The first time I met The Welsh Girl, Julie Leonard, she came into my shop and told me she was going to leave London, to stop working as a producer and agent for the fashion industry and make ponchos. Ponchos……? I thought.
Six years later, we’ve met up in her studio above the old parish rooms in the Welsh Border town of Hay-on-Wye to talk about how she made it happen.
Julie’s studio is a wonderful space. There’s a small sales area, but primarily, it’s where she designs and makes all she sells. A large cutting table takes pride of place in the middle of the room. There are three different sewing machines and shelves around the edge crammed with tasty looking coloured flannels and bolts of Welsh double-cloth. You see, when it comes down to it, for Julie, it’s all about the cloth.
“I grew up with Welsh flannel and double-cloth, fondly known as Welsh Tapestry. It was the blanket on my bed, when I was a child – I slept with it every night. I’ve worn ponchos made of double-cloth all my life, they’ve grown up with me.
“The ultimate comfort blanket, they accompanied me on my travels when I was younger – and still do today. Women’s bodies change over the years and the poncho accommodates that. I still wear the one I wore when I was pregnant with my son some thirty years on. A poncho is the most versatile item you can have in your wardrobe. I’d like to be buried in one, like my dear mum was.”
Julie left London to base herself in Hay on Wye full time in 2014 and spent that December touring Wales and visiting the mills.
“It was sad to see that such an important industry in Wales had fallen into decline, but those weeks that winter felt like coming home. There are only half a dozen working mills left now and I wanted to do something to reinvigorate them. Heritage is important, but I knew I didn’t want to make blankets, I was more interested in creating a new heirloom, one that was truly versatile and would accompany people through their lives as those I own have accompanied me.
“Spending time with the weavers is one of the best parts of my job. I love putting colours together before the cloth is woven, nurturing it from the start. Each poncho is made here in the studio. The cloth is cut, handled and stitched in here, there’s so much of my energy in every one."
Julie’s business wasn’t unusual in being hit by the fall-out from the COVID pandemic, but she feels that slowing down and prioritising what’s really important has helped her reach a settled place of contentment and given her the opportunity to work out where she wants to take The Welsh Girl.
“Last year was crazy. Pushing the business and the plans I’d made to promote it felt inappropriate somehow last Spring, and for a while I completely stepped aside from The Welsh Girl and put my energy into making scrubs for the NHS.
"Spending more time at home and learning how to be still has been of huge benefit to me. Prior to lockdown, my home was a largely functional place, but that’s changed. It’s become the centre of everything; where I live, where I sometimes work, where I practice yoga and where I socialise - when we can of course. My home holds it all.”
Many businesses made a shift to online selling last year. Did Julie decide to do the same?
“I have had an online business since TWG started, it’s essential this day and age. I did use some of the time last year to update my website, but I honestly feel there’s nothing quite like being introduced to my work in person, when you can touch and smell this wonderful cloth. The ponchos, bags, accessories and home furnishings I make certainly have more impact in the flesh. Besides, a poncho isn’t usually an impulse buy; it’s a considered purchase.
"It’s good to have the doors open again Thursday - Saturday. When people are coming from afar I always recommend they call first. If I’m around on other days, I am always more than happy to open up.
"It’s all about buy less, buy better and slow shopping, for me. I’m not interested in becoming a huge brand and making items for the sake of it, I value the integrity of each piece I make. They are unique, functional, beautiful pieces that are made to last. It’s more special that way.
“Photography is a big part of my process. I’m inspired by the nature that surrounds me here and I style and photograph everything I make for the Welsh Girl. I’ve recently painted a large white square on my garden wall, which I’ll use as a backdrop for my next lot of photographs. It’s like a blank canvas.”
Running your own creative business is hard work. How does Julie manage the work/life balance?
“My move to Hay was about more than work. Back then I was looking for a different way to live – a smarter integration of life and work that would give me time to be creative and spend time with my family and friends. As things have turned out, my work is my lifestyle. It has to be when you do everything yourself and you’re driven by passion, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s a rhythm to life and to work and it works best for me when the two are integrated.
“I want to keep things small and intimate. I love working directly with the cloth and also seeing how people react to the ponchos here in the studio. Often they spark a trip down memory lane and most people have a story to share with me. Everyone uses their poncho differently and I encourage people to wear them, rather than saving them for best.
“Ponchos aren’t about fashion; they’re about life. One of my customers paints in hers and it’s covered in streaks of paint, another uses hers when the house is chilly and she’s reading in bed. Whether they’re thrown on to take the dog for a walk or used during meditation, the poncho becomes part of the wearer’s identity and I think of them all as ‘Poncho People’. Everyone wears theirs differently and that’s the joy”.