A Conversation with Julie Lealand of Threadbear Cottage

It didn’t take me long to find Threadbear Cottage, set in Julie Lealand’s gorgeous cottage garden in rural Kihikihi, Waikato. Isabella, a huge eight foot golliwog standing proudly in the front garden was certainly a very helpful landmark that would be difficult to miss.

Julie loves teddies, gollys and all things vintage and sells a wonderful selection of her lovingly handmade creations in her cottage.

Although Julie grew up in a home where mess wasn’t encouraged, she discovered her creativity in her twenties and hasn’t looked back, turning her hand to a variety of crafts over the years.

It was suffering a nasty accident in 2003 that was the catalyst for Threadbear Cottage. One day, while relaxing in her hammock she was upturned and fell out of the hammock, landing on the ground and fracturing the C2 disc in her neck. Unfortunately, doctors at the hospital failed to recognise the break initially and it wasn’t until a week later that she returned to the hospital in a lot of pain and the severity of her injury was discovered. Julie had to wear a neck brace for twenty weeks. After that time her neck still wasn’t mended and her recuperation period was a long eighteen months.

Around the time of her accident her husband was informed by a client he’d been working for, that he had no money to pay him. He offered to pay his debt in timber and soon after, on a wet June day, a truckload of somewhat questionable quality wood was unloaded into a heap on the front lawn.

Julie’s husband, Graham and youngest son, Kayne, picked through the pile and, selecting the best pieces, managed to salvage enough to build a rustic little cottage in the garden. It was to be a sewing room for Julie to take her mind off her neck injury. Julie says “So, out of a nasty thing, came a good thing.” An unexpected bonus was that her son later received two commissions to build cottages for other people.

I asked Julie how she managed to sew with a broken neck, while wearing a neck brace. She explained to me how she piled up some encyclopaedias on the table and put her sewing machine on the top which brought it to eye level so she could then sew without needing to bend her neck!

“Strangely enough, that time of healing gave me the time and the confidence to try some other crafts that normally I would have thought I couldn’t do,” Julie tells me.

She decided to try hand embroidery, or stitchery as Julie prefers to call it. This time she piled up pillows to raise the stitchery in her hands to eye level.

Julie explains how the sewing room evolved into a shop. “As the cottage was being built, which took quite a long time, as everything around here takes a long time, my friend said to me, “Julie, you should have a little shop. You’re on a main road. You can sell your things and you can sell my things”.” Most of Julie’s friends are crafty, creative people and they were positive and encouraging about the idea and keen for her to sell some of their things in her shop. “This gave me a good variety and quantity of stock which is what you need. It’s no good just having what you like.”

When Julie decided to have a sign made to attract passers-by to the cottage she took inspiration from her love of golliwogs.

“I took Isabella, one of my gollys that I’d made, to the man in Tirau who makes corrugated iron art and signs. I said to him, “Don’t fall over laughing, but I’d like a girl Golly.”

He said, “Well, why not?” So he laid her on a white sheet and took lots of photos of her. As I left, I said there was no hurry, so it was about six months later I got a phone call saying, “There’s a girl over here, waiting to be picked up!””

Originally Julie’s plan was for Isabella to hold a banner saying ‘Crafts’, but she soon realised that would make her a sign and to have a sign on rural roads in New Zealand is extremely expensive, “The rules are very strict about that, so she is just ‘garden art’!”

Julie’s cottage garden is beautiful, but a lot of work. She admits it is a full-time job in itself – almost too much now, but she wants it to look nice for her visitors, especially the garden groups that come.

“I was weeding the grapevine one day and an elderly lady I know who opens her garden to the public told me not to worry about it. She said no one would notice it anyway. Anyway, a bus-load of garden club ladies came and no one would go down there and I wanted them to because I’d weeded there! I felt like clapping my hands and saying ‘Everyone down the grapevine, please’!”

Julie and I discuss the difference between working in a shop and working from home. “I actually really love being at home. Some people don’t, because they feel like they are missing out on something. My friends go out and meet for coffee and have girl dates but I can’t go because I need to keep the cottage open, but I’m not bothered by that, so having a business at home has been ideal for me.”

However, Julie explains that some people’s expectations of you and what they think they can do have been very different from a shop in town.

“It was really interesting, because I thought that after working in the gift shop for eighteen years, I would know everything about retail, but having something at home is completely different.

One of the worst things I encountered when I first opened, was customers bringing their dogs, big dogs, right into the cottage. Of course, you wouldn’t expect to take your dog into a shop in town! I had a big German Shepherd of my own who was not social with other dogs, so it was a bit of a nightmare. There were so many incidents relating to dogs I could have written a book! In fact, people used to say to me that I should write a book about my cottage, which I thought was a great idea, but all the ideas I could think of involved dogs!”

Another challenge that Julie has overcome is how to serve morning and afternoon teas to her visitors. In the beginning she used to provide them, because people asked her to, but not having a commercial kitchen was an issue. She solved that problem by investing in an urn, so now her customers bring their own picnic food and she is able to provide them with hot drinks.

“It’s been really good, because they are happy to do that and then they sit and stay longer, they have a better look in the cottage and a nicer experience. It gives me a nice feeling to think they are not rushing off.”

Julie has a dedicated workspace in her spare room now that her boys have left home, but she would love a big, light studio, preferably a space about three times the size, that she could spread out in, as she admits she is a messy creator. “I often work on the dining room table too. Sometimes I have a customer who I have befriended and I think I would like to invite them in for a cuppa, but then I think, ‘It’s a complete tip in there, Julie, and there’s a cat asleep on the table’!” she jokes.

Julie doesn’t employ anyone to help her in her business and she achieves an enormous amount, with the making and the huge garden to maintain. I am interested to know how Julie manages to achieve so much in her day and ask her if she has a daily routine, which makes her roar with laughter.

“I wish! That’s my dream, to have a routine, to be in the sewing room by nine. No, it’s actually a complete schmozzle most days and I work every day. Even my sons talk about this ‘little hobby’ that I do, and I think, “You have no idea! It’s seven days a week and often at night, because other things crop up and so you’re not working at your business all day long. So no, I don’t have a routine, but I often dream about having one. But it’s just life, isn’t it? Things crop up that you don’t expect.

When I get overwhelmed with too much to do, I use lists. It’s the crossing things off that helps me. Sometimes I write things down that I’ve already done so I can cross them off immediately! It’s motivating to see that I’ve already done some things on the list!

I used to keep a basket of hand sewing next to my chair in the lounge, so I could stitch in front of the telly in the evenings, but now my eyesight has deteriorated I need to do them in the light of day.”

Lately, Julie has noticed a shift in her creativity. “I used to just make sewed crafts and potpourri, but now I’m starting to really enjoy re-purposing things, whereas before I would never sell something I’d painted or upcycled. I like looking at something in an op-shop and wondering what it could be. A friend described me as very frugal, but it’s not out of frugality. I just don’t like waste and I like giving things another life. I like all the old and vintage things anyway. I’ve got quite a few little pieces waiting for me to paint and fix up now. In fact, I’ve got so many ‘quite a few little pieces’ that I’ve got to stop looking and do something with what I’ve got! Repurposing is my little creative touch on things.”

Although Julie does have a stall at the occasional market, she does not stock her things in other shops. She prefers that people come and visit the cottage and discover things that they can’t buy somewhere else.

Her prices are very reasonable. She makes things because she has a passion for it and says she tries to cover the cost of her materials and then imagine what she would be happy to pay for the item herself. “I don’t think about my time or an hourly rate. When my shop goes quiet I worry that I should lower my prices, but people have told me that my prices are very reasonable.”

Julie has a blog that she updates weekly which she says has made her remember to photograph things and serves as a great visual reminder for her to see what she has made.

“I really enjoy my blog and I’ve met some nice people through it. I’d like to do some tutorials for my blog as I really enjoy watching them and making them. “It’s nice to give some free stuff back, isn’t it? It shouldn’t all be about paying for things.”

Julie also intends to start a Facebook page for Threadbear Cottage. “I think it’s become a necessity for a business. A couple of people whose products I sell have a bit of info about my cottage on their websites. It’s all about helping each other really isn’t it?”

As I drove away from my visit with Julie I realised she was one of the most positive and friendly people I had met in a long time. I urge anyone in need of a relaxing countryside garden ramble and dose of homely vintage loveliness to visit Julie at Threadbear Cottage. You can be sure you will be warmly welcomed.

Find Threadbear Cottage in Arapuni Road, Kihikihi. (Just look out for Isabella in the garden!)

To visit Julie’s blog go to www.mythreadbearlife.blogspot.com