Monday, 4 February 2013

Stan and Agnes - a sisterly business

wo enterprising sisters are making a significant financial contribution to the household finances as well as running the family home and being mum to two children, EACH.

The catalyst for Philippa Nee, 38, known to her friends as Pip, and her sister, Fiona King, 35, was a chilly winter’s day. What they didn’t know was that it would to lead to a business that has now been running for three years.

Sisters Fiona and Philippa at work in north Essex
Stan and Agnes is a cottage industry that sells hand-finished textiles and vintage wares that has gone from strength to strength. In fact, it’s now achieving national publicity.

Philippa casts her mind back to their beginnings and says it all started when they were looking to buy camisole vests one winter for themselves.

They wanted something that was functional but colourful, too, so it could be seen peeking out from under their tops. But there was nothing on the high street that matched their criteria.

Instead, the duo, who had been taught to sew by their grandmother, Agnes, bought normal pointelle cotton vests, dyed them and jazzed them up by sewing on trimming to give them what they actually wanted.

At that stage they had no idea it was to grow into the business named after their grandparents. At first they started off small: selling the vests to friends, mums of friends and daughters, too, to get the opinions of a wide age range. “It was as organic as that,” says Philippa.

It was crucial to them that the garments were made in Britain. So as the business grew they found a reliable supplier in Bolton and put in their first order, 100 vests.

Then they sat in their own homes, in a north Essex village, and got cracking with the hard work. Now their orders are 1,000 vests at a time.

And they sell to the whole of the UK through their website and at local, regional and national fairs and shows.

The sisters not only sell a wide range of vests for women and children, but have now branched out into selling cushions, babies’ quilts and sewing kits in attractive jars designed to get others sewing.

Philippa says she works an average of 20 hours a week but when they are preparing for a big fair the hours can be much more. As Fiona has younger children the pattern of her working hours can be varied accordingly.

Prior to Stan and Agnes, both Philippa and Fiona worked three and four days a week respectively in completely unrelated jobs - the arts for Philippa and industry for Fiona.

Philippa said: “This is so much more rewarding than my previous job because we are still doing something whilst being at home for the kids at the same time, which is really important. It is brilliant for both of us working together because we are really supportive of one another.”

She explains how their business evolved: “We experimented with dyes and when we found the right ones we started with bright colours and then sewed on a contrasting finish to the vests to make them stand out.”

And stand out they have. Stan and Agnes products have featured in magazines including Country Living, Tatler, Insight Magazine, UK Handmade and Living North Essence of Christmas Fair.

Through networking with craft organisations such as UK Handmade, which Philippa says was invaluable, they discovered which craft fairs were the best ones to invest their time and money in, plus a wealth of other information.

They chose not to advertise and instead spent time and money with local and regional fairs and markets first.

Then two years into trading they made their first foray into a big London national event, Country Living. It was so successful they earned their costs back in the first two days of the five-day exhibition.

They would be the first to admit that in financial terms, compared to the income they achieved from their previous jobs, not a lot has changed, because being home based means neither have to pay a fortune on childcare nor travel costs.

Their new jobs still go a long way to supporting the family: they can continue to finance holidays, and Christmas, and the regular household groceries except they are now both able to ship up at the school gates morning and afternoon.

But they would also admit they haven’t gone it alone. Their bank, Barclays, has been a goldmine of information, and their husbands, Baz and Jim have been with them every step of the way: “We could not have done it without them. They totally believe in what we are doing.”

Philippa’s five tips for setting up a business such as theirs are:

  1. Believe in what you are making/producing but also test your ideas out through market research with friends and family and ask for honest feedback. It’s great to make something you think is useful and beautiful but if no one likes it or can’t afford it you won’t make any money.
  2. If working alone, use networking forums to share ideas and to enable your business to be outward looking. If working with other people, make sure you really like them so you can have frank conversations about the development of the business!
  3. Be flexible on how you intend to grow the business so you can make sure you don’t move too fast and make costly mistakes. But have a plan so you can keep the momentum going for the medium term. We aimed to attend a national fair within two years and this pushed us into producing more and making a brave investment after 12-18 months. It paid off.
  4. Use social networking media, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to publicise your business and to put out images of your work, and develop a really good website which can showcase your work. It doesn’t need to be fancy but it does need to be clear and simple to navigate. If you can’t be seen online these days and offer a point of sale online people are much less likely to buy your work.
  5. Have fun and enjoy what you do, it keeps you going!

 If you have an inspirational business story to tell email Prestopeople at

1 comment:

  1. This is so inspirational. Thanks Philippa