Textile artist Chrissie Menzies takes it all in her stride.
Running a solo business and co-directing another while being employed part-time and running an alpaca farm may seem like too much for any person’s plate, but textile artist Chrissie Menzies takes it all in her stride.
For Chrissie’s solo textile artistry business, Chrysalis Art-to-Wear, she designs and makes one-off handmade pieces, including scarves, stoles and cushions.
She works mainly with felt, spun from the wool of various sheep breeds and her own alpaca herd, often combined with hand-dyed silk and embroidery.
Inspired by the Welsh countryside.
Chrissie explains that the name Chrysalis came about “because something beautiful comes out of a chrysalis”.
It is also the name she chose for her alpaca herd.
She gets inspiration for her work from the Welsh countryside around her home and studio in Powys and has also designed pieces inspired by the work of Celtic Revival artist and former Liberty London designer Archibald Knox.
Chrissie is also co-director of Wonderwool Wales, an annual festival of artisan products made from wool and other natural fibres, held at the Royal Welsh showground in Builth Wells every April.
Starting a business alongside part-time work.
Chrissie built up both businesses part-time while working in administration and accounting, gradually reducing her employment hours as her businesses grew.
Starting a business while having the stable income of part-time employment is a strategy she would recommend to others wishing to start their own business but lacking the capital to start full-time.
Since her childhood, Chrissie has been interested in sewing and dressmaking and used to teach patchwork and quilting to adults.
She taught herself weaving and then signed up for a City and Guilds qualification in embroidery, which included a day learning felting. “I was hooked,” she says, “and gradually everything else went out of the window.”
Meanwhile, with her dairy farm manager husband, Chrissie also got into farming and started showing sheep at agricultural shows.
Given her love for beautiful fibers, she then started showing the fleeces and won several championships.
She eventually replaced her sheep with alpaca, starting with just two and building up to a herd of twenty-five.
“Alpaca wool is very soft,” she says. “It’s lovely and very nice to work with.”
She started selling her homemade crafts and garments at Christmas fairs and Chrysalis Art-to-Wear grew from there.
On starting the business seriously, she received support from Business Wales and Powys Country Council in the form of a business mentor and several one-day courses including marketing, setting up a business and writing a business plan.
She also received funding to buy equipment, including a felting machine and rolling machine.
A surprise commission.
She now has a client list including farmers’ wives who want something beautiful to wear for special occasions and exhibitors at Wonderwool Wales, in addition to an online shop.
Her biggest success, however – was a commission from award-winning novelist Frederick Forsyth, who wanted a gift for the new baby of a Russian family he had stayed with when researching one of his thrillers.
Chrissie’s story underpins the importance of getting your work known.
“I’d had an article in Alpaca World magazine and he [Forsyth] had seen it.”
He then commissioned Chrissie to make a baby blanket to certain specifications of thickness and size. “I didn’t even realise it was him at first. It was a bit of pressure but I got there.”
Expansion, challenges and solutions.
Wonderwool Wales was set up as an event in 2006 with support with GLASU funding via Powys County Council and a Leader+ grant from the European Union.
When funding ceased three years later, Chrissie and two others from the original steering group re-established it as a not-for-profit organisation, Wonderwool Wales Ltd, and it has gone from strength to strength since.
It began with forty exhibitors in its first year and now there are over two hundred.
Although there are no plans to expand Wonderwool Wales further, Chrissie has her sights on growing Chrysalis Art-to-Wear.
“I really want to try to get my work out there more, particularly in galleries.” Like one of her sources of inspiration, Archibald Knox, she also dreams of selling her work at Liberty and is considering attending their annual open call for designers.
There have been challenges, however, namely marketing and selling online.
“It’s very hard for people to buy textiles online without actually seeing them first because what you get is not necessarily as it looks [on screen].
It’s a lot about texture. People have this preconception that felt is stiff and heavy but people have made lovely comments about my work being very fine and floaty.
Once people know your work, everything is okay because they know the quality.”
She also says that when starting a business, it is essential to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses as quickly as possible. “Realise that you can’t do everything.”
She believes the best solution is to get help with your weaker areas – in her case marketing – to allow you more time to concentrate on your strengths.
Otherwise, her main advice for other women wanting to start up a business is, “Go for it. If you’re good at something, really, have a go.”