Once upon a kitchen sink…
Mum(A.K.A Pam) dyed fabric years ago, I (A.K.A Katie) remember the meters upon meters of fabric in buckets. I was given the job of tearing meterage from the rolls of homespun. Maybe that marked the beginning of my apprentiship or was it when Mum first taught me to thread a needle? Moving through the years, while I was raising three babies under three, Mum found herself living on her own for the first time since leaving the nest of her childhood home and starting her own family.
Mum is hesitant to share this part of the story, but I believe that in order for you to fully understand where CGT began and the stuff it’s made of, we must begin at the beginning which wasn’t in a big factory somewhere, a money-making scheme of a corporate conglomerate. It began as a favour between friends, in a kitchen of a home that had seen kids growing up and moving out and taking with them half the contents of the Tupperware cupboard, grandchildren visiting and going straight for the good stuff in Nanna’s pantry, family meals being cooked once again, problems of the world being solved over a cuppa, but that kitchen had also seen heartbreak and uncertainty, the end of a marriage and a future left unknown.
Mum returned to shift work as a personal carer, taking all the horrible shifts so those with families at home didn’t have to. The residents loved her and were comforted by Mum’s whistling tunes as she walked the hallways at night. The hours took their toll and I saw Mum become more and more tired and drained. I wished better for her, I wished for the spark of passion I saw when she was in her sewing room to come back.
Ironically, the favour which would mark the conception of Cottage Garden Threads came from the embroiderer Brenda Ryan. The two were colleagues when Mum had first worked as a personal carer a decade or so before and had struck up the kind of friendship that gets you through the tough times, a friendship once formed can never be broken. They shared the love of textiles and Mum would design and sew the patchwork components of Brenda’s samples for her stunning embroidery work as well as dying laces and motifs. I remember pink and purple lace butterflies drying all about the house like they were about to take flight in a mass migration.
Brenda loved using variegated thread in her illustrative style of traditional embroidery but had trouble finding a reliable source in Australia. The brand she used was from overseas and the supply was erratic, the dye lots differed greatly and the colours bled. She saw an opportunity and knew just who to ask (although in actual fact I think it was the other way around, that she was searching for an opportunity so Mum wouldn’t need to work herself into the ground). The first 35 Cottage Garden Threads were created at Mum’s kitchen sink and the spark within her was ignited. Mum wholeheartedly believes that without the support, guidance, encouragement and love of Brenda and Leon, CGT would never have taken off and continue to reach beyond her wildest imaginings.
Not long after this, Brenda encouraged Mum to have a board of the threads on her stand at the AQM – Australian Quilt Market. When Mum got home, it took about a week for her jaw to lift from the floor. The very first customers are still loyal customers today. They have seen the evolution of CGT and supported us along the way, for which I will always be grateful. They are responsible for turning the spark into a fire in her belly. It made Mum think that maybe she could make something of this.
The first piece of equipment which is now housed in the CGT museum out the back of Mum’s shed, is a pine fence paling, one of the ones with the decorative pointy bit on the top, with a nail at each end, spaced just over 50cm apart. I couldn’t guess the thousands of meters of thread that were wound around ‘winder mk 1’. The threads were then dyed at the kitchen sink, dried by the fire in winter and the bathroom in summer, then Mum twisted them around her fingers (we call this twister mk 1) and packaged them during the quiet moments on night shift.
About 6 months in I could see that Mum needed help, hand written invoices just weren’t going to cut the mustard for much longer. I knew my way around an excel spreadsheet so that would have to do for now. We would just have to learn on the job. It was about the same time that Brenda’s husband Leon (the engineering genius behind winders and twisters mk 2,3 and 4) lined Mum’s now empty shed and fitted it out as a mini factory. It was real now, there was no going back. Mum made the brave decision to resign from her day/night job, believing that if there was nothing to fall back on, then she had to make it work. As long as I was around, I was not going to let her fall.
You know how you remember certain things along a journey, like they are markers for a pivotal moment. One such moment is what we refer to as ‘the business meeting at the bakery’. If ever Mum doubts our growth potential I say “remember our business meeting at the bakery”. Sitting outside the local bakery, having a coffee and joking that we were important business people having an important business meeting, I broached the topic of needing to increase our standing order of bulk raw thread cones per month from 1 to 5. Mum laughed, she thought I was nuts. But I had done some calculations after tracking our growth (thanks to a nifty excel spreadsheet) and saw that at the rate we were growing, it wouldn’t take long for us to be needing 4 cones per month and 1 to begin building a contingency reserve in case of problems with the manufacturer or supplier of the raw product (I had also been studying business, thanks to google). Mum decided to trust me and so we increased the order to 5. Our shelves now hold at least 35 cones at the beginning of each month and we still have important business meetings at the bakery because we are important business people.
Sometimes people assume that we may have created the product here, but then outsourced it to overseas. It’s a common misconception and sadly true in a lot of cases in Australian manufacturing. This in part is why I am sharing our story. When you’re creating with CGT, the very skein you’re using may have been the one that we spent ten minutes untangling because little chubby hands grabbed it off the drying rack as she tottled past giggling, or the one I dropped in my cup of tea (I’m only allowed travel mugs in the warehouse now) and had an emergency rinse and dry with a hairdryer because it was the last one left to fill an order. It might be the skein that was prepped and ready to dye but left waiting on the sink when Nanna was in hospital and the phone rang. Nanna pulled through but it was a tough time for us, for all the team at work who have become a family. There are seven of us now and if anyone’s kids are sick, have had a death in the family or are facing challenges, CGT HQ is a hive of support and strength. We celebrate wins together of kids getting awards, of trying new things, of bargains scored, recipes conquered and achieving goals. There are movie reviews and The Bachelor debriefs (don’t judge, we all have weaknesses), discussions of world events and laughter, lots of laughter. Women are clever like that, we can multitask, but don’t be mistaken, when the job needs to get done, it gets done!
It’s a place where the people matter just as much as the product and in every skein, every piece of flannel or felt, are the lives of local women. Like fibres through the hourglass, these are the threads of our lives (one of the conditions of being part of the CGT team is that you must have a good sense of humour or at least put up with my warped one)
### Business and Babies
If I say “Mum, there’s something I have to tell you” she knows, she just knows. I was nervous the first time, after all, I was only 19 when Damien and I decided to start our family. But Mum knew we were ready. The second and third time, I wasn’t as nervous but when it came to baby number four and we were building the business, with our first employee on deck, I was nervous because I didn’t know what this would mean. I felt like I was putting a spanner in the works just as we were gathering momentum. It was all ok, just like Mum assured me it would be. Mae came to work with me and I became the queen of multitasking, breastfeeding while taking orders on the phone and rocking her off to sleep while typing up invoices one handed and now I’m almost as fast tying one handed as I am with two. It was when she was about 16 months and running around that got tricky. She had a thing for the ends of the threads when they had been trimmed and were sitting in the boxes. If she went quiet, we knew she had snuck over the thread boxes. Hearing us come to get her, she would hurriedly open a lid and grab out as many as she could.
Moving along a few years and after we moved into the new building, I had something to tell Mum…again. We had 3 employees now and systems had been upgraded from excel spreadsheets to proper business software. It was all running like clockwork. To say I was nervous is an understatement, I was shitting my pants (scuze the French). When I finally plucked up the courage to tell Mum after I’d been hiding morning sickness for weeks, I knew if I said “I’ve got something to tell you” she would have known in an instant, so in one breath I said “I’m just going to rip this off real quick like a bandaid I’m pregnant”. Her jaw hit the floor, just like it did after coming home from the first AQM with orders for thousands of skein of thread. I waited…. and waited. Her mouth closed and she said “well, as long as you’re happy, I’m happy”. I had worked myself up for nothing, she was madder that I thought she’d be mad. Being baby number 5, my pregnancy had its difficulties but thanks to the support of the girls, I got through it and Dot Julia Dawson was born. As I sit her with Dottie, now 16 months old, on my lap, I think about how worried I was that having a baby would throw not just a spanner, but a whole toolbox in the works, when in fact, it was just what we needed to move forward. We were forced to think ahead and make a plan. I showed Mel the ropes of what administration I had been doing so she could take over when I couldn’t work anymore at the end of my pregnancy. It was planned that when I came back to work, I would begin putting effort into marketing and design.
Here we are in 2017 and it’s thanks to you, for supporting us through every stage of our journey. We love nothing more than seeing what you’ve been creating with our products, hearing what handwork means to you and the positive impact it has on your life. We love getting a chance to meet you in person when we’re invited to special events and retreats. Keep sharing the CGT love by putting photos on Facebook and Instagram and using #cottagegardenthreads or #cgt so we can see what you’ve been up to. Follow us too, you can find the links on the home page of the website and make sure you sign up to the retail newsletter so we can say hi from your inbox with all the latest news (no more baby news though, that’s surgically assured) and product features. Say hi and comment on the blog posts, we love when you reach out. If you attend any of the events we are at, drop by and say hi.