats and sweaters made that I sold them at local bazaars. My career was in academia (I was on the Computer Science faculty at Penn State), and I liked teaching CS, although I’m a mathematician by training and that’s my first true love (yeah…boring to most folks, but I loved sitting in my office by myself proving things). So how did I get from there to here?

In 2000 my husband and I adopted an infant (our sons are now 32, 20, and 8), and I took early retirement from teaching. I only miss my paycheck and my summers off. I didn’t know what was next, but I was burned out teaching 400 engineers C++ programming at 8 a.m. in a required course (you can imagine they were thrilled to be there as well). I started buying baby clothes on eBay, then selling my books and professional clothes on eBay, and finally haunting thrift stores for stuff to sell on eBay. I realized that colorful tunic tops always commanded a good price, and I thought, “I can make those.” So I did. And they sold. So I made more. Then opportunities came for me to teach eBay classes and become an eBay Business Consultant. But I kept making clothes. Someone suggested some craft fairs, so I jumped in —bought a canopy, got juried into some good shows, and sold more. Finally, it seemed obvious that I couldn’t keep up both the business consultant work and the sewing. One had to go. I liked the status of being with the eBay program, and I never had seriously considered craft to be legitimate as a business or profession. The way I decided what to do is this: I asked myself to look back on my life as if I were 90 and decide which path I’d regret not taking. It took an instant to know that I’d regret not taking the creative path. So here I am.

My next step was going from craft fairs to the wholesale market. Someone told me about a wholesale show for artists/craftsmen in Philadelphia (Buyer’s Market of American Craft). I went to their website in the fall of 2006 wondering if I should just plunge in for the Feb. 2007 show. I didn’t know what else to do, but I also didn’t know much about wholesale. In looking around the website, I found a page that said, “Thinking about wholesale?” and I knew I’d found what I needed. They have a visiting artist program, so for $90 and 3 days I went to seminars, walked the show floor, and had a portfolio review. I “launched” at the August 2007 show. But a lot happened in between. At one seminar our leader talked about branding and marketing and I had a lot of questions for him. After the show, I called him and he agreed to take us (by now my husband was taking me seriously) on as a client. He completely repositioned me, changed our company name, got our logo done, had professional photos taken, helped design our booth, gave us lots of help in selling. It was really the jump-start I needed, but it was expensive. We also signed up for PR for 6 months, but nothing panned out with that. We incurred debt from all of this, but I’d say most of it was worthwhile. On hindsight, we could have done our booth for much less money, and we wouldn’t do the PR.

Our first show was successful (by our standards), and we’ve done okay so far. It’s hard for me to be patient and to realize we’re less than 2 years into this. I’ve been at it full time, and a big portion of our debt has been the loss of my income over the past year. The business will just about break even for the year, but that doesn’t include a salary for me. I design and make samples for everything and sew for orders. Now I have one other sewer. A big move for us has been realizing we need to go from the craft world to the fashion world, and I’ve dropped one art wholesale show in favor of WWIN and we’re getting reps.

Another huge turning point for me was finding Kathleen’s book. I don’t remember how I stumbled on it, but when I saw the reviews on Amazon, I knew it was an important book. When I ordered it and saw the order address was my little NM hometown, I nearly fell out of my chair. As I said above, that wasn’t where you’d find information about fashion careers. I gulped the archives and realized how much I had to learn. When I finally went to the forum, I realized what an important part of my education the forum is. I feel less isolated and as if I have colleagues (which I do). If you’re a lurking DE, I can’t emphasize enough how important her book and the forum are for your business.

Like my computer science career (remember I was trained as a mathematician), this has become another self-taught career and, yes, I often feel like a fake. I’m worried about my patterns. Right now they’re mostly in my head, some written down, and most are with straight pieces and so I tear my fabric (it’s fast!). I’ve actually started making some jackets with…gasp…curves. It’s more time-consuming to cut, so I’ve stayed away from curves since I’m the main person making everything. Now we have lined up a sewing contractor, and I’ll be doing less sewing. My jackets are taken from home patterns where I’ll put parts from various patterns together. I know Kathleen cringes at this approach, but I can’t draw, I’m not a pattern maker, and I can’t design that way. I know what I like and I continually get inspiration, but then I have to find patterns to help me make what I want. Now I have to translate these to oak tag so I can have the patterns walked and digitized. I’m also cheating: I’m using stretch knits and polar fleece for tops and jackets and both of these allow for stretching to fit sleeves and collars and the fabrics are forgiving. I like making the samples and keeping styles simple. If my patterns don’t work, I do have samples a pattern-maker could work from. I still go to craft fairs to sell, so I do get to see my designs on many bodies and see what’s working and what’s not working both in terms of fit and style. I also learn which fabrics are the most popular.

Where we are now: We have 2 reps and expect to get 1-2 more very soon and will continue to look for more. We need volume to succeed and we have fabric and a sewing contractor in place so we want as many orders as reps can get for us. We’ve significantly lowered our prices, and I think that will open up a lot of small stores for us (we were primarily in galleries and higher-end boutiques). My husband continually tries to get my head out of the clouds and look at numbers, but it’s hard for me to believe how much we need to sell to actually have income to declare. He’s on top of the finances, and he’s the one who found our sewing contractor, figured out how to get our fabric imported directly to us, and is getting our reps. All I have to do is design and source…YIPPEE. Well…and maintain our website, make line sheets, make our marketing materials, process invoices, bill, pack and ship. Someday we’ll have help.

My biggest worries: Our reps won’t sell enough for us to make the minimums for manufacturing (50 garments/style) and we’ll have 2 options: My sewer and I do it all (but if we can sew all the orders we get, that won’t be enough orders for us to survive) or we pay a 50% premium to the contractor to sew less than his minimum (and there goes all our profit). Debt is another worry. In order to have reps, I have to front samples and pay show fees; in order to go to shows myself, I have to pay show fees; in order to be in craft fairs, I have to pay fees; in order to do sourcing, I have to pay for travel to NY and buy sample yardage. All these fees come NOW; orders and sales follow months down the road. Like Vicki (who wrote her story earlier), I’ve never had debt except for my mortgage. No car debt, school debt, CC debt, nothing. We’ve got a low-interest loan, but the money left won’t last forever.

My biggest positives: Women really like my fabrics and styles, and if we can weather this economy, I know we’ll succeed. I’ll be 62 in March, and I’m going to collect SS for me as well as our 8 year old, so my lost salary will be replaced with enough for us to avoid incurring debt for living expenses. We’ll just need Ivy Reed to hold its own, and I believe this will happen. It may be trite, but I’m grateful we’re healthy, my husband’s job provides us with health insurance and education benefits for our children, and all of our boys are doing super well. Life is good, I LOVE what I’m doing, and my husband is thrilled at the prospect of a successful family business.

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  1. Valerie Burner says:

    Wow, what a great story! Not only are you right-brained and left-brained, but you sure can write! You give all of us inspiration, Marguerite, and I love your colors and styles. I hope to see your garments in a shop near me soon!

  2. Wonderfully inspiring story…beautifully told.

    Thank-you for sharing.

    Interesting how our paths are similar in this regard….I came from an intensely scientific pharmaceutical career to designing/selling menswear. However, I was knocked off the block by very serious health issues, so have been restricted to doing custom work only these days. Will I ever get back to supplying my small boutique accounts? Likely not. But my 3 yr old business of supplying high-quality interfacing to “home sew-ers”, and sewing enthusiasts, hobbyists, etc…is going quite well. Though “quite well” is relative…I am still driving my 1996 Mustang and likely will until it falls apart…yet the interfacing orders are pouring in! LOL!

    So…I’m hoping to survive this recession, and am very thankful for my husband’s health insurance (inadequate though it is, LOL)……

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