MY COUNTRY BUSINESS
Card and Advent calendar designer, Sally Swannell
It’s the most magical time of the year for advent calendar designer Sally Swannell
‘My mother always made christmas so magical,’ says illustrator sally swannell. ‘my childhood was full of fantastic family christmases. my mum was always cooking or making something, and memories of it make me glow. i love to create Advent calendars – i always made them as a child, then i started making them for my son after he was born, and i even still make one for myself every year. For me, christmas is all about reliving my childhood!’
sally spent a lot of her youth drawing, painting and crafting, and at school she spent as much time as she could in the art room. Later, she left home for art college in bournemouth where she studied natural History illustration. ‘it piqued my interest because of the flora and fauna element,’ she says. ‘it was a fantastic course.’
but once sally left college, she found it difficult to find work as a full-time illustrator as, at the time, most companies were using freelance illustrators rather than hiring permanent members of staff. so for a while sally’s ambitions to become a professional illustrator were put on hold, and instead, she made the decision to move to London where she worked as a media buyer and planner in radio and magazines.
then, after becoming pregnant with her son toby, now 21, she left her job behind and returned to her native county of Wiltshire.
‘it was the natural thing for me to do as it was where my parents were,’ she says.
While toby was napping, sally started to make portraits and small pieces of work, and once toby started school, she decided to try and take on more illustration work. in 2002 she sent one of her designs to Phoenix trading, which they liked, so sally started doing more work for them, including lots of christmas designs. From here, her popularity grew as she became known for her whimsical, often country-inspired designs, with a christmas house design that she created in 2005 being her bestseller.
sally eventually decided to start her own business in 2010 as she wanted more creative freedom. ‘it was an exciting prospect,’ she says. ‘i could work in different directions.’ she took some samples of cards, tablemats and canvases to the spring Fair at the
What I love most about the business... ‘I love being able to create Images that may put a smile on someone’s face, particularly when designing for christmas, which Is my favourite time of year’
NEC. ‘It all spiralled from there,’ she says. When she went to the Harrogate Home & Gift Buyers’ Festival the following July, things really took off. ‘I realised that was my show,’ she says. ‘It was amazing. I took 35 orders, and for me, at that time, that was fantastic. I came home reeling. I did the Harrogate show five years in a row after that.’
Sally then enlisted the help of Cathy Conway who supports small independent greeting card and gift companies, assisting in building their customer base. ‘Cathy had seen my cards in an outlet and loved them, so she tracked me down and was invaluable for increasing my trade accounts.’
Sally also continued to exhibit at shows such as the Spirit of Christmas Fair, the Mary Howard Christmas Fair, Country
Homes & Interiors Christmas and Top Drawer. ‘At one point, I was selling into 150 outlets, mainly small independents. It was fantastic in terms of sales, but managing the production and print runs was a challenge,’ she says. ‘I also got involved with the RHS and designed Christmas cards for them two years running in 2014 and 2015.’
As a result of the business’s growth, Sally started to find she had less and less time at the drawing board and was struggling to keep releasing new designs at the beginning of the season each January. Thankfully, she was soon approached by Wrendale Designs, who took over managing the trade side, so Sally could focus on the creative.
‘My creativity keeps me enthusiastic,’ she says. ‘I did really love meeting customers at trade shows but the production, warehousing and stock control had become a full-time job. I do still handle the retail side of the business, but thanks to Wrendale Designs’ involvement, I can now produce a much higher quantity of designs.’
Working for herself had the added benefit that she was at home with Toby while he was growing up, too. ‘I was able to work at 3am if I wanted to. I also had the freedom to have animals at home,’ she says. ‘It’s a better quality of life – it’s stressful sometimes, but worth it. You grow as a person when you run your own business – you have to learn to turn your hand to anything and you have freedom in every area. You do have to be disciplined to be at your desk first thing in the morning, but, if you love what you do, it just happens.’
Sally gets a lot of her inspiration from the surrounding countryside, and brings her ideas to life in her home studio in a converted garage. ‘I can go in there, shut the door and start working,’ she says. ‘I love autumn and winter, but the Christmas period itself is definitely my favourite time of year – it is so important for me.’
Sally wrapping a present with her Christmas wrapping paper.