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Case Study: Penny Bruce

Below we hear from past National Design Academy student; Penny Bruce. Penny successfully completed the NDA Diploma in Curtain Making & Soft furnishings in 1997 and has since gone on to start her own extremely successful curtain making business; Denton Drapes, based in Milton Keynes.

Penny talks us through her time at the National Design Academy and discusses how the company has changed and evolved over the past 25 years.


Case Study: Penny Bruce

Hello everybody, I’m Penny Bruce and my company is Denton Drapes. I want to tell you a little bit about myself and also my time at the NDA in 1997 and how that has helped me to get where I am today.

I have always been able to sew as a child and I come from a very creative family. I trained as a fashion designer and I went to college when I was 16 years old and I went for 4 years. I have learnt how to use an industrial sewing machine, I was taught how to pattern cut and also to grade patterns and also how to draw.

I went into the rag trade in 1994 and I spent 13 years in the rag trade working for various companies and I ended up working in the west end in London. Eventually I decided that I would like to work for myself. I had always been able to sew and I decided that I was going to make curtains. And, in the back of a magazine one day I found an advert for the National Design Academy to go on their Professional Curtain Making Course and that’s what I decided to do. I went to my bank manager and got a bank loan, in those days it was £750 which was a lot of money. The bank manager agreed to lend me the money and you know, kind of the rest is history really.

I went to the NDA in May 1997 and I did my first week of training. In those days you would do one week of training at the NDA, then you would go home for a month with your homework, do your homework and then a month later you would go back for your second full week. So that’s how it was then.

And I remember that first day, that first Monday morning, there was one chair left in the room, which was next to a lady called Barbara, as luck would have it, it was fate. From that day, Barbara and I have become very very close friends and 17 years later, you know, we still see each other. In those early days when we both set up our businesses, we used to phone each other with technical questions nearly every single day, because in those days, there was no Facebook and there was no forums where you could post a question and get an answer. And, indeed, Pat and Sara, our tutors, after we finished the course, were there for all of us if we had technical questions or if we needed support, you know, we could phone them up and they would be only too pleased to help us out. We might have had an anxiety about a customer that was, you know, maybe a little bit difficult to predict or we couldn’t meet their expectations and Pat and Sara would kind of advise us all what to do.

Going back to that one day, I was sat in that chair and within a few hours I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The light bulb went on in my head and I just loved every single second of it. Learning how to make handmade curtains was just an absolute pleasure to me and I just could not get enough of it. Technically I found it very easy, the course was very very full on and they packed a lot into every day. We used to go home with our samples that we hadn’t finished every night to the bed and breakfast we were staying in, I think it was Mrs Green I was staying with. So at night we would be hand sewing the buttons on or finishing, you know, the bottom of the pleat so that our samples were ready, so that we could go in the next day and start on the next thing that we were going to make, which was great, so very very full on, I could cope with that.

There was also, you know, hand outs with step-by-step instructions of how to make your samples with drawings but also there was the business side that we touched on which was really good so, terms and conditions and how to put a quotation together for a customer, how to word a quotation for a customer and what I found really really important was how to approach trade suppliers, which as a very very small business, never having done that before, can be quite daunting. But it gave you the confidence to pick up the phone and actually say I am a curtain maker and I’d like to open a trade account please. And you know, you just have to take a deep breath and do it and it becomes very easy to do after a while. So, there was opening trade accounts, what suppliers to approach. So, the business side gave me an insight into what was expected of me, it was a grounding really so that I could go out there and start to develop my business with very tiny baby steps.

How useful did you find the practical aspects of the course?

During those 2 weeks at the NDA, we made sample after sample after sample, which was very very important to me, because in those early years of my business, I used to take those samples out with me to show my potential customers. And I often used to refer back to those samples for quite a few years if I was unsure on how to make something. The same can be said for the very comprehensive notes that we were given, I used to refer back to those quite often for a few years after I had started my business. Needing to build my confidence, you’re not making the same thing all the time and you’re making lots of different things it’s often difficult to remember how to make something, those instructions and notes that I made were very very important to me along with the samples. And in fact I’ve got a box full of all of those samples that I made all those years ago still in the workroom today.

How has the NDA changed over the years?

Well I was there 17 years ago and I was recently there again for their 25th anniversary and my goodness, everything has changed. When I went there 17 years ago there was the NDA and the river and the racecourse and I think that was basically it. The facilities in the actual workroom itself were very very good, light and airy and lots of room. There were machines and irons there, everything you need to make the samples. There was tea and coffee and biscuits for the morning break and the afternoon break.

Going back there now, you know, it’s completely changed and it’s all built around with all these other buildings and I hardly recognised it. It was nice meeting all the people, obviously because the tutors have changed and Pauline has got more staff now obviously because they are doing the Foundation Degree and the BA and the Masters Degree in interior design. So, yes, she’s developed the business over the last 25 years, and it’s incredible what she’s achieved.

How did the NDA help to develop your career?

Studying at the NDA all those years ago, gave me the confidence to really develop my business. I came away understanding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I understood how to start my small small business and now I’m in premises with 5 units, we’ve got 6 part-time curtain makers that work for us who are really extremely talented and experienced. So, unfortunately I don’t get to do any sewing today, but I’m still very hands on in the workroom. I’m running my business, I’m meeting customers, I’m meeting suppliers, I go out on measures with my fitter, then putting together quotations, ordering fabrics, dealing with emails. I get approached almost every day from people wanting help from me, the way my tutors helped me, all those years ago. People will call us for advice, I’m very happy to do that. Anything I can do to promote this business and the industry we’re in.

As far as training is concerned I think that the NDA is you know, a really good foundation for learning the soft furnishing trade, the basics of handmade sewn curtains and also it’ll give you a little bit of business knowledge that will give you the confidence to start off in your own small business. And who knows what will happen in 10, 15 years’ time when you’ve developed your business and you’ve gained confidence, you may be in the same position that I am. Hopefully so!

Would you recommend the NDA to others?

The NDA is one of the first places that I would recommend anybody to go and learn about soft furnishings because of how it’s influenced my career. If it hadn’t had been for the NDA I wouldn’t be where I am today. So, anybody thinking about doing the soft furnishing diploma, or indeed the interior design diploma, do it today. I’ve got lots of friends within the trade that have also done the NDA and some of them have done them online and are all running really successful soft furnishing businesses from home and in units.  And indeed, a natural progression for me is that I am now doing the NDA Diploma in Interior Design. I am doing that through distance learning as I need to fit it around my busy working hours, I’ve got a family as well and it just fits in with my working hours. It’s a challenge I won’t deny it but certainly I have learnt a lot and it’s only going to enhance my business. So I should be finished in June this year and that will be another qualification that I can put on my CV that I gained at the NDA.


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