I’m bringing you a double interview this edition! Regular readers will know I love to knit and I particularly love good wool which feels and looks beautiful. By a series of lucky happenstances I came across Ruth and Belinda who earlier this year set up in business together. I bought some beautiful baby alpaca wool from them (perfect for snoods, very of the moment) and somehow we got talking.
They run their own unique wool business, R & B, a different type of wool shop on line and also are responsible for knitexpo.co.uk. (Links at the end of the post). But I’ll let them tell their story…sit down with a cuppa in hand and just enjoy!
Jane: R&B You both had quite different careers before coming together to form your business. Could you each share just what your other careers have been (and possibly still are)?
Belinda :Whizz! Where do I begin? Our past informs out future, so… years in a few words ……Born and spent my child-time in Africa. Father was an academic (Prof. of English and Philosophy) and Mummy-darling was… well she was a beautiful woman; a DJ, a journalist, a designer, a jazz singer, a party giver. Our (my sisters’) dresses and nighties matched her bag.
Back to colder climes… Sarum Hall (Hampstead, London), boarding school for a year (hated), at 16 I left Queens Gate (South Kensington); O’ Levels in Art (A) and Music (A), the rest of my O’ levels I received U (Unclassified) I didn’t turn up or wrote my own diatribe. When I told my father my results he didn’t say anything,later I found a note on my bed: “Everything there is to know is not knowable by each person, so if there is a choice, as there must be, is it not best to let the individual choose their own wisdom and also their own areas of un-knowledge”.
He was an extra-ordinarily clever man. … and my mother studied for an MA in Knitted Textile at the Royal College of Art were my fascination will all things structural, constructed, woolly, made and developed, art and inspiration began. I made a knitted golf club, a camouflage jacket for a toy jeep, a treasure chest for an 8’ clown – well my mother was never conventional. (please see above).
I auditioned for Big Brother 8 (2009), became a housemate, and took part in a few TV comedy shows which led to setting up Screen South West (training people in acting and re-acting to the camera), … which led to role-play work in the corporate and public sector, and then one day I got a leaflet through my door, inviting people in my street to a knitting group, where the proceeds for the knitted articles made at the group were sent to Uganda (!) – Where I was born. So full circle. I thought “umm, to knit again – what fun!” and as they say, the rest is history. Ruth ran, and still does run, the group KNIT 2Tog (I still go – she lives 40 houses away).
Ruth: I was, and am no longer, a therapist. My routes to fixing were through Massage and Bowen therapy, and counselling. I realise that it is not very usual to admit to fixing people as a counsellor, but my training was in CBT. (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
How did you decide to set up the wool business?
Ruth: I wanted to show people how to make my designs, and to make money, quite happy to admit to this, if we are to be taken seriously we have to be seen to ambitious, not apologetic, about what we do.
Belinda: Ruth and I, while travelling to and from the Big Noise Chorus (150+ choir we both attended), spoke about creating a ‘performance’ about knitting. The big KNIT show came about (a trade fair encompassing performance, workshops, chocolates and laughter). The Exeter Arts Centre PR administrator thought of calling it KNIT expo – we went with the flow. We out-grew the art centre, needed a bigger place for traders, lost most of the performance, brought in a fashion show, kept the chocolates and workshops (now called KNIT studios).
Knitting and all manner of crafts has enjoyed a renaissance over recent years (I am quite trendy for a change!). Why do you think that is?
Ruth: Knitting has always had highs and lows in popularity; lovely yarn helps though.
Belinda: We want to shake up the misrepresentation of hand-knit work and take it away from the un-sexy (I dislike this word but I can’t think of anything else that means the antithesis of homey, mumsey, woolly, old and frumpy). People are often surprised that I knit – the answers I am given, if I ask people why they think this, are: you are too young, you wear make-up, you were on Big Brother (!).
I do believe the perception of knitting is changing, however slowly, but it does need a ‘mass huge publicity spin’ to really re-package what knitting is. I agree with you, knitting has become more popular, but to the masses (the status quo), it is still deemed ‘the prerequisite of the grey-haired brigade’. Although, humbly I would like to declare my debt to the fore-mothers and fathers of a hand-knitting history, no matter how it is defined or imagined (negatively or otherwise); no matter that some people might misinterpret it or express doubt about the artistic qualities associated with the art or even see it as the perquisite of the older generation.
Hand-knitting and its curious investigators have changed and are changing the terrain of the possible. There is a huge legacy left for us (technique and styling and methods of working), it is based in tradition and expanded by innovation and can be seen today in some of the contemporary fibre artists and designers. So I mustn’t be too negative or disingenuous. There is some extraordinary hand-knitted work being designed/made.
How does Knit Expo fit into the business plan?
Belinda: KNIT expo feeds the ‘performance’ that I crave, and gives us the opportunity to challenge and present hand-knitting in provocative, entertaining and inspirational environments. It also gives us the opportunity to meet with the movers’n’shakers within the field of fibre art, design, training and development. Ruth and Belinda (the design and products – money making side of our knitting world/life) runs in parallel with KNIT expo.
Ruth: Just selling and designing doesn’t really describe everything we are, we need a bigger platform to shout from, knitexpo is it, although, to save confusion we are bringing it under the R and B umbrella by also calling it R and B interactive.
What has been the biggest challenge in setting up your business?
Belinda: Having to put money back into the business while it grows… – as we are evolving new ideas, products, designs and the R&B concept is morphing and growing, (as we develop and build as business woman and makers) we realise that we need to inject as much money into the embryonic stage as possible. To make something extra-ordinary (which is what Ruth and I both want) means that we have to not cut costs nor compromise on quality. Also – lack of time – there are not enough hours in the day for me to achieve – … it takes a lot of time to set up/dream/sort/discuss/make/test/create the R&B universe.
Ruth: The biggest challenge is not being able to see into the future and know that all the hard work and problem solving and correcting mistakes will be worth it in the end. Also having the courage to keep widening the foundations before we build upwards to profit and into the public’s view.
Do you think it makes it easier working with a partner? (careful now)
Ruth: It is only good to work with someone if you can work with them, I suspect that most people would find me difficult, Belinda doesn’t, and we seem to compensate nicely for each other, and are honest enough to work through differences.
Belinda: Definitely. We talk and talk about; ideas, style, design, sense of wonder, technique, exchange of good practice, influence, equality, improvised structure, unravelling and re-forming, dynamics, presentation, texture and colour, emotions and mood, knitting patterns, the physical actions and styles of hand-knitting, creating yarn, the history of knitting, hand-knitting world domination, cultivating true value, worth, making money, projects, dreams, family, ideologies, philosophies…
And we are human and have had different life stories so we come up with different ideas/dream/thoughts, which I believe just gives us a bigger pool of ‘stuff’ to work with. Sometimes I get/Ruth gets it wrong… something we do/think/make it wrong … but we know each other well enough to say when we are not happy. This is good.
How have you experienced the business world? Have you found it easy to negotiate the hurdles involved in setting up a business? Has the fact that you are two perfectly aged women had a positive, negative, or no impact at all?
Belinda: We are working in the world of knitting, so being 45+ has no bearing on what we sell or how we sell it. It is almost expected. Everyone we have met has been so fabulous and generous with their time and advice. We have gained so much from talking to Business Advisers, Fibre artists, hand-knitters, traders, mill owners etc etc.., so many people.
Ruth: The age we are seems irrelevant, what we need is imagination, energy and courage.
What is best thing about running your own business?
Belinda: Autonomy – complete control; being in the position to truly follow our vision.
Ruth: Success and recognition
Who most inspires you? Or has been biggest influence on you career wise and personally?
Ruth: Lesley Prior of Devon Fine Fibres was a huge encouragement when I first started, and has remained so.
Belinda: People who do anything brilliantly, in whatever disciple – people of excellence. AND… new ideas, innovative modes of working, people who have thought/live/lived/lives outside the box; my mother, Ghandi, Billie Holiday, Steve Jobs etc… The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads. – (Anzaldua)
And my children – I have learned more from them than from anyone. We supported them in all their crazy imaginings.Oh and people who treat their children with the utmost respect and kindness. (They are the new generation of thinkers –. To squeeze the ‘being’ out of children might produce obedient pupils, compulsive consumers, compliant workers, submissive citizens, but will it leave us our heart, our empathy, compassion, our individuality, our own thinking, our imagination, our integrity, the feelings which swell us with joy and darken us with grief?)
What would you do differently if you were to start again?
Belinda: Nothing. We learn from our mistakes. We don’t learn anything from out successes.
Ruth: I wouldn’t, we have learned so much by the mistakes, a cliché, but true.
How do you relax?
Ruth: Shut my eyes and dream.
Belinda:Knit and watch cheesy American TV shows: Desperate Housewives and vampire/sci-fi programmes; Supernatural, Sanctuary, talk and laugh with my children (men now), listen to jazz, go to Aqua fit classes, talk through ideas with my husband, knit more (everyday)
What is the secret of happiness for you?
Belinda: Family (love), recognition (work and play), quality (design, work and play), unusual (personality), prestige (wealth and security), Hellmann’s mayonnaise (I collect the lids – I have over 400), quirky (personality, house and furniture), laughter (lots), chocolate (white), mangoes (ripe), yarn (soft), chrome (furniture, knitting needles, bed-frame), leather (furniture, clothes), modern (design, furniture, ideas), Gucci (bags), fluorescent pink (light shades), black and white (OCD: I only wear B&W clothes) and 17 (I count, to keep me safe).
Ruth: A good conscience and visiting the seaside sometimes
Have you a plan for the next five years?
Ruth: To build R and B into a business that people enjoy working in and buying from.
Belinda: 1) A book published; our designs, ethos, vision, reason d’etre, our life2) A TV chat show – (!)/ or a show (live) or film (recorded) on hand-knitting history, chat show, informative, investigative, real life stories… A HUGE national art/performance based hand-knitting project.
If you could give you younger self some advice what would it be?
Ruth: You may not be what you think you are, take some time to find out, safely.
Belinda: Be Braver – do not be afraid…
Do you have a book/quote/motto/advice to share with women who may be frustrated or discontented in their lives at the moment?
Ruth: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, it is like a ripe lemon; sharp and delicious.
Belinda: Quote: Do or do not, there is no try… Yoda (Star Wars). Lyric: Fools rush in, where wise wo(men) never go, but wise wo(men) never fall in love…… I have never regretted what I have done, I have often regretted what I haven’t.
Jane:Thank you both so much.
I know you’ll will want to check out the R&B site after reading this (and I certainly am going there again-the wool is the most divine I have knitted with) and you can do so by clicking this link to Ruth & Belinda. And if you do shop with them be sure to mention where you heard about them! (Not that I’m on commission – it’s simply nice to know).
PS If you like to knit you might be interested to read this Knitting and Pain Relief.
Posted on February 6th, 2012 by Jane