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Rough Linen Founder on Starting a Company at 60 & How Passion Contributes

rough linen interview

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Who they are: Rough Linen

Where in the world: San Rafael, California

What they do: Rough Linen supplies fine bed, bath, and apparel linens from an artisanal workshop in California. Inspired by an heirloom unearthed from a family closet, Rough Linen founder Tricia Rose began making linen goods for the home in 2009. 

Rough Linen’s repertoire has grown from that first duvet cover to sheet sets, bath towels, robes, kitchen goods, and clothing. Since the beginning, Rough Linen has dedicated itself to producing timeless, beautiful, and functional wares while taking pride in their materials and processes. “There is great excitement in growing something not just for the sake of growth but because I believe in it,” says Tricia.

How did you decide to start Rough Linen?

“I’ve always loved textiles. I’ve always loved linen. And because my work was making documentary films, I really liked in my downtime to do things which were hands-on. My mother’s family lived in a little house on the west coast of Scotland, and I had to clear it out when my aunt got sick because I was the only one who was in the UK. 

When I emptied out the linen press, I discovered a really old pillowcase which was of my grandmother’s from 1840. My grandmother’s grandmother’s husband had grown the flax for her. They would grow a field of flax so that they could spin it and everything in the winter. It was beautiful. So, I took it home. It was natural color, and pretty rough. Homespun. And I had that for years. 

In early 2009, I came across a linen fabric with exactly the same texture and weight. I thought that I would make a duvet cover for myself, just to sort of keep in touch with my heritage. Anyone who saw it really liked it and commented on it. 

My husband made me a little website and I wrote a press release. I honestly wasn’t hoping for very much. Remodelista put up my photos and my press release. The next day, I had 10 orders. We didn’t even have the capacity for taking orders. People had to get in touch with me and then I had to send them an invoice. I kept on just doing it for myself at first, and very quickly got a seamstress and an ironer and we were all working in my house. And it just kept on growing until we burst out of our seams. 

I got a commercial premise in 2014. We’ve now added clothing as well. For me, part of the thrill is that I never thought that at such an old age, I’d suddenly find myself with a thriving business. I’m sort of the Grandma Moses of linen. Also, the appeal of linen is timeless. It crosses generations. Our demographic has become steadily younger, which is quite unusual.”

How did you get your first sales?  Where did the customers come from?

“It was all driven by SEO. If you Googled “linen sheets” up until three years ago, we were number one. We didn’t do much promotion. We’d send out a newsletter. Even now, I do a lot of the customer service stuff because I want to know what they’re thinking and I want them to know what I’m thinking. I’m very hands-on in that way.”

What was it like starting a company when you were in your 60s?

“I’m 72 now. I would be thrilled to be a role model [to people in their 50s, 60s, or 70s], and I love to mentor other people.  I’m very touched that they treat me with a sort of excessive deference. It’s such a different dynamic when you’re grandmother-age. Everything changes. I’m really enjoying seeing it. Getting older means that you see the same things from a different perspective. It can make you wince or it can make you very happy. It’s wonderful to have that fresh view.”

Do you think you have a different skill set than someone in their 40s?

“I wanted to do a business degree and it just sort of never happened. But having worked in the media for so long, I was quite well prepared in a way. What really brought me along — and still does, though it feels like a lot harder work — I just love getting up in the morning. I just love doing it. It hasn’t gone dry on me. 

When you’re selling something, it makes the most colossal difference if you believe in what you’re selling. And I think that natural fibers, and linen is among them, are really important. The first polycotton sheet that was ever made is out there somewhere. It doesn’t biodegrade. And we’re seeing the downside of that now. 

Man-made fibers are all very wonderful and far, far hardier than wool, cotton, linen or silk. People think they’re going to go on forever. That’s just the trouble. They absolutely do. Whereas the natural fibers are going to return to the earth. They will give good service, but they are of a finite use and you value them for that.”

How much does personal passion contribute to your products?

Tricia speaks of her passion for handcrafts, from her power tools to her industrial sewing machines. That dedication shows through in the style of her San Rafael home and a guiding ethos in her business: She wouldn’t sell something she wouldn’t want to buy. Doing business on her terms has allowed her to stick to products that speak to her and policies she cares about. 

“You have to choose something that really, really resonates with you. There’s no point in selling things that don’t. People get them elsewhere. I suppose in a way I’ve been able to indulge myself. I wanted to have my women have healthcare and benefits and job security and holidays. I was able to do that. And I just love being able to have that sort of freedom.”

What does the current Rough Linen team look like?

“We just lost our marketing manager because she had her second baby in three years. My CEO and I have been together now for seven years, and she is a brilliant administrator and far more fashionable than me. We have a designer who is just great. And I’m in the nail-biting process of getting a UX expert so the graphics designer will be doing the marketing. So, that’s the executive team. Then I’ve got a production manager and the seamstresses, the cutters, the ironers, the stockroom people, the folder. But our core team is only 4-5 people.”

What’s working for you in terms of marketing right now?

“I would love to find a better way to get new customers, because we have a wonderful loyal customer base but appealing to new people has become very noisy. 

We were always selling a sort of heritage aspect of linen: The feeling of familiarity and comfort, and how easy it was. I realized very early on that my customers can afford to have an expensive duvet, but it would never occur to them to iron linen. I was selling the rumpled look of natural linen and the way it catches the light, and the way you don’t have to look after it. It’s just beautiful in and of itself in exactly the same sort of way that stone or wood is exactly itself. It’s an elemental sort of thing. 

I have to admit that other companies have discovered this as well as me now and that I’m quite cross. Because honestly, 10 years ago, we were the first people showing rumpled beds.

Advertising doesn’t work, and we are a niche. You’re going to find cheaper bedding rather easily. I think we have a lot more in common with sort of locavore eating and people really examining what they want out of their things and how many things that they want and whether a want is a need. It’s a hard thing to market to people who are really looking not to be consumers, and I have every sympathy with them. I loathe marketing. I loathe branding. But I have to do it to some extent. I would much rather make it so that people could find what I’m offering than sell. 

And I don’t want to go trendy either. There’s no point in being a trendy green person. That’s just hypocritical.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

“I do wonder at myself sometimes that I like having an all-female company so much. Right down to the people that we do business with tend to be all-female. I don’t know whether that’s because I didn’t have that luxury when I was in business, but I was working with my husband during the documentary films. But I think that the way women do business is I prefer it. I’m not absolutely sure what it is, but I find it harmonious. It’s sort of quite a maternal atmosphere, and it works very well.

I’ve always thought that in a lot of ways, women have more changes forced on them. And that might have become a strength instead of a weakness. Women still tend to be the ones who stop working when they have a baby.”

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