Sofa so good.
12 June 2020
Jenna Bainbridge is a fashion graduate that fell out of love with the industry. After spending almost six years travelling she's back in Manchester and running her own upholstery business. Because why not?
You’re based in Ancoats, do you live here?
I used to live near Ancoats but I left Manchester quite a while ago. I’ve been back over 12 months but I went travelling for about six years. Now I live in Ladybarn, South Manchester. But I love Ancoats. I used to have a studio in Hope Mill in New Islington but I gave it up when I left. It’s really hard to get a work space in Manchester so it was quite lucky when this place at Pollard Yard came up.
When I first moved to Manchester years and years ago, Ancoats was not like this, it was a bit rough, you didn’t really come round this way. Well actually, we’re pushing it a bit being here! I mean I wouldn’t want to go any further back. But as it’s being developed it will eventually all be quite nice.
What made you pack up and leave?
I used to manage a bar called Blue Bar, I think it’s called Foundry now but it used to be the cool place to go, next to where the old fish market is. After a while it was just getting a little bit too much, it went through a really bad phase of being quite rough in the Northern Quarter and managing the bar, I was just not enjoying it at all.
What do you put that down to? Was it just a different place back then?
We used to have all the cool kids, it was a really nice atmosphere in the Northern Quarter but when Printworks closed a few of their bars their clientele moved in and over the space of about six to nine months you could kind of see a switch. I was a female manager and it got to the point where there was a fight every other week. It was getting ridiculous so I decided to hand my notice in and go travelling.
I really love the Northern Quarter, the only thing I think it lacks is that there’s very little outdoor space to sit and have a drink.
It used to be really cool and I feel like it’s changed drastically. You used to be able to sit out, I mean years ago we would have street parties in the Northern Quarter! Well we did for about three years then people cottoned on and it got a bit out of control.
Did you find it hard to adjust when you came back from travelling?
I think I’m still finding it hard to adjust! I find it really hard. I’m not being mean but my friends are quite set in their ways. It’s like, go to work, eat and then go to bed, that’s it. I’ll say “Shall we do this tonight?” and they’ll say “No, I’ve got to go to work tomorrow”. I’m like ah let’s just go and do something spontaneous!
I think sometimes people who have done the travelling thing can have a slightly different mindset.
I went to uni and did a fashion degree but didn’t really enjoy the fashion industry, it’s quite a hard industry to be in. My friends from uni were all focused on what they wanted to do and I was just like “I’m just going to try this…”. What’s the harm in trying it? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You can always go and get a job somewhere.
When I told my friends I’m moving back to Manchester and setting up my own business they thought I was mad. But I feel like again, what’s the harm in trying? I’ll give it two years and if I haven’t made any money then that’s fine, I’ll just pack up and do something different. I think people find it very difficult to understand that you can just try something. You don’t have to have a strict plan, you can just wing it and see what happens.
What did you do after your degree?
I went to Winchester School of Art and from there I moved to Manchester for university. After that I worked as a Marketing Intern for quite a while. While I was in Australia I did a lot of visual merchandising and that was really lovely but it’s just such a hard industry.
I always wanted to be a fashion designer but by the time I’d finished my degree I actually couldn’t think of anything worse! While I was doing my final collection I just thought, I don’t know if this could be my life, because it’s so intense. I work really well under pressure but I felt like I can’t be around these kind of people. Everything has to be perfect and they are a little bit bitchy. I felt like I wasted my whole degree on something I’m not going to do. Obviously I’m now working with fabric so I’ve carried that over and actually all of my pattern cutting from uni has massively helped with the upholstery.
Are you a fan of the Great British Sewing Bee? I can’t get enough of it.
Yes I love it! My nan taught me to sew, she’s 91 and still lives at home. I have to ring her up on a Friday and give her a briefing because she falls asleep. I’ll say “What challenge did you get up to?” And she’ll say something like “I saw the pattern challenge at the beginning and then I must have fallen asleep because I woke up and they were doing something with bin bags.”
What made you start an upholstery business? Did you toy with any other ideas?
Not really. I moved back in with my mum and dad for a little bit and I wanted to find some nice furniture. I thought if I’m going to be staying around for a while I might as well invest in a couple of pieces. I couldn’t really find anything that I wanted and I found it quite frustrating. I thought it would be better if I could just make it myself.
Had you ever done it before?
No never. I found there was a course at the Ministry of Upholstery, literally just around the corner from here. I decided to try and do a footstool first and it came out really well! I really enjoyed it. The idea of being able to cover something in whatever you wanted, I felt like this has definitely opened up a door. So I decided to sign up to the business course where basically they give you all the traditional and modern upholstery skills that you’re going to need to be able to reupholster anything. That was about 12 weeks long but I did it full time and finished last summer.
I decided I needed somewhere to work from, I can’t work at home. It started really well, I had quite a few jobs on but I was literally on top of myself so it just wasn’t really working. In January I moved into this container which is twice the size. It’s quite cheap at £425, there’s no business rates and that includes all your electricity, you don’t have any other bills on top so that really helps with forecasting and making sure you’re not spending too much money.
What’s a typical job for you?
I’ve done some work with Makers Quarter, they do really cool bespoke kitchens and I’ve made some bench seating for them. I sell quite a lot of footstools because you can choose the fabric you want on them, the size, buttoned or not buttoned, completely custom. I sell on Vinterior, Etsy and I’ve just finished adding a shop to my website. I get 80 or 90 per cent of my work through Instagram though; people just drop me a message saying “I’ve got a footstool, can you recover it?”
So you sell furniture that’s both new and reclaimed?
Yeah. So the chair that you’re sat on (pictured above) that’s a new chair, where as this one’s an old frame; you have to strip it all the way back and then build it up with foam, springs and webbing.
What’s the typical price range?
The chair you’re sitting on is £850. Around £300 for a footstool.
Are you constantly hunting for bargains on eBay?
Yes! I’ve had to stop at the moment because I keep buying frames and only get half way through finishing them. I do hoard them, I’m really bad. My mum and dad’s garage has got a few as well.
If someone brings in a battered old armchair how long would it take to strip it down and reupholster it?
Stripping always takes longer than I would like. And sometimes you find really not nice things under there. I just did a sofa and found a whole packet of Maltesers and a teeth whitening card down the back of it. You find some really disgusting things. It could take from a couple of hours to a full day stripping and then usually I sand them down and revarnish them. Actually putting them together takes maybe a couple of days.
How do you feel the business is going since launch?
I was doing really well. January was actually a really good month, I think people had a bit of a clear out and then decided to buy some new furniture. I sold quite a few pieces, February was picking up as well and then obviously we went into lockdown. I had quite a lot of jobs on but a few of them have cancelled now and that’s completely fine, I understand. It had been really quiet but over the last four weeks I’ve had quite a lot of people get in touch again. I’ve just done a sofa, a couple of footstools and I have an ottoman coming in and two more footstools. I’ve got enough to keep me going but I’m definitely not expecting to be chocka at the moment with the way things are. If I’ve got a couple of jobs to tide me over, mainly just to keep me going mentally, I think that’s enough.
What’s the ambition?
I kind of like it being small scale. I like working at my own pace and if I want to take the afternoon off then I can just do that. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to be self employed. Ideally I would like to have some sort of soft furnishings online, bedding and things like that.
What advice would you give to others thinking about starting a business?
If you’re going to do it, then do it. Don’t hold back. And I always thought that everything had to be perfect, like posting perfect pictures on Instagram. But actually some of the posts that I don’t really like and are not quite perfect get the most traction. So just go for it.
For me personally, with lockdown I’ve realised how important it is for me to have a separate space to work in. Although I’m saving money every month by working from home, it’s so easy to faff around and procrastinate that paying for work space seems like money well spent.
I think having that divide is really important. I’m a workaholic, I will happily work for 19 or 20 hours per day. Even when I was working for other people. Although I say I’m open 09:00 til 18:00 Monday to Thursday and 09:00 til 15:00 on a Friday, I will be here pretty much until 21:00 at night. But I’ve slowly started to set myself actual hours and if it’s not done in that time, I’ll just do it tomorrow, it’s not the end of the world. My advice is, if it doesn’t happen today, it’ll happen tomorrow. Just make sure it does actually happen!
Jenna is currently taking on upholstery work and has recently launched her website where you can purchase chairs, footstools and cushions www.jennanicoledesigns.co.uk
Interview and images by Christian at Blossom.