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Reaping what she sews

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Oneka Benn Schwartz (Photo by Mark Tatem)

Bermudians really take pride in their homes.

That’s one thing Oneka Benn Schwartz has noticed since moving here with her family six years ago.

The home furnishings designer recently completed her own line of bespoke pillows, table linens, bed linens and lampshades, in partnership with The Island Shop.

Her aim was to create pieces residents would be delighted to include in their space.

It was a fun creative process to get to work on a line from start to finish. However the mother-of-three said it also came with some challenges.

“Everything is handmade,” she said. “I made all the prints and even made the lamp shades from scratch — apart from the frames.

“I’ve been working on sewing every day for about a month now, so in hindsight it would have been nice to have a little bit more time.”

She had to carve out time for the line while her six-month-old daughter was napping, and her two older children were in school.

It’s filled with lots of ikat patterns, which the 37-year-old chose because of their versatility.

“They can look very traditional, tropical or modern depending on the colours,” she explained. The pieces are also “pretty feminine”, she said.

Mrs Benn Schwartz started sewing when she was a child in Guyana.

Her grandmother, Elgin Raper, was a seamstress. She owned her own business making lingerie, night gowns and pyjamas for women in the Caribbean country.

Years later Mrs Benn Schwartz was inspired to weave a similar path for herself.

After her family immigrated to the US, she went off to study textile/surface design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

At age 21, Mrs Benn Schwartz launched her own online business selling sheets, duvet covers, pillows and the like.

In just a few short days she booked her first few orders.

“It was over Thanksgiving that I built my own website on Yahoo,” she said. “It went live the day before the holiday and the next day was Black Friday, but I hadn’t told anyone about it.

“I really wasn’t thinking I would have a bunch of sales, so I set it up and then didn’t check the site until that Sunday.

“But when I looked we had four orders already.”

In a stroke of luck her business was the top result if you searched for “satin bedding” in the Yahoo search engine.

“Now you have to pay for that kind of placement on the web, but I was number one for the first two years of my business,” she explained.

Mrs Benn Schwartz ended up making satin sheets and duvet covers late into the night.

The next day she would package them up, seal them and send the orders out from the post office.

She learned mostly by trial and error. Her grandmother taught her how to create the first sheet set. If she wasn’t sure about something she would buy a similar piece, rip it apart and use that as a model to see how the item was constructed.

“I am sure the first people that ordered them got some crooked seams and things, but it eventually worked itself out,” she said.

“Six or seven months after that I rented a factory space and moved back into my parents house so I could afford it.”

She continued: “It felt good to be a young entrepreneur, but I didn’t think of it at the time as something so outrageous.

“That was the era when young people were launching websites and going public and becoming millionaires so it didn’t feel like I was doing anything that amazing.

“But in hindsight I do think it was commendable because I was 21 and most of my friends were still going partying every night and I was the party pooper because I was up sewing.”

Her ultimate goal is to open her own store and build her own brand, like her mentor and the owner of The Island Shop, Barbara Finsness.

“I would love to have a style that is associated with me and where someone can walk into a place and say, ‘That’s Oneka’s’,” she said. “I want to grow my brand to the point where I am a successful business woman.”

Mrs Benn Schwartz will host a trunk show featuring her latest collection tomorrow, Thursday and Friday at The Island Shop on Queen Street in Hamilton.

Oneka Benn Schwartz (Photo by Mark Tatem)
<p>Four design tips from Oneka</p>

1. Change up your home decor seasonally.

In Bermuda there are two distinct seasons: summer and winter. Mrs Benn Schwartz recommends creating a different feel in your home to coincide with those seasons. “When it gets chillier outside an easy way to change your house without changing the furniture is by changing the throw pillows and putting an afghan on your sofa.”

The designer said she had friends who change the slipcovers on their couch at different times of the year.

They might have a pastel or bright coloured slip cover for spring/summer and then reach for a darker or warmer shade in fall.

2. Don’t make your house like a museum.

You might see a wonderful design in a magazine and dream of recreating that room. But Mrs Benn Schwartz said you have to consider if your lifestyle reflects that kind of design. “You can invest in pieces of furniture you love, but if you have children or pets it’s going to get messy,” she said. “You want to be able to live in your home comfortably. You can get things you love and that evoke a certain emotion without it being a museum piece. My sofa is from Overstock.com and is made with microfibre fabric so if there are any spills it can easily be wiped off.”

3. Don’t be afraid of colour.

A lot of people like colour when they see it in someone else’s home, but choose to go with neutral shades in their own space. Mrs Benn Schwartz suggests adding an accent wall in a colour or finding pillows or curtains in a graphic print. Either could do wonders for a room and change the entire look and feel of a space.

4. Even if you’re living in a space temporarily, make it feel like home.

As an expat, Mrs Benn Schwartz has moved homes a lot. Still she insists she doesn’t want to live like a college student.

“I have pieces of furniture that will always come with me wherever I go to make it our home. Wherever you are, that is your home for that time so I like to make sure that it’s as comfortable as possible.”