Images talks to Kerri Jamieson, owner of “probably the most remote embroidery business in the world“, about the challenges she faces being off-grid and 180 miles from the nearest paved road
When Kerri Jamieson ordered her fourth Barudan singlehead, she knew the first leg of its journey would be straightforward. “We‘ve got brilliant suppliers. They send the goods to our shippers and they pack it all up in containers and it goes on a large container ship. Eight thousand miles later, it gets unloaded at this end, which is the easy bit. Getting it out to the workshop is the tricky bit.”
That’s because Kerri runs what she calls “probably the most remote embroidery business in the world”: Warrah Workshop is in a remote part of the Falkland Islands, which is itself a pretty remote country. Kerri and her husband Brian live in South Harbour in West Falkland, the second largest island in the Falkland Islands, which, according to the latest census, is home to 151 people (the total population of the Falkland Islands is around 3,400).
Warrah Workshop is 180 miles from paved roads. To get to the nearest paved road involves driving first along the dirt tracks that make up the area‘s ‘road network‘. “Driving from town is a little rough, so we load the Barudan machine in the back of a nice Japanese car with very soft suspension and drive very slowly,” laughs Kerri.
She was born on the Falklands Islands but then moved to the UK at a young age. She and her husband, both IT professionals, decided to return nine years ago after a few long holidays convinced them this was where they wanted to live. Kerri‘s brother had run an embroidery business on West Falkland since leaving school and so she joined him “just to earn some money”, she explains. “I had never touched an embroidery machine in my life. I didn‘t even know such a thing existed,“ she confesses.
A few years later, he decided he wanted a change and put the business up for sale. “After a lot of head scratching we thought, we can buy the business, we can manage this. So, from a relatively remote site up in Fox Bay, which has 13 houses, we took all the machinery and brought it down to where we live in South Harbour, where there‘s one house.”
The couple converted an old stable block into a workshop to house the two Barudan single-heads and stock. “We just took the cladding off and rebuilt it. The frame is the same and the floor is the same – the stock room is the actual stable and has an interesting slope so when people go in there, they think, “‘Have I had too many glasses of wine at lunch?’” Her brother still helps with digitising if something complicated comes in, although Kerri has signed up to the WilcomTutorials that Dean Roscoe recently launched, which she says are “absolutely fantastic. Invaluable”.
Now, five and a half years later, the couple are talking about adding an extension later this year as the space is already feeling a bit cramped with the four embroidery machines and their Roland BN-20 printer/cutter, and there will be a new heat press and a VersaCamm cutter joining them soon.
To say that running a business in such a remote outpost brings with it unique challenges is an understatement. The place is entirely off-grid, for a start. “First thing in the morning, we check the state of the batteries before we turn the machinery on,“ explains Kerri. “We have a massive bank of batteries and a 3KW solar array, which we‘re going to expand this year by probably another 2KW. And we have a 2.4KW wind turbine, so we get the best of both worlds. In the summer it‘s great, we hardly ever need to run the generator because we get so much sunlight here, it‘s a very sunny place. It‘s also very windy.”
In the winter, however, the diesel generator is used quite a bit. To get the diesel, they have to put 40 gallon drums in the back of the pick-up, drive 35miles on dirt tracks to Fox Bay, fill them up using the self-service pump, then go home and pump it into the generator.
Stock is another challenge. They use Ralawise when ordering garments, who Kerri says “cope very well sending us stuff”. “We have to keep a certain amount in stock so it‘s money that‘s tied up, which in the UK just wouldn‘t happen. Basically, if it doesn‘t sell well, I get rid of it really quickly and replace it with something else as we are very limited on space. We don‘t do an awful lot of variation: T-shirts, polos, hoodies, sweatshirts, fleeces and some soft shells.
“At the moment, I can‘t keep enough olive sweatshirts on the shelves for the military. I‘ve tried overstocking, but I still had a month where I had none in large and it was a bit of a struggle.”
The main consumable in the business is thread, which comes via airmail from Madeira. “They break the laws of physics to get thread to us. You order it one week, it‘s here the next – and you think, surely there wasn‘t even a plane in that time!“ They also have to be able to fix the machines themselves, because much as the companies may wish to, Barudan and Roland are going to struggle to send an engineer out to South Harbour. “I don‘t know if I‘m good at fixing them, but necessity is the mother of invention. The companies are very good at talking me through fixes and sending us spares. We‘ve had to fix a few things, but on the whole, these machines are very robust. They need to be.”
The next challenge is delivering the goods, which is where, Kerri says, it starts to get fun. “FIGAS, which is the Falkland Island Government Air Service, does island hopping and goes around the grass strips and does mail drops and people movement around the islands. We have an account with them so we put our packages on FIGAS and they go to town or wherever they‘re going, and the packages then get distributed from the post office.”
The local strip is at Port Stephens, about eight miles away – eight mainly off-road miles. “When we go to put our stuff on the plane or get packages off the plane, we have to hitch up our four-by-four to the fire tender and be the firemen for the plane landing. Every year they come round and they do a refresher course on how to use the fire tender.”
This service allows Kerri to get most of the orders out within a week to ten days, with bigger orders taking a bit longer. “I keep an eye on the prices [in the UK] when I look at what we‘re selling to try and not make it ridiculous. Obviously there‘s no VAT here, but we‘ve had to pay shipping on everything, which is not inconsiderable. The one advantage we have is quick turnaround. We can‘t beat the prices of the UK companies, but we‘re quick.”
Given that Warrah Workshop is the only embroidery shop in the country, Kerri and Brian are kept busy, although they‘ve recently seen a huge uptick in business. “This year, I can‘t keep up,“ says Kerri. “I don‘t know what‘s happened, it‘s gone a bit mad, hence the fourth machine. We‘ve seen a 30% increase in sales in the last year.” They don‘t advertise, and only set up a website in June, which was mainly to show people what logos they might want to use or adapt. They get a lot of corporate orders, as well as for the hospital and the government, plus the various sports clubs. There are also a lot of orders for tour T-shirts from the military based at RAF Mount Pleasant. “They all club together and make their own design for this particular tour. Quite often they involve a penguin: penguins driving tanks, penguins holding a spanner, things like that!”
Straightforward and reliable
Over the summer just gone (it‘s winter there now), Kerri was embroidering up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week to cope with the orders (Brian does a lot of the pressing and printing as well as still working in IT). Those are long hours to keep, especially when taking into account the other work that has to be done each day. “Because we live off-grid, just the general day-to-day maintenance of systems and living takes more time. You can‘t just pop to the supermarket. We have to maintain our power systems, our water systems, we have chickens, we have gardens.” They grow fresh veg in two polytunnels and in their gardens – peppers can cost £4 from the shop – eggs they get from their chickens and meat from neighbouring farmers. A small store at Fox Bay is open twice a week for half an hour. They order dried and tinned goods from Tesco online, which take three months to arrive.
They stick to offering only embroidery and vinyl printing because they are straightforward, reliable methods. “Power and chemical handling are obviously a bit of an issue. I‘ve looked into DTG and thought, ‘No’ we can‘t really do that here.‘ I‘ve seen various new technologies in Images magazine, like the colour dyeing on the thread [Coloreel], which is, wow. But it‘s a double-edged sword because having not to stock all the colours is great, but one of the things we‘re always really aware of it that you don‘t want to get too high-tech, because if it goes wrong, it can‘t be fixed. This technology may prove itself to be incredibly stable and useful and we might say yes, we need it. And it would be awesome, but something we‘re always aware of when we‘re buying new technology is ‘Can we maintain this without help or without someone here?’”
The challenges may be many, but the upsides are enormous. “I have a thirty-yard commute from the house and my office window overlooks the bay“ says Kerri. “I‘m looking out there now. For half the year, you can see whales out there. You also see seals, dolphins, penguins–we live in one of the most amazing places. I mean, yes, it‘s kind of odd, but it‘s amazing and I‘m so lucky to be able to work from home in a place that is just fabulous.”