Welcome to Week 40 of Motherhood by Design – the series where mothers who also run creative businesses share their inspirations and their experiences juggling the demands of raising children while growing a creative career.
"I’m sometimes more distracted than I’d like to be, but I’ve found that the distraction is just part of the creative process."
Liesl Gibson, founder of Oliver + S, believes that anyone can sew and make beautiful things and aims to provide great, easy-to-understand instructions with the patterns she designs. Her patterns are often described as a "sewing class in an envelope" and what could be better? She has four (four!) different lines of sewing patterns as well as a fabric line, and her website is a treasure trove of inspiration, including message boards that foster a warm, welcoming and creative community.
Welcome to Motherhood by Design, Liesl– can you please describe your family?
My husband, Todd, who is also my business partner, and my daughter, S, who is ten. And S’s beloved Bear, who still travels everywhere we go and is part of the family.
What is your business?
I design and write sewing patterns, and I also design printed fabrics. I think of myself as a designer and, to a large degree, as sewing teacher because my sewing patterns are written to help people develop and improve their sewing skills.
When you were a child yourself, how did you spend your free time?
I did a lot of drawing, reading, and ballet. (I guess that’s how I spend my time as an adult, too!)
Did crafting or handwork play a significant role in your childhood? If yes, in what way?
Oh yes. My mom did all sort of crafts with us, growing up. She taught me hand stitching and various needle arts starting at a very young age, but we did it all. Sewing, painting, you name it.
When you were a child, did you have ideas about your own future as a mother? Was motherhood something you’d always imagined for yourself, or is it an idea you grew into later in life?
I’m the oldest of five girls. The youngest is 14 years younger than I am, so I pitched in a lot with childcare when I was growing up and during my teen years. It almost felt like I had already raised children, so I wasn’t sure I wanted kids of my own. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30’s that I realized it was really important to me to have a child.
In your early years of motherhood, did you have/make time for your creative pursuits, or was your creative work put aside for a while? If the latter, when did you pick it back up?
Oliver + S (my line of sewing patterns for children’s clothing) developed specifically because I was making things as a mom. I had worked as a clothing designer before my daughter was born, and when she arrived I made the decision to stay home with her because my husband was traveling constantly for work. I started sewing as a way to combat the frequent monotony of motherhood. At the end of the day, it’s nice to have something concrete you’ve accomplished when the rest of your day consists of changing diapers and doing the varied tasks of motherhood. On the worst days you just want to feel like something went right and you managed to finish one task successfully.
Did you start your creative business prior to becoming a mother, or after?
The whole idea and business plan for Oliver + S developed from the sewing I started doing for my daughter after she was born. I realized at the time that there were no new or interesting sewing patterns for children’s clothing on the market. All I could find were the same patterns I had used to sew for my niece eight years earlier. I had the skills and now the inspiration to make them, so I started to do it. One thing led to another, and my company was born.
What prompted you to start your creative business? Is it something you saw yourself doing when you were a child?
I had always wanted to work for myself and run my own business. Until I started sewing for my daughter, though, I had never found a market niche that was untapped and ready to be opened up.
How do you balance your creative work with your role as a mother and how has that changed over time?
Finding that balance has been difficult. I’ve been doing this for eight years now, and I think that it’s only been in the last one or two that I’ve been comfortable saying I’m able to achieve a balance. In the early days of Oliver + S, I was working constantly, trying to research the market, write a business plan, and launch a company in the few hours a day when I wasn’t caring for my daughter. I didn’t get nearly enough sleep over those first few years!
In what ways does motherhood affect your work processes?
Motherhood forces me to step away from my work and make time for other things. Creative pursuits can be all consuming, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of always being on and always thinking about work. When I spend time with my daughter I have to put work to the side for a while to focus on her.
In what ways does motherhood affect your work products?
I find that a lot of what I design now comes from my experience as a mother and watching a child grow. The wardrobe needs of a working mother are much different than those of an urban 20-something who is working and going out with friends every night. My designs for my Lisette and Liesl + Co. pattern collections meld style (not trends, mind you, but more classic style) with practicality in a way that allows the garments to go from work to the playground to a night out with only a change of accessories or shoes. Mothers never have enough hours in the day and they have a lot of things other than their wardrobe that they need to be thinking about. I try to make my designs be practical for their needs but also stylish enough that they can feel good about themselves when they are wearing them.
What is the biggest impact that your children have had on your business?
I wouldn’t have started my business if it weren’t for my daughter. It’s doubtful to me that I would have considered developing sewing patterns if she hadn’t come along. So in that respect she’s completely changed our family, because my husband now runs our business full-time. And the flexibility that our business has given us has allowed us to decide to move the Spain for a year or two. So having a child changed my life completely!
How do you think your creative pursuits, including your business, affect your children? Is there something you hope your children learn from you by having a creative business?
I’m sometimes more distracted than I’d like to be, but I’ve found that the distraction is just part of the creative process. But my daughter is quite tolerant of that and seems to understand it. She needs space when she’s being creative, so she understands that sometimes I do as well.
Is there something you hope your children learn from you by having a creative business?
Mostly, I want her to see that you can be a loving and attentive mother and have a successful career, and you can do it on your own terms rather than thinking you need to follow a set of pre-established rule.
What advice would you offer the mom who feels drained by the demands of motherhood and wants more hands-on creativity in her life?
Find something that you love to do and make a little time a few days a week for that. Don’t put pressure on yourself to make a business of it or use it for anything other than to recharge your batteries. If you get lucky (like I did!) and discover a business opportunity in your creative pursuit, that’s great. But use your creative time to refresh yourself and gain a new perspective on your every day.
Thank you so much, Liesl, for sharing your thoughts with us today! You can find Liesl in the following places: