My 26th Sew-iversary! Pt 3: Entrepreneur

If you are new to this series, start here with Pt 1: Academics. Otherwise…

Welcome back! Let’s pick up my sewing story 15 years ago at my own March 2008 wedding, which is where we left off in Pt 2: Employment. In my free time, I had designed and made my own wedding dress (after doing similar for my sisters-in-law Katie and Melissa) while I was employed as a woodworker, making super-fancy museum-quality custom picture frames. Otherwise, I had mostly quit sewing after an extensive costuming career.

But sewing wouldn’t stay away for long. 

2008 Shane Snider Photography

Leah

Leah, who was mostly a stranger when she attended my wedding as my friend Jonathan’s +1, would be the next person to change my sewing trajectory, this time pointing me toward entrepreneurship.

2008 Shane Snider Photography
2008 Shane Snider Photography

A couple of months after Charles and I got married, Leah and Jonathan got engaged! Leah remembered that I had made my wedding dress and reached out to ask if I could make her wedding dress. 

I mean, I loved making those three wedding dresses in the past. Could this be a service I offer to others?

Melissa, Brooks Ann, and Katie

We struck a deal: Leah and I agreed that I would make her wedding dress and, as I did, she would help me figure out how to make it a “side hustle” business to my woodworking day job. 

And here’s the dress that we designed together and I handcrafted from scratch:

Kent Corley Photography
September 2009

Working with Leah this way was super valuable and allowed me to develop my custom process for working with brides. Bonus: Leah was the one who suggested that I start a blog– which is the same blog you are reading from right now!

Learn more about this part of my story in my blog post “Retrospective: The Making of a Dress, a Blog, and a Business”.

And/or Start at my very first blog post (May 2009!) and then follow the creation process of Leah’s dress post by post in my first bridal blog series!

“Brooks Ann ended up making a dress that spoke exactly to who I was.”

The Knot - Best of Weddings

Next up, it was time to try making this a business! At this point, I had some interesting behind-the-seams blog posts, and four very unique custom dresses with lots of gorgeous wedding photos. I self-published a little iWeb website that I planned to announce publicly on January 1, 2010.

But before New Year’s Day, another amazing and unexpected thing happened!

In late November 2009, I got an email claiming to be from the wedding magazine “The Knot – North Carolina”. It explained that they publish a yearly “Best of Weddings” issue each January and that my business was one of the upcoming Winners for Best Bridal Salons in the state. They were asking for my address etc, so that they could send me a plaque! 

It all sounded super suspicious! But instead of simply marking it as spam, I contacted the magazine in case they wanted to investigate what was surely a scam. This led to some detective work and a long weird phone call, but come to find out, it was true. I was a winner! I hadn’t had a paying client yet, I hadn’t announced that I was a business yet, (and I wouldn’t call myself a “bridal salon”), yet I was chosen for the prize. To this day, I’m still mystified about how that all happened. The best answer I could get out of anyone for “Why me?” was “You just had something that the editors were looking for.”

Ok, I’ll take it.

So on January 1, 2010, I launched my custom bridalwear business via my very first website as planned – adorned with the official “The Knot – Best of Weddings Winner!” logo. That same New Year’s day, I went to a Barnes & Noble magazine rack to pick up a copy and see my name in print! 

2010- Michelle & Linda

A few weeks later, I got an inquiry from a beautiful bride-to-be named Michelle, who saw my name in that magazine. Michelle became my first paying client as a total stranger, my entrance to entrepreneurship, and an ongoing relationship. Michelle loved the process of working with me so much that she became one of my online sewing students. I enjoyed the process of working with Michelle so much that she became my small business lawyer!

The blog series following the making of Michelle’s dress starts here.

“My first great wedding planning decision was to work with Brooks Ann on the dress. It made all of my other wedding choices fall in line, leading to a wonderful day.”

Near the end of 2010 is when I first connected with Linda Misiura of “Linda Does Design”. She created my first professional logos and website, and we quickly became best friends. 

My website gets a professional upgrade in 2011

To this day, Linda is still my graphic designer and tech person! And I still consider her my best friend (even though we’ve lived hundreds of miles away from each other for the majority of our friendship). 

Though Linda and I have been friends for over a decade, this is the only photo I have of just us together. We are sitting on the floor at a small business seminar in June 2011.

Sawdust, Silk, & The "Home Sewist" Community

And then slowly one-by-one, as I continued to make picture frames, brides began to find out about me. So for 8 or 9 years, I did a little Sawdust & Overalls By Day and Scissors & Silk By Night routine.

I didn’t really promote my bridal “side hustle” or do any advertising. I had a job that I loved as a woodworker! Making wedding dresses was mostly to help unique brides have an exceptional experience and something fun for me to do in my free time for extra income.

So, as is my nature, I just let things go with the flow. If I was booked with a bride, great! If I had more free time, great! I liked both options.

Here’s some of the earliest wedding outfits I made as a business, all while keeping my “day job”: 
Greta, Jill, Diane, Loula, and Lila Rose

Left then Clockwise: Greta, Jill, Diane, Loula, Lila Rose (lower center)

And I pretty consistently blogged the process as every custom bridal wear item was created. I like to share our whole story, from first contact all the way to wedding day, via a long series of posts following each bride.

So, even though custom wedding dresses have been a huge part of my Entrepreneur Era, I’ll only share a few bridal wear photos in this “Sewiversary” blog post. There are over three hundred photo-filled posts on my blog, if anyone wants to go back and check those out!

I even made one Mother-of-the-Bride dress (for Margaret in 2012.)

Each blog series is mostly filled with all of the nerdy “behind the seams” sewing stuff that I love, which I learned is not really interesting for “brides”. Instead my blog was unexpectedly starting to attract people who sew their own clothes as a hobby! How cool is that? I also started to become aware of this “home sewist community” as I searched the internet for inspiration and ideas for my custom wedding dresses. For me, sewing had almost always been a profession. I wasn’t really aware that there were so many people who liked to sew clothing for themselves in their free time. 

I got really excited. These could be my people! I started following sewing blogs. I joined Instagram in summer 2012 (originally sharing framemaking and personal posts) and I started to find “sewing people” there too. This sounded really fun.

2011 Kent Corley Photography

I started to try to fit in, before realizing that I was quite the sewing oddball. There was this ever-present foreign-to me-language that everyone was speaking- with all these pattern names and/or numbers…

I had personally never created a garment following a commercial pattern before. As a naturally curious person, I wanted to check out the process for myself!

In Sept 2012, I purchased my first (and only?) commercial sewing pattern: a coat from Colette. I was enamored with the design and the beautiful packaging and the little booklet of instructions. Delicious!

But as I opened it up and investigated further, I got dizzy and overwhelmed by all those lines and sizes and charts… I looked through the instructions and felt lost and confused… The whole process seemed really different to me, and also really difficult and uninspiring! I felt like all of the processes I loved were replaced with processes I would not enjoy and, for the most part, couldn’t even follow the logic.  I folded everything back up and tucked it away forever. Not for me!

Because I’ve only ever sewn for specific individuals, I’ve never needed to learn anything about standard sizing (and I’ve never needed to learn how individuals differ from them). My sewing process starts with the person instead of a size.

Had I been introduced to sewing by using the home sewing method of starting with an unknown fit model’s body, identifying how my individual body differs from this mysterious “standard”, and then learning all these Adjustments with names that correspond with all my “non-standard” body parts … I’m almost certain I would never have fallen in love with sewing. I totally understand why fashion brands use standard sizes and why pattern companies use standard sizes. Both are about mass production. The goal is for a single mass-produced item to work for the most people possible. 

But if you are only sewing for you, this seemed to me like such a weird way to go about things! And though buying a pattern seemed like it could be a cheap fun short-cut, it mostly seemed to cut out all of the bits about sewing that I really loved.

2012 Shaena Mallett Photography

As I continued to make frames in the mill and wedding dresses in my home studio, I continued to search for my place in the “sewing community”. But instead of learning how to reference a size chart, or do a “Full Bust Adjustment”, or use the fabric’s cut edge as my sewing guide, I looked around for people who sewed the way I do. 

I couldn’t find anyone. 

Even individuals who were drafting their own patterns seemed to all be using a “fashion industry” starting point. They’d work through standard formulas from popular fashion school textbooks, then “customize” it for the individual body by plugging in some custom numbers. Was anyone simply skipping the whole “fashion” approach? 

The experts also seemed to be saying things that I wholeheartedly disagree with! I heard a lot of advice that you need to have lots of experience sewing from standard sized patterns before learning to draft and sew custom patterns. I also heard lots of advice that you need to enjoy math to enjoy patternmaking. All not true! I’ve never followed a commercial pattern, numbers are not my thing, and I am in love with custom patternmaking.

Learn more about my thoughts on this topic in one of my most popular blog posts of all time “Two Myths of Learning to Make Your Own Sewing Patterns” (2017).

Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing so many people thriving with these sized patterns. These tools have become so unquestionably popular because so many people have found so much success! There are unlimited examples of inspiring makes created with a commercial pattern. There are so many resources for how to learn to sew this way, it’s kinda mind-boggling! 

But I also wondered if there might be more sewing oddballs out there with a learning style a little more like mine who might really enjoy a less conventional style of sewing.

I got the feeling that most people who want sew their own clothes simply don’t know that they have options.

End of my Employment Era

In January of 2014, nearly 10 years into my frame making job, my husband went on a vacation with his best friend. I dropped him off at the airport and then I went directly to a staff meeting. Though I truly loved the work, there had been an increasing amount of negativity and chaos in the workplace. Long story short, this first staff meeting of the year went so poorly that I (and my fellow employees) ended up giving our two-weeks’ notice.

So I unexpectedly quit my job while my husband was out of town. Yikes! I needed to figure out a new plan for work before he got home…

The obvious choice was for me to go back to sewing full-time, this time on my own. But didn’t really want to ramp up the bridal business. I really loved only making one dress at a time- giving my full attention to each bride and each dress. I felt confident that the whole process would lose a lot of its magic for everyone if my income became based on getting more and more brides through the door. 

So while Charles was away, I signed up for an eCourse on how to create an eCourse! My plan was to keep the bridal wear business as my “side hustle”, and go all-in on online teaching.

Full-time Entrepreneurship

Not long after “quitting my day job”, and through another set of unusual serendipitous circumstances, I ended up moving the business(es) out of my house, and into a studio space (with my carpenter husband)- in the mill right next to the frame business! 

I published this blog post “Retrospective: My Years as a Custom Picture Frame Craftsman”, and this blog post “Retrospective: My Home Sewing Room(s)” about each of my home sewing studios, just as I was moving into this new commercial workspace.

The final days of my home studio in March 2014. On the table, Diane's bridal vest is being assembled.

Though there is charm and intimacy in inviting a client into your home, this new 650sf space was almost the size of my entire house. In this space, I was able to offer the brides a better experience, and I’d have more space to work and create courses. I could teach private lessons or even in-person classes. It could be my personal roller-skating rink. The possibilities were endless. 

The first days of my mill studio with dresses on display for an Open House event in June 2014.

In my new dream studio, while working on a 50th anniversary dress for my mom and making a wedding dress for Caitlin, I started developing my first self-produced comprehensive eCourse. I thought that there had to be people out there like me, who would rather skip learning to sew by starting with someone else’s design, style, and size. I wanted to share an alternative sewing experience that is more about creative critical thinking and less about following instructions. I was bursting with ideas!

Developing my first eCourse Skirt Skills! Note organization before Trello.

I didn’t know much at all about eCourses, so as is my jam, I just winged it! I set out to create new methods designed exactly for those sewing custom clothing for themselves. No comparisons or references to fashion standards. No assumptions about the body. It would embrace the unique opportunities and freedoms of sewing when you are the designer, fit-model, maker, and wearer. 

And, in order for each step to make the most logical sense, I wanted to teach all of my students the whole custom process in order, from start to finish. I didn’t want to teach someone how to draft a custom block but not teach them how to use it to create patterns. And I didn’t want to leave the student with a pattern and not teach how to turn it into a beautifully finished garment. So, in my first course, I’d teach all of it! 

Behind the scenes early Skirt Skills production. Caitlin's wedding dress and my mom's anniversary dress can be seen in-process in the background.

The first session of Skirt Skills started in September 2014. It was basically a password protected blog, with videos embedded in each post. I didn’t really know anyone in the sewing community, so the first session was mainly people I knew personally: my cousin, my mom’s best friend, my hair stylist…  Though most wouldn’t be considered my “target audience”, I was grateful for the support and wanted everyone to have a good experience. I was nervous about how this first group would work through the material!

It was quiet. But in a survey after the inaugural session, one student, who was a garment sewist looking for a new perspective, answered the question “What adjective would you use to describe your experience in the course?” with “Epiphanic”. This one word gave me the confidence to keep going and to share it with the world! 

In 2015, I started introducing myself, in articles like this one I wrote for Seamwork Magazine, while still trying to find my place in the sewing community.

Via Instagram and more random places on the internet, I connected with lots of wonderful “sewing people”- including Najah Carroll and Rebecca Walker (both on the left), who became students, IRL friends, and occasional part-time parts of my team. I met Rosalyn Womack (bottom right) on Pinterest of all places! To this day, she is the talented dressmaker I recommend to potential new clients when I’m unavailable or she’d be better suited for the job. So exciting!

Top: Najah Carroll and Ann Tilley / Bottom: Rebecca Walker and Rosalyn Womack

All while working with more gorgeous brides and more gorgeous wedding attire…
Sally, Caitlin, Erin, and Heather

Sally, Caitlin, Erin, & Heather

…in my fancy dream studio.

Shane Snider Photography - December 2014

Then the next unexpected opportunity came along.

Burda Style Academy

Later that year (2015), I was surprisingly offered a contract to teach Skirt Skills on BurdaStyle Academy. This was huge for me! A major company discovered me and wanted me to partner with them! And my course could potentially make lots of money while getting my name in front of thousands of new sewing people! What an amazing opportunity!

That said, my level of positive excitement was matched with negative excitement. Burda is a pattern company. I know nothing about sewing from patterns! Is this really a great fit? And, among other uneasiness, while in negotiations, their team seemed to value quickness over quality. This is the opposite of my core philosophies! 

Torn, I ultimately turned down the contract. 

It didn’t feel right.

Right? Ugh! Was it a mistake to say no? Would I ever have a better opportunity than this?

Camp Workroom Social

Well, the answer was YES! 

Also unexpectedly, and only a few weeks after reluctantly declining Burda’s offer, an opportunity that was a WAY BETTER FIT landed in my inbox!

Me & Jennifer Wiese + everyone from Camp Workroom Social 2016

In November 2015, I got an email from Erin Korey Proud. Erin and I both went through the same Costume Production MFA program at UNC (several years apart). In this email, she introduced me to her friend Jennifer Wiese of Workroom Social.

Jennifer invited me to become an instructor at Camp Workroom Social, “a sewing sleep away camp just for grownups”! The inaugural Camp event had just ended, where every student needed a sewing machine. This led to some mishaps (and power outages), so they were brainstorming ideas for classes for Camp 2016 where sewing machines weren’t imperative. Erin knew that I taught about hand sewing (we learned couture sewing from the same professor) and made the introduction. Jennifer gave me all of the details and a link to the Camp Workroom Social website. All of which sounded absolutely magical! 

This felt so right. 

I immediately responded: 
“Yes! Yes! Yes!
Maybe I’m just being emotional today, but while giving a serious look to your vision statement and website, I got a total lump in my throat and misty eyes. (Who is chopping onions in my studio?) It sounds so perfect for the campers and it exactly aligns with my sewing philosophies and teaching style. Such a breath of fresh air!”

If any of you have been to Camp or know Jenny, I did not yet know that crying is kinda her thing.

Her response:
YAY!!!!!!!!! i am so excited! i was a crying sobbing mess ALL WEEKEND at camp this year. evidence! https://www.instagram.com/p/859F-Nv7vV/?taken-by=victorypatterns you will be in perfect company!”

We hit it off, we created my “Couture Hand Sewing Intensive” together, and I taught it for the first time at Camp Workroom Social 2016

Me, Erin Proud (my class assistant and who introduced me to Jennifer), and the students from my first Couture Hand Sewing Intensive.

And we still work together to this day! I consider Jennifer a dear friend (and one of the coolest people I know) and I consider Camp one of my favorite weekends of the year. I’m forever thankful for this connection.

Jennifer (center) between Erin and me (and several cool campers) at Camp Workroom Social 2021.

Continuing to Grow and Connect

For the next few years, I continued to make and blog about wedding dresses.
Tiffany, Deborah, and Cameron

Tiffany, Deborah, and Cameron

I continued to teach Skirt Skills (with more epiphanic reviews).

I continued on to make two more comprehensive eCourses.

Smarty Pants Beta & Top Class Beta

I continued to teach at Camp. 

I continued writing articles

…and doing interviews. Most notably the Love To Sew podcast interview in 2018. Host Helen Wilkinson was a student my hand sewing intensive at Camp in 2017. In a much later episode of the podcast, Helen said “Brooks Ann is such an amazing teacher.” She blew my mind every 10 minutes when I took a class with her.”

Originally aired August 27, 2014.

In 2019, I came full circle, hiring Michelle (my first paying bridal client) as my small business lawyer and, with her help, officially became an LLC.

2010 Dressmaker Brooks Ann w/ Client Michelle - 2019 Client Brooks Ann w/ Lawyer Michelle

That year, I also worked with two brides, one whose wedding was featured in People Magazine…

De Nueva Photography

…and another bride that I have yet to blog about. Coming up soon, I plan to start sharing a whole new behind-the-seams series about Andy!

Andy's bridal blog series coming soon! Kristi Marie's Photography

But not so fast...

Before that, I’m going to share one more Sewiversary post: Pandemic to Present!

This personal story series has developed into more than I originally envisioned. And, as life would have it, a few more twists and turns to my story have happened since I started publishing it. I’m excited to get to present day! 

So coming up next, I’ll pick up in pre-pandemic 2020 and bring you to what I’m up to now and some fun plans for the future. Thanks so much for following along!

 

NEXT POST: I’ll share the final (I mean it this time) installment of this series: “My 26th Sew-iversary! Pt 4: Pandemic to Present”. Then, I’ll start a new behind-the-seams bridalwear series following Andy! Yay!

 

I’m sharing lots of additional photos in this Instagram Stories Highlight.

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2 Responses

  1. Oh…I read this (a delight to read) and feel such a light well up inside of me, a light of possibility and witnessing how following your own flow has led to such a beautiful, life. One foot in front of the other. Thank you for sharing and for inspiring me!!!!

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Hi there! I'm Brooks Ann.

I’m a former professional costumer and couture dressmaker for one-of-a-kind bridalwear located in Hillsborough, North Carolina, who teaches custom garment sewing too the sew-curious online.

My blog mostly follows along with the couture process of how each heirloom-quality custom wedding dress was made from idea to wedding day, as well as other interesting tidbits related to sewing, weddings, and body positivity.

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