From banking to bespoke furniture - how Fiona Gilfillan shifted her career path
Updated: May 13
If you are on the fence about making a career shift, look no further than Fiona Gilfillan’s epic story in this blog. Fiona tells us why she left a career in banking to get into woodworking and has never looked back since!
Where it began…
After a close friend of Fiona’s became ill, she realised that “life is too short and I should follow my dreams,” she says.
Fiona quickly caught the furniture making bug and went on to complete all three of the courses at the Chippendale School, starting with a taster week on the Introductory Course, taking her hobby to the next level on the Intermediate Course before going all-in on the Professional Course.
Fiona designed, made and sold a beautiful ash and elm console table with brass accents on the Intermediate Course (above). It is design she is very proud of which has since been commissioned twice!
Fiona honed her craft in the Incubation space at Myreside Studios where her woodworking business Feemade was born. Reflecting on her time there, she says: “I used to rent a small workshop locally and often got stuck with projects; being on my own and with little experience, it eventually got cluttered with half-finished ideas. Being in the graduate community allows me to use the brains of other woodworkers to overcome roadblocks I encounter, and to learn from what other makers are doing. It is also a beautiful place to work – I’ve just sat in the sun eating my lunch overlooking the hills of East Lothian. Takes a lot to compete with that. Since graduating, Fiona’s confidence has grown and she is finding her way. She says: “I’ve taken off my stabilisers since completing my courses, to establish what I enjoy making most. I love working with hardwoods such as elm and walnut, however, with the global turn of events, timber has increased in price and not everyone wants to pay for the prettiest materials. I am therefore also working with birch ply for a more modern aesthetic.
“I love working in clean lines and letting the beauty of the wood speak for itself and this approach spans across all my work in my business, Feemade, whether it is a jewellery box or a table.” “Currently, I am completing a painted, beech-topped vanity unit to fit in a particular space in a customer's new home. After that it is a memorial bench for a burial spot in a local wood, then a hardwood coffee table which converts into a dining table. Slightly further out I have an office remodel to design and I want to make a new media unit for my own house to replace the scaffolding board one which is where it all started.”
Restoration is a key part of the Chippendale School curriculum and is vital for bringing about a circular economy. Fiona has been using these skills to restore a Demilune table for a good friend who has sadly since died, taking it from bonfire material to something she is proud of. She says: “Looking at the photographs of it serves as a memory of her.”
Along the way, there have been setbacks that have also served as valuable lessons. “I recently learned not to jump ahead of the customer in the design process. I was keen to get started on a pair of side tables that I had made before and took a bit of a punt at one of the dimensions before confirming with the customer... and I got it wrong. It worked out as an inexpensive mistake with only a small amount of materials wasted, but I learned not to do that again. Imagine if it had been a slab of walnut...” “In January, I caught Covid and was laid low for a while. I was extremely fortunate to get only a mild attack, but I realised that I had 'got away with it' compared to others' experiences.” “It has encouraged me to be bolder and to make more, including the mistakes. It is, after all, just wood and no one lives or dies if I make mistakes.” Words of advice
Fiona is so passionate about bespoke making and has some tips for anyone who is deciding whether to leap into woodworking: “I have at my bench a piece of paper with, “if you really wanted to, you would” written on it. I spent quite a few years pussyfooting around whether I should quit my career and change to working with wood, and found all sorts of reasons to not do so. So for anyone who is on the fence, I would ask, “do you really want to do it?” If you do, then commit to finding the right training and take the plunge.” If you would like to learn the skills to follow your passion and start a business like Feemade see more information on our Professional course at The Chippendale International School of Furniture here.