Name: Jennifer Ambrose
Shop: The Makehouse
Address: 2950 Douglas Street (Douglas Centre), Victoria, BC
What is The Makehouse?
The Makehouse is not just a shop. It’s a place where magic and learning happens. We don’t just sell sewing supplies, we are mentors that can help with whatever stage you’re at on your sewing journey. Some people come in just for ideas, others need more hand-holding to plan their first project. We are also sewing cheerleaders. In case you don’t think you can do it — we know you can!
Can you tell us about your background? Have you been sewing for a long time?
I dabbled in sewing and building when I was a kid. I grew up in a home where my mom sewed everything and my dad made whatever we needed from wood (including 2 whole houses!). I didn’t sew much in high school (I was a bit of a ne’er-do-well), but I did come back to it at 21 when I really needed something to grab on to. That was exactly half my life ago, and I just never stopped!
Have you always wanted to run your own business? How did The Makehouse come about?
I wanted to be a vet when I was young — but I’m no good with gore so I had to give that up! I did start working as soon as I was legally able. I had a record amount of jobs by the time I was in my mid-twenties and by then, I knew all the things I did not want to do with my life but I did learn a LOT about people! Once I caught the sewing bug, it was all I could think about and all I wanted to do.
You spent some time in the UK. How did that inform how you created your business?
I started my first business (an eco-friendly fashion label) in the UK at age 25. I had so much to learn and everything always felt like it was on the line. Most of those 6 years, I was moonlighting to make ends meet, always thinking that next year would be better. I learned so much and I became very strong (though it didn’t always feel like that!). I eventually found ways of making my full-time living from sewing between my business, sewing children’s wear for a local shop and eventually teaching. I was lucky to get snapped up by The Makery (in Bath) during its early development and spent 18 months leading sewing workshops and parties. It was a fun and happy time, so when I made the tough decision to return to Canada after 13 years abroad, I promised myself that I would find a way back to that happiness. Fast forward 10 years and here we are!
If you had to describe your shop to someone who hasn’t seen it, how would you describe it?
The Makehouse is like its own little planet full of sewing machines, fabric, inspiration, love and laughs!
You not only sell fabric and notions but run classes as well — including a bra-making class, which we love. Can you tell us more about the classes you offer?
We have been offering sewing workshops in Victoria for over 8 years. When it was just me, I started with beginner sewing and one of my longtime favourite classes, Making Underwear! Now with a much bigger team, we offer everything from beginner sewing for adults and kids, to quiltingand garment making as well as swimwear and bras! We also have different guest instructors who help to diversify our workshops including Beeswax Wraps, Fabric Design, Improv Quilting and more.
We love your style. Can you tell us about your personal aesthetic?
Well, at the moment, it’s all about comfy natural knits. Covid-comfy but presentable for work! I like to wear layers because this island life requires them! I just cut a new coat out of my old favourite British coat that hasn’t fit me properly for years. It brings back fanciful memories, making me think that 2021 is going to be all about dressing up again! I love vintage and modern patterns — but my first love was vintage. I’ve been a clothes thrifter since age 14!
What or who inspires you?
I’m inspired by all the women entrepreneurs and changemakers who paved the way before me. Women have so much hussle and determination, it’s not even funny.
New styles, new trends, new products are happening all the time. How do you evaluate what is working and what isn’t? What guides you in your choices?
I am mostly guided by my instincts after years of working with so many different fabrics. It’s all about the feel and the handle. I was lucky enough to live abroad and develop an eclectic taste so I like to keep things interesting — we don’t want to get bored by our own fabrics! The sewing world truly lives through Instagram and I’ve found some amazing suppliers within that space alone. Most of these businesses are owned and operated by amazing women too.
We noticed you have eco-friendly cloth for sale. Can you talk to us about your environmental choices?
I have worked with eco-friendly fibres since early on in my sewing life, so adding them to the shop floor was a natural choice. We carry hemp, organic cotton, linen, Tencel, bamboo and merino wool in woven and knitted fabrics and our customers LOVE them! Vancouver Islanders on the whole care about the environment and many people are looking for alternatives to man-made materials, as they not only look and feel great, but their production is also much easier on the planet.
What are some of the hardest lessons you’ve had starting your business? How have you overcome them?
Whatever your budget, things generally cost more! I’ve always been frugal, but I’ve definitely learned to manage money better and become a more experienced buyer over the years. Also however long you think something will take, it will always take so much longer to achieve! You really have to believe in yourself but you also need to know when to listen.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to open up a business?
Be prepared to sacrifice a lot, but try to make it to those important family events (even if you’re too tired). Time can go by very fast and the start-up stage can also last longer than you think. Sometimes it means choosing not to do something that might be more fun [in exchange] for something that’s more meaningful. Easier said than done — and I’m still working on finding my balance. Once you’ve found great people to help you within your business, put trust in them so that you can be free when you need to be.
As we navigate our new reality, what advice would you give to your fellow business owners on what keeps you moving forward?
We all had to make a lot of quick decisions back in March when we had to close our doors to the public. Once I got over the initial shock, my response was what CAN we do instead of what can’t we do. When something big happens that’s beyond your control, you can find strength in ways you never imagined.
Have you made any hard decisions to get you through this difficult time? Can you share some of those decisions?
Initially I had to lay off 2 out of 3 employees and all contract artists, which did not feel good. In the end, we ended up employing 4 stitchers during the mass mask-making era. We could have kept that going, but honestly it was exhausting and repetitive, so one day Tanya and I looked at each other and were like: we need to stop making masks and get back to our core business. It was the best decision ever and we remodelled the whole shop before reopening in the summer and starting classes again on a small scale.
Anything else you would like to share?
If you want a best friend that will never let you down, that you can watch Netflix with, drink a glass of wine AND add to your wardrobe all at the same time, you need to get a sewing machine!