Welcome to a whistle stop tour of the last/first five years of Whole Punching. I don’t tend to do a yearly roundup and to be honest, I rarely stop to think and reflect on what I’ve achieved. However, five years feels monumental and worth taking some time to reflect on running my small business.
Sometimes reflective pieces can feel a little boastful. Whilst I’m all for celebrating the wins and patting myself on the back, I didn’t want this to be purely me talking big about how well I’ve done. I really value the small business community, I’ve learnt so much from helpful business owners and therefore I wanted to include some sources of small business knowledge too.
In case you don’t have all afternoon to read this post (I can’t imagine what could be more important!) and would like to skip to the section you find most relevant, here is what I’m going to cover:
- My background before starting my business
- A brief timeline of Whole Punching
- Highlights and challenges of running a small business in the UK
- Some loose (extremely loose) plans for the next 5 years
- A few small business recommendations
My background before starting a craft business
If you’re new here, hello! I’m Sara and I’m the maker behind Whole Punching – a cosy one stop shop for all things punch needle. I’m a punch needle maker, designer and teacher. I run my small, independent craft business from Coventry (UK). I primarily work by myself but am supported by family members and bring in experts when necessary.
So far Whole Punching has been all over the UK ticking off Bristol, Lake District and now Coventry for bases. I’ve always worked from home and this is the third house that I’ve adapted to both live and work in. Don’t be fooled, ahome office for me has not meant working in a fancy, instagrammable studio but in a spare bedroom with a little overflow/storage space in another. I’m now back in Coventry (my hometown) and pleased that Whole Punching is situated so centrally in the UK.
Before starting a punch needle business I used to work for Bristol University in student experience enhancement.
Punch needle began as a hobby for me alongside my full time job and then turned into to a side hustle once I opened my Etsy shop in May 2018. From there the business boomed and I was able to take the business full time from April 2019. I didn’t have any prior knowledge or experience of running a business but I spotted a gap in the market and decided to go for it.
I had a small buffer of cash from the Etsy sales to keep me going when I first went full time, but after that the business has always had to generate enough income to pay for my bills, food, fun etc.
Sara in the first home studio, in Bristol
• Started punch needle as a hobby – November 2017
• Opened Etsy shop alongside full time employment – May 2018
• Whole Punching went full time – April 2019
• Studied at the Oxford Rug Hooking School in Vermont – September 2019
• Became a certified Oxford Punch Needle Rug Hooking Instructor – February 2020
• Weekend Makes: Punch Needle book was published – October 2020
• Approached by Liberty to stock my kits in their store – March 2021
• Formed a limited company – April 2021
• Had two pieces published as a collaboration in Koel Magazine – June 2021
• Presentation for FibreKnot Aberdeen – June 2021
• Alice Moore x Whole Punching collaboration – September 2021
• First trade show (Top Drawer) – February 2022
• Second trade show (Top Drawer) – September 2022
Not included above (but no less important) are the many workshops I’ve ran, markets and retail shows I’ve taken part in, projects I’ve made for publications, online video tutorials I’ve created for other craft brands (not always punch needle), courses I’ve taken to expand my business knowledge and private punch needle tuition. Throw in two house moves (with a third upcoming), one house sale, becoming a befriender and starting to look after my nephew on a weekly basis and you can imagine how hectic the last few years have been!
Stack of Weekend Makes: Punch Needle books
I want to expand on a few of the above milestones. Some may not appear to be particularly big or important to others, but there are definitely some up there that felt challenging to me. It’s difficult to unpick the highlights and challenges as for me they go hand in hand. If it didn’t feel hard to achieve, it doesn’t really feel like much of a highlight.
Oxford regular #10 punch needle with box, handbook and stitch gauge
Back in 2021 I was approached by Liberty and they asked if I sold my products wholesale and would I be interested in stocking them. With a lot of opportunities that come up in my business, I have no idea how to proceed but tend to say yes and work it out afterwards. I didn’t do wholesale at this point and honestly did not really understand it. Why would you sell your products for so much less than you would in retail? But as a lover of the store and its history in haberdashery I was flattered and jumped at the chance. This was the start of the wholesale strand to the business.
As I gain more experience with my business I’m learning that you don’t need to know in detail exactly what you’re doing all the time. Hard work and a willingness to learn can get you a long way. Moving into wholesale and getting up to speed was a big challenge but after this first deal, I’ve been lucky enough to work with other major retailers like John Lewis.
Celestial punch needle hoop kit in wholesale packaging
My first few stockists approached me shortly after I launched my business but things quietened down quite quickly after this busy start. Having quit my job I started to panic a bit and
began to wonder how on earth I was going to get more. I received a recommendation to engage the help of Therese Oertenblad, a business mentor who helps product-based businesses to grow their wholesale offering. I worked with Therese who helped me to understand wholesale, implement systems to manage the processes and supported me in exhibiting at a trade show for the first time.
I’d never visited Top Drawer before I exhibited there. Not ideal, but I’d been to Spring Fair so I thought I had an idea of how a show worked and felt ready to tackle the challenge. I worked with Therese to ensure I had new products to exhibit, that I’d reached out to current and potential stockists and even had a few meetings lined up for when I was there. I worked with an extremely talented friend of mine (Rob Hinchliffe) who designed and built my stand for me. For someone who didn’t know what an embroidery hoop was called, I think he smashed it out of the park!
Having a better understanding of what to expect at a trade show, how to prepare and how to follow up afterwards definitely meant that I was making the most of the investment. If you’re not aware, stands at shows whether retail or wholesale, are expensive. Add in your time to prep, time to staff it, travel and products etc, it becomes a pretty pricey event. We’re talking thousands of pounds and I only had the smallest stand available.
Sara assembling the stand at Top Drawer
I decided to have the stand and products shipped via pallet to the show to avoid me trying to tetris everything into the car and unloading via the car park. This meant just getting myself to London on time for the show. Unfortunately the weather had different ideas. I was living in the Lake District at the time, fairly close to the border with Scotland. Poor weather in Scotland meant the train I had booked (and all others I needed to get) were cancelled. So at the eleventh hour I drove down to Coventry, left my car at my Dad’s and took a train to London late in the evening booking myself into the Travelodge at Euston.
I had a wonderful team of friends who came to help me assemble my stand. We cracked on and were done in a few hours leaving the rest of the day to celebrate (read: drink copious amounts of prosecco and eat sushi). This was an interesting choice the night before the first day of the show but I think adrenaline got me through any part of a hangover the next morning.
The show went well. I met some amazing other businesses, gained some new stockists, met some current stockists in person and felt buoyed enough to commit to another show later that year.
The Whole Punching stand at Top Drawer
This is probably one of the few highlights that didn’t feel challenging in the same way as a lot of other opportunities have. I have loved Koel Magazine since I began crafting. Irene has such an idea for design and style and it culminates in this beautiful publication. I wasn’t anxious at the prospect, but being featured in Koel was a long-term goal of mine and I wanted to make sure I did my best to produce something I was proud of.
Irene asked myself and Camille Julie Romano to collaborate on two punch needle pieces. Camille was to design them and I was to interpret and make them. Camille has stunning illustrations and it was a delight to be able to take these and turn them into a punch needle cushion and wall hanging.
I laboured over the pieces and tried various iterations of colour palettes until I found something I was happy with. I was so pleased with the finished items and the spread in the magazine is something I will always look on fondly and treasure.
Punch needle wall hanging for Koel Magazine
Back in 2021 I was lucky enough that my lovely sister agreed to collaborate with me on a new collection of punch needle hoops. Alice is a freelance print designer based in Berlin and has been creating as long as I can remember. I absolutely love her style and couldn't wait to translate these into punch needle projects.
We originally created four small punch needle hoop kits in Alice’s bold colour palette and abstract style. Two of the hoops incorporate both punch needle and tufting so are a great opportunity to try a little of both within the same project.
Alice is self-taught in her digital design work. Following her bachelor's degree in Fashion Design she began to teach herself how to create digital textile prints. She’s continued to learn and expand on this by making repeating surface patterns.
She keeps a small sketchbook with her at all times to capture ideas whilst she’s not at home. When she’s back she uses different mediums such as paint or paper to create her designs, these then get cleaned up digitally.
If you want to find out more about what inspires Alice to create, you can read an interview with her here.
Daisies punch needle hoop kit
Although not listed formally on the highlights, these continue to be one of my most challenging yet enjoyable parts of running a business.
I taught my first punch needle workshop in the autumn of 2018 at an open studios day in Bristol. I felt woefully inexperienced which resulted in a lot of anxiety and tears leading up to the event. Tears on the night before, tears walking down to the studio, tears when I arrived and then a last little cry just as the participants were arriving (you know, just for luck). All cried out I managed to complete the workshop without any more tears (or the participants being aware of the prior tears) and even managed to enjoy the experience.
Speaking in front of others, particularly about myself or my work, has been a challenge for me for as long as I can remember.
Luckily as with many things, practice and repetition is making these easier. I still get nervous before events, I get nervous before I teach and I get nervous doing something new. But I know that I won’t pass out (whatever my body/mind is telling me) and that I’ve felt worse before and got through it.
I absolutely love teaching punch needle workshops. I feel like I’ve managed to consistently include them in the business in a format that works for me. This means teaching in venues that I’m familiar with, having adequate time to plan and prepare, time to decompress afterwards and keeping class sizes small so I can offer sufficient support to those who need it.
Participants at a punch needle workshop in June 2022
For all the planning and preparation that I’ve noted above, I’m actually not a planner. I struggle to plan a few months ahead let alone a year or longer term. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions and I don’t set business goals. I’m sure many others would disagree with this being a functional way to run a business (but touch wood) it seems to be working ok so far for me.
I’ve found over the last year or so that I’ve stretched myself too thin. So at the end of last year I did decide to reflect and plan a little for 2023 so that I didn’t end up burnt out. This wasn’t planning in terms of what I’ll be doing week to week or month to month but cutting out things that I actually didn’t enjoy.
So rather than deciding lots of new ways that I’m going to grow the business, I’m actually streamlining it in order to have a better work / life balance. I’ve decided on the streams of income I’m going to focus on, platforms I want to sell on and products I want to offer and by cutting out the things that don’t bring me joy, I’ve found I have more focus and renewed motivation for the business. I feel lot lighter.
By stripping things out I’ve freed up time in my week to become a be-friender and look after my nephew on a regular basis. I rarely work evenings or weekends and feel I’m able to switch off from work when I do take time off.
So for the next five years, I’d loosely like to:
1. Expand into longer, more advanced workshops and extend them online
2. Maybe publish another book; less projects more techniques
3. Create larger scale punch needle projects
4. Continue to reduce my working week!
5. Then some extra sneaky squirrel stuff that you’ll have to stay tuned for…
Punch needle rug workshop
I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the help of some other small businesses. They’ve provided me with great advice and support and as far as I’m concerned they are the gold standard:
- Studio Cotton: Aime and her lovely team are you go to for all things website (I don’t have one from her yet but she created my beautiful branding back in the day). She also runs a Clubhouse for other like minded business owners to share helpful information and resources.
- Helena Rose Photography and Harriet Langsbury Styling: a dream team of photographer and stylist and just a joy to work with. They have helped to elevate my images no end.
- Alex Campbell Designer: forever patient and extremely talented, Alex levelled up my packaging.
- Rachel Emma Waring: pinterest pro and creative powerhouse, easily the best (and most valuable) course I’ve completed.
- Therese Oertenblad: as previously mentioned, a wholesale wizard.
A final, special shout out goes to my friend Emma, who was the first other small business owner I ever met. As a former Bristol Etsy team captain, Emma is one of the kindest people you’ll meet. Forever giving with her time (which as a mother to three girls, is slim), always happy to help and extremely chilled. She coaxed me along to my first Etsy meet-up (I bailed on the first one as I was too nervous) and helped me at my first ever market.
She runs her lovely crochet business alongside juggling an unending amount of balls, whilst all the while remaining a very good egg.
Easy peasy crochet pot kit from Stitching me Softly