American writer and journalist Anne Roiphe wrote: “Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” This perfectly describes the unexpected journey a youth worker took following a family bereavement.
Losing her father hit Jennifer Campbell Kirk hard, particularly since her mother had died only three years previously. The immense sense of loss left her feeling depressed and adrift.
“My mother in law was here at the time, visiting from America. I found it helpful having an older person around. She was great”, recalled Jennifer. “She offered to teach me how to make an American quilt. It was a relief to be doing something purposeful that helped me to switch off. The sewing focuses the mind; you have to pay attention otherwise you’ll make mistakes. This gradually becomes very meditative and therapeutic.”
Phoebe returned to Dallas a few weeks later and Jennifer continued to practice her stitching. Over the next few months, her passion grew and she decided to take a month off work and fly to America to learn more.
“It was the best month of my life. Phoebe was a high school head mistress so she taught me in a very structured way and she was very strict,” smiled Jennifer. “I spent eight to ten hours a day working and gradually became more skilled and quicker. We also went to amazing fabric shops. In the past, I didn’t really know what to buy, just had fun. With Phoebe, I learnt to buy with more intent. She was very generous.”
On her return, Jennifer realised that quilting had become more than a hobby. She needed to start selling the quilts she was making. Spotting a business start-up weekend by Country Homes and Interiors magazine, she decided to go along to learn some business basics.
The business speakers and editorial staff at the event were very supportive of Jennifer’s plans. She received some helpful advice and guidance, and she met Doug Richards, founder of the School for Start-ups (S4S).
“Doug was very charismatic and direct in talking about my ideas. I suddenly felt that it could work and decided to apply for the School for Start-ups course,” explained Jennifer. “The course taught me that this was not just a hobby. It helped me think about sales, marketing, the customer and where I sit in the market. I realised that it wasn’t about just churning out what I liked, but what the customer would buy. It gave me the confidence to press ahead.”
Throughout this time, Jennifer had continued to work for Kensington & Chelsea council as a Youth Arts Manager. Following cuts in council spending, her job was made redundant and she was re-deployed as a Culture Development Officer. However, a year later this position also came under threat of redundancy.
“I loved working with young people. I love their energy and how their lives change when they engage with the arts, but I knew it was time for a change,” said Jennifer. “The secondment gave me time to transition to a business. I would come home around 6pm, then from from seven to around midnight work on the business. On the S4S course the designer, Paul Smith came to talk to us. Listening to him, I had a light-bulb moment. I was already working on my business full-time, just in the evenings.
His presentation was a real turning point for me. It felt very personal and he was very honest and open. For instance, he explained how he makes black and navy suits because that’s what sells and you have to make money to pay the bills. But he also makes the more colourful stuff that he enjoys. It’s a balance between being practical and creative.”
Jennifer was so moved by the designer’s openness and generosity that she wanted to reciprocate. She approached him with the offer of a personalised quilt. The offer became a collaboration. Paul’s team send Jennifer tweed from his workshops which she is hand-sewing into a bespoke quilt for one of his shops.
At the end of the course, Jennifer had the opportunity to join a business showcase at Somerset House. It was her first opportunity to meet the public and gauge their response. The event was a success and proved to be the impetus for a change. Shortly after the launch, Jennifer took redundancy to focus full-time on her venture.
“I knew the redundancy was coming and the showcase had shown me that I had something I could sell,” explained Jennifer. “I’m fortunate that my husband was very supportive. The transition from full-time work to self-employment is a real rite of passage. If it wasn’t for my husband, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Jennifer had started selling through Etsy and was thrilled to receive her first sale through the site. It was also a useful resource for advice and support. She now has her own website and has expanded to Indigo Shibori dyeing. Her quilts have been featured in a range of publications and on TV shows such as Peter Andre’s 60 Minute Makeover.
In July Phoebe passed away peacefully in her sleep. Her talent and gift for quilting continues to live through Jennifer who found a way to rebuild her life through her losses.