My husband Mike sighed at his spit-up-stained t-shirt, and looked forlornly out our window at the Las Vegas landscape. “Gotta go change. Again.”
Our baby Max was about three months old, and we still hadn’t lost the glazed-over, shell-shocked look in our bloodshot eyes. Though he was on his way to becoming a good sleeper, we still had yet to find a good groove with trading off feedings. And the messes… ai-yah. Max would regurgitate at least twice after eating, and the fancy dish towels they call “burp cloths” would slip off the shoulders just as the liquid would start to spew.
Mike looked at me with tired eyes. “There has to be better solution. I can’t keep changing my clothes. The other night, I went into work and the guys in the dressing room were making fun of all the stains!”
He began to sob.*
* exaggerated for dramatic effect
There’s nothing like the threat of more loads of laundry and the gentle ribbing of theater actors to spark the fire of entrepreneurship. We scoured online for more creative burp cloth solutions, but there was nothing to be found except for these same little towels, so we decided to create something ourselves — with not a lick of fashion design experience between the two of us. The next day, we stopped at a fabric store to pick up a few yards of muslin and a pair of sewing shears, and started experimenting.
We needed something 1) absorbent enough to protect clothes underneath, 2) secure, so it wouldn’t fall away, and 3) convenient and versatile enough to wear even when not tending to baby. Straps? Too complex to put on in a hurry. Velcro? Too noisy. Scratchy, even. Then Mike, in his deep baritone, proclaimed, “I’ve got it!” He grabbed the scissors, and 30 seconds later, a design was born.
The “barf scarf” was a traditional rectangular long scarf, with a slit in the middle to slide your head through. Easy-peasy! Much like those pinneys you’d wear in gym class when playing dodgeball, the fabric would not slip off.
Here’s where we high-fived, naively thinking we had it in the bag. What a simple idea — and nothing like this existed on the market! How genius were we? Should we have Maroon Five or The Shinns perform at our business launch? Do we rent office space on both coasts? Delirium from sleep deprivation made us wild with possibility. We sent off measurements to a family friend’s manufacturing contact we had in LA, and they agreed to sew us a sample. In the meantime, we applied for a patent, which was an expensive legal process. But hey, we were gonna be millionaires off our idea, so it was worth it, right?
Wrong. First, the sample came back. We hadn’t specified a fabric, so the sewer grabbed what felt like a stretchy polyester to throw it all together. It draped nicely, but we didn’t feel it was terribly absorbent — which was sort of the point.
In the meantime, our patent attorneys contracted a technical draftsman to get drawings together from the photos we supplied, and it cracked us up to see they used Mike’s spitting image:
Mike likes the technical drawing because it “makes me look more muscle-y.”
At the same time that we left Vegas and jumped onto The Lion King tour, we decided that it was time to hire a consultant to help us sort through the whole design, development and manufacturing process. After finding one in Los Angeles, we went through a few rounds of problem solving. If we stuck with our original shape and measurements, we’d need a lightweight fabric in order to drape well; the organic cottons we ideally wanted proved too heavy and unwieldy in those dimensions. Then, we had to determine if a double layer of fabric was feasible or needed. And of course, fabric choice and sourcing: organic cotton, or bamboo? Or something else entirely? Eight months and a few thousand dollars later, we arrived at the next iteration:
It was diamond-shaped, with a top layer of dyed bamboo and a bottom layer of technical fabric (think surfer board shorts). We were “meh” about it, and had to stretch our minds and perspective to make it look good.
Meanwhile, because our design had changed, our patent lawyers told us our original application would have to be thrown out. But before we even did that, our application came back denied anyhow — our design was a bit too general, and other similar scarf-like patents existed already. Another few thousand dollars, down the tubes. The sad but very real part is, trying to patent a fashion accessory was just one of the many mistakes we made starting out.
We continued to make teeny strides while touring the country; we also added another baby to the fray, Cuz, why the hell not! Sleep is totally for the weak! And Eva was a gamechanger, in that she is an avid breastfeeder, and would scream for milk in the middle of a crowded farmer’s market. It was clear that with her, I needed a nursing cover more than a burp cloth. Finally, when Eva turned one, I decided it was time to either buckle down and figure it all out, or just scrap the whole business and move on with life. Serendipitously, I applied to sustainable fashion expert Shannon Whitehead’s inaugural Factory45 program, found a great network of like-minded entrepreneurs, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.
Shannon connected me with designer Kristin Tidwell of Be Well Designed, down in North Carolina, and we clicked right away. A mother herself, Kristin worked for years with Boppy and understood the functionality I was going for. My Factory45 colleague Mikaela, founder of Ruth & Ragnar, was a terrific sounding board for design, and we spent hours on Skype comparing sketches and notes.
The verdict? I incorporated simple snap buttons, changed the shape once again, manufactured it with a double layer of bamboo rayon, got rid of the slit (another of my Factory45 colleagues Lara, founder of Forest & Fin, told me she thought having to use the word “slit” was strange… and she’s sort of right!). I officially called it “The Mamachic.”
Now, I’m pretty ecstatic with where we’re at. It looks beautiful — and it works. With the snap buttons, it’s so easy to convert from a scarf to a nursing cover to a burp cloth and back. And after our lookbook photoshoot where our stylist Jahmar worked his magic and rocked my world, I am beside myself.
It’s full speed ahead from here. Our Kickstarter campaign launches in a month, we’re still fine-tuning the samples, getting the packaging and notions squared away, and talking with vendors like Baggu for some additional reward tiers. I’m excited — and comforted — that you’re on this ride with me.
And oh yes, we’re moving again this weekend, from Louisville to Cincinnati.
Tell me, who needs sleep again?