Continuing our series exploring the creative lives of people who live and work in the country.
Many of us have made something at home, a cake? A cushion? A wreath? And thought – I could make a business out of this. But very few of us have actually gone on to realise these whimsical ambitions. Sometimes we begin but find it’s actually harder than we thought to make home crafts pay.
Not so Lucy Robertson who twelve years ago made a bag for her four-year-old daughter Jeanie and managed to turn this act of maternal creativity into a successful business that she runs from the family farm in the Scottish Borders. So what is the difference? How has she managed to turn her whim into reality?
Unsurprisingly talent has played a large part. Lucy has that elusive thing – a good eye – often referred to but never to be under-estimated. She chooses beautiful fabrics for her ranges and harmonises colours perfectly. Lucy says she tries ‘never to pass a fabric shop.’ By which she means she is constantly on the look out for new fabrics, sourcing colours and patterns that will work for her bags.
However talent like this will only carry you so far, knowing how to choose a pretty fabric is all well and good but it takes real skill to make a really good bag. And when the high street is filled with cheap bags an independent, craft bag maker had better be pretty good to survive. Fortunate then that Lucy trained as a saddler, and already had leather working and craft skills that helped her, particularly in the early days.
But even then it takes time to learn how to make a well-turned leather handle that looks good and will last, and to develop an understanding of what makes a bag work. Over her twelve years as Jeanie Bags, Lucy has continued to develop her skills, constantly revisiting and improving old designs, and creating new ones.
She says designing a Jeanie Bag is not simply about making something that looks good; it has to be practical too:
“You have to be able to get in, get what you want and get out again – quickly.”
Sounds simple enough and any woman who has scrambled around in the rain looking for car keys/phone/the meaning of life amidst a sea of bottom-bag life debris will endorse this ambition with every fibre of her frazzled being. But how many of us actually own a bag that affords us the luxury of easily finding what we need – think? Really? One? Two? Any?
It’s not as easy to fulfill this simple desire as you might think. But Lucy knows what it takes. She’s thought it all through and she posses the secrets, which it would of course be wrong of us to reveal entirely but we can say that dark linings are out – they don’t allow you to see anything – minimal fuss and the ability to turn the lining fully inside out so that a) you can find earrings, and similarly small hidden treasures, and b) scrub out the inside every once in a while.
Jeanie Bags are genius. They will organize your life and they will endure even if Lucy claims this sometimes works against her:
“I’ve been making bags for twelve years now and doing the Royal Highland Show for the last five or six. I often see the same faces and people return looking for the same bag in a different colour, or a new style, which is wonderful. Though sometimes a lady will pass my stand wearing a Jeanie Bag that I know they’ve had for years, years – I yell out ‘Isn’t it time for a new one?’ and they’ll call back ‘No thanks! This one’s doing just fine thank you.’”
However even with all the talent and skill in the world a craft business can fail. It’s no good rattling around in your garret perfecting your product – you’ve got to go out there and sell. Though all too often this where small independent craft businesses flounder.
Again, not Jeanie Bags. Hawking her wares is clearly something Lucy enjoys. She possesses an easy charm and manning the Jeannie Bag stand is not the drag you feel it might be for a lot people.
Jeanie Bags are part of The Crafters, a co-op of like minded craft businesses based in Melrose and each year the Crafters host a pre-Christmas fair – with a strictly 100% handmade, no tat policy – at the showground at Springwood Park, Kelso. It’s just one of a handful of fairs Lucy does with Jeanie Bags but clearly gives her a buzz:
“Sometimes I see someone approach the stand and I think – I know what you’re going to buy – and then they buy something completely different. I love that! When I get it wrong…I can really enjoy selling a bag to someone who’s up for a laugh and a chat. I also get a huge kick if I’m out and about – maybe in Edinburgh – and I see someone wearing my bag. My bag!”
It’s obvious talking to Lucy that she loves the chat and has a knack for a good story. In fact Jeanie Bags has given her one or two crackers to add to her repertoire like the unusual commission came her way from the Isle of Bute.
“I take commissions if someone wants a bespoke bag, maybe they’ve had an outfit made for a wedding and want a bag made up in left over fabric. Things like that, but this was a bit different.’
‘In the past I’ve used a mill on the Isle of Bute call Bute Fabrics. They make gorgeous bright modern tartans, tweeds and woolens and some of the tartans are named after the local farms on the island. So…I got a call from one of the farmers wives – could I make a bag for her from the tartan named after her farm? – and before you know it I’ve made a bag for each of the farm wives in their own vivid tartan. It was fantastic – a great job.”
And a lovely story – Lucy says she likes to think of them swinging their brightly hued tartan Jeanie Bags around the shops of Rothesay, each of them totally unique and utterly rooted in the place they live.
So surely this must be it – the reason why Jeanie Bags has been so successful. In the age of mass production Lucy has the right combination of talent and skills to offer a service that no high street retailer could ever compete with, as well as the tenacity and charm to see it through.
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