Needle is destined to become one of those great British brands: covetable, luxe knits that are high quality, thoughtfully designed, perfectly made – each one a wardrobe enhancer. Founder Lizzie Burckhardt talks frankly about going in feet first, finding the perfect partnership (and the perfect name), surviving mistakes – and combining a new business with a new baby (think zero maternity leave).
Don’t be afraid of grand plans
I was an intern, then a product developer for LK Bennett as a post-graduate from Oxford Brookes with a degree in Hospitality and Retail. From LK Bennett, I did a brief stint working for an Africa specialist holiday company before I decided I missed developing products and wanted to do something for myself. So, five and half years ago I packed up my flat in London and moved back to Yorkshire with the grand idea I was going to set up a knitwear company. I had no brand or real direction so the brand has evolved each season
Emma [Needle’s designer] was the one with the real credentials: she graduated from Central St Martin with a degree in knitwear and worked for Burberry before she moved to LK Bennett and that was were we met, We worked together a lot and became great friends and colleagues, we both just get each other and understand what we are trying to create
I wanted to set up my own business, but knew I couldn’t do it without Emma so I rang her and said I’ve handed my notice in and I’m going to set up a knitwear brand… I remember it so well: I was at my office and ran out onto the street to chat to her. Before I could ask her to come on board, she said ‘please pick me as your designer’, so it has always been a perfect partnership.
Jump in feet first
I’m a feet first kind of a person: I made the decision that that was what I wanted to do, I had a long chat with my parents and my dad said, yes, absolutely, do it and that just set the ball rolling, with all the support of my family behind me. It all happened quite quickly so suddenly I no longer had a job and I was moving back home to Yorkshire, it was all a bit of a whirlwind! And I just had to start piecing together how to move forward, getting a brand, what kind of market we want to target, factories etc. It was a very fast, steep learning curve.
I think I was naive enough to think I could do it and that now is the time I had no mortgage or children and it was now or never so I just took the plunge. I didn’t think about whether I was strong enough, just that I wanted to do it.
Some things you shouldn’t over-think
I would love to say we had this great Eureka moment [about the name], but in all honesty we toyed backwards and forwards on brand names and designs. We over-thought it a lot and then realised a word can mean anything to anyone, the Needle branding felt right and after sitting on it for a little bit we knew it was the name for our brand.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel – but make what you do special and it will stand out
Knitwear was what we knew, and because of Emma and her skills I became really passionate about it. We always worked well as a team it just became the obvious thing to do. I kind of fell into knitwear because I worked on the Clothing Product Development Team at LKB and when they gave me a full time job they said that knitwear was going to be my area. I knew nothing about the process or about yarns and so Emma taught me and shared her knowledge and it made me fall in love with it. Needle is different because it’s not just a cashmere brand. There are a lot of cashmere brands out there but we use different yarns alongside cashmere to create very textured interesting pieces. We do more of the chunky knits and the textured knits or a cashmere jumper with some patterned detail on it. Our style is classic with a modern twist, i.e. the Jess cable knit [below] is a classic that everyone loves but isn’t always that flattering but that is where Emma is truly amazing because she comes up with a design that is both cool, flattering and still that classic style.
Jess cable knit, £155
If only I’d known….
How hard a website is to manage and sell from. I was naive enough to believe that people would find Needle, love it and buy it but it is so much harder than that. We have ended up being a stronger wholesale business than a web business.
It’s true: follow your gut
I also believed a lot people who I thought knew more than me, but I should have stuck with my gut instincts. I knew who my customer was and how to approach them. I would say to anyone else starting out that if you are passionate and knowledgeable about something, then trust your instincts. I wish I had done more of it.
Anthropologie is a massive highlight. It has been a growing partnership over the last 3 years and I am particularly proud of the current season and making it into store in America this year. We have been online in the USA with Anthropologie for the past 3 years but this year is the first time we have gone into store which was a real do a MEGA dance excited moment!
Serious mistakes do happen (and that’s okay)
In August, the AW17 production came through and two styles were the wrong colour, I really hoped the factory had made a mistake and in fact it was mine, I typed a 0 rather than an 8 and it was the wrong colour!! Fortunately it was not the worst colour and sales have actually been ok but it was a real shocker. I could have kicked myself several times over and I felt really guilty for making a mistake like that.
The perennial parent issue: which of your ‘children’ gets your attention first? (And why the balance is constantly shifting.)
I had George a year ago, but I didn’t have a proper maternity leave. Emma had a little girl 3 months before me, so I took over doing some things and then she took over when I had George. We tried to support each other, but there are certain things that each of us do so we needed to keep doing that.
Having George has been a massive change for me and, to be honest, I am still finding the right balance. I have an amazing family around me who help, but the balance is not quite right yet. I often spend many an evening in my office (I had an office 40 mins away and moved it home this year which has helped). Every nap time I leg it upstairs to get some work done and also after I have put him to bed. I’m not sure many people have the balance totally right: you feel guilty when you work or if you’re on your phone when you’re around your child, and when you are away from them you feel guilty you are not with them/at George’s age, terrified you are going to miss a moment, like his first steps, but I also love what I do and want to keep it going so I just juggle it.
Josie dress, £175
Carve out time for your (life) partner, too.
It’s really hard, we have a date night every Wednesday, so that we go out the house for at least an hour (often it is not much longer than that) but we go out and we chat and catch up and we don’t get distracted by our phones or house admin. We are just the two of us. It’s taken a while to get that routine, but it’s important.
It’s about growth (on all fronts)
I think the last year has has been funny as we both had babies, so it has been trying to find the balance. It is always about growth and we will continue to grow the wholesale business and perhaps look for overseas business perhaps in the Southern hemisphere countries so that when we have a slower time such a summer we can focus our attention on their winter?
Small business must: an Instagram account
Instagram has become a vital part of marketing for us. I can’t say we have a clear strategy, but I know that I can see sales come through our account and likewise we have had some amazing reactions from influencers. People’s reaction amaze me. I was in labour with George and watched our Instagram following rise by the minute because an influential influencer had posted a picture of one our styles! It helped me through – and it’s fascinating to see.
What I find most challenging is actually keeping up with Instagram. It is very time consuming and I don’t quite have enough hours in the day. I would like to be more active and social with it. I have constant reminders to go onto Instagram but there is often life and work admin to do first, and I find myself feeling quite guilty about it.
I have to say to begin with I was quite sceptical but we made a conscious decision to focus our time on creating a lovely inspiring account. We are learning, but we cannot afford not to be on Instagram and posting daily.
Tempted to follow your dreams?
Don’t think working for yourself is the easy route. The buck stops with you, no-one else does it for you, but it is truly rewarding and it can make for a great work/ life balance
Keep your eyes on the prize
To be the go to knitwear brand out there for interesting stylish knitwear, to grow the web sales and keep each season interesting and exciting. We often get asked about children’s and men’s wear…. it’s a thought in the future but we are way off it for now, I just want to nail being a great womenswear brand.
Main photograph by Nicola Denby, all others via Needle