25th Anniversary of The Cotton Patch - In The Beginning...

Posted by Liz Holpin, Director of The Cotton Patch

2015 marks the 25th Anniversary of The Cotton Patch! 

A Retropective and Bit of History
It all began twenty-five years ago when Jean Sewell had an idea. 

In the past few years we've seen quite a few people start craft businesses and that is absolutely brilliant and we love the fact that Etsy and the internet is making it so much easier for women to follow their dreams but twenty-five years ago and not having worked since Nik was born in the early 1960s, for Jean to start her own business was a pretty big deal.  
Classic 1960s shot - Nik and Jean

Luckily she was married to my Dad.

Geoff Sewell as Chairman of CPS Computer Group Plc

His experience in business has proved to be invaluable over the years. He worked for IBM in sales after being a Production Engineer in the Midlands car industry and then he started his own business in the 1970s buying and selling used IBM equipment - the kind of equipment that large banks, insurance companies, etc would use. 

He did that through to the early 1980s and then organised conferences and ran a computer leasing trade association in Europe.
Sewell Family 1980s

Meanwhile Nik, David (my other brother) and I had all started pursuing our own careers and left home.

Nik ran a boards game design through his own company Three Wishes. David studied archaeology predominently Eastern Mediterranean at sites in Cyprus while getting various Masters degrees and ultimately a PhD. I was working for IBM in between bouts of travelling whenever I could!  

Jean started to think about what she could do and had the idea of starting a shop. She was already into Patchwork and Quilting through a group at the Manor House in Solihull where she also did embroidery. The 1980s saw a large number of fabric shops closing and cotton fabrics were not easy to source. Jumble sales where cotton fabrics could be picked up by patchworkers were a good source but Jean had the idea of starting a shop to supply the kind of fabrics, tools and accessories that were designed for patchworkers but there weren't many in the UK at the time and certainly not in Birmingham or Solihull. 

Jean phoned up Geoff one day while he was at work and said she'd had an idea - he wisely let her continue....she said "Do you think I'm too old to start a Patchwork and Quilting shop?" Her idea was to convert a property he'd bought in Hall Green, Birmingham. This was a man who had been to more jumble sales in the past couple of years looking for cotton fabric than most people want to see in several lifetimes but I'm sure this wasn't the reason he said Yes. He knew that it was her dream...and he would support her in her dreams, as she had supported him with his over the years. Or maybe that's just me being hopelessly sentimental!

This was going to be a big project and he knew nothing about retail but...he did know about buying and selling and had sold computer equipment all over the world, so it couldn't be that much different - an entrepeneur in one industry moving into retail.  he had no idea how big it would become.

Front of 1285 Stratford Road
Six months later they had fitted out the shop, started to buy the stock at various shows in the UK and had sourced some in the USA from companies like RJR and P&B.  The shop had a flat above it with tenants so it was just 1285 Stratford Road with the groundfloor only. At the time I was about to re-start a new job at IBM in Leeds so I had a few week in March 1990 when I helped with getting stock onto the PC computer system and we bought the till. That was an exciting moment - playing shop for real!

The month the shop opened Nik and Linda, his wife, had their first child Elorna - Geoff and Jean's first grandchild - it was going to be a busy year!

The baby is born - The Cotton Patch and Ellie in 1990!

Books were a big part of the business in the early days - they accounted for about a third of the sales at that time. The good old days - pre-Amazon!

The book section
Classes took place at the rear of the shop on the table when it was cleared of its Fat Quarters and classes of 8 people would gather in the evenings to learn patchwork.

Jean with a large box of polyester wadding
Rear of 1285 with Fat Quarters and fabrics

Looking through from the front of the shop to the rear. The counter was on the left.
A kaleidoscope of colour!

Jean worked on her own in the shop and it wasn't easy - the classes generated footfall but before the internet, it took a while before you became known.  

Going to shows was important and Geoff soon realised that mailorder was going to be the way to generate more business.

Jean at one of the early Patchwork shows - so many cushion panels!

1285 Stratford Road with Eureka Builders next door!

Nik with his degree in Graphic Art and Design was essential at this point - he took time out from designing boards games to work on a catalogue and.....

To be continued....in our next blog post.  Stay tuned!


Stephie said…
A great read, thank you!
BizzieLizzie said…
Thank you!I think it is on anniversaries that we can reflect on things. It was only while writing it that I thought about what a huge thing my mum had done. To be still working 25 years later is also impressive.

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