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SPOTLIGHT: Susie Rodgers Millinery

Susie has been a regular friendly face at Creative Renfrewshire artist meet ups over the last year – always turning up with an incredible hat, normally her beloved ‘Spike’- so of course I was excited to see her studio and try on an array of fabulous hats in the process.

Susie has been based in the old Embroidery Mill at the Abbey Mill Business Centre since September 2021 and the place is filled with interesting mannequins and beautiful hats. As I walk in, Susie is in the middle of creating a draft hat for a bespoke commission for a woman attending the races.

Of course, the first thing I am intrigued to hear about is how someone gets into the business of making hats! “Once upon a time I was a little girl who wore hats!” Susie jokes. But it’s true. Susie’s always wore hats. She speaks about her gran, who appears to be a great influence. Her gran used to do alterations to fur coats for people and would use the off cuts to create hats! Susie’s gran also taught her to sew, encouraging Susie to dabble in dressmaking when she was younger. From a gran altering fur coats to a granddaughter making bespoke hats – the glamour seems to have passed down. But the pathway to becoming a milliner was not that straight forward.

Having studied science and chemistry at university, Susie fell into a job in health and safety – there was no glamour of hats there although she quips, “I wore my lovely hard hat!”. Fast forward to having her son Cameron, at 37 years old, Susie decided she wanted to spend time looking after him and moving away from the 9-5. Teacher training was on the cards for her -until she discovered that that year there was a shortage of teaching jobs going round- and there she found herself, in her 40s on a millinery course at Cardonald College.

The background story of how Susie got to where she is today feels significant as it is hard to imagine her having done anything else other than design and make hats. In hindsight it is easy to see the connections and influences which present millinery as the perfect industry for Susie, but she unashamedly had a wiggly path to get here! While Susie signed up to the course, considering it as “putting off the inevitable [of having to go back to 9-5 work]”, by the end of the second week she thought “this is what I should’ve been doing my whole life! It’s just amazing. You get flat fabric, and you manipulate it, and you get this 3D shape out of it…it’s just amazing”.

This lightbulb moment changed Susie Rodger’s life and she has been making hats ever since! “At first it started off quite hobby-ish, making winter hats to sell at craft fairs” and as her son got older Susie began to get enquiries for wedding hats.

Hearing Susie’s story of how she started is lovely and she tells it with such openness and vibrancy. She paints it so well that if you ever meet her, you must ask her more about it!

Like signing up for a millinery course at Cardonald College, or wearing hats as a child, being accepted onto the Incube programme in 2019 was another pivotal moment in her career. Explaining her reasons for applying in the first place, Susie felt that ‘if this is a business that can go somewhere, Incube can help me get there’.

We discuss the realities of being a maker a lot during our time together. Susie is so clearly a natural maker, obsessed with making hats that even when she doesn’t have a bespoke order to make, she continues turning her hat ideas into realities (“In between orders I can’t stop making hats!”) and sells them in her ‘ready to wear’ collection. “When you’re a maker, all you want to do is make!”. The Incube programme helped Susie envision her making as a viable business. “It’s about working on the business as well as in the business…and finding that balance”, she wisely says. Incube armed Susie amazing business resources and she left the programme with a great network of creatives who had shared the same experience, an end of programme exhibition and a business plan to grow the business into 2020.

Like many creatives, Susie has found the separation of work and home life to be a positive one and the move has turned out to be the best thing she has done for the business – she is busier than ever! There are lots of brilliant creative people in Renfrewshire who have gone through the Incube programme. “It was great to nurture the talent…I don’t think I would be sitting here running this business if it wasn’t for the Incube programme”, Susie reflects. It is clear the Incube have left a great legacy.

The main focus of the business is made-to-order, bespoke hats. If people need a hat to wear to a wedding or the races…anywhere they want to wear a hat (!) they usually visit Susie in her studio to work out a design for a hat to match their outfit. Susie also has a collection of ‘ready-to-wear’ hats which are already made and are awaiting an owner! If you’re looking for a last-minute hat, you may be in luck and find what you’re looking for amongst Susie’s lovely collection. I was also keen to hear about the ‘retrimming’ service Susie offers, where Susie can switch up an existing hat, repurposing it for a different occasion through stripping off and changing the trimmings…” there’s no point in buying a hat and then just leaving it in a hat box – get it out and get it worn!”.

Susie is so clearly proud to be a milliner in Renfrewshire. “I just think being part of the rich textiles history in Renfrewshire is just part of my story. I love that I can use the narrative that I’m stitching my little part into Renfrewshire’s textiles history. Which is just great. And to be in this historic building…. I think about the amazing Renfrewshire women who worked in the Embroidery Mill!”.

Susie is always wearing a hat. Always. “I believe if you’re selling hats or anything creative – be your own walking advert! I’d love us to be back in the world where hats aren’t just for occasions and that hats are just an everyday thing!”. While 18-year-old Susie would never be able to imagine she would now be making hats for a living, it feels so right that she is. We end the interview and Susie encourages me to try on several hats, carefully adjusting them on my head and gleefully admiring them on me. There’s no other way to put it – wearing a Susie Rodgers hat makes me feel absolutely fantastic and trying them on with Susie is the highlight of my week.

It has been a long and amazing conversation with Susie. We have covered lots of ground and she has left me feeling inspired and full of life. Her passion for hats is so apparent and extremely heart-warming to see – she loves making hats and she does it extremely well. Her story is so honest and inspiring. More than anything I am left thinking: there is always time to start doing what you love, and what better time is there than now?

Keep up to date with Susie and view her beautiful hats over on her Instagram page and on her website.

Written by Creative Renfrewshire’s Creative Networks Promoter, Jodie Barnacle-Best.

April, 2024.

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