There are so many awesome independent business around. So much talent and creativity. So, I thought I’d find out more about the people behind the business and throw some support their way in our Meet the Maker series. Today, we Meet the Maker: Imogen’s Imagination.
Who are you?
Hi! I’m Sophie Cooke, an adopted Sheffielder. I’ve lived in Sheffield for pretty much the whole of my adult life, if we ignore the three years after Uni (when I had to go back to my home town of Stafford because I didn’t have a job, any money, or anywhere to live!). Whilst being back home, I spent that time plotting how to get back to Sheffield!
What do you do?
I’m a milliner based at Exchange Place Studios in Sheffield City Centre. This is where I make, design and sell hats, fascinators and hair accessories.
Using traditional techniques, namely wooden hat blocks, steam and a mixture of hand and machine sewing, I create unique designs for all occasions. Throughout the year, I work with a variety of materials such as felt, straw and silk in my pieces. The fabrics are chosen both to suit the seasons and the needs of my clients.
I sell a range of ready to wear designs via my own website and Etsy. I also offer a bespoke service to clients too. In addition, I offer a re-trimming service. Perhaps you already have a hat that just needs a little lift, or a slight tweak, to make it work better with a new outfit? In which case, this option can be a great way to breathe new life into a favourite hat and make it more versatile.
As hat worthy occasions can be rather seasonal, I also offer a range of affordable hair accessories and every day berets throughout the year. Not only do I sell these at local events such as craft and vintage fairs, I sell these online. Approximately a third of my orders are international. I have to admit to always having a wry smile when I send pink parcels of berets to France!
How did your business get started and how was your brand born?
It was a happy accident! I never intended to have a business making hats. In fact if you had told me 12 years ago that that’s what I would be doing, I would have laughed!
It was at this time I started going to burlesque nights with friends. Naturally, we would all dress up for the shows. I used the sewing skills taught to me by my mum and grandma, to decorate pre-made mini top hats for myself and friends to wear. One night, I was approached by the lady who ran the night, as well as a boutique in The Forum, to see if I would stock her shop…I said yes!
At the time, I was working as a Crime Intelligence Analyst for South Yorkshire Police so I just thought of it as a hobby to scratch my creative itches. I have always enjoyed “making stuff” and it was exciting to know that other people thought my makes were worth paying money for!
Armed with this new confidence, I then started selling my work at local vintage fairs. Shortly after this, I started selling via online market places. Soon I had taken over the entire spare room and dining room with my stock, supplies and making kit!
How did you develop your millinery skills?
Between 2008 and 2013 I attended evening classes at Leeds College of Art and Design to learn how to make “proper” hats. I needed, and wanted, to develop my skills from simply decoration, to start from scratch creation! These 5 years were invaluable to developing my skills. However, it was really hard work schlepping to Leeds on the train 30 weeks of the year, working full time and running a growing business in my “spare” time.
In 2013, I was offered the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy and I bit their hands off! It was a no brainer and the best low risk chance I had of testing whether I could run the business full time. I knew I would have to support myself with a part time job, but part time was far more attractive than full time!
The year after I moved into Exchange Place Studios and I have never looked back. I also got my home back as the house emptied! Being part of this creative community has brought opportunities that would have been unthinkable whilst I was still based at home.
How did you chose the name Imogen’s Imagination?
I chose the name Imogen’s Imagination because, due to my full time work, I didn’t want the label to be directly attributable to me. I’d never met a nasty Imogen (we all associate names with personalities!) and I liked the alliteration, so Imogen was born.
I’d say that 80% of the correspondence I receive is addressed to Imogen, so I guess the name has stuck. I do now answer to both, it’s way easier! “Imogen” has also morphed into my alter ego for when I have to do brave stuff. Sophie is a big ol’ scaredy cat with a significant imposter complex, Imogen is the gobby one who says “Just get on with it woman!”.
What inspires your work?
All sorts of things. I make hats with vintage roots, yet with a contemporary twist. I find my ideas in through the techniques and materials I want to use. Also, I am a serious Pinterest hoarder and follow several historical costume social media accounts.
However, a good studio tidy up can be incredibly inspirational. Not only do I (regularly, more than I should!) find things I have tidied away and forgotten about, but the mental space a good tidy up creates, frees up the creative juices and gets them flowing. It also does wonders for motivation levels!
What was the first thing you sold?
I remember my very first sale at my very first vintage fair in 2008…it was my most expensive item! I should add, I didn’t sell anything else that day! It was a mini top hat totally encrusted with Swarovski crystals, each one glued by hand. It was a proper showstopper piece. I met the lady a few years later at a burlesque night and we have remained friends since!
During a long day of bossing it, what are your snacks of choice?
I always have a stash of studio snacks! The one thing I’ve learnt is that whatever time I think I’m going to leave the studio, I can usually add an hour on without even trying! There’s always a last ‘I’ll just…’ job and so I always need a little snack to get me onto the tram home. At the mo, I’ve got salt and vinegar rice crackers on the go, but I also have them in sweet chilli and cheese & chive flavour. I promise they are tastier than they perhaps sound!
What has been your proudest moments so far?
Oooh, that’s a tough one. 2016 was an amazing year of firsts for me as I was invited to do loads of seriously exciting things as part of the year-long Year of Making celebrations. I gave two talks about my business, one in the Spiegeltent, one at the Crucible Theatre. I also took part in two exhibitions where I showed hats that had been specifically created for the events, including one at Millennium Galleries. My work was also featured on two front covers of HatTalk magazine that year. Definitely a good year!
However, I think the achievements that have made me proudest overall, have been my collaborations with others. These have been experiences which have brought mutual benefits to every participant. Being able to facilitate and foster those relationships, which have helped everyone involved in the long term too, not just for a fleeting moment.
What collaborations have you been involved with?
I’m a founding member of The Hat Stand collective, which brought Sheffield city centre its first dedicated hat shop in a generation. Between 2014-2017, I worked with two other local milliners to put on an annual pop up shop in the Winter Garden. We had a huge supporting cast who helped us put on linked events and organise photoshoots as part of these projects.
Also, I am a team leader for the Sheffield Sellers on Etsy team. This is an online and support network for Sheffield-based makers and vintage sellers who sell via Etsy. This year I have been privileged to represent Sheffield at both the UK and European Team Captains Summits in London and Warsaw, Poland. As a team leader, I have also been part of the organising team for our annual Etsy Made Local Christmas market. This is an amazing showcase of local sellers which has grown in size over the last 4 years. Sheffield is one of the largest of the 50 odd events that happen nationwide over the first weekend of December.
Working alone in my studio, these collaborations have helped provide me with a brilliant creative network. It’s always such a pleasure to see my compatriots grow, develop and succeed through our efforts together, and it’s super useful to be able to have people around you who just “get it” when you need to have a whinge!
Sharing is caring, tell us about another independent business you can’t get enough of right now?
Jayne at Maxwell Harrison Jewellery. Jayne makes the most elegant and wearable silver jewellery. Her range is accompanied by ingenious concrete display and storage pieces. I also have to say nice things about Jayne because she is a fellow team leader at Sheffield Sellers on Etsy. Jayne will be my stall neighbour during the Etsy Made Local weekend!!!
I’m being flippant about this because Jayne will get all embarrassed if I tell her how much I admire her ethos, work ethic, design work and skills. I truly admire her an awful lot and she doesn’t realise what an inspiration she is with regard to the way she plans and runs her business. If I didn’t like her so much, it would be easy to be jealous!
Where can we find you?
In person: Etsy Made Local – Sheffield 2018 (1st & 2nd December 2018)
In person: Artistry Christmas Market (Leeds, 8th & 9th December 2018)
What are your plans for the future?
Not to lose my house! This has always been my over-riding fear since leaving full time employment. Five years in though, I’m still on track with the mortgage. Phew!
I have a number of design ranges that I will be working on in early 2019 with the ultimate goal of growing my business. Currently I only have one stockist, Miss Samantha’s Vintage in Walkley and I would like to develop and explore the opportunities this could offer my business.
We previously met Laura from LIFE is better in COLOUR, you can read all about it here.