april mawhinney design studio

Lough Cuan Collection.jpg

April created April Mawhinney Design Studio in 2013 after closing her previous business, Little Red Designs they specialised in hot foiled leather gadgets including phone and kindle cases. Now she sells her textile designs to many high street stores as well as running online workshops.

We chatted to April about how she got started in design and how she runs her business without living in a bustling city.

How did you get started in textiles and design?

I always wanted to be an artist. As a child I was always drawing, painting, knitting and crafting - it was certainly my first love. With my head full of aspirations to go on to study Fine Art at university and become a practicing artist, I completed a foundation year at the Belfast School of Art. It was during that year that I discovered that I could combine my love of textiles, craft and fine art into one thing - Textile Art. I applied to study a BA (hons) in Textile Art at Winchester School of Art in Hampshire, England, and that is where it all started. It was an amazing course with all the freedom of a Fine Art degree but with training of a Textile Design degree. I learnt to weave, screen print, tapestry weave and dye yarn, whilst exploring contemporary fine art practices.
When I graduated, I came back to Northern Ireland to work as a trainee Textile Designer for a local company. And after a year, I returned to Winchester to pursue my own creative directions, starting with a group show of my textile art pieces at a pop up gallery space at The Old Truman Brewery in London.
I got a job as a Civil Servant to support myself, and then started my own leather accessories brand, Little Red Designs. This steadily grew from being based in my bedroom, to renting a studio space in Southampton where I launched my own small scale manufacturing business creating bespoke hot foiled leather gadget and handbag accessories. I was a one woman band and one of the first sellers on NotOnTheHighStreet. It was a very successful business; I was selling all over the world and had 28 day waiting list for my handmade bespoke leather iPad, Kindle covers, travel card holders and purses. But the success of the business was it's downfall; the complicated nature of working with leather and hot foil printing meant it was very difficult for me to train up an apprentice to assist with peak demands. And after 7 years and running myself into the ground trying to fulfill orders whilst having a part time job, I realised I needed to change my approach and starting thinking back to my first love of drawing.
It was whilst on my honeymoon in 2013 I fully realised that as Little Red Designs was all about manufacturing volumes of the same product, it wasn't making me happy. I needed to be more creative. So in that year, I set out to shift my business towards Textile Design. I won a year long Talent Development bursary funded by the Arts Council and Aspace Arts to help me start up April Mawhinney Design Studio. Within that year I made my last leather Kindle cover, closed Little Red Designs and never looked back.
Working around my Civil Servant job, for the first year I work tirelessly on my textile design portfolio in order to build a body of work that could land me my dream job. In 2015, I started working on a freelance basis for a design studio where I create bespoke bedding and kitchen textiles for many well-known high street brands. Over the years the studio has grown, and alongside my freelance work, I now also teach online through Skillshare, run workshops on Textile Design, and have mentored several would-be Textile Designers. I also work with my own clients and have a small group of freelance textile designers who supply designs for sale through my pattern library. Right now, things are busy, as the studio is launching it's first home decor and gift range - it's an exciting and busy time; especially as I am pregnant with my second baby and due to give birth in a few months!

How do you find being a business owner while living outside of a city?

With regard to the location of my business, this has absolutely no bearing on my workflow, client base or income. All of my work is done online, and in fact I have never met any of my clients!  In 2017, the flexible nature of my work allowed me (and my family) to relocate back to Northern Ireland after 19 years of being in Hampshire.
The only thing I miss is being able to interact with other creative people on a daily basis. For 10 years I had a space in a shared studio situated in the centre of a busy Hampshire town, so it has been a bit of a shock working on my own from home. But Skype helps, and being proactive at getting out and about to exhibitions and galleries is important. My plan is to eventually rent a studio space in a town or city location; but this is more for the sense of community, for the banter, and to have someone to share my love of coffee with!

What are some challenges that you've faced on your journey so far?

As a sole trader and freelancer, one of the biggest challenges I have faced is being able to do everything for your business. You need to be the bookkeeper, the customer services representative, the complaints officer, the marketeer, the buyer, the stylist, and lastly, the designer and visionary for your business. So to anyone starting out, do not be disheartened if you need to get a 'proper' job to support yourself along the way, as this is likely to teach you many skills in business that you will need to run your own.
One of the other major challenges I have faced is the monetary value attached to textile designs and textile designers. Quite often our work is seen as something that does not qualify a high price point, and we are often challenged by our how much (or how little) clients want to pay for our work and skills. This makes me really sad - as I feel being a textile designer is a very specific skill-set and is a job that most people could not do without extensive training and investment in themselves. However, with the ever increasing desire for 'fast fashion' both in apparel and in home decor markets, manufacturers want more designs for each season but they want them cheaper. Another contributing factor is with the increase in digital design work. Gone are the days where every design was painstakingly painted by hand in full repeat onto paper or card. Now, people can design quicker and work smarter on computers, and as such, this is reflected in the lower price you can charge per design.

We'd love to hear what you're most proud of in your career!

The first time I saw one of my designs on a product for sale in a major UK retailer (Primark in this instance!). I had to buy some of the pieces and couldn't stop myself telling the cashier that it was my design on the fabric! I really am so silly!