Julie Dodsworth on setting up your own design business

PUBLISHED: 16:45 05 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:41 20 February 2013

Julie Dodsworth on her canal boat Calamity Jane, Photographs by Joe Dodsworth

Julie Dodsworth on her canal boat Calamity Jane, Photographs by Joe Dodsworth

Living on a canal boat became inspiration for a new creative business as Heather Dixon finds out. Photographs by Joe Dodsworth

It was a cold winters day in 2010 when Julie Dodsworth carrying a beautifully painted watering can - travelled the 400-mile round trip from Yorkshire to Northern Ireland for a 30-second meeting which was to change her life.

The simple design on the can, inspired by her canal boat Calamity Jane, struck a chord with the Irish textile manufacturers McCaw Allan. They recognised something special in the delicate swirls and diamond pattern set it apart from traditional canal boat enamelware and offered potential as the design for an exciting new range of domestic homeware.

Within a year a range of textiles were launched and marked the commercial beginnings of an extraordinary success story that is rapidly shaping Julies future. Her modern designs, inspired by the traditions and heritage of life on Britains canals and waterways, have been snapped up by manufacturers for world-wide distribution, secured by 13 licences (with more pending) and covering 250 products. Her designs are now found on ceramics, textiles, stationary and home fragrances in more than 500 retail outlets, including Fenwicks, Waitrose, Strikes garden centres and a host of specialist individual shops more than 30 of them in Yorkshire including Wild Hart in York, Ripley Castle and Duncombe Park.

Licenses are currently being negotiated with an internationally recognised kitchenware company and she is in talks within the fashion sector. At the same time, she is creating dozens of new seasonal designs for ranges to be launched in 2014; all of this in addition to her day job running a commercial plant display business.

Its the stuff of fairytales: The untrained artist turned international designer whose name is already synonymous with a fresh and vibrant new brand of homeware.

Yet Julie isnt the kind of woman who would let the very real promise of fame and fortune steer her away from a life more ordinary.

No matter what happens, Ill stay grounded, says Julie. The kings and queens in this story are the customers, and the manufacturers. I cant even begin to explain the joy and excitement I feel when I see someone buying one of my designs. I cant thank them enough.

The Julie Dodsworth phenomenon had inauspicious beginnings on a narrow boat moored on the canal at Bilsworth in Northamptonshire. Julie and her husband Simon bought the 130,000 second home in 2007 when their long standing business, specialising in office plants, interior plant displays and floral reception displays, regularly took them to London and they needed a base in the South.

We love walking, camping and caravanning so a narrow boat seemed like a natural progression when we started looking for a southern base, says Julie. We didnt want to give up the family home near Boroughbridge, where our business is based, but we needed to cut down on the travelling.

The 58ft Calamity Jane offered the perfect solution and it wasnt long before Julie started painting and decorating furniture and accessories for the boat.

If it stayed still, I painted it, says Julie. I researched the heritage of the waterways, learnt about the distinctive paintwork associated with traditional canal boats, and bought a book on 18th century fairground art.

Then I started to develop designs based on just three heritage recipe primary colours but with a modern twist. I never saw it as anything other than a hobby until my daughter Bethany suggested I should try selling my designs commercially.

Julie and Simons regular business was flourishing and the idea of creating designs for manufacturers on a royalties basis was an attractive addition which would slot in around their core business. She then began the challenging task of contacting like-minded people in the industry who might be prepared to take her designs on board.

It was tough going, but I didnt give up, she says. I was unknown and trying to get a foot in the door when manufacturers were already dealing with plenty of well-established designers, but I wasnt going to stop until Id exhausted every possibility. Fifty phone calls later she managed to secure the 30-second meeting in Northern Ireland. It was the breakthrough she had been dreaming of. Her designs, said the company, were bang on trend. But if she really wanted to be successful Julie realised she would have to go back to the drawing board and the telephone and start the long process all over again in a bid to secure more licences each one tailored to specific manufacturer requirements.

I remained a single voice promoting myself and my designs. It was very much like singing on a street corner, trying to get a part in the West End, she says.

But the more licences she secured, the easier it became and now Julie is well on the way to becoming a household name as her beautiful designs crop up on mugs, plates, cake tins, aprons, wrapping paper, napkins, cards, candles, umbrellas, rugs and tea towels. Her newest licence partner, Wax Lyrical, exports 45 per cent of all products sold to 20 countries worldwide.

I think my unique selling point is that I am essentially a Yorkshire artisan with no formal art training just a genuine passion for what I do, says Julie. I was born in Denby Dale and left school to become a florists apprentice before setting up the plant business with Simon in 1990. My dad, Dennis, was a coal miner and my mum, Mary, worked in retail so there was no inherited artistic influence to speak of, but I had always loved graphic art and lettering and patterns, so I suppose that artistic element was bound to emerge sooner or later.

Julie, 52, now runs two businesses side-by-side although Julie Dodsworth the artisan, designer and next Cath Kidston slots in neatly during weekends and holidays around the core business of transforming stadiums, hotels and retail spaces with plant displays.

I have been able to use the skills I learnt for one to develop the other, but I want to give 100 per cent to both, she says. Whatever happens I will stay true to myself. I am just a very small cog in a very big wheel and no matter how successful the Julie Dodsworth brand name becomes, I will stay grounded and will keep hold of my roots. Im very proud to be a Yorkshire woman through and through.

Julies business tips

Dont get too personal about your product and respect that the companies you approach must make money.

Set yourself goals in a reasonable time-scale to a certain budget and keep positive for when the going gets challenging.

Protect your work by registering with ACID (Anti Copying in Design) and seek some basic legal advice when your designs are taken. You will need an agreement suitable for both parties.

If opening doors is not your strength a professional agent is a must.

Find out more about Julie at juliedodsworth.co.uk

Latest from the Yorkshire Life