7 November 1997

Avoid the costly drawbacks

of buying curtains

A hunt for bargain curtains

opened a window of

opportunity for two

neighbours in Shropshire.

Tessa Gates finds out how

they turned seconds into a

first-class business

When you have a whole house to curtain, and the drawing room alone needs 100m (108.33yd) of fabric, you need a very large purse or a source of discounted material to do the job with style.

Pat Hill, freshly returned from many years of living in Africa, was horrified at the price of the fabric ranges that suited her tastes. She turned to her neighbour, farmers wife Vivienne Riley, to see if she knew of any discount outlets. There were none in their area and the subsequent hunt for designer fabrics at bargain prices led to the women setting up a business, Stanway Fabrics, which has flourished and expanded over the past eight years.

This June they moved premises to Shipton Hall Barn, Shipton, Shropshire after six years in a stilted barn closer to their homes at Rushbury, Shropshire. For the first 18 months of the business their showroom was Pats front room at Stanway Manor.

"It started because anything I liked for the huge windows in my drawing room cost £45/m. Being a Yorkshire girl I thought I am not paying that for fabric," recalls Pat, who finally resorted to telling suppliers she was opening a shop and so wanted seconds or a discount. "But they said I would have to have thousands of metres to get this."

However, with a lot of windows to curtain, and Vivienne looking to start a business now her youngest child was in school, it seemed a good idea to get her discounts and sell the surplus fabric on. Stanway Fabrics was born but soon grew to prove a cuckoo in the Hill nest. "It was move it out of the house or divorce!"

"We had found a little gap in the market and I think we were lucky in that when we started, the recession had just hit England. People were revamping their homes instead of moving house and were more cost conscious," says Pat.

&#42 Designer fabrics

"We sell designer fabrics that are good seconds or discontinued lines and we stock about 30,000m," explains Vivienne, whose husband farms 405ha (1000 acres), mainly arable with some beef. "They are all by leading names. A typical price would be £9.95/m for a fabric that sells for £36/m when perfect, and you would be hard pushed to find why it is a second. We can get the perfects, too if people want them, but the prices will be higher, of course."

Customers are shown why the material is a second. It could be that it is a quarter shade off colour, has a mark on it or the pattern is bleeding slightly. "We check all the rolls and anything we feel is too obvious is sent back. We have had customers who have saved over £2000 an order," says Vivienne. Chenille at £19/m, instead of £64/m, and silk at £12.95/m, instead of £74/m, are just two of the bargains to be had.

At first they just sold material but as the business has grown they have expanded to offer a curtain making service. Now they have more space – 4000sq ft of it at Shipton Hall Barn – they sell rugs, sofas and decorative items, too.

"The curtain making was almost foisted upon us, but here we had to have workshops as part of the planning consent for altering the barn. We employ two full-time curtain makers plus outworkers, and they also make loose covers, bed heads and throws," explains Vivienne adding that there are four more full-time staff at the barn.

&#42 Sophisticated effect

When the partners first moved the stock into the beautifully renovated barn beside Shipton Hall, which is open to the public in summer, they made the most of the space and used it to sophisticated effect. "But it looked too pristine, so we spent weeks roughing it up a little to give a more relaxed feel to the place," says Pat. "People stay here for hours and we now have a little coffee shop. Some people drive for two or three hours to get here, so they appreciate it.

"There are no half measures here. We give attention, service, and we enjoy it, so they do, too. We have some ladies from Wolverhampton who come here so often that we know all their family history."

Top sellers at the moment are linens and soft damasks. "Shropshire has lots of lovely old houses, so damasks and florals are always popular. And then we have Telford: People from there want modern designs. Telford people move often and they want good looks, but are prepared to have a slight second because they do not want to pay the earth," says Vivienne.

Selling to customers is what pleases her best. "It is the most fun and you get the feed-back and recommendations. You can advertise as much as you like but word of mouth is what customers set store by," she says.

For Pat, sourcing the fabrics is the most exciting part of the business. "We get our materials from all over. We know what we like and both Viv and I have different tastes, so sometimes it is a case of how can you like that?. But we also know what sells and it is not always what we like. However, we do have a limit on what we take, as we have to set an image," says Pat.

Another service they provide is a curtain exchange where customers can offer their curtains for sale when they have bought material for new ones. "Pat put her curtains into the exchange until her husband demanded she brought them back home," says Vivienne, with a chuckle.

&#42 Fashion item

Pat makes no bones about delighting in revamping her home. "My kitchen does not know if it is Arthur or Martha it has been changed so often," she says, "and curtains are a fashion item now."

The partners are delighted at the success of the business, which works on the basis of low profit margin and high turnover. Their customers are willing to travel to see them and they have exported curtains to clients from Dubai to Australia.

"When we started we were the only ones in the area doing this and it was five years before others tried to climb on the bandwagon – including three ex-customers. But we were the first and have the name for value," says Pat.

&#8226 Inquiries: (01746-785151).

Vivienne (above) wanted to start a business and Pat (far right) wanted low cost curtains. The result was a barn full of bargain designer fabrics.

Sales assistant Mary Bullock (left) with curtain makers Wendy Faulkner (centre) and Sue Smith in the workroom at Shipton Hall barn.

Rugs and decorative items have been added to the range since the enterprise moved to larger premises earlier this year.