Starting out as a freelance textile designer

Graduates from each creative discipline leave college with questions about how to set themselves up in business or how to find a job. Some of these questions will be shared by those from other courses, while others will be unique to a particular discipline. In this interview, Sarah Angold (RCA graduate, Constructed Textiles, 2008) talks to Cassi Hill about self-employed life a year after her graduation from the Constructed Textiles MA course.

Sarah Angold: What do you do now?
Cassi Hill: I’m a freelance designer/artist. At the moment I'm developing various ideas, including the pipe-cleaner sculptures I began at the RCA for bespoke lighting and chandeliers. I'm also running a series of 25 Art of Recycling workshops for the City of London Festival.

Is it what you envisaged when you left the RCA?
Yes, I wanted to do my own thing so I went for it.

What was your experience of college?
Intense. Busy. Really collaborative – that was the best part.

Had you had experience of working for someone else before setting up on your own?
No, but ideally I would have liked a part-time teaching post – I still would. Some regular income would be a welcome security.

Did you ever write a business plan or did things just unfold?
I’ve never written a business plan, I just took all the projects that came my way. There wasn't really time for that kind of planning. But I should have one now. It would make applying for funding more straightforward. Now that the initial graduation wave of interest has passed, I've got time to think. For me, it's not as though I have a single product or service to sell – when I graduated I just had a load of materials and colours! I wasn't far enough along to structure a proper plan.

Did you need to find a gallery?
No. Maybe I'll set up my own gallery show in the future. But is my work really for a gallery? Maybe it's more for a shop or window display, or a home?

How has creating work within the commercial world differed from being in college?
Actually, not very much. I've been lucky that people want exactly what I do. I sold a piece from my graduation show to a shop in Hong Kong, and then had an 11-window display commission for Harvey Nichols. I undertook a hat design project with House of Flora too.

Would you want to work for someone else?
I wouldn’t rule it out for the future, but not at the moment. I prefer working collaboratively on one-off projects. I'd make exceptions for Thomas Heatherwick and Anish Kapoor though!

Can you live on the income from your art?
No, not yet.

How do you supplement it?
I cover the shortfall with odd temporary jobs and by running workshops in London schools. I also have very understanding parents and a supportive boyfriend! I'm getting there, but it's hard. Maybe I'll be serving you in Starbucks next year!

What is a typical working day?
I guess I spend about three days a week writing workshop proposals and applying for competitions, teaching jobs and funding (from the Arts Council and Crafts Council, for example). Then I spend the rest of the week making, and admin takes up a day. But I don’t separate it up, it’s all mixed in together.

How do you find the balance between producing work and managing the process of getting it out there?
I’m still in the early stages of establishing myself – I just take it as it comes, say yes as much as possible, and do everything I can. I'm learning as I go.

What kind of marketing did you do at the beginning?
I had business cards and a good website. I approached people with those and with my portfolio. You have to have confidence and talk to everyone you possibly can. You never know when a social situation will turn into networking.

What kind of marketing do you do now?
Exhibiting at well-known shows is a great way to make contacts. It’s a chance to meet companies that still have money to spend, even in this economic climate. It is expensive, but I will do whatever it takes to do three shows this year – 100% Design is a must, and I might be able to get some funding for that. The Milan Furniture Fair is pricey, but I'm going to share a stand to save money. It’s also much less of a drag having someone else there.

What does networking mean to you?
Building contacts, keeping in touch with course mates, and exhibiting.

What do you like about working for yourself?
The freedom to work with my own ideas.

What do you not like about working for yourself?
Uncertainty and financial worries. At times it can be hard to be disciplined and motivated when things aren't really moving much.

What were your peers’ attitudes to ‘business’?
That it is a necessary evil. A lot of creative people really struggle with the business side of things, but it is so vital. Take Cath Kidston – she has a handful of basic designs and look what she's made of them. It’s all about marketing. You should go to all the classes and lectures and workshops and seminars that you can find. A handful of people make it through sheer persistence.

What was your peer group like?
Fantastic. Understanding and supportive – we were all in the same boat.

Did you provide support for each other in finding work?
Yes, we help each other out. If anything comes up that would be of interest to a friend I pass it on – we're still in close touch.

Do you feel you made any mistakes along the way?
I still consider myself a designer who is just starting out and mistakes are a part of that process. Perhaps I could have been more persistent at times, but I guess you can always say that. You can't hang on to what hasn't worked out.

What areas of your business would you appreciate more support with?
This is a question for next year – I'm only just beginning to establish myself properly. Some free money would always come in handy though!

What advice would you give to people wanting to follow the path you've followed?
Apply for everything! You never know who you'll meet or what will come from an opportunity that didn’t even seem that great at first.

What is the best advice you've been given?
Do what you really want to do.

Why have you been successful?
I believe in my work and my ideas. It’s hard to find self-confidence at times, but if I'd wanted an easy ride I wouldn’t have become a designer. I’ve got to give this a go and see where it takes me. It is a struggle, but I can’t think of anything I'd rather do, and that's the bottom line.