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Dreamers into Doers: Turning Crafts into a Career

Martha Stewart Living, November 2010

"You should sell those." These four words can be intoxicating to anyone who has wowed the crowd at a baby shower with a tiny knitted sweater, or whose hand-thrown mug is the envy of everyone in the office.

But what does it take to trade said office for the life of a "craft- epreneur"? You might envision yourself in a sunny studio, lovingly churning out art, but you haven't the fuzziest notion of how to convert that cozy scene into cold, hard cash. The good news is there are more ways than ever for creators of handmade products to build a following and make sales -- both online and off.

Meet Your Market

First and foremost: you can sell only what someone will buy, so you should determine whether there's a big enough market for your wares. If a friend owns a boutique, ask if you can sell your products there on a trial basis. You can also join an online community of crafters (check out craftster.org), and read up on running a small business; try "Craft Inc.: Turn Your Creative Hobby Into a Business" (Chronicle; 2007). Mainly, you need to be really honest with yourself and draw up a business plan. What will your rent and supplies cost? how will you finance the start-up? What will your wages be? How much help will you need to produce at a profitable scale? And how much will you need to charge to break even or, better yet, turn a profit? A small-business class can help you navigate the details.

(Up)Loads of Fun

Several great websites that help small businesses and hobbyists sell have popped up recently. For handmade items, etsy.com is probably the best known. It's easy to set up shop there, and the fees are nominal. For a more customized selling experience, consider setting up a storefront on Big Cartel, or apply to be a part of the curated site Supermarket. You could also sell your products at markets and crafts fairs. With time, you'll discover the venues that work best for you. Then, the next time someone urges you to sell your wares, you'll be able to smile and say, "Oh, I do." Want more inspiration? Meet three women who have made their art into good business.

Jane D'Arensbourg, Glass Sculptor and Jeweler (janedarensbourg.com)

Her Small Business

Making glass sculpture and jewelry and selling them in galleries and boutiques and on her website.

Her Old Job

Assisting another glass sculptor. On the side, she made glass jewelry for friends.

How She Made the Change

A friend recommended D'arensbourg's work to a boutique. Soon after, DailyCandy, a popular fashion website and newsletter, mentioned her pieces. That day, she was bombarded with orders. "Boutiques contacted me for line sheets, and I didn't even know what one was," she says. (It's a catalog of sorts for wholesalers.) "I had so many stores calling that I had to stop freelancing to have time to complete the orders," she says. She took out a loan to help pay for the start-up costs. "It can be incredibly scary not having the stability of a regular income," she says. "But I think the threat of not succeeding is what fueled my ambition."

Her Best Advice

Don't undervalue your labor. "I want everything to be really great," she says. "If it takes a long time and has to be expensive, then so be it." She offers a range of prices by creating simpler pieces, rather than cutting corners to make items faster and cheaper.

Jenny Gordy, Clothing Designer (wikstenmade.com)

Her Small Business

Sewing clothes and selling them online.

Her Old Job

Student. Gordy went to the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City, and had the foresight to take a business class, so the financial end of starting up didn't take her by surprise. (She patched together start-up costs with loans from her parents, wages from part-time jobs, and credit cards.)

How She Made the Change

She started blogging about the clothes she was making for herself, and her following grew. "People started requesting custom orders through e-mail," Gordy says. She began selling on etsy and then opened a storefront on Big Cartel. By avoiding boutiques, she can sell directly to customers at wholesale, which keeps prices down. (And she likes that when she fills an order, she recognizes the name she's sending it to.) Since she can sew only so much, she supplements her income by teaching sewing classes and selling patterns.

Her Best Advice

Find a dedicated work space -- even if it's an unused room in your house or a shared workshop. "I share a space with a jewelry designer and a handbag designer," Gordy says. "We share costs, and the atmosphere of creativity is very inspiring -- and I procrastinate less than I would at home. I love going to work."

Jane Buck, Printmaker (foxyandwinston.com)

Her Small Business

Making and selling silk-screens on stationery, baby clothing, fabric accessories, and wall hangings.

Her Old Job

Waitress, freelance illustrator for magazines, and muralist. She worked part time in a boutique where she sold some of her t-shirts and cards.

How She Made the Change

"I held down a part-time job three days a week so I could buy materials and equipment until I had enough wholesale accounts to go full time," she says. Without a loan or even a stash of savings, she was able to make the switch, but she also wasn't paying herself much. (Even now, five years after the change, it's just buck and an intern on staff.) What kept her costs down was working out of a spare room in her home. And every weekend, she made cash at crafts fairs. "That helped massively," she says. She now has a shop with an adjacent print studio and sells her stationery nationwide to boutiques and stores, as well as from her website via Big Cartel.

Her Best Advice

Cultivate a community of small-business owners. "I belong to a really great group of artists and designers who bring their latest ideas and products for discussion to the dinner table," Buck says. "Since we all work alone in our various ventures, it's something we get a lot out of."

Fair Trade

Even in the Internet age, it's still important to peddle your wares in person. Here are great places and ideas to consider.

Local Fairs

Unlike selling online, fairs let you observe shoppers as they suss out your wares. Their reactions and feedback can help you improve your designs (and sales).

Regional and Indie Fairs

The Renegade Craft Fair, held annually in several cities, is worth the $325 investment for a 10-by-10-foot booth. Bazaar Bizarre is another great indie fair.

Juried Shows

American Craft Council shows are costly for most established exhibitors. But they offer AltCraft, a space designated for rising indie crafters, at a fraction of the cost. Crafters apply and are chosen by jury.

Networking

Wherever you sell, have cards and a sign-up sheet so you can send e-mails about sales and events. Also get a blog, a Twitter account, or a Facebook fan page (or all three). You might feel uncomfortable with self-promotion, but rest assured, all successful entrepreneurs do it.

Comments (1)

  • PeggyGaffney 24 Jul, 2011

    So many of Martha Stewart Dreamers Into Doers are making their careers in crafts. For 16 years I have been designing unique knitting patterns working portraits of dogs into sweaters and accessories for dog lovers everywhere. For the last 6 years, I have been writing knitting books and patterns so that knitters can work these patterns themselves. Making crafts your livelihood, is a way to share your art and dreams with the world.