High50 Entrepreneur Frances Tobin: I’ve started a style-led dressmaking and patterns business

If you think dressmaking and sewing patterns sound fuddy duddy, think again. Look no further than Frances Tobin, a stylish lady who is bringing that style to the dressmaking world with The Maker’s Atelier, her new pattern and dressmaking company in Brighton, where she lives.

With inspirations including David Bowie and Madonna, you won’t find any Butterick cardigan patterns here. Frances is a design and colour consultant who has worked for leading international companies including Gucci, French Connection, Warehouse and Arcadia.

Now she’s using her skills in her new venture, her first business. Her patterns are taken from current fashion trends. She finds the key shapes and refines them on the premise that “the simplest shapes, in beautiful fabrics, make the most successful clothes”.

She wants to bring a level of luxury and sophistication back into dressmaking: “The whole experience from visiting the website to receiving the pattern must be pleasurable.

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Women in their fifties cannot get what they want on the high street

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“I want it to be like ordering from Net-a-Porter. For example, my patterns arrive in a lovely fabric bag with a tape measure.”

Idea for a business

Frances had noticed that as she got older, people asked her more and more where she got her clothes from: “Women in their fifties cannot get what they want on the high street and the high street does not seem to get what women in their fifties want.”

Frances started The Maker’s Atelier when one of her fabric suppliers suggested she publish her own patterns. She thought about it and realised there was a gap in the market for what she designs and makes for herself.

Within two days she had visualised the brand and come up with the name. It took eight months to develop the product range, build the site and launch it.

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The Utility coat

She put the website up in July last year and two weeks later somebody ordered a pattern. By the following week she had her first US customer.

Currently, her orders are doubling month on month and she says the past two months have been “exceptional for someone selling patterns”.

High50 went to meet Frances at her atelier in Brighton.

How many patterns did you start with?

“I started with six patterns as I wanted it to be a capsule collection that would work together.’ It consisted of a coat, a blouse and two dresses that could be made as tops, a skirt and a coat.

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“I wanted something that you could make in a day so the coat is an unlined raw edged coat and you can do them in different fabrics. Boiled wool, or a neoprene fabric, which is a high fashion fabric at the moment.

How did you fund your business?

“Like many people in their fifties, I came out of a relationship and decided to do something new. We sold the flat we had and with the excess money I raised a small mortgage.

“Of course you always underestimate what something costs to set up. It doesn’t matter how much you plan it. My idea took off faster than I expected and I had to finance that too.”

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The Pencil Skirt in silver
What has been your biggest problem?

“Cash flow is always a problem. The banks don’t support you at all. Luckily, I had a good financial adviser.

“I don’t think this is a risk, as I completely believe in my product and my business. I don’t have children so why the hell shouldn’t I? And it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”

Has BBC2’s The Great British Sewing Bee made dressmaking more popular?

“Sewing Bee has been great and encourages people to see dressmaking as something you can do as a hobby. It can be frightening, but if you can make a cushion, you can make clothes.

“Choose something not too intricate. Some patterns are too complicated for their own good.”

What plans do you have for the business?

“Some of my customers live in rural areas and buying fabrics on the internet is difficult. They want to use fabric featured in the picture so my next stage is to provide the fabric as well.

“I also run courses where you can make an article of clothing in a day, and as long as you are prepared to use a machine, under my guidance, you can walk away with a finished garment.”

What’s your motto?

“To me, life is about the title of Viv Albertine’s book: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. And it doesn’t change with age.”

Top tips for starting a business in your fifties

• “I couldn’t have done this before I was 50.”

• “Focus on your idea and make sure it’s special. It must have a USP.”

• “Look for a gap in the market and fill it. Stephen Marks at French Connection told me that if you don’t like it, don’t expect anyone else to.”

• “Draw on all the knowledge that you have learned over the years.”

The Makers Atelier has just celebrated its first birthday. Plans for this year include producing a new pattern each month, the expansion of the Making-Kits range, and the launch of the Makers Atelier club.

Buy patterns or go on a dressmaking course at The Maker’s Atelier

THE MAKERS ATELIER – ESSENTIAL COLLECTION Sewing with Style
FRANCES TOBIN
Published by Quadrille on 9th February 2017 priced £30.00 Hardback

THE MAKER’S ATELIER: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION is the first book from Frances Tobin, creator of the aspirational sewing brand The Maker’s Atelier.