Creativity Found

Susan Widlake – graduate in Russian and Bulgarian, IT and pharmaceutical auditor turned milliner

September 19, 2021 Susan Widlake Season 3 Episode 2
Creativity Found
Susan Widlake – graduate in Russian and Bulgarian, IT and pharmaceutical auditor turned milliner
Show Notes Transcript

Susan Widlake studied Russian and Bulgarian at university. After that she turned to accountancy, even though she ‘didn’t really like maths that much’.   She travelled a lot for her work in the finance and pharmaceutical industries, but at the weekends she would enjoy sewing projects, and even had a little travelling craft box to dip into on train journeys.
Susan is settled in the UK now, and has opened her own millinery studio, creating hat designs inspired by her travels, with names to match.

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Artworks: Emily Portnoi emilyportnoi.co.uk

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Claire Waite Brown:

For this episode, I'm speaking with Susan wood like, former it auditor and world traveller turned Milena. Hi, Susan, how are you? Hi, Claire, lovely to see you again. Thank you and you. Over the past few years, you have turned something you love into a creative business. What is it you do now?

Unknown:

So I've gone from hardware in IT to now being a milliner. So it's hardware to he dwear. And I now make hats fo events, occasions, pe formances, and I'm starting do ng workshops too.

Claire Waite Brown:

That's so exciting. Can't wait to find out more. Let's go back to the early days. Did you have a creative childhood?

Unknown:

I was really fortunate I had a close relationship with my all my grandparents. And as I was thinking what happened I realised that one grant taught me need work. Another one taught me knitting. My grandfather actually taught me how to make paper flowers. And then there was my other grandfather who taught woodwork. So really from my grandparents. My parents were really academic one was a math teacher, one was a physics teacher. So I think the creativity came from the previous generation. Yeah.

Claire Waite Brown:

And how did that play out in education,

Unknown:

I went to a very, very academic school. And I was actually interested in looking at food technology, because I came into doing cake decorating as part of one of the school competitions and absolutely loved it. But there was a lot of pressure on me to do something academic. So I went and did modern languages, as wonders. So not not the sciences, I was definitely more an arts sort of person.

Claire Waite Brown:

What did you do after school?

Unknown:

Well, I went to university and I actually studied Russian and Bulgarian. So just a little bit out of the ordinary, and spent a year in Russia during the time that the Berlin Wall was coming down. So it was an absolutely amazing time from a historical perspective to be there. But also one in terms of getting your creativity working things like you couldn't buy clothes, but you could actually get fabric. So started making some really basic clothes out there. And just being creative with whatever ingredients you could find in the shops, because we actually still had sort of Russian books and so on. So yeah, really challenged the imagination.

Claire Waite Brown:

That's amazing. Tell me first of all, why Russian?

Unknown:

I mentioned my grandparents earlier, they used to go every year to Russia on holiday, because my grandfather was a counsellor in London, and they were doing a twinning. So my Gran thought she would learn some Russian. So she got offer visiting dignitaries, cups of tea. And so from that moment on, she would then be speaking Russian. One year, my grandfather was ill. So my Gran took me with her, and I must have been about 13 or so. And I was just absolutely captivated and thought, yes, I want to learn this. So that's why I went and did Russian.

Claire Waite Brown:

Wow, that's brilliant. Tell me a bit more about that year in Russia. I know you've told me you had to queue for food and things.

Unknown:

Yeah. It was actually the the year that the McDonald's opened in Moscow. And I was in a place called Ronnie edge, which was about 12 hours by train from Moscow and a group of us managed to get special visas to go up to Moscow, got off the overnight train and went and queued for McDonald's for our breakfast. And I have to say, it's probably the first and last time I've ever eaten McDonald's. And then we took back hot apple pies for our Russian roommates. And we're very proud and gave them to them saying this is Western civilization Have a taste of this. And after 12 hours in a rucksack and being cold, they weren't that impressed. But no, it was an amazing time. And we had very restrictive visas, but the university organised certain trips for us to go on. So we were able to go and see several of the different former Soviet republics as they were then. So was Becky Stan, Estonia, Georgia, and just travel route. And that was amazing. The highlight I think, was going on the Trans Siberian Express.

Claire Waite Brown:

I bet after your degree, you chose to study accounting. Why did you choose that path? Yeah.

Unknown:

I know, I shouldn't have done really, but it was at the point is the east and the west were opening up and Margaret Thatcher was in charge. And she was saying about how they wanted accountants and they were trained training accountants to speak Russian. And I thought, well, I can speak Russian, or train as an accountant. Except I really didn't like maths that much. So not a great move, but I loved it. So I moved more than into the IT side of the financial thing, because I found, so the programming and so on, you're able to relate to languages and how structures work together. And that it was it's really bizarre thing, but some of the best it people I know have got, you know, really good linguistic backgrounds,

Claire Waite Brown:

I can imagine. So while you're travelling through the world of it, are you able to keep up with the skills that you learned from your grandparents? Are you able to do any of that in your spare time,

Unknown:

it was quite strange. I remember now going back that I would always make cakes. So if there were special events or whatever, I would make a cake for it. There was a gentleman who was retiring, and I made him an allotment cake. And there was another person who supported Northridge who was leaving. So I made him one with a yellow Canary on it. So I was doing cakes. And then also I joined Capital One when they started in the UK, in Nottingham, the credit card company. They were US based and they had a very performance sort of culture at the end of year that each team would have to put on a little bit of entertainment. So I ended up making costumes for IT administrators so they could dress up like the pink ladies in Greece. So it was just, you know, fun like that. So I think it just sort of kept me going that way. And yeah, definitely outside work. I would be going around to fabric shops, open studios and just doing things practically.

Claire Waite Brown:

And you were travelling a lot as well. Were you able to keep it up while travelling

Unknown:

by changed jobs from Capital One and moved into the pharmaceutical industry as an auditor, and was basically travelling as an auditor, for a week, two weeks, three weeks at a time. So later on in my career when when I would actually be three weeks in a particular country or place. I would try and incorporate things into the weekend. So I would spend one day just exploring fabric shops in Barcelona or I managed to get lost in the middle of Shanghai trying to find ribbon Street, but I found it and got some ribbon. So yes, I was able to sort of incorporate that and travel. In my suitcase, I'd have a little lunchbox, which I would pack sort of a sewing kit and ribbon and things like that.

Claire Waite Brown:

Good for you. Little travelling craft. Excellent. So how did you start making hats because that's obviously a bit more of a specific discipline.

Unknown:

It actually came purely by chance. I loved going to the Victorian Albert Museum. And I used to work over the other side of London in sort of towards Richmond way and was living in Cambridge. So sometimes I would sort of D On a Friday night when they were open, late, go to the museum before struggling through the rush hour. So one day, I actually went along to a taster course that they were running in conjunction with the Steven Jones hat exhibition in 2009. And basically, as soon as I started, I was just hooked. And I realised it sort of combined the sewing skills I'd got. And also things like the sugar, flour making, and then I even remembered paper flower making with my grandfather. And it sort of combined, all the things that I liked into something that I love to wear, and more importantly, was definitely portable to fit in a suitcase. So I just got hooked. And from that moment on, started taking courses or weekends, I'd even take Holidays from work and go travelling and study new skills. And from that point, it definitely became an obsession.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. At this stage, then you're busy with work and you're making hats in your spare time. Did you feel you had enough of a balance between creativity and career and everyday life?

Unknown:

No, I actually found it quite difficult. As I said, I would be away for sort of three weeks at a time. And it could be quite, quite lonely as well being sort of the only female in the team of males to no one else wants to go fabric shopping. But I wanted to do bigger things. So there's a limit to what you can fit in the suitcase. You can't fit huge hat blocks. So I was making sort of small trims and, and so on. And it really was every weekend, I was living in Switzerland at the time, I would be going off just hopping over the border to France and Germany and seeing what I could pick up and I got an amazing deal in a flea market in Germany with a man who sold me one of these wooden hat moulds and he told me it was a doorstop. And I thought, No, that's definitely for making a hat. So it was interesting that the hat making isn't as popular and as widespread. So I actually got some absolutely brilliant bargains. And Switzerland's expensive buy actually found some hot stuff, which was cheaper than a chicken sandwich. So I did really well there.

Claire Waite Brown:

So your language skills are coming into use here then

Unknown:

sometimes, but I didn't really speak French and I walked away once from a store when the gentleman told me the price and I was trying to work out the numbers and then he called something off to me and I thought I understand that number. Yes, I'll have it that's a really good I think I've realised it could potentially be more than a hobby. There were two occasions once I'm a big rugby fan. So several of my hats have got red roses, and are named after Twickenham, and Richmond and, and so on. But I was actually going to the Rugby World Cup when it was in the UK. And wearing one of my cloth hats that I've made myself a little bit different. But I have three different people of very different demographics and ages saying, Where did you get that hat? It's wonderful. So when I said, Oh, I made it, they said, Could you make me one? And it was all Well, I've never thought of doing that before? No. So put it on the back burner until Okay, well, I used to make them then for friends, you know, presence and so on. But okay, so I went out to Switzerland. And one day I was sitting on the tram. And I was wearing this very small sort of 1940s style pircher. And I think the lady said to me, I really like your hat. Where did you get it? And I think I said to her, I made it myself. And that's what made me think are people really do like them? So I took big decision, end of 2018 and I thought okay, if I don't do it now, I never will have come back to the UK and start following the millenary dream.

Claire Waite Brown:

That sounds super exciting, possibly a little bit scary. How did you physically go about making millenary your business?

Unknown:

Well, it was daunting. I'd been used to dealing with big corporates and now doing things on a very small scale on yourself. I just thought how do I do it? So I knew the theory but how to do it in practice and I was really fortunate to find the British Library have a Small Business Centre called the business and intellectual property centre and I went down to London and they had A free workshop for a day about how to get started in your own creative business. And that was one of the very first things I did at the beginning of 2019. And I was going through that checklist. And I thought, yes, I've actually then managed to follow those steps. One of the biggest things for me was, as an auditor, you always used to wanting everything to be perfect. You're looking for the problems and the errors. And actually getting something out there. When I wasn't 100% sure whether that was quite the right font, or whether it was quite the right design, that was a big change. So doing more testing, dipping your toe in, and if it doesn't work, then moving to something else. That was probably the most challenging thing I found. I went and set up at various different local fairs. So say craft fairs and wedding fairs, did a few talks. And that was just working out exactly where the right places were and what were the right groups to join. So there were a couple of networking groups. And that was really helpful in finding other women who were doing similar things as in running businesses on their own. Because I've been working in such a male environment for 20 odd years. It was nice to actually talk to women for a change and having their input as opposed to something Oh, yeah, you're wearing a hat. So yeah, that was very, very good. And I also discovered, I mean, sort of the Cambridge sheer Essex, Suffolk borders. And in Sudbury in Suffolk, they're still some of the UK, silk weavers. And I discovered them and went to their actual factories and their shops, and just saw this is a local material. And it's absolutely beautiful. Why ar n't other milliners using it, s it's a little bit of a hidde secret, but it's also I' guessing what is my uniqu selling point. So I've taken th local silk and have bee developing a range in that wit starting with very basi headbands. So if you just wan to wear something a bi prettier, and it's not to expensive, you start with headband, then going on to mor smaller hats, which are, yo know, slightly more elegant tha you'd wear, perhaps for wedding or something. And then real big statement piece i multi colours, which i definitely one for the races fo someone who wants to stand out So I've really developed sort o this local usage, and I get m wire just down the road, i Essex, too. So it's definitel inspired by my global travels So the huge hats calle Barcelona, because it's a rio of colours after goudy. But it' created locally here

Claire Waite Brown:

I love sharing my guests stories with you, podcasting isn't cheap. There are hosting fees and software costs, tech to buy and time to invest in planning and editing. To make sure the guests sound great. And listeners hear the best content. If you would like to financially support creativity found, please visit kayo hyphen, f fi.com slash creativity found podcast. You've mentioned Barcelona, and you have hats named after other places you're inspired by your travels. Can you tell me a bit more about that inspiration,

Unknown:

it can be a little thing. I have something that is based on a staircase, a spiral staircase that I saw in Riga, and I just saw the shape and I thought, Oh, that's a nice shape or take a photo of that. I saw a sculpture in Melbourne, which was sort of a bit jacket and origami looking. So I've used that in a piece as well. And when when I actually went to Sydney and saw the Sydney Opera House right up close, and realised it's all tiny little mosaic tiles. I've got a hat which is sort of like origami and ribbon folding, which is called Sydney because it's so wave shape and it's blue in the harbour. And yet sometimes the names come really quickly. Or sometimes I'll make something think Oh, that reminds me of when I was impacts us and the sea urchins and, and so on. So it's it's definitely places and buildings that I've visited.

Claire Waite Brown:

That sounds really lovely. And so relevant to your story so far with the languages and the travel that you've done. Such a good combination. Yeah. Tell me about your face masks.

Unknown:

Oh gosh. Well, I have to say 2020 wasn't a great year to be a milliner. Especially when you just finished 2019 and you'd got your fares sorted out where you're going to be doing, you're demonstrating where you're going, and it was hard. Like, most people, I think the first few weeks of lockdown, I was just gobsmacked What's happening here? So I initially started sewing, you know, the scrubs bags and the scrubs and then started making masks for friends and family then was just getting asked, Well, can I buy them from you? And I thought, Oh, no, I'm not making them to buy and then some saying yes, you can't make cats why not make masks? So I started making masks and just continued on, you know, social media and putting messages out there that this is what I was doing now and saw some fabric with crocus's on it and I live near saffron Walden. So saffron and crocus's, made some with crocus's on them, went into the local tourist information and said to them, thank you so much for re tweeting me. And they said Oh, can we buy some and stock them in here? It was. Oh, okay. So I started making crocus masks for tourist information. A local gallery who'd been stocking my headband said we're in finchingfield. We've got a windmill, can we have some windmills, so I did windmills for them. And then moved into working with a local theatre group in doing sequin masks. And it was really the sequin masks which totally turned my year round. I'd got some people testing them for me saying where they comfortable where they washable? Could they breathe Okay, from from them. And during that sort of testing phase, a couple of them got in touch saying we've been stopped at the school gates by people saying, Where did you get your sequence from? And I actually had a waiting list before I even finished sewing them. I thought, wow. Someone I didn't know, saw them on Instagram and said, Can I have one? I'm going to London. Can you get me one by Friday. So I delivered it to her in her hairdressers. She sent me along the road to her friend who owned a boutique went in there. And they said, Can we stop them? Can we have 60 and it was ah. So yes, they then sent them down for a peel pitch. And they ended up on Lorraine on the television. And I didn't stop sewing for three months, I think I was still sewing sequins on not Christmas Day, I think I had Christmas day off. But then there were a few people who wanted them for New Year. So I, I started sewing sequin masks, but the contact from that. And the revenue I made enabled me to then take a specific military business course at the beginning of January of this year. And that's helped me be a lot more structured and professional, I think in the way that I'm approaching the business. Now,

Claire Waite Brown:

speaking of professional, this is something I asked a lot of my guests who have creative businesses, and that's whether you managed to balance the business side of things with the joy of creating.

Unknown:

It's tricky, I have to say. So for the first few months of the year, I was really concentrating on the business and the admin side. So getting things in place and getting a website up and running and starting blogging and starting putting procedures in place. And actually, dare I say, revisiting some of my old business skills in terms of sort of project planning and spreadsheets. But it's really helped in terms of the business course has helped in the pricing element. So saying, think about how many days you're going to be creative and think about how many days you're going to do the admin, in fact, to the costs over both and that's been a real revelation. So I tried to be disciplined and do social media planning up front and then I know all I've got playtime to do sewing is tricky, but I wouldn't go back to doing it audit.

Claire Waite Brown:

That's good to hear. You make your own creations. Do you do commissions for other people?

Unknown:

Yes, it's it's lovely. And now having got the website up. I'm really pleasantly surprised about how people will call me up and say I've seen your work. I'm local ish. Can you make me a hat for a wedding? So literally yesterday I had a phone call from a lady who was in Devon, but she's coming up to this area. And so we had a, you know, consultation over the telephone and she was holding up pictures of her dresses. And I was then running and getting hats and showing them to her. And so hopefully we're going to be working on something in face to face in real life. But yes, I love doing Commission's to actually make people feel good because if you feel good, it sort of comes out from your personality. So yeah, it's not about just looking good. It's how it makes you feel to.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, it gives you the confidence and extra verb to enjoy yourself and really get into the event. That's fabulous. Talking about making people feel good. I understand you also share your skills so others can have a go at your craft. Tell me more about that enterprise?

Unknown:

Oh, yes. So this was something that again, really came from lockdown. I think we'd missed having other adult company and chatting and getting dressed up. So one of the things that I really wanted to do with sort of spread the love of hats, and no, you can't wear a hat every day, though, I usually do. But wanting to do something community based too. So over lockdown, I've so appreciated local food suppliers and local businesses and so on. So I'm looking to do something called fattened 80s, where you will learn to make a fascinator. And then where it was to have tea and cake. I mean, it just seems to fit. And I have to thank I've joined up with a scheme called the mercury creative scheme, which is run out of the Mercury Theatre in in Colchester. And I have an absolutely amazing mentor, Antony Stuart Hicks, who's actually there, pantomime Dame. And I have to say thank you to him for the fascinating because I was talking through the idea with him and he just went, that's fascinating ease. So copyright Antony, that's absolutely brilliant. So, yes, I'm now looking at venues. And I said, I'm working hopefully with a lady who I found the most delicious cinnamon buns from during lockdown. And we will be then doing tea and cake and fascinators in around the local area. Oh,

Claire Waite Brown:

what great found there's nothing better than T and K. I know. Other than that, do you have plans for the future near or far?

Unknown:

I've mentioned the Mercury Theatre, it's taken me into a totally different world. So sort of the performance side. And I got into it really, because of the work that I'd done with the local theatre group and the shisha experience. And then also, I'd been singing with rock choir, all the way through lockdowns. And each week, I would wear a different hat. So it sort of got me into performance wear. So in September, I'm actually going to be starting a theatrical millenary class in London, going and learning about that, because it's so different. Realising that you have to have something that is light stays on your head, and looks good from a distance, as opposed to, you know, cut your wedding hat, so, but it's still hats, and combined singing and dancing and things like that. So I love it. Another big thing that I'm going to be doing is, I'm going to be doing Cambridge open studios for the very first time. It's my first year in open studios, but they managed to find out I had a background in corporate governance. So I'm going to be joining the team to help them with governance and going to be the company secretary, which is really strange, because I used to audit company secretaries and now we'll be on the other side. But yeah, so looking forward to getting into that and actually combining some of my old job, new job.

Claire Waite Brown:

There are many, many podcasts out there, it's difficult to know where to start. So I like to ask my guests for their recommendations. You're welcome.

Unknown:

I'd love to recommend the Mercury Theatre, Mercury creatives, podcasts, which still in the middle of being edited at the moment. So they're not yet there yet, but they will be. And the other podcast that I listened to, as I say, is the conversations of inspiration with with Holly Tucker, and she talks to various different creative entrepreneurs about their journey. And it's absolutely fascinating and a real mix of people and one of my local heroes If you can say that is Julie Dean from the Cambridge satchel company, and so she was interviewed by Holly about how she'd started up from her garriage in Cambridge sort of thing. So, yeah, it's Yeah, it's, it's great.

Claire Waite Brown:

Thank you. That sounds right up my street. How can people connect with you?

Unknown:

Well, I'm called middle house millenary because my hat studio actually started in a windmill. So I'm mill house millenary.co.uk and mail house millenary on all the different social channels, so Instagram, Facebook, business, and Twitter. Just last word is Mh millenary.

Claire Waite Brown:

Thank you, Susan. It's been so lovely to speak with you today and find out all about your story. Laughter creativity found isn't openstage Arts production. If you're listening on Apple podcasts, please subscribe, rate and review. If you would like to contribute to future episodes, visit k o hyphen f fi.com. Slash creativity found podcast. If you contact any of the artists featured sign up to their workshops, or buy their products don't forget to mention creativity found podcast on Instagram or Facebook. Follow at creativity found podcast where you'll find photos of our contributors artwork and be kept abreast of everything. We're up to