Unemployed to international entrepreneur

Eighteen months ago the Clare Valley’s Liz Haywood would never have seen herself as a businesswoman, let alone an international one.

However, the Federal Government’s NEIS (New Enterprise Incentive Scheme) and the global pandemic have combined to give her home-based enterprise a boost.

If you’ve ever made your own clothing or craft items, you’ll know that you often end up with lots of virtually useless scraps leftover. Well, that is unless you use a pattern created by Liz.

Liz has turned her life’s experience as a pattern maker into rekindling the old practice of zero waste pattern making. And this passion has seen her write and publish two books and establish a successful online business selling patterns and training others.

So, what is a zero waste pattern?

“It is a sewing pattern that uses 100 percent of the fabric with no scraps or waste. The pattern pieces fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle within the confines of the edges of the fabric,” Liz explains.

“The idea has been around for as long as we’ve been wearing clothes.

“Many traditional, folk and historic patterns are zero waste because no one wanted to waste any of their precious hand-loomed fabric. But it’s something new for manufacturing now, and one way that we might be able to make fashion more sustainable.”

Liz trained as a pattern maker back in the early 1990s, working in the industry for 20 years, including in London, as a clothing cutter and pattern maker before having children and moving to the Clare Valley where, she admits, there really wasn’t much employment for a clothing pattern maker.

Although busy with her “little people”, Liz nonetheless maintained her interest in clothing and patternmaking, including working on a book that was supposed to originally take six months, but ended up taking 10 years to complete.

“I still worked on it when I had babies. I found out I could settle the baby in one arm and type in the other arm. But, on reflection I think it worked out better that it took so long because there was a lot of thinking time in between writing time, while you’re pegging out nappies, or doing the dishes, or all those things.

The Dressmaker’s Companion is like a sewing encyclopedia with a lot of information in it that I felt wasn’t anywhere else, and a lot of things that I had learned in industry as well. It’s the book I wished I’d had when I was learning to sew, but had moved beyond the basics.”

Liz admits she had reservations about self-publishing when she first started writing the book, but technology changed her views as the years went by.

“I didn’t want to self-publish because when you think of self-publishing, you typically think: this person couldn’t get a real publisher, so the book must be really lame. And you think: they’ve probably got a garage full of boxes of unsold books that no-one wants. It just sort of shouted of second rate to me.

“In the time it took me to write it, print on demand technology came about. Books get printed as they’re needed. So there’s no need to outlay money for 500 or 1000 books, or however many you think you might sell. If you find typos, the book can be updated and new ones printed. There’s no need for warehousing and the quality is quite good. You don’t need to outlay a whole bunch of money at the beginning if you haven’t got it.

“I’m now a convert to self publishing, and without it I think some books that should get published never would. It’s also the only way that people like me will make money from their books.

“It was a very steep learning curve, and after I swore I was never going to write another book, but I did.”

And her second book Zero Waste Sewing was launched on the eve of Australia starting to lockdown due to the pandemic. Although it caused some stresses and changes to the business plan, the pandemic has also created great opportunity for Liz and her business.

“Prior to the pandemic, I was worried The Dressmaker’s Companion would sink without a trace, as sometimes sales got down to two copies in 30 days worldwide! Then it got rediscovered because people were staying at home and sewing. And people who had never sewn before bought sewing machines so they could make scrubs and masks to help, or because there was no other way to get them.

“So there’s a whole new group of people with sewing machines who now want to sew for themselves, or they had one in the family that needed repairing, so now they have one.”

As well as the thirst for sewing, Liz says the pandemic has also increased the world’s focus on sustainability, which is what the zero waste pattern movement is about.

Having seen, and being responsible for creating, fabric waste in the fashion industry both in Australia and overseas, Liz decided at the beginning of 2020 that she would only make zero waste patterns from now on.

It was at that point that she enrolled in the Federal Government’s NEIS (New Enterprise Incentive Scheme). As she had been out of the workforce for 10 years she was able to access the scheme that offered six weeks of business training and several months of mentoring while also receiving the equivalent of Jobseeker.

Her business plan had three aspects – writing about zero waste in a book as well as for other publications and blogs, teaching people about zero waste patterns and how to use them, and selling pdf copies of zero waste patterns.

“In March I started being in business, but all the financial forecasts and everything I’d made were reliant on things you couldn’t do in the pandemic. But I found that – I did reach my financial forecasts, but in completely different ways.

“I stopped doing pop-up sewing classes. I didn’t do any in-person sewing classes. All the book talks and workshops that I had organised in connection with the book coming out all got canned.

“But my business plan was to start selling pdf patterns online in addition to the book, so I could do that.”

In April 2020 she made a free low waste pattern for scrubs and put it on her blog.

“I made the pattern in a week, and normally it takes about six weeks. I stayed up until 1 o’clock every morning. I used my family as models because we were locked down. The pattern got a lot of visits on my website which introduced me to a lot of readers from the UK.

“It was good to be able to use my skills in some way to help; I always wanted to make a pattern with a humanitarian application. The pattern got widely used in the UK, Brazil and Italy because you can make it very economically at home just from bed sheets because that’s what people had. There was a shortage, and really the only option was to make scrubs or masks at home.

“My business did benefit from the pandemic. I wouldn’t say I’m a millionaire now. It didn’t do badly; it did okay.

Although now an international businesswoman in the zero waste patternmaking field, it was only five years ago that she discovered the craft.

“Five years ago I read about zero waste patternmaking and I was curious to try it because it sounded difficult, not only do you have to worry about getting all the pieces in with no fabric waste, you also have to pay attention to fit and appearance (otherwise what’s the point?).

“I liked the challenge. It takes a bit longer but I actually didn’t find it harder than regular pattern making. It’s more interesting because the design isn’t uncovered until the pattern is finished; the pattern, cutting layout and design all develop together. With zero waste, we are using patternmaking as the design tool. It’s quite a risky way to design but can result in some exciting design details and silhouettes which might not be realised otherwise – the constraint of zero waste brings about creativity.

“In traditional designing the designer does a sketch, hands it to the pattern maker to interpret it into a pattern; a sample is made and then a cutting layout is done. There is no consideration given to fabric waste until the cutting layout stage. Even with the best fabric optimization software in the world, unless the pattern pieces are designed to fit together perfectly, there will always be scraps. With zero waste, the fabric waste is literally designed out.

“I’ve seen first-hand the amount of waste that factories generate. And even when we’re really careful with fabric economy, there’s still so much waste – about 15% of the fabric for a garment is thrown away. I didn’t even work in big factories in Australia – I never worked in a factory that had probably more than 30 people in it. It’s nothing compared to Bangladesh, China, or the Philippines, for example. With offshore manufacturing though, most designers will never have to confront the waste generated by their own collections.

“I think most people have no clue about how much fabric waste this world generates, something to the tune of 164 million square metres a day of wasted fabric. About 60% of that is estimated to be synthetic, so it’s actually plastic. That’s a pre-COVID figure, but it would still be high.

“As well, there’s all that embedded energy in all the waste that we’re throwing away. It’s not just the fabric – we’re throwing away the farmer’s toil, the dye stuffs, the transport, the weaving, the water, everything that was used to create that fabric.” Most of the waste goes to landfill, some is burnt, and only a tiny bit is recycled.”

One of the difficulties with zero waste pattern making is grading to cater for all sizes.

“In industry we have a single pattern that’s perfect, and then we grade it to all the sizes we need.

“With zero waste you have to think about the sizing as you’re making the pattern because when the pattern pieces get bigger they won’t fit on the fabric, and when they get smaller, we get gaps in the middle.

“You have to be creative about how the pattern grows and how you can accommodate growth with the sizes. It can be a big sticking point for a lot of patternmakers, but it’s not impossible.

Liz is still very much an “old school” manual patternmaker, although she’s currently teaching herself computer-aided drafting. She says she never worked anywhere that used a computer so everything she does in terms of design is “very manual”, relying on a sketchbook and then going straight to fabric. She prefers to work with paper and fabric rather than making a pattern on-screen.

And, having seen the waste of fabric in industry, Liz doesn’t use cheap calico or twill fabric as test garments, but uses wearable clothing fabric so the pieces can then be worn and not wasted.

“I cut one out and I pin it together and I try it on in front of the mirror to see how things are going. Typically, I can finish these off and someone can wear them, so they’re not wasted. Earlier in my career we used unwearable cheap calico fabric to test designs, which got thrown away, however, I now have the experience and confidence to go straight to fabric.”

Liz emphasises that there’s more than one way to do zero waste. “With home sewing, there’s a lot of more inventive ways that you can use your scraps; you have the time and opportunity. In factories, while the scrap per garment is less, the volume is bigger and we don’t do anything with it. However, many people comment that using a zero waste sewing pattern is a very satisfying sewing experience, and challenges them to think about sewing in new ways.

One of Liz’s recent creations is a handy foldable backpack.

“It’s quite a good entry point for someone who wants to try out a zero waste sewing pattern, because they don’t need to worry if it’s going to fit them, and it’s a low outlay in terms of fabric.”

Liz sells her pdf patterns through the online marketplace Etsy after realising the extra taxation and financial considerations when you sell digital resources to overseas locations.

“When you send a digital file you need to pay tax according to the country that the customer is in. It just gets really messy. If I sell through Etsy, they will do it all for me and I’m very happy for that to happen, so I can spend more time making patterns.”

Marketing-wise Liz says she discovered her tribe on Instagram.

“It’s where people who sew tend to hang out. The great thing about Instagram is that you can search for patterns via their hashtags. So if you want to make a backpack, for example, you can look through the hashtags and find patterns for it.

“You can create a hashtag for your pattern for people who make it to use. And then it’s easy to do a hashtag search to see all the items that other people have made. So it has some great benefits when it comes to selling patterns.

“I just love being part of someone else’s creativity. It’s quite moving. It gives me a thrill.”

And she also uses Instagram to connect with other people with similar interests.

“Some communities have their home on Instagram. For example, I’m part of a zero waste pattern-cutting group and an independent sewing pattern designers group.”

With the advent of the pandemic and use of Zoom Liz has been able to expand her market even further, but the time difference between Australia and overseas locations can be challenging and causes lost sleep.

She’s found to access an audience in America, Europe and the UK it’s best to be delivering online content at about 10pm, but then that means it’s late for Australia’s east coast or New Zealand.

“It’s quite tiring to deliver a workshop at that hour of the night, and a bit disruptive to my household,” Liz said.

And there are also technology challenges due to the location which does not have an nbntm connection.

“It’s really best if you’re going to upload anything to the internet to try and do it as early in the day as possible. Lunchtime is ok. Evening, forget it. And don’t do it if it’s raining either because we rely on a copper landline that doesn’t come from Clare directly – it zig zags around a bit. Once we lost our connection for a whole week when a neighbour didn’t dial before they dug.”

Living in a regional area has certainly created challenges for running a fashion business.

“It’s hard to buy materials in the country; things such as fabrics, trimmings and things you need to make clothes with.

“I buy online a lot. I also buy fabrics from the secondhand shop. I buy it when I see it, because there’s not opportunities to just duck down to the fabric shop.”

As for her plans for the future, Liz says now that she’s experienced at self-publishing she probably has another book in her once the zero waste pattern journey advances further.

And her big tip for anyone wanting to self-publish is not to skimp on editing. She engaged two editors, Nan Berrett of Word Solutions as the general editor, as well as a technical editor to read through patterns to ensure clarity for someone else.

“You don’t want a book with typos in it. People will judge you by your grammar. Don’t let them,” she said.

And Liz has some tips for anyone wanting to run a home business, particularly one that is “very lean” like hers.

“Try and decrease your overheads to be as low as possible. Buy things secondhand where you can, always asking whether you need it first – keep a “to buy” list as well as a “to do” list. Try and sell direct to retail, rather than wholesale, so you can collect the middle dollars and connect with your customers. Pay your bills on time so you can ask for favours if you need them.” she said.

“There’s a temptation with creative DIY businesses to try and do everything yourself, but you don’t need to.

“You need to think carefully about what you think you can do yourself, given the time you have each day, and what you could ask someone else to do who is potentially far better at it than you.”

Two areas of her business she outsources are pattern checking “because I need a second pair of eyes and someone with different sewing experience to me to read patterns before they go out” and models.

“Clothes need to be shown on a range of different bodies. There’s no point in selling patterns for big sizes if you’re not going to show them on big sized models – no one will know what they look like”.

If you want to know more about Liz Haywood or zero waste patterns visit www.lizhaywood.com.au where Liz writes a weekly blog on sewing, fashion and zero waste patterns, and she’s on Instagram at @lizhaywood3754.