This is the fourth in a series of interviews to be published monthly via my blog page, with a selection of Artists & Artisans based in the North East of England.
The series is scheduled to run for the next year and We’ve already heard from Stephen Richardson of SPQR Design, Amanda and Alison of Driftworks Tidal Art and James Pocklington of Pocklington Art - Check out the interviews here. Now, it’s the turn of Freddie Matthews who runs Hanging By A Fred, a creative business which uses upcycled retired climbing rope to create a range of products from necklaces to chewy dog toys. You might well wonder a little at the use of retired climbing rope – but the reason and passion behind Freddie’s business is both heart-rending and inspirational in equal measure – and the products themselves are in this humble chaps opinion – just brilliant!
An example of Freddie's necklaces and bracelets
I caught up with Freddie on a swelteringly hot Tuesday in late July at her holiday let in the North East. The establishment of Freddie’s fantastic business owes a great deal to her passion, courage, vision and no little negotiating skills – which were in evidence when she agreed to undertake the interview so long as I assisted her in preparing the holiday let for the next clients. Needless to say, Freddie out-maneuvered and out-negotiated me – and so I arrived ready for action!
I took up each allotted task with vigor and a certain degree of vim and having watered the plants to within an inch of their lives, I found myself facing the final test; the daunting prospect of fixing a key safe to the front wall of the property! Now, what I may lack in negotiating skills…I sadly don’t make up for in an equal absence of DIY skills – and so, having partially demolished the front wall of the house in my attempts to fix said key-safe, Freddie – with a slightly concerned look on her face - hailed me over to a garden table for a refreshing drink – and we began the interview under darkening skies.
‘A creative response to grief’
We can find beauty in the strangest of places. Whether it’s in the crackled contours of weather-beaten and scarred driftwood picked off the white sand beaches of Northumberland. Or, the tilt of the head of a blue-tit going about it’s daily flittering business.
Freddie Matthews found beauty in old climbing rope lying forlornly in her garage. But the beauty wasn’t in the rope itself – though the pieces Freddie now makes are to coin a colloquial Geordie phrase; ‘Mint’ – no, the beauty is in the reason behind the use of the ropes.
‘This is all inspired by my Dad – David Frederick Matthews. He was a proper hardcore climber who travelled all over the world to indulge his passion’, says Freddie. ‘He loved ice-climbing and scaled mountains like K2 and Mont Blanc in his time and he was perfectly built for it; small and wiry – I don’t think he ever got over 9 stone in weight. But, Dad got ill and died in February 2015.’
Freddie's Dad and inspiration - David Frederick Matthews
As Freddie talks about this loss and reflects on her Dad’s influence, the depth of her love for him shines through; ‘He looked after me when I was little. He would take me on nature-walks, help me with my homework. In fact, he was the more scholarly and academic of my parents though he wasn’t really sentimental or soft – but – he is the reason I do it all.’
I don’t need to explain the impact that losing such a strong and important part of one’s life can have. For Freddie though, the loss came at what was already a difficult moment in her own life.
‘I was unemployed at the time and decided to care for my Dad when he got sick – and I didn’t handle it well. I became depressed and could barely leave the house’.
Scars such as these remain a part of us whether we like it or not. Wounds which continue to ache from time to time. ‘Today, I still suffer with depression’ says Freddie, ‘ And I beat myself up about it and there are days when I just can’t even get out of bed’.
And yet, we are indescribably strong and brave, each in our own way – in confronting the challenges that we face in our respective lives. What struck me more than anything in talking to Freddie is her quiet resolve and determination to battle on and more than anything else, to ‘do her Dad proud’. And from such a debilitating situation, Freddie’s own singular identity has emerged – built on her Dad’s legacy.
‘This business was a creative response to grief. I made things to be closer to my Dad, to give things to family and friends who loved him’. And as Freddie explains, this reaching out to take hold of the grief and pain of loss, to embrace it and bring it close, brought with it reciprocal healing. ‘I wanted to do something with the ropes, you could feel Dad in them and I just couldn’t bear the thought of them going into the skip. But - That act of creativity gave ME something too’.
In that response to grief, Freddie found her beautiful things and a few old climbing ropes, gathering dust in a garage became the beginning of her new life.
A selection of Hanging by a Fred earrings
Necessity is the mother of invention
Hanging by a Fred was set up in November 2015 a few months after Freddie’s Dad’s death and represented a huge change from Freddie’s career to that point. And perhaps when we face such hard moments, we need dramatic change to create something of an equal positive impact in order to lift us up again. Our reality has been shattered, and so perhaps we need to shatter it again in order to start again. We need change!
What we also need is our friends.
‘I had great friends who rallied round’, says Freddie, ‘One such friend was Melanie Carter, who rang me up and said, ‘let’s do a craft day or something like it’. I dithered a little bit and we searched for materials that we had in the house, she had some wool…and I had my ROPE – and that was the light bulb moment – I could so something creative with my Dad’s ropes. So I started playing around with them a bit and began by making bowls and just went on from there. Before I knew it, we were heading to markets and trading as a self-employed business. My first ever stall was at the quayside on 15th November 2015 – the set up was horrific – the table-cloth didn’t fit – it looked awful – but I sold £50! I couldn’t believe people bought my stuff. My friends were just wonderful and they all took it in turns to take a market with me in the early days so that I wasn’t on my own’.
One of a Freddie's fabulous key rings
Friends are just the best, right? And in hindsight, we can perhaps all look back and see those interventions that made such a difference – and it’s just lovely sitting and listening to Freddie remembering these moments.
But, before this dramatic change, Freddie’s career to that point had been as an employee for Tyne and Wear Museums. As a qualified archaeologist she worked in various roles as a Learning Officer, Project Manager and Project Development Officer.
‘I had some great time working there. The highlight though was working as a Project Manager on the Creative Partnerships programme for 3 years. It was a fab programme – what we were doing on the programme was so powerful – we were going into schools across Northumberland, Newcastle and Gateshead – addressing real issues in a creative way – such as projects dealing with boy’s aspirations in areas of high unemployment like Ashington. Where, since the pits closed there was generational unemployment’.
But redundancy, coupled with her Dad’s illness left Freddie in a crisis…out of which she climbed using her Dad’s ropes…and her friends…and her own bravery, courage and initiative.
It Doesn’t come to you
One thing that you find very quickly and, in some senses, quite brutally when you run your own business is that, certainly in the early months and years – you have to ‘put yourself out there’ and literally do everything yourself – and that includes sourcing initial advice, training and financial support. It doesn’t just happen.
‘I was fortunate in that I was put in touch – through the job centre – with a charity (which doesn’t exist now) who provided me with great support in setting up my business. I was allotted a business adviser, Paul, who helped me with my initial Business Plan and helped to build my confidence.’
From there, Freddie sourced more training and funding from various providers. She and I have both attended the Digital Marketing Masterclass seminar which NBSL run and we would both heartily recommend it. But, Freddie is clear that these sources of advice, support and training don’t come to you – and you have to make it a part of your daily routine to network!
‘It doesn’t come to you. I think a lot of people think that it’ll just pop up for them. But you have to work for it. In the early days I worked on that every day. Searching for courses, talking to other creatives and networking so that I understood what was available and what would be useful. I was really impressed by some advice that Paul gave me – ‘Businesses only fail when their owners give up’.
And it’s clear that this principle – of not giving up - underpinned a lot of Freddie’s drive in Hanging by a Fred’s early months and continues to do so now. She is bold and adventurous in her approach and is currently considering a number of collaborations with other creative businesses.
‘You have to take a risk and be bold. In my first year – which is a bit of an experiment anyway – I was reticent to spend £15 to attend an event and wouldn’t look any further afield than the North East, but now – I’m attending events all over the UK and spending sometimes upwards of £600 per event. Though I don’t have a great deal of confidence as a person – I have an innate confidence in my product because I know the quality and I now know that it sells. And with that confidence comes a willingness to take a risk’.
With this attitude, she managed to get a place on Nat West’s flagship Entrepreneurial Spark programme which provided further business mentoring and financial advice which helped focus on the need to expand her product range to appeal to a wider range of customers and continue to grow the business.
And now, from humble beginnings her products are stocked in shops and galleries ‘from Northumberland to Nottingham’, with the prospects for further expansion looking rosy!
You are your business!
As the business developed, Freddie listened to the advice from various quarters and knew that she would have to expand her product range and so from purely upcycled rope she now offers an impressive range including:
beaded necklaces, bracelets, keyrings and earrings – both attractive and practical in that the range includes ‘survival’ products -such as bracelets with compasses built in.
coasters, can cosies, mats and rope bowls
rugs, photo-frames, tea-cups and saucers.
Dog chew toys collars and leads
Importantly though, Freddie is clear that she will never move away from the core reason for her business – her Dad – and the core materials – climbing rope. And that’s because, as much as the products that she creates are her business – Freddie and her story are her business. And her story is wrapped up in her father’s influence and legacy.
This conviction in her story as her brand was further embedded when Freddie met and developed a friendship with Nicola Little – a Social Media Trainer and Mentor and the Director of the Savvy Solos Business Club – who impressed on Freddie that; ‘people buy from you – not always because of your products – but because they like and relate to you as a person’.
‘I class Nicola Jayne Little of Digital Sparkles as a huge influence. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am now. She (Nicola) took me under her wing and she is just one of those people whose enthusiasm is infectious. She’s successful and is someone I aspire to be like – but not just because of the success – but also because she is a lovely person. She still checks in with me even though I’ve not been to many of her ‘solos sessions. She helped me to understand that I need to tell the story of my business, because it is the story that humanises what can be a faceless thing. It’s because of this that I have stuck to my guns and will always use rope – even though lots of people have suggested I use leather or silver or other such materials. The story is my brand and my reason’.
Nicola’s influence and advice has helped Freddie to be her own person and to trust in her story as much as her product. There is a great deal of bravery here. To bring something that has been so painful out of the shadow and into the light.
Freddie carries her story with her and it sometimes leads to extremely emotional moments at the events and markets she attends; ‘I often end up with customers in tears at my stall and it becomes a very emotional thing. Though it can be difficult, that emotional response means that people get why I have done what I have done and that means everything to me’.
And, this is something that resonates when you meet Freddie. This is not just a commercial business, but it’s a creative business underpinned by a personal story which makes it a very personal thing.
So as we bring our conversation to a close I’m keen to know what lies ahead for Freddie as she pushes into her 3rd year with Hanging by a Fred?
‘Well, from a product point of view I have a dream to develop a ‘signature’ product range which would sell at high end department stores and would sit alongside my current product range’. To make this happen Freddie is talking with a number of local creatives (ceramics and glass work) but sounds a note of caution. ‘The problem with working in collaboration is cost! I have to be making money to pay my bills and to cover my costs – and unfortunately – if I can buy my materials cheaper from further afield I just have to do that. The impact of Brexit has been pretty tough for instance. Overnight the cost of my materials went up dramatically. So, although I want to develop products locally I just don’t have the luxury of being able to do that.’
It’s a disappointing position to be in – and a frustration that I and I’m sure many others echo – but Freddie won’t let it deter her and her bold approach means I’m sure you’ll see more of her UK wide:
‘I’m branching out in terms of events and markets. In the coming weeks I’ll be heading to events in Birmingham and London and also considering heading abroad’.
And one thing's for sure wherever Freddie goes, her mum 'Mama Fred' is sure to be close by.
Freddie and her Mum setting up together at yet another event
'My mum is a huge inspiration' says Freddie. ' She wasn't really academically qualified but she worked hard to reach senior positions in her career and now she helps me at events and markets when she can'. I get the sense that Freddie's mum brings a grounding, a healthy dollop of reality and stability which is much needed when you're freezing your bones at a market stall. She is also something of a voice of conscience for Freddie: 'My mum is someone who kept me in check when I was younger and even though I'm my own boss, her influence on me is such that if I wake up feeling ill and don't feel like working - I still feel like I need to ring my mum for permission to have the day off'!
It's clear then, that with Mama Fred at her sides and her friends close by, Hanging by a Fred has some way to go and grow in the coming months and years and I for one look forward to following Freddie’s story as it develops – because it’s a story of a creative response to grief which both warms the heart and provides inspiration in equal measure.
If you’d like to check out Freddie’s work, you can find her in the following places:
Website: - https://www.hangingbyafred.co.uk
Facebook: - https://www.facebook.com/hangingbyafred/
Instagram: - @hangingbyafred
Markets: – You can find Freddie at her stall at most of the Love Art North East events at Central Station and other local places.