When pâtissier Eileen Tay had to close her French pastry shop in the span of just two days, she started focusing most of her energy on her two toddlers, Elijah and Elizabeth.
The closure of ET Artisan Sweets led Eileen to pick up sewing to curb the ‘ennui’, or what the French aptly define as boredom from lack of an occupation. To her surprise, Eileen’s love for her children, coupled with the naturally entrepreneurial grit of a creative mind, established Elizabeth Little Co. in 2016.
Her work has since been rewarded with booming publicity.
Eileen went from constantly being swamped with demands for never-seen-before outfits, to garnering a following of 3700 Instagram followers organically – and later, to seeing her son’s development improve dramatically.
She managed all this, while making sure the kids get to school and are learning important soft skills along the way.
Here, we delve into the life of a proud mother and purveyor of hand-stitched heirloom pieces, whose children have been deemed “the best dressed kids at church”.
Landing On A Bitter Note
As a pastry chef with 8 years of experience and having undergone training at the Culinary Institute of America, it is understandable why it broke Eileen’s heart when she had to close her patisserie.
Two days after receiving the conditions for a new lease, ET Artisan Sweets ceased its operations to the dismay of many sweet-toothed customers.
“It took me two years to mourn over the closure of the shop.” After closing ET Artisan Sweets, the opening of Elizabeth Little Co. happened about 2 and a half years later.
“From being someone who is known in the field to being someone who [would] just stay at home with the kids… it was not easy. I was afraid of baking because I wasn’t even sure if I was any good anymore,” Eileen tells me.
“I closed at a peak. The rental was favourable but there was a clause I was not comfortable with. On February 10th (in the year 2015), we saw the new contract, and I closed the shop on the 12th.”
Elizabeth Little Co.
Besides having to make quick executive decisions, Eileen was also put under the mounting pressure of a premature baby on its way. She recalls an incident with former President Mr. Tony Tan.
“I was supposed to meet the President, Mr. Tony Tan, on the 30th of January 2015. It was Patron’s Day at SMU and I did the cakes for them.”
“But that day, Elizabeth’s head almost popped out! The doctor kept me in the hospital and refused to let me go. I said, “I cannot! I need to go now, the President is waiting for me!””
Yet little did Eileen know that Elizabeth’s arrival would kickstart her journey towards dressmaking and establishing Elizabeth Little Co. eventually.
While she always made sure to tuck her children into bed by 8 PM, boredom started to grow on Eileen. That was until her friend gave her a handmade blanket, which motivated her to pick up a new skill. She has been adding to her children’s wardrobes and nursery since.
“Sewing was something I could do at night when the kids were sleeping. I only did four sessions with a sewing school, then I went to buy paper patterns. If you ask me to do anything related to technology or finance, I can’t.”
“When it comes to [having to settle] income taxes every year, I’m horrified. But in terms of making stuff, I think God gave me a gift so it was actually very easy for me to pick up sewing.”
Bringing Old School Back
Eileen remains drawn to classic Japanese smock dresses, and draws inspiration from French fashion from time to time.
She talks about when her mother would make her and siblings wear “proper dresses, and proper, real clothes” which are unlike the ubiquitous pieces from high street brands which she finds “are just not special”.
To Eileen, wastage is unnecessary, and she weaves this philosophy into how she teaches her children the value of what it means to cherish things.
She’s a firm believer in Marie Kondo‘s minimalist approach to life, who is an advocate of “keep(ing) only those things that speak to your heart” and discarding those which do not.
When asked if she was ever confident that her sense of style would attract customers, Eileen shakes her head.
“I’ve never expected anyone to like what I like. I’ve always thought I have a very old school sort of dress sense.”
“For cakes, yes—I have 8 years of experience and there’s a following, but clothing wise, no. So it never occurred to me that [Elizabeth Little] would kick off.”
As a finisher, Eileen abides by her love for repetition and makes sure to complete it all at once.
No matter how tedious smocking (a sewing technique in which the fabric is pleated and stitched together with elastic so as to enable it to stretch) or working through the night when the business first started may be, Eileen follows through.
“[Initially], I decided to bring in Liberty Fabrics to sell and only with the intention of selling fabric; the clothing is just for my own children to wear.”
“Then I realized very few people sew, or have very little time to sew. For me to sew one dress and to sew five dresses is the same. It’s not difficult, like how I do cakes, very fast! So I’m very used to the processes.”
Being A Mummy Never Stops
Eileen is also conscious of ‘mummy guilt’ – a type of guilt mothers have when they feel like they haven’t invested as much time and love as they should have in their children.
For Eileen, a chief reason was to set the guilt aside by doing something about it once and for all, even if it meant stopping work.
She saw the leap in Elijah’s development when she stopped work. He was almost two, and had started picking up words and learning new motor skills.
“I could bring him out to the park and I could be there to catch him, just to make sure he’s not learning the wrong things. Now when I tell Elijah I’m going out to work, Elijah will be like, “No, no, stay at home.”
“To a child, time spent with them is love.”
Elizabeth Little Co. has also given her the chance to work as a team alongside her organised and tech-savvy husband. This has allowed the family of four to grow together in spending quality time with each other as they work to meet the business’ demands.
“All the collateral you see is done by my husband. He’s very good at administration and operational aspects, so he will settle all the fair set ups, make sure I pack my stuff. His love language is Acts of Service, so I really get to see the effort he puts in and the love he shows.”
When they do pop-up events for Elizabeth Little, Elijah will help Eileen with sales. She says that he is a very shy boy, so for him to even break out of that shell [at a recent fair], she thought that it was a great opportunity.
“I [want to] teach them skills; be it baking, or how I interact with the customers, or how I interact with the chefs and team. I can teach them how to respect people.”
“I find that these are important soft skills which you can’t pick up in schools. I think the soft skills my family has instilled in me are the things that will go far.”
Sowing Into The Future
Eileen’s hope for Elizabeth Little Co. is to start collaborating with social enterprises. While she may seem soft spoken, Eileen speaks with a sturdy pragmatism when it comes to matters of the heart, and has an especially soft spot for children with special needs.
“For this year, I’m hoping to see if I can work with the Autism Association, lower income families or women who are underprivileged to do small pieces.”
“I’m trying to look for groups I can work with to produce a series of items where the proceeds will go to benefit that group. If making that item can give an autistic person a livelihood, I will be keen to explore.”
Still, when asked about how Singaporeans perceive handmade items, Eileen believes more mindsets need to change.
“It’s quite sad because in Singapore, people think handmade is cheap—it’s not. Hopefully if people are appreciative of small businesses and the reason why we’re doing this, then this will create more sustainable [local] businesses in the future.”