Talking with Burton, it doesn't take long to learn she has an idea or two about achieving this goal. They involve maintaining high quality standards; investing time, effort and money; and continuing education. Perhaps best of all, Burton and Burton Designs can be held up as an example of how it can be done.
Success, she says, hinges on making key business decisions. "When you establish a workroom you need to decide: Do I want to spend the majority of my time sewing? Do I want high production and cut a lot of corners to keep the price down, or do I want to sell a higher-end product that has nicer qualities and work less?"
Although she works alone, Burton's business evolved with industry help and support that wasn't always available in the past. She began her workroom career at a time when resources were scarce and it was nearly impossible to find someone willing to teach custom window treatment fabrication. "It was very secretive," she remembers. That's no longer the case, as plenty of learning opportunities now exist, some of which she is personally involved in. In addition to running her workroom, Burton teaches at The Professional Drapery School and is active in online networking through the Professional Drapery Forum on the school's Web site (www.professionaldrapery.com) and through DraperyPros.
"Getting an education and constantly learning new skills and improving is a top priority for me so that I can be a better workroom and also offer my clients a better product," Burton says.
Burton Designs is located in Burton's home. In fact, she has always been a home-based business. In her 12- by 12-foot workroom, Burton can handle just about anything. 'It's pretty well organized," she says. Occasionally, she'll have to sub-contract out large orders of pinch pleats or multiple widths of sheers along with anything that needs to be quilted, otherwise she's on her own at the worktable. "Pretty much everything else I do here and prefer to do the work myself because then I have 100 percent control over what goes out and I know exactly from start to finish what the job is going to entail," she says.
To help save space, Burton no longer stocks fabric books, preferring to use Raleigh's two showrooms if she is selling fabric to a client. As it is, the space includes a large walk-in closet that has been converted into a small office, a worktable and professional equipment: an industrial straight-stitch sewing machine, serger, blind hemmer and a döfix boiler iron.
"A lot of people are under the assumption that if you work from home you just have a little ironing board set up and you're sewing on a home machine. You really can't do that and be an effective business. You really do need to be set up in a very professional way and use the proper equipment," Burton says.
To do that requires some sacrifice, but it is justified by the end results. "It's thousands and thousands of dollars that I have invested—not only in equipment, but in the education to produce the type of product that I would want if I were paying someone to do something custom for me. I would want it to be top-notch," she adds.
That also defines Burton's work, which has been recognized by her peers through design contests at Cheryl Strickland's Professional Drapery School and in the DraperyPros' Dream Windows at the International Window Coverings Expos.
"My true passion is the more difficult treatments. I don't do cookie-cutter design work," Burton says. "I like treatments to make a statement, and I pay a lot of attention to detail. Swags and jabots, of course, are always beautiful. A lot of panels are still popular now, but I do panels with a little bit more pizzazz. I've done some beautiful silk rouched-top draperies that were not fabricated in the usual manner.
"I like to work on things that are a little different—I mean, they're not going to be something that you're going to see just anywhere. Pinch pleats are fine, but I like some pleats with pizzazz—fan pleats, goblet pleats and things that have a little bit of flair. I love to work with trims," Burton says.
"When I will do a valance, even the most simple design, there's almost always a tiny cording on the bottom. I call it a Boston edge; some people call it micro-welt. It's a very distinctive look of a high-quality treatment. I do that on just about everything."
Burton describes herself as a meticulous, detail person. "I'm very, very particular about the way I like things done," she says. After all, it's service and the quality of the finished product that she sells to customers. "It can be very costly to have good custom work done. Over the course of the years I've come to realize that for a long time I've cheated myself because I felt that I can't possibly charge that much—who would pay that much?—when at the same time someone would go out and spend $5,000 or $6,000 on a small piece of furniture not realizing that draperies, in my opinion, are an integral part of the living space. I believe beautiful window treatments really add so much to a room. It's the difference between buying a dress off the rack and having one custom made."
NO BACKING DOWN
Most of Burton Designs' business is retail, but not everyone who calls becomes a client. "Not every client who calls me is going to want or need my services. Some of them call just simply wanting somebody to sew," she explains.
"When I talk with retail clients on the phone, I interview them," Burton says. She has found that a few important questions and honesty on her part up front can quickly qualify a prospect. "I ask if they've ever had custom work done before. If they tell me yes, then I know that they're used to the price. I also explain about my background and training," she says. "When I get a call and someone says to me, 'I've got my fabric, I can measure the windows, I already know what I want and I can even buy the pattern,' I usually tell them that they really are looking for more of a seamstress to sew for them. That always brings a surprised response, 'I though that's what you did.' I tell them part of my job is seamstress work, but I do the design end, too, and I cannot take responsibility for how these treatments are going to look if they do all of the measuring. I don't work that way."
Another important qualifier is how much the prospect has budgeted for window treatments. "It's very difficult to talk with clients about money. They don't like to come out and say, 'I want to spend $4,000,' or 'I want to spend $200.' But that's really very important," Burton says. "If we don't know how much they want to spend, we can't possibly show them fabrics or designs that will fit within their budgets. When I go shopping for a new car, I know I want to spend between certain amounts. With window treatments it's very important to do the same," she explains.
"I usually tell clients they can expect to pay a certain price per foot for a nice window treatment—that's not including blinds or decorative hardware—just a nice, finished window treatment product. I also talk to them about what they get for that amount of money," she says.
What customers get are Burton's expertise, education, attention to detail, quality work and customer service. She supplies them with a design sketch scaled to look exactly how the finished product will look and a detailed description. She quotes them a single, bottom-line price.
Sometimes clients will ask if there is anything she can do to work with them on price. "I explain that they do have to make a choice. They can change the design, change the fabric, or decide they are going to do one room at a time," she says. "I never will back down on a price." If it's just not going to work, Burton might try referring a client elsewhere.
SPECIFIC AND DETAILED
Wholesale work is another matter. In the early days, Burton had more wholesale accounts until she realized that too many designers didn't understand the work that went into custom window treatments and tended to take advantage of her. Most often, they did not provide her with enough accurate information, which would then require a series of return calls. "Things like how far the drop should be, will there be interlining . . . Those little incidentals took up so much time," Burton says. "In my opinion, when you work with a wholesale workroom you submit a work order and there should be very few, if any, questions as to how the treatment should be put together. Everything should be very specific and detailed," she adds. Without all the information, she just could not feel confident enough to create a window treatment that would look fabulous when installed.
"My work is a direct reflection on me," Burton says. "That's one of the reasons why I want to make sure when the job is done that it has been measured properly from the beginning and installed properly, to know that it is exactly the way I intended it to be."
Yet, Burton hasn't completely ruled out wholesale. Burton Designs still works with a few designer accounts, but prefers to work with them on a referral basis. "Basically I charge what I need to charge, and I go in and do all the measuring myself and handle all the fabrication and the installation end of it as well," Burton explains. "If the designer doesn't want to be involved in the window treatments at all and wants me to choose fabrics, I will do that. I meet with the client and work one-on-one with the client and sell the whole job and give a referral fee to the designer."
Burton admits that this is not always the most popular way to work with designers, partly because there tends to be control problems, but especially because too many mistakes get made if the designer is not very knowledgeable about window treatments.
"The number of designers who I have spoken with who have tried the referral process love it because it releases them 100 percent from the liability. What they are doing, whether I'm choosing the fabric or they are choosing the fabric, is saying, 'OK, this is your baby and you take care of it.' But it's difficult. If I were to make 10 phone calls I may find one designer who might be interested in working that way."
Three years ago, Burton was asked by Cheryl Strickland to lead a seminar at the SewWhat? Workroom Educational Conference. A year later, she was asked to teach a cornice board and headboard class at the Professional Drapery School, as well. It was something Burton wasn't sure she could do. "I've never looked at myself as an instructor," she says. "I always viewed myself more as just an ordinary person who had some talent when it came to sewing and doing the upholstery work."
Yet, she tried teaching—and loves it. "There's a lot of satisfaction in that," Burton says. "We're very candid in the class and it's very down to earth. I have had people say to me that there's just no way they are going to leave the class and be able to do this kind of work. I say, of course you can. They leave the class feeling great about their work and that in itself is such a reward for me."
Burton teaches at the school once a month, sometimes more often. This fall, a more advanced cornice board class will be added to the school's schedule.
This seems to be the area in which Burton is concentrating much of her efforts lately. She particularly wants to see professional workrooms confident enough to ask for and get the prices they need to maintain a high-quality, successful business. "There are many people here in my area who do beautiful work, top-notch work, and they're being underpaid because they don't have any confidence in their work. It has taken me a long time to get to the point where I feel like I'm a professional. It saddens me to look at other workrooms who are gifted and talented and they are burning out because they are not getting paid well for the work that they are producing.
"I also believe an education is a must," Burton says. "If you go to college you pay a lot of money for your education, but you also land a much better job. For those of us who are devoting all of our time, money and energy into receiving that education, we deserve to be treated as a professional."