Jo Rutgers, mum and business owner of Little Village Handmade is well known on Instagram and the internet for her signature house cushions. Jo chats to Jenna Templeton about daydreaming of fabrics and pom-poms, what inspires her handmade children’s décor and running a business from home while being a full-time mum to her three children.
I’ve always been the crafty type. As a child I would draw, press flowers, make cards and collages and form little animals out of modelling clay. If you had told me 10 years ago I would make a business out of sewing cushions, I would have laughed. Sewing wasn’t really something I had much experience with, aside from a woeful pair of shorts I made in high school. It was really my love of fabric that eventually forced me into sewing. A friend roped me into doing a patchwork course and my favourite part was picking the fabrics and piecing them together. I’d always associated sewing with cheesy fabrics and following patterns. I was so wrong!
Now, I’m a business owner and full-time mother who makes cushions and décor for children. My signature design is the house cushion. My parents are both microbiologists, so I wasn’t brought up surrounded by creatives. But, my creativity was recognised and always encouraged from a young age. My grandfather made me a beautiful flower press and my nan was always buying me crafty things to try out. I knew I wanted to make something imaginative for kids that allowed me to incorporate fabrics and my sketches into the one thing. Making kids clothing wasn’t my thing – I wanted something that would appeal to both adults and children. So I started to practice sketching my drawings onto fabrics using the sewing machine. I borrowed books from the library and did many months of stitching and experimenting. As I’m not technically trained, I’m positive many of my processes are unconventional, but I love the whole process of trying things out until the desired outcome is achieved.
Starting my business seems like a big blur in my mind now. I was pregnant with bub number three and busy with two other little ones. There was lots of experimental sewing and fabric buying – mainly vintage bits and pieces. It was actually a vintage linen tea towel that inspired me to make my first house cushion. The embroidery was the perfect shape for a roof. I came up with the name ‘Little Village’ and designed my logo as my product developed. It all started to link together from this point. I studied for a year in Interior Design, followed by three years of early childhood teaching, so I feel like I’m now combining those two things in what I do. It was definitely my own kids that inspired me to start my business. My brain was crying out for something interesting to tackle, but I didn’t want to go back into the workforce. Having two small people meant that I was often looking at children’s products in magazines and thinking, ‘I could design something for kids’. So I did!
I would describe my style as whimsical with vintage influences, colourful but never bright or bold. I’ll always pick timeless, meaningful design over following trends. Although my style hasn’t changed, it’s definitely more refined than it was when I started. My signature makes are house cushions with pom-pom garlands on the side. I’d love to experiment with some other cushion designs, but the house cushions are keeping me so busy. I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to ever make something new!
Creativity is a big part of who I am; I don’t think I could suppress it if I tried.
I think my imagination is like a giant sponge, soaking everything up. When I should be thinking about shopping lists and cleaning the bathroom, I’m really thinking about fabrics and pom-pom combinations. I get ideas in my head and I just have to try them out. Perhaps I’d go mad if I didn’t. It brings me a lot of satisfaction to imagine something and then see it come to life. Sibella Court inspires me. I’m in awe of her ‘bowerbird’ style, and Jenni Harley from Cloth & Thread makes beautiful softies out of the most amazing fabrics.
Each day varies depending on the kids. I try to prioritise their needs before my business, but it’s not always easy. Thursdays and Fridays are my two dedicated work days, as my youngest is at preschool. On those days, the kids get dropped off and then I sew like crazy. At the moment, my workspace is just a small sewing table and my ironing board. I don’t even have a dedicated sewing room and my creative process is never tidy. When I’m designing a cushion, I end up with sketches, fabrics and trims covering the dining room table. Getting paid for doing what I love is definitely a bonus. It becomes a little challenging when I’m making the same design 20 times or more. It’s the most efficient way to work, but it can become tedious and more like ‘work’ rather than something I look forward to. I try and mix it up by making one-off cushions every now and then and creating a couple of new ranges every year.
I love that I can work around my family, but sometimes I struggle with work and family balance. It’s getting easier now my youngest has a few days at preschool, but it often becomes a juggle and I’m not very good at having set times for each thing. I really enjoyed working with Kate from Bella & Lace, designing a teepee cushion for her gorgeous girls range. Most of the time I work on my own, so it was nice to collaborate with another designer. My aspiration for the future is to study more in the field of design, perhaps make some different cushion designs and add a few international stockists to our list. It would be amazing to collaborate with some big companies like Anthropologie or The Land of Nod.
We’re all about celebrating Australian motherhood and creativity on child mags blog: what does it mean to you to be an Australian creative, who’s also a mother? I have to say, it’s a real privilege to be able to stay at home with my kids and to design and make products that people actually want to own.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with other mums who may be trying to combine their lives as creatives and caretakers? I think most mums will agree it’s not always easy to raise a family and run a business. Sometimes social media makes it look perfect, but I know for me, it’s not. If I’m knee deep in sewing, then you can guarantee the house looks like a bomb site. If the house is clean, then obviously I haven’t been sewing very much! Jo Rutgers, 36, is a Sydney-based mum and business owner of Little Village Handmade. She lives with her husband Simon and is mum to Henri, 8, Charley, 6, and Billie, 4. You can see more of Jo’s handmade products via her website and shop and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.