Commit to your creative idea as a professional. I’ve spent most of my life with one-foot-out-the-door on my artistic talents, using them as a fun crutch between “real” jobs — but I can’t expect the world to discover my designs if I keep them locked in my closet! It is interesting that I held myself to this high standard of organization, communication, and implementation when I had my full-time job at the shelter, but it wasn’t until months into starting Charlie Darwin that I thought, I should treat my own business with the same respect.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leah Widdicombe.
Leah is a visual artist in the south coast of Massachusetts pursuing projects that investigate our relationship with earth, animals, and plants. In the summer of 2020, she launched a slow fashion, sustainable textile brand called Charlie Darwin Textiles, where she uses natural fabrics to fill other’s closets with durable, earthy, and eclectic clothing. Her mission is to grow an eco-conscious brand that believes the garments you love should outlive you, not contribute to landfills. You can follow her process at https://www.instagram.com/charli.e.darwin/
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Sure, thanks for having me! I grew up deep in the woods of Fort Wayne, Indiana with my parents, two older siblings, and a soul-mate dog. My family has always valued playfulness and I spent a lot of my time outdoors, exploring weird tree stumps, making crafts, and overall trying to be as weird as humanly possible when living in a “flyover state”. Very early on I realized I loved making new belongings out of anything that would otherwise be thrown away, and I held a lot of pride in being resourceful. By the time I was in middle school in the mid-2000s, Hollister and Abercrombie were very far out of my budget, so I began sewing my own clothing from upcycled fabrics. From bizarre patchwork t-shirts to my own prom dress, I really threw my “coolness” reputation out the window and embraced my own stylistic instincts. I went on to attend Indiana University and graduated in 2015 with a major in animal behavior and minor in studio art. During school, I sold my first paintings and textiles to fund the cost of travel for an internship abroad, where I rehabilitated primates in their natural habitat. I continued creating artwork throughout my master’s program at Tufts, where I studied Animals and Public Policy. Over time, my artistic talents have become intertwined with my academic interests and I have created a lot of pieces inspired by the human relationship with plants and nonhuman animals.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is going to sound insanely counterintuitive, but what I always try and remind myself is, “It’s not that important”. When I have a big task coming up, I start to feel this tingling fear of failure in the back of my head, because I know the task could be done perfectly but since I will inevitably screw something up on it, it’s best to put it off until later when I can do it perfectly… and that is how things neverget done. I think being self-aware and doing things right the first time is important, but honestly, I am a tiny speck in the history of time and space. Me and my tiny actions are truly not that important! So when I’m stuck up on something stressful that’s causing me to procrastinate or dwell on it, I remember: it’s not that important if I do that thing perfectly, as long as I just do it!
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The podcast “How I Built This” by Guy Raz gets me really jazzed up to put my creations out into the world! I mean, there might just be something subconscious about the inspirational music they play in the background of the interviews…but I sincerely admire the honesty of some of the entrepreneurs on there. It’s nice to hear how now legendary people struggled when they first started their business. It humanizes people who I put up on an imaginary pedestal and reminds me that growing a business takes a lot of time and energy.
I have also read “The Yamas & Niyamas; Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice” probably 5 times front to back. It has taught me that my life is an experiment; I will always be practicing and changing, but there is no ultimately perfect way of being. It is a good read for when you’re feeling unsure about who you are and who you want to be.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Ah yes, a different era. So, before the pandemic began, I was working full-time at a homeless shelter in downtown Boston. I was hired to design and launch a new job training program for people experiencing homelessness who were interested in starting a career in the pet care industry. It was my first “big” job after getting my master’s degree in Animals and Public Policy, and an incredibly niche position I would never find anywhere else. I expected it would be challenging, and it was… I was designing the program, doing outreach and recruitment of participants, instructing classes, providing case management, and coordinating with a local dog care business. The position was rewarding at times but took a lot of emotional energy. It quickly opened my eyes to the extremely traumatic barriers that people who are experiencing homelessness are facing. From day 1, the participants in my program showed me exactly what resilience and perseverance look like, what it means to feel like your family, partner, employers, landlords, community, law enforcement, or even your own mind or body are working against you, but you still show up anyway. When things started shutting down in Massachusetts, I was able to successfully graduate my current students in the program remotely. However, as this pandemic dragged on, the resources and needs shifted for the shelter and pet care facility, and the program I ran suddenly came to a halt. I thought that my newfound unemployment was rather ironic since my job was literally to help people find employment in my field. I even helped a student of mine get a job the same week that I was notified of my layoff! The world is funny like that.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
After being laid off, I considered what I wanted to be spending my time on and where my talents could be of most use. Like many Americans stuck at home, I also had an indefinite amount of time to overanalyze everything I own in my house, including my wardrobe. I zoned in on how clothes can be made from more biodegradable materials and cause minimal impact on humans, animals, and the environment. In July 2020, I started Charlie Darwin Textiles, an artisanal, sustainable clothing brand that’s durable, earthy, and eclectic (Charles Darwin is, of course, my idol after spending 6 years in academia studying Animal Behavior, Evolution, and Animals in Public Policy. Plus, my fashion sense can be rather androgynous, making the spin on the (r)evolutionary scientist’s name an easy decision!).
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
There was probably no single moment, but more of a long buildup of frustration with the current fast-fashion situation, plus a strong urge to tune back into my creative brain. In the past couple years I’ve wished I had better fitting, more durable clothes, made from fabrics that make me feel good, so I just started making them for myself (a perk of knowing how to sew and having a lot of time!). I despise the carelessness of plastic pollution and the general feel of polyesters, so I committed to natural fiber materials like cotton and linen. As of spring 2020, I hadn’t tried making clothes for anyone else yet, but amidst this socially-isolating quarantine I’ve longingly watched as my upstairs neighbors receive package after package, and the intense pang of jealousy inspired me to design and sew linen kimono robes to send as surprises to friends and family. They loved receiving them, and I loved making them! I did not want to stop there, but I could not keep putting all my savings into making gifts, so it was time to open shop. I think I have always had a little entrepreneurial flame in me; so, this was the perfect opportunity to take the leap!
How are things going with this new initiative?
It is going well but going slow! Over time I am learning more and more how to operate like a business. Right now, I’m a one-woman show. I have to find quality, non-synthetic fabrics, draft sewing patterns, hand dye, wash, cut, and sew fabric, convince my boyfriend to take 1000 photos of me modeling the garment, edit the photos, determine pricing, post to Instagram and my Etsy shop, fulfil the made-to-measure custom orders, and then ship the finished pieces to very special homes.What is most important to me is that I’m working every day to grow a concept that’s worth believing in.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In the long run, I am sure that my entrepreneurial spirit (and fabulous sewing skills) come from my mother, who has been the founder and director of a nonprofit learning center for over 20 years. She can also be my biggest critic and has actually picked up the phone to call and tell me that the weeds need pulled in the background of an Instagram photo I posted 2 months prior. So, it is a 50/50 chance that her advice will either be insanely useful or complete white noise. Regardless, if you mix her skillset with that of my dad who is a salesman, woodworker, and environmentalist, I really start to look like a product of my environment, in a good way, I think. Both my mom and dad have shown me how far a little resourcefulness can take you, and why it is important to spend your day doing things you love.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I wanted to add some naturally dyed scarves to my collection… I remembered doing something called “eco-printing” in college, a technique where plants, leaves, and flowers leave their pigments on the fabric as their tannins react with the iron water they are boiled in. So, I went to the woods and just started grabbing all sorts of leaves; I got a huge bag full. I did the dye process, and the scarves turned out beautiful. The next week, I broke out in hives on my neck, and my lymph nodes swelled up. By day 4, my boyfriend said, “what if it was the scarves?” — I looked up some plant identification pictures, and I am 95% sure I doused my scarves with poison sumac. Like really boiled it all up into the fibers. Luckily, I had not sold any yet! I felt like an idiot for about 3 weeks but will not make that mistake twice.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Commit to your creative idea as a professional. I’ve spent most of my life with one-foot-out-the-door on my artistic talents, using them as a fun crutch between “real” jobs — but I can’t expect the world to discover my designs if I keep them locked in my closet! It is interesting that I held myself to this high standard of organization, communication, and implementation when I had my full-time job at the shelter, but it wasn’t until months into starting Charlie Darwin that I thought, I should treat my own business with the same respect.
- Write a business plan (well, I am technically still working on this one! But I think it is good advice). Even if nobody ever sees it — get crystal clear with yourself about what you are trying to do and how you are going to do it. The plan will likely change, so keep reassessing!
- Take notes on EVERYTHING! Keep records of finances right from the start. And if you are a handmade business, keep track of the time it takes you to make things. This will all help make calculating pricing much easier. And don’t assume that just because “that idea was SO GOOD” or you really think you’ll remember how you made that garment 2 months later, there is like a 5% chance you’ll ever remember it.
- Pay yourself for your time. This one has been tricky for me. When pricing my work at first, I was just going off a feeling and looking at competitors’ prices. After selling a few garments I realized, wow this is paying me less than $5/hour for my work. Then I realized what I thought were my “competitors” were just mass-producing manufacturers overseas (probably paying their employees even less). I found a local webinar on how to price your artwork and learned that it is not about being the cheapest, it is about being sustainable and finding your target audience. When you undercharge for your handmade product, you end up resenting the process of making it — which is supposed to be the fun part!
- Beware of poison sumac. (See my “interesting” story above!)
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I have found that I absorb the news best when I get it in very small quantities, and only look at it when I am genuinely curious about something. So, if I am feeling out of touch with reality I will scan through the posts by @JerryNews on Instagram, which does a good enough job at highlighting some recent key events. I personally do not have tv or twitter, because I cannot stand “talking-heads” — people who just go around in circles about their opinion about someone else’s opinion. And when I am feeling anxious about the world in general, I take a walk, get some fresh air, and remember that the earth is beautiful with or without humans on it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would love to bring human and animal welfare education (such as reproduction, biology, and behavior knowledge) to the communities who need it the most. As I grow my concept of Charlie Darwin, I would like to work on producing innovative visual media that communicates scientific concepts as clearly as possible to regular people. We are all living, breathing, organisms, constantly interacting with our environment; and this reality is a lot less scary when we understand why our bodies behave certain ways, or how our food intake, clothing choices, and population growth effect other humans and animals, or the multitude of ways in which we rely on other organisms. But I think a lot of that information is just shuffled between academics and unreadable publications. Ultimately, I think understanding human and nonhuman animal bodies and behavior is very empowering, and I’d like to make the information more accessible and culturally relevant to communities around the world.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to grab lunch with Sal Khan, the creator of Kahn Academy — I just listened to his interview on the How I Built This podcast. Sal has a good sense of humor about his life and business, and Kahn Academy’s mission to provide more accessible, quality education through a nonprofit business model is one that I can really get behind.
How can our readers follow you online?
I sincerely want people to know where their clothing comes from. You can follow my process on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/charli.e.darwin/
and my work is currently available at
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!