Friday, November 21, 2008

The Handmade Perception

There was a forum post on etsy recently that discussed, in part, the difficulty we sometimes have battling perceptions about the value of our time, the idea that because we are "just artists", we don't need to get paid, that we're doing it out of some altruistic need to fill the world with crafts, and the fear that in the current economic crisis, we will be hard hit. Many are considering lowering their prices, others are thinking about jumping ship, and a lot of us are just continuing to work hard, promote hard, and having nightmares about playing basketball in a swimming pool against Diana Taurasi (or maybe that's just me).

One person, about 100 posts in, said. "Guess we will never get rich at this game. It's done for love, most of the time."

Those of you who know me know that I wasn't going to let that one slide by. My response to her went like this:

"Yes and no. I do what I love and love what I do, but I fully intend to get rich doing it. I mean "rich" may be relative, but still -- I'm not doing it because I just want to spread my love for the world by making beautifully designed and carefully crafted handmade objects -- I'm doing it because I'm good at it! And I expect people to appreciate that, and show their appreciation by paying me what I deserve!"

It's hard sometimes, when you put something up on etsy, something that you've sweated and cried over, something that you've put everything you've ever learned about color and rhythm and line and balance and then you try to put a price tag on it and realize that no price is going to reflect your worth, and you battle with what you think it's worth and what you think people will actually pay for it, and it's tempting sometimes to jump on the latest trend (I'm talking to you, steampunk) just to make a quick buck, and maybe you don't even care if you're gluing crap together if you could just put new tires on the car and maybe even buy that shampoo you like.

It's hard, when your art is your living, and you're sitting there with your needles and yarn, or your paintbrush and a mask, and doing battle with yourself because what you WANT to do, what your inner artist is TELLING you to do, may not bring in the hundreds of dollar that it should, and you have to find that delicate balance where you're not selling yourself short, but you ARE making more than oh, say, 50 cents an hour. And you have to remind yourself that even if you CAN put the tires off for another month, you're still going to need gas. And then you sigh, and knit garter stitch instead of some fabulous lace pattern, and you applique instead of doing intarsia, and you use a die-cut shape instead of creating your own. And you hope that you're still being true to yourself. And the day suddenly seems very long.

I hate to use a basketball analogy again (actually that's not true, I love using a basketball analogy, and the college basketball season is finally starting, so it's on my mind) but we were watching UConn play (it was really more of a slaughter) San Diego State last night. There was never any doubt that UConn would win. They are, quite simply, the superior team, in both experience and content. I asked Jules, "How do you go into a game knowing that you're going to lose? What does the coach say to you in the locker room when the other team has exactly twice as many points on the boards?"

She explained that you can't, you don't, look at it like that. You don't focus on winning or losing, you focus on your goals. You focus on how many shots you can block, on how many possessions you can overturn, you -- and here's the crux of it, I think -- you "play every possession."

This does actually relate to the above discussion. I think as artisans, we sometimes get lost in the big picture. I know that lately, as I've been madly sewing and knitting, I'm so worried about getting enough "product" on my site in the hopes of off-the-charts sales this coming Black Friday and Cyber Monday, that I've lost the joy of what I'm doing. If I do that, then I may as well go back to selling "heads in beds" (hotel slang for occupancy), or answering phones. Because at least then I would have health insurance.

And when I've spent so much time on an item that I would have to price it far, far above what the market will bear, I take a good hard look at what it is that's taking me so long, and whether I could achieve that differently, and whether if maybe I should not be making that particular thing. As I mentioned before, it's a delicate balance.

For a few brief minutes last night, when I was beading an ornament made from an upcycled snowflake sweater, I was just in the moment. I was admiring the sheen of the czech glass beads, and marveling at the lovely symmetry of the snowflake, and enjoying the sensual feeling of the needle slipping into the bead and then through the wool, and simply enjoying what I do. And it was kind of great.

As I contemplated pricing on this little lovely, I bounced around from $24 to $8. My roommate thinks I should "price it to move" and there is that temptation to slash prices in order to make sales, and I understand that urge, really I do, but in the long run, it doesn't just hurt you as a business, it hurts every artisan who is trying to make a living and charging what would equate to a living wage.

And it's a constant struggle. There are always the people who are going to sell something cheaper than you. They don't realize that when they sell something for $9.50 and it took them 3 hours to make, they're selling themselves short. And maybe the people for whom it is "just a hobby" -- that's ok.

But for me, it's a business. That means that not only am I constantly monitoring my prices, other people's prices, my return on investment, the cost of supplies, and the relative sanity of my brain from monitoring all of this on any given day, but I'm also constantly striving for perfection. I want that basket/mask/pincushion to be PERFECT, and not just because I want to be able to charge the big bucks for it, but because I want to be able to take pride in what I do. Sure, I could jump on the steampunk bandwagon, or make something with owls/birds/scrabble tile pendants. But more importantly, I need to be true to myself.

So I'm making hams out of recycled sweaters and shibori fabric. I'm making little bracelet pincushions out of someone else's "trash". I'm making christmas ornaments out of beer bottle caps. I don't know if anyone will buy them. But they're beautiful, and I am proud to stand behind them. I look at my little shop on etsy, and I'm proud to say, "I did that." And I'll keep doing it. And I'll see how it goes, and I'll be flexible. But I'm still going to be true to myself.

This all goes back to what I was talking about a few weeks ago: believing in yourself, and fear of failure.

So my fellow etsians, don't lose heart! I really do believe we are at the forefront of a revolution in changing peoples perceptions about what they buy and where it comes from. It's up to us to set the standard for that, and then defend that standard. And I believe that part of that is educating our consumer about what we do, how and why we do it, and why they should support us doing it!

Because I believe in us. I really do.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Packaging, marketing, and the environment

I've really been struggling with packaging lately. I want the things I make to arrive beautifully packaged. I do think that's part of the experience, and I want to put the same care into the packaging of the product that I do into the making.

At the same time, I think that packaging is a huge source of waste, and I abhor the preponderance of packaging that litters our marketplace and, ultimately, our landfills. I read something on BaublesButtonsBeads blog banner (now there's a mouthful) that said "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." I've heard it before, but it was nice to be reminded, especially since -- for the most part -- I try to live by that philosophy.

For this reason, I started making little origami boxes out of paper that would otherwise be considered trash. One of my favorite instances of this is the little boxes I made out of the pages of a Thomas Guide which lost its usefulness after I got a navigation system for my car.

This box is perfect for the little earrings I was making, and I was able to make a larger one for the bracelets. The problem then becomes shipping. The box itself isn't sturdy enough to stand up to being shipped in an envelope, so instead of shipping in a Priority Mail flat-rate envelope, I need to ship in a small box.

Acquiring small boxes turned out to be easy -- I was at Staples one day (no endorsement should be inferred) and they were unpacking an abundance of school supplies. There was a cart full of little boxes, and after asking the store associate, I greedily pilfered the best of them. I was at Henry's a few days later (feel free to infer an endorsement here, I love Henry's) and did the same. So as far as boxes in which to ship, I'm golden!

I got an order for a tree trio last week, and was scrambling to find a packaging solution when I unearthed some of the lighter-weight boxes that pens were shipped in. I came up with what I think is a swell solution. I took a paint swatch, stamped my logo on it, and glued it over the logo on the box. The trees nestled in quite happily.

I tied a piece of jute around the box, then put them inside another, sturdier box, and off they went! I have to admit, it was pretty adorable!

Yesterday I got an order for two sets of bowls. One was listed as being sent in a handmade origami box, with a picture of said box. This is one that I made from cutting apart a gift bag which had ripped. The box itself is pretty, but not as sturdy as I would like. My bext problem was that the second set of bowls she ordered was MUCH larger, and wouldn't fit into the same box. I found a box from Crate & Barrel which I turned inside-out and tied with some gorgeous ribbon. Each box, individually, was lovely, but together, did not create the experience I would have wished. I found it a little jarring, in fact.

I put both boxes into yet another free box, this one from Henry's, which again, I turned inside out.

I'm less satisfied with this solution, and extremely irritated at the amount of time it took me to put it together. Any profit I might have made on that sale was negated by the hours -- yes, HOURS! it took me to package it. Part of it is that I'm so disorganized right now, and part of it is that I don't have a system -- every time I package something, I have to experiment with a bunch of different options just to find one that works.

At this point, it would probably be easier AND cheaper to just buy some damn pre-made boxes. But I'm so not okay with that. I am really conscious of the impact I have on the environment, and even though I reuse everything I get time and time again, I can't control whether or not someone else does.

Unfortunately, every minute (or hour) that I spend making packaging is another minute (or hour) that I'm not making money. And as I am just barely scraping by as it is, it's something I need to carefully consider, and find a viable solution for.

And if and when I do, you can bet you'll be the first to know!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm famous!

Well, not exactly. But Tuesday I got an email from Barbara at Barbara Keith Designs, letting me know that she'd added my Apple Basket to her Treasury! I was SO excited. And after several tries, I even managed to take a screen shot of it. There it is, in the upper left corner.

Then yesterday I woke up to an email from Kate of Organic Odysseys (I blogged about her last week) letting me know that I made the front page! And she was kind enough to take a screen shot and send it to me, since front page spots don't last very long. So there I am, second row, far right:

THEN, this morning Kate again let me know that she found me in a gift guide, too!

As if that wasn't enough, as I was writing this, I got an email from Simply Sentimental letting me know that my little trees had been featured on HER blog!

Whew! I'm overwhelmed just keeping up with all of this! I have work to do, but before I go, I also had a red-letter week on another Top-Secret Project I've been working on with my friend Bridget. She and I have been working for several months on an idea she had that she recently submitted a product to a live product search. Monday they contacted her and said that Westpoint Home is VERY interested in her product, and they wanted a prototype. Tuesday I rushed over to her house and we spent a few hours perfecting it, and off it goes! They have 45 days to make a decision, so think happy thoughts for us -- if they accept it, you'll be seeing it in stores in a little over a year!

Monday, November 10, 2008


Saturday I finished nearly a dozen items that have been in the works for a long, long, time. I spent most of Sunday photographing them, and then was up until nearly 2am cursing at the photos.

Part of the problem is that I don't really like doing the photography, so I tend to rush it. The other part of the problem is that I have no freaking clue what I am doing! I don't understand why my lightbox works beautifully in some cases, and in others makes everything super-saturated and underexposed. Artistically some of the photos might be considered sort of cool looking, but no one is going to buy something when they can't tell what it is.

Some of them turned out beautifully. I'm quite pleased with this, for example:

But one of my favorite pieces is not photographing accurately. Do those large diamonds over the eyes look black to you? Because they're not black, they're a deep, rich, gorgeous purple.

And although I love the staging of this photo, I'm frustrated with the way the beautiful stitching is blurring together into one big fuzzy orange blob:

I want the basket to be in focus, not the apples! (Not that the apples aren't beautiful, they are. But I'm not selling apples!)

The last Virtual Lab I attended on Etsy, Danielle kept talking about using natural light. It was raining yesterday, so the natural light was not readily available, but it looks sunny today, so perhaps I'll go outside (horrors!) and try this again.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

My Favorite Things

I've been spending some time in the Virtual Labs on Etsy lately, and one of the things that thrills me about this is the opportunity to interact with so many different sellers with such unique talents and points of view. So here are a few of my favorite things.

Kate of Organic Odysseys uses her organic farm for both inspiration and raw materials.

She uses polymer clay to capture in minute detail the nuances of the plant, then finishes each piece by hand through a process of firing, sanding, and painting. I don't entirely understand it, but the results are breathtaking.

This is one of her latest. (Pic above, or click on "this" to go to her shop) I find the delicacy and detail astonishing. Not to mention that I can't get over how cool it is that she's taking impressions from an actual plant, and making jewelry out of it! To me, is seems that she has captured my passion for the earth in jewelry -- really, what could be more magical than that?

I fell in love with these from the moment I saw them:

I love the way she's used the bronze to highlight the detail of the tomato, then used the green to add a "patina". And I especially love that the back of the earring is an impression of the tomato leaf!

You can also read her blog to find out more about how and why she does this! And you should see the things she does with tiny little eggplant (which, as you may have guessed from my previous entries, I am in love with.)

Another seller I found during this same lab is Livia, known as SmallPaintings on etsy. Her work is so charming and whimsical. Wouldn't this be so sweet in a childs bedroom?

Another that I love is Wild. It's like she knows how I feel inside, takes the secret magical parts, and paints them. I would love to hang this in my studio.

She's also done some beautiful children's books, and you can see more of her work on her website:

By the way, I asked both of these wonderful sellers for permission to post photos of their work and to link to them.

And in case anyone out there drew my name for Christmas this year -- yes, I would love anything from either of these shops!