When New York journalist and editor Jennifer Pirtle found there was nowhere in London for her to learn basic crafts without paying a fortune for a long, expensive and official sounding course, she decided to do something about it. Instead of ignoring her artistic urges, in 2007 she came up with The Make Lounge, an informal place for women to meet, talk, have a glass of wine, and get back in touch with their creative sides. Now in its fourth year, and with workshops ranging from screen printing to bespoke lampshade making, The Make Lounge has become a renowned destination for those with a hunger for craft and little free time on their hands. I asked Jennifer to tell us more.
How did you go about turning your idea into something tangible?
I wanted to create courses that were contemporary, stylish, fun and informal – all the things I hadn’t found. I was working in a place where I had access to a workshop space, so I thought I would test it out first. I had the website built, and looked on Etsy.com in search of London-based craftspeople to ask them if they wanted to do some teaching.
We started with just a few classes. At that point I didn’t look for any press coverage as I didn’t have a proper venue, but I did send some information to Daily Candy.com. They ran something on the Monday morning, and by the end of the day everything we had on the calendar had sold out.
Why weren’t you attracted to what was already out there in London?
All the courses seemed to be 10 weeks long and in uninspiring venues like department stores or church halls, and you wouldn’t come away with anything at the end of it. I’m not from London, so I talked to my friends and colleagues about where I could find something different, and they all said ‘oh I don’t know, but if you find a place then tell us!’ That struck a chord with me. People were already blogging a lot more about crafting in the US, and the trend was on its way over here, so I had a feeling that it might work.
Did you have any prior business experience?
None! But then I’d been freelancing for many years so I was used to working for myself. I think you get to a certain point in your life when you’re pretty self sufficient, and you know how to get things done. I felt burnt out with journalism and really needed a steep learning curve again – that’s what I do best, and what is really exciting for me. I never thought that just because I don’t have an MBA I couldn’t do it. I knew it was a good idea and I went for it.
Did you imagine it would be so successful?
I always had a fully formed picture of it, and wanted to branch out into hen parties and corporate sessions off-site, as well as the workshops. But it seemed that those various strands started growing even before we launched them. We also got in there at the right time, as it was the beginning of the economic downturn and I think it struck a nerve. People wanted to do something a bit more creative and make something that wasn’t mass produced.
Do you think the recession was the catalyst for the crafting trend?
When we first started there was a lot in the media about make do and mend, going back to basics and sewing your own clothes, but the reality is that sewing your own clothes isn’t cheaper. It’s very time consuming and fabric is expensive. I think the media took an easy way out by writing those stories, because it’s fun to say this trend was coming back, but I don’t think that was honest.
It’s more about people trying to live greener, more thoughtfully and more creatively. They don’t want to buy everything from the high street. It’s less an economic driver, and more that people want something that is personal to them. There’s no reason why any of us need to know how to make soap, for instance, but there is something about the traditional craft, and the passion for how things used to be made, that people are attracted to. Our soap-making class is sold out every time we run it.
How do you decide on your new courses?
It’s quite organic. Sometimes its me thinking ‘I’d like to learn how to do that’. Sometimes it’ll be a trend I’ll start to see like Robert Ryan’s paper cuts that are now everywhere, which led us to launch a paper cutting class.
What advice would you offer to anyone wanted to start their own business?
I would say write a business plan to decide what your business is really about. And then test the market whatever way you think is best. That could be through market research groups or simply talking to people. You have to know your market – there’s really no shortcutting that!
For the latest course information go to themakelounge.com
All photos by The Make Lounge