Category Archives: Everything Else

“I ain’t no size 2.”

We’ve been watching the most recent season of Project Runway. I love the show and I think Tim Gunn is completely brilliant. One of the new things this season is that the designers have to work with “real” sized models. Not just size 0, but ladies with some curves, which is awesome. I usually yell at the screen when I see the designers doing things with dye while not wearing gloves (a huge pet peeve), but this season I find myself yelling at the screen because they are complaining about having to design for “large” or “curvy” or “plus sized” girls. Or when they say that they have never designed for bigger than a size 0.

Because you know what? They showed a couple of those cards with the models’ measurements and I grabbed a screen shot. One of those “bigger” girls that the designers were having a fit about: her measurements are basically the same as mine. (Except for the height. I am only 5’4″.) I sew clothing and I sew clothing a lot for myself, so I know my measurements and when I saw this card and heard them calling her a “big girl” I was a little bit… annoyed? disgusted? angry? offended? I am not sure. Either it’s “Woohoo, I am built like a model!” or “When did I suddenly become plus sized?” I am a short curvy size 6.

I spent the weekend doing a photoshoot of a bunch of my work. I have some exhibitions I want to enter and some work that I hadn’t had a chance to photograph yet and so I set up the dress forms and started shooting. That is my super glam set up in the basement. I do a lot of photos on dress forms because I like how they give the garment shape but basically the form melts into the background. They let the garments be the star of the shot and that’s really important to me. I rarely shoot on people because I think it’s distracting. Your brain is hardwired to look at faces and so that’s the first thing you look at, not my art.

But I had some more pieces, these wrap skirts specifically, that needed to be on a person. So that’s me getting to be the model. My husband shoots the photos when I am modeling. He’s a good guy. It’s exhausting (as you can see from our last dorky shot of the day), but I have several reasons that I didn’t want to hire a model to do it for me. There is the financial reality that if I hired a model, I would have to add significantly to the costs of these garments in order to cover that cost of finding, scheduling, and shooting with someone else. And I am not implying that my time is free, just that I can add those hours into the rest of the time I am paying myself for making/designing these and that makes a lot more sense.

So I have now spent several hours editing these photos to get them ready for various things. Adjusting the light, erasing the shoe scuffs on the paper, cropping, straightening  and so on. And scrutinizing my body. (Do I have any volunteers who want to do that for a couple of hours? I didn’t think so.)

These wrap skirts are headed to my Etsy shop. I made a whole line of them (and some dresses which I haven’t photographed yet) for a couple of shows last year and I am finally getting an online shop put together that is all of my clothing and accessory pieces. I love these skirts. I love to wear them, I love how they move, I love how the fit is flexible so that you can make it fit whatever size you are today and be comfortable. I wear mine all the time and they fit my style. The rest of the pieces (mostly scarves) I have in the Etsy shop are on dress forms and they aren’t getting a lot of attention, so I thought maybe I needed the skirts to be on a person instead, to show the way they fit on someone with curves and bumps and a real figure. Because my dress forms are anything but real.

This is supposedly a size 4 dress form, but she is wearing a padded bra, two layers of bubble wrap around the waist, two petticoats and I still have a pleat pinned in the back to make this dress (which fits me) look like it fits on this dress form. For the last exhibition I did, I brought a whole roll of quilt batting to pad out my dress forms for more realistic figures because I don’t sew “sample” size garments. I make things that fit me. These dress forms with the arms only come in a nominal size 4. Coats and other things with sleeves look so much better on something with arms, so padding it out is the compromise for me.

There’s all kinds of marketing wisdom that says that your clothing has to be on a person to sell it online. It’s about selling the lifestyle as much or more than the item. People want to visualize themselves and they need that visual clue to make that happen. So I wanted to photograph those skirts on a person and see if that makes a difference to the reaction and attention that these get online in my Etsy shop. And I thought it was important that it was a real person and not a “model” figure.

Because despite the fact that I LOVE these skirts, I am really on the fence about whether I am going to continue making these at all. In person, they draw people in. I design very rich, complex surface patterns and these fabrics beg you to touch them and look at them up close. You can hold them up to you and that visualizing-yourself-wearing-it step is so much easier. Even if you aren’t a skirt-wearing kind of person. But what I have learned is that when I sell them in person, I spend the entire day having the same conversation.

That conversation is about personal body image issues.

I love this so much, but I can’t wear skirts because they make me look thick.

This is so great, but it hits the fat part of my calves and so I never wear skirts.

I wish I could wear this but I have no waist and so it would just make me look cut in half.

At the end of the day, I have heard about the insecurity, the perceived flaw, the thing that everyone feels that is wrong with themselves from all of these lovely women that I am meeting for the very first time at this art show. I might not even know their names, but I know that they think they have fat calves. Because they want to say something nice and tell me why they love this piece of fabric they have in their hands, but they don’t want to buy it. So they blame that on the easiest thing to blame. Themselves.

And it’s kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to know what makes you feel insecure or unattractive.

The thing is, I know that only a small number of people that walk through my display are even going to be interested in buying something from me. Every artist knows this. Style is very personal; you have colors and patterns that you are drawn to and that make you feel good. I totally get that. I can’t wear red or animal prints. They bother me. I love to wear skirts because I think they are comfortable. But that’s not true for everybody. I LOVE to talk about my work and how it’s made but I don’t take it personally if it’s not your thing, because that thing that “clicks” and makes it your style is something different for everyone. Clothing is even more personal because it is art that is displayed on your person, not just on your wall. I don’t think people are compelled to explain to a photographer or painter that “I love this painting so much, but I think it will make my couch look frumpy.” But I don’t know. (If you are a painter, please chime in, I am super curious.)

And I get it. I just spent a few hours zoomed in on these photos looking for lint and weird shadows and noticing the wrinkles at my waist and hearing that stupid inner critic voice say “that waistline isn’t as trim as it was when you were 20” and “that skirt would look more balanced if your torso wasn’t so short.” That inner critic voice is always there telling you to be more something or less something. I am pretty comfortable in my skin, but that doesn’t mean I’m not hearing it. All the time.

I am also limited by the materials a little with these skirts. This design is made from a single piece of fabric that is shaped like a large C. Based on the width of the fabric, I can only make these fit up to about a size 14 before the wrap is not wrapping enough to prevent you from showing off your knickers. So I am limited by the width of my materials and this design. And I could certainly print more fabric and piece it together to make it wider. But then there is a seam, which makes it hang and drape differently, and it takes longer to sew and I have to buy double the fabric. Which means that a size 14 has one cost and a size 16 is drastically more. Which is completely unfair. Ugh. (Or I raise the price so they are all the same and that makes them only affordable to people who have a lot more disposable income than I do. Also ugh.) Between explaining that I don’t have any larger sizes (which makes me sounds like a whiny Project Runway designer) and hearing about fat calves, it makes these a little less fun for me. And so they’ve been hanging in a closet, waiting for me to figure it out.

So the last thing I am doing with this post is fishing for someone to tell me that I am skinny and not plus sized. That’s not my point. I am writing this post because it is something that needs more thinking about.

How can I change the conversation? What can I do that encourages a more body positive conversation but that still lets me make wearable art and love doing it? Scarves are a practical solution. They don’t have a “fit”, they show off my patterns beautifully and lots of people love them. But lots of people make them too and everyone I know has a lot of scarves already.

I don’t know the answer, but I am very interested in the conversation. What do you think?

“What if nobody shows up?”

Last year, I got a grant from the state arts board to make some new work. Part of the requirements of the grant was to have a part of the project that the public could participate in. This could be a performance to attend, art making, a video to watch. Something that they could interact with in some way.

I chose to do a series of mini-workshops where I showed participants how to do a tiny taste of my process making the art for the exhibition that was the culmination of the grant. The workshops were well attended and I had so much fun. A friend recently did a similar series of art making workshops for another grant. She posted about her nervousness and excitement about the events and one of the commenters on that post of hers really stood out for me. The comment was something like this:

“You are so brave. I could never do an event like that, I would be too scared that nobody would show up.”

I read that comment and I thought to myself, “Oh honey. Nobody always shows up. You can count on that.”

When I say “nobody” I don’t mean literally nobody. I mean that you never know exactly who is going to show up and it is never going to be who you think it is. I do a lot of art making events and residencies and pop-up kinds of things in many different venues because I love it, but the reality is that:

  • 80% of the time there are fewer people there than I would wish for
  • 5% of the time there are way more people than I am prepared for
  • 5% of the time there is just me and the crickets (or it’s cancelled altogether)
  • Which leaves about 10% of the time that the class is actually living up to what I pictured in my head

I often don’t know what category an event is going to fall into until I show up. About 25% of the classes I offered this year were cancelled due to low enrollment. At least one event that I had scheduled, the venue forgot I was even coming. I have had events this year that have sold out/filled up in just a few hours and ones that were teetering on the edge of being cancelled for weeks. Sometimes they snowball and a class gets cancelled on a weekend when I turned down other things, since I can’t be in two places at once. (And now I have no events instead of too many.)

The thing I had to learn is that the number of people that show up isn’t the most important part. Numbers don’t equal success. Numbers don’t equal value. Numbers don’t equal quality. And that’s hard to wrap your head around.

I worked at an art center for more than 11 years and I was in charge of scheduling classes and workshops and having to make the call when something would run or be cancelled. One of my “rules of thumb” was that pretty often, the first time you offered a new class it would not have enough students registered to be able to run but the second time it was offered, it would fill up. I can’t explain why with any certainty, but I have a feeling that it was some subtle psychology. There is a marketing theory, called the “Rule of Seven”, that says for an ad or message to be effective, you the consumer, have to see it 7 times before you will take action. I think that totally happened with these classes. By the time it was offered a second time, it seemed familiar and reminded that potential student that this was something that looked amazing the first time they read about it.

Think about it. The reasons for you to not do something (like sign up for a class) pretty much always outnumber the reasons to do it: you don’t have time right now, you shouldn’t spend the money right now, you don’t know the teacher and you aren’t sure you will like it, there’s so much else needing your attention….

And you know what? None of those reasons have anything to do with me, the artist who is offering this class or performance or art making event.

I did several art-making-in-the-gallery events when my exhibition was on display. I was there one afternoon for about 3 hours and I had four people show up for the activity. Four seems kind of depressing. But that group of four was delightful. We did the art project. No one was waiting, so we made another and everyone got to practice a second time. They took pictures, we posted to social media, we laughed and talked about all kinds of other creative ideas that they had while they were working. This was 6 months ago and I still think of that group and smile. There were several dozen other people who “said they were interested” in the event on Facebook or liked the post that I wrote about it. It went out in newsletters and postcards and word of mouth. Not everyone is going to be interested. Not everyone is even going to pay attention. But for those four people, the balance tipped the other way and the reasons to go do it outweighed the reasons not to and that, when you think about it, is something to celebrate.

When I say that 80% of the time there are fewer people there than I would wish for it’s not because the number is important by itself. It’s because I want to share that kind of experience with more people. That’s why I love teaching. It’s because there is something magic that happens when you have just the right size group to build some energy and spark conversation, where people feel like they can contribute without feeling self-conscious. A class of 3 people rarely hits that magic groove, but a class of 8 or 12 can be amazing. (A class of 50 rarely hits the magic groove either. It goes both ways.) Sometimes I wish for more students because the flat out financial logistics don’t work out if you don’t get enough. Then I am paying the venue more than I am making in order to use the space. That is difficult to sustain. Sometimes I wish for more because I want to build momentum. If more people took my beginning class, I would have the push and demand to develop the next more advanced one. And that’s fun for me and for my students too.

I feel like every day in my Facebook or Twitter feed there is a promo post from someone for how to grow your numbers. Number of followers or likes or shares or retweets. As if the number is going to magically make you successful and if you aren’t getting enough likes you are a failure. I think that blog commenter I mentioned at the beginning of this post had this same feeling: She couldn’t even do it, because if no one showed up then she would be a failure. I get it. If I looked at every cancelled class or low attendance as failure, I couldn’t do it either.

Instead, I try to think of it this way: Getting 100 “likes” is like getting a round of applause. It’s fun and very satisfying but it’s over in 23 seconds and everyone has moved on. But I would trade those 100 likes for another mini class with the four ladies from the gallery. Every time.

There’s a quote (with an original source which is highly debated) that says “It’s not the years in your life that matters; it’s the life in your years”. I am pretty sure that applies: It’s not the numbers in your class that matters, it’s the class with those students.

Fabric Design for Back to School: Pop Art Shoe Bag Tutorial

When you live in Minnesota, “Back-to-School Season” is quickly followed by “Snowboots Season”. When I asked my sister what she thought would be a great back-to-school project to share with the Spoonflower Back to School Blog Hop, she described a “stuff sack” type bag to put the kids’ shoes in their backpacks when they have to wear their snowboots to school. Something to keep the papers from getting dirty and books from getting crumpled by dirty sneakers. With each kid needing regular shoes, gym shoes and snowboots, there are a lot of shoes getting hauled back and forth on the bus every day.

Creating the fabric design.

Color & scan.

My niece and nephew are 7 & almost 9 years old and I thought the bags would be the most fun (and more likely to get used) if I could get the kids to help me with the fabric design. What better for a shoe bag than a fabric print with shoes?

So I drew a coloring book page with a canvas sneaker. I drew it in fine tip sharpie, scanned it and emailed it to my sister. She printed copies and let the kids color the shoes any way they liked. They chose colored pencils for these, but this would also work with markers, crayons, or watercolor.

Download: If you want to make your own shoe print, you can download my shoe coloring book page here. It is yours to use any way you like.

I love to add texture and dimension to my designs so when I got the colored shoes back from the kids, I used a 1/8 in paper punch to punch holes at the eyelets and I made shoelaces from colored yarn. I threaded it through like lacing the shoe and tied a bow. Then I scanned the completed shoes.

Make the background transparent.

I opened each shoe in Photoshop so that I could cut out the shoe and make the background transparent. I used the Magic Wand tool to select the white background and then unlocked the layer so that I could delete that white edge and leave just the shoe.

  1. Choose the magic wand tool.
  2. Click the white area in the background of the shoe.
  3. Unlock the layer.
  4. Hit the delete key.
  5. The background should now be transparent (checkerboard).
  6. If your first click didn’t remove all of the white background, continue to select and delete the parts you don’t need.
  7. Here is a tutorial on how to adjust settings on the magic wand tool to fine tune and select more/less area.
  8. Save each shoe as a .psd file. (That’s a Photoshop file.)

Create the background canvas.

I wanted to do a repeating Warhol-inspired pop art design with the shoes by putting them each on a brightly colored background rectangle, so I set up a new canvas in Photoshop for the background. I created a new file that was 7.5 x 9 inches at 150 dpi. That’s the size I decided to make the repeat for my design.

I filled this canvas with 6 rectangles, each 2.5 x 4.5 inches. I drew these using the Rectangle Tool (yellow circle below) and filled them with a random color. Hint: If you click once with the tool inside your canvas, it will bring up a dialog box and you can type in the exact size of the rectangle you would like. Just repeat that to make all six rectangles. Here’s a little more about how to use the Rectangle Tool. Use the Move Tool to move the rectangles into place and be sure that you have selected the layer that you want to move. (Each rectangle will be on its own layer.)

 

I am going to match the colors to the shoes a little later, so the colors don’t matter at this step, just pick ones with a lot of contrast.

Add the shoes to the design.

Next, I placed the shoes into the design, using File -> Place Embedded and chose the edited version with the transparent background. I resized each one as I brought it in so that each shoe would fit in a rectangle. I adjusted the height to make each one 4 inches tall and made sure to click the chain icon (to the left of the yellow circle) to make sure it was scaled proportionally and not “squished”. If you want to adjust them after you have placed them, be sure that you have the right layer selected. Each rectangle and each shoe will be on a different layer at this point.

Match the background colors to the shoes.

Finally, to recolor the rectangles and match them to the colors in the shoes, I used the paint bucket/eyedropper tool in combination. The annoying part of this step will be keeping track of which layer you are on, so I recommend going to Layer -> Merge Visible and making your design all one layer for this step.

I then switched to the Paintbucket Tool and hovered over a color in a shoe. When I hold down the option key with Paintbucket selected, my Paintbucket will transform to an eyedropper. I clicked with the eyedropper to choose a color from a shoe and then released the option key. Now the cursor switches back to paint bucket and I can click inside a rectangle to fill with that color. Continue to select (hold option – click) a color and paint (release option – click) until you have colors that you like.

My finished repeat is below.

Save it and order a yard.

Now save this design as a .jpg and upload it to Spoonflower. I liked mine arranged as a half-drop repeat. You can get two bags out of one yard of fabric. I chose Basic Cotton Ultra for this project because I wanted the bags to be sturdy but not too bulky since they are designed to go inside another bag.

If you aren’t feeling like you want to design your own fabric or you don’t have kids around to do some coloring with you, I also curated a collection of great shoe fabrics by other Spoonflower designers. You can shop that Shoe collection here.


This is a great place to tell you that Spoonflower is giving you, my readers, a 10% discount! Use coupon code Rahn10 when you place your order. It’s valid until September 30, 2017 for orders of fabric, wallpaper and gift wrap and can not be applied with any other promotional offers.


Sewing the bag

Materials you need to make the bag.

  • 1/2 yard of shoe fabric. Basic Cotton Ultra is a great choice.
  • 1/2 yard of lining fabric.  I chose a lightweight cotton/poly broadcloth in bright green.
  • a 22 x 2 inch scrap of very lightweight fabric for the drawstring casing. I used a scrap from the selvedge of a piece of Spoonflower’s poly crepe de chine. Nylon or poly lining fabric is also a great choice. You want something that will allow the drawstring to bunch up and close the bag.
  • 1 yard of 1/4 inch paracord
  • A cord lock toggle. I got mine from this shop at Etsy.

Cut out rectangles.

You need three rectangles to make each bag.

  • 23 inches x 14 inches of your shoe fabric.
  • 23 inches x 14 inches of your lining fabric.
  • 21 inches x 2 inches of a very lightweight fabric for the drawstring casing.

Hem and fold the casing.

Start with the small rectangle of fabric for the drawstring casing. Make a narrow 1/4 hem at each short edge. Then fold the strip in half, matching the long edges and press.

Stitch the casing (top) edge.

Lay the shoe fabric right side up on your table. Place the casing in the center of the long edge of the rectangle, matching the raw edges. Place the lining fabric right side down, matching the long edge. Pin through all the layers and then stitch the long edge using a 1/2 inch seam allowance.

Turn the layers right side out and press so that the casing is free at the top and the shoe and lining fabrics are pressed down wrong sides together.

Stitch the side seam.

Unfold and open out your bag and refold it in half matching lining to lining and shoe fabric to shoe fabric. We are going to sew the outer and lining side seam all at once, making a tube. Match the long edges, pin and stitch with a 1/2 inch seam allowance. Press the seam open.

Mark the center, stitch the bottom.

Turn the tube so that the casing is at the top, the shoe fabric is to the inside and lining is outside. It will be like a doubled over tube, open at the top and bottom.

We need to mark the side of the bag for the next step. Fold the tube in half along the stitching line at the side seam and lay it flat on a table. Then mark the opposite folded edge with a pin, about 3 inches from the bottom corner. You will use this pin to help make a corner gusset in the next step.

Stitch the bottom edge of the bag through all the layers, using a 1/4 inch seam allowance. You can serge or zig zag over this raw edge to keep it from fraying.

Open out the corners.

Starting with the side with the stitched seam, open out the corner of the bag and match the side seam (black arrow) to the bottom seam (white arrow). Stack them one on top of the other and fold it flat, creating a point right at the corner. Pin it to keep the seams from shifting.

Mark the gusset.

Measure 2.75 inches from the tip of the triangle and use a ruler to draw a light pencil line. Your line should be 5 inches from folded edge to folded edge. Stitch across the corner through all layers, following this line.

Repeat for the other corner.

Since you don’t have a side seam on the opposite side, use the pin you placed to match the side to the bottom seam. Mark and stitch the same way. This will form square corners on the bottom of the bag. You can trim away the excess at the corners if you want to remove some bulk, but I like to just fold it towards the bottom and use is as an extra layer of reinforcement.

Turn it right side out & add the drawstring.

Turn the bag right side out. Cut a piece of paracord that is 36″ long. You can get one of my laser cut needles to thread the cord through the casing or use a large safety pin or elastic threader.

Slide the cord lock over the ends of the cord and then tie the cord ends together in a knot. Melt the ends of the cord so it doesn’t fray. (Please be careful! It gets hot and you should work in a ventilated area.)

If you want to follow along with the other blog hop posts in this series: Wednesday, August 2 – Robin Szypulski | Kritter Stitches – Bookbag on SF blog • Amy Watkins | Cozy Reverie – First / Last day of school photo pennants  • Kimberly Coffin | Sweet Red Poppy – 1st day of school outfit • Abby Glassenberg | While She Naps – Plushie key chain • Heidi Kenney | My Paper Crane – snack bags • Erin Williams | Printable Crush – book covers

Teaching is all about the preparation.

This is me teaching a school residency where I worked with 700+ students in 5 days.

I am prepping for a teaching trip this week. I am heading out to NC to teach some highschool teachers about how to use Spoonflower in their classrooms. It should be great. I like teaching teachers.

As I was getting ready to start polishing up my slides and handouts I was thinking about some of the more interesting teaching gigs I have had over the years. A few standout examples:

  • Taught a digital photography class in an unheated 4-H barn with no wifi access. Had to use my LCD projector by projecting on to a piece of foam core propped up onto a chair. It was supposed to be an adults class, but the venue registered just two 8th grade girls in the class instead. Talk about revising your class on the fly.
  • I taught at a national conference where instead of booking classrooms for some of the smaller classes, they put us in a regular hotel room with a bunch of extra chairs in it. I taught the class sitting on the bed and pointed my projector at the bedsheet which we took off the bed and taped to the wall to make a screen because the walls were dark and textured.
  • I showed up to teach a digital design class at a venue on a Saturday morning that had a policy of turning off their internet access completely on the weekends. No wifi at all. We ended up gathering everyone up and driving nearby to a student’s house. I taught the class using her pool table as my work space.
  • I taught a quilting workshop to non-English speakers, using a college student as a translator. None of my adult students had ever used scissors before.
  • I had a daughter who bought a class for her mom as a surprise gift. The mother walked in to the shop and when she found out what the class was about she said to her daughter “Who does that? I am not taking any damn tatting class. Why would you think I wanted to do that?” I (the instructor) was standing right there.

Let’s just say that I have learned to be very flexible and just a little over prepared. As Tim Gunn says, “Make it work!” I am basically ready for everything. So, I wanted to share a few thoughts about what goes in to that prep work; call this a teaching “behind the scenes” post.

Preparing to be flexible

For a while now I have been sending out pre-class surveys to students who are registered in my classes so that I can get a handle on who is in the class. This way I have a chance to adapt to the group I have and to make sure that everyone is really getting the class they thought they were getting and I can troubleshoot a few things in advance. I teach with technology; there is always troubleshooting to do.

For example, a venue I worked with recently really wanted me to teach an “advanced” Photoshop class. They assured me that all of their pool of potential students would already know how to use Photoshop well and they were sure that we could skip over the beginner stuff and go right into an intermediate/advanced class. So I put together a description and projects and so on, and after registrations were all in, I sent out my survey.

Yes, that is 0% of my “advanced” class that say they are experienced with Photoshop and about 4 students who have basically never used it at all. This isn’t the first time that has happened. Fortunately, I had a feeling that this was going to be the case and I was mostly prepared for that.

The importance of class descriptions

A lot of that preparation is spending a significant amount of time writing the class description. I know that I need it to be specific enough so students have a concrete idea of what they will be doing in class, but flexible enough that I can actually accomplish the projects with students who are at a different skill level. Nothing makes a class start to head for disaster more quickly than poorly matched expectations. Now that I know that my “advanced” class actually has very little experience with Photoshop, I can make sure I am introducing things at a level where everyone can have success, starting with the basics.

This was from a class that I took where the teacher actually labeled our stations with post it notes so she could keep track of our experience level. I was a beginner, so I was a “1”. I have my students rate themselves too.

I spent this morning writing new class proposals for something in 2018 and thinking a lot about the students I thought I would expect to see at that venue. I basically construct a “model student” in my head. For the proposals I was writing this morning and based on what I know about the venue, I was pretty confident that my students would be:

  • quilters and crafters (not making clothing)
  • retired or near retirement age, budget conscious
  • not very technical/computer focused
  • skilled and experienced sewists

I have taught at this venue before, so I feel like I have a pretty good model to go on. So when I wrote my class descriptions, I wrote them for that audience:

  • Classes focused on process not product. We will be designing fabric and learning design concepts, not making a bag or a tea towel. They know how to do that already so that project won’t get them excited.
  • Beginner level technical skills. Several of the techniques can be done in more sophisticated ways with Photoshop or Illustrator, but you can do the basic version in any graphics software. It’s about the concept not the tool you use to get there.
  • Using free/online design software. You can do them in Photoshop if you have it, but you can try it out without having to invest in a lot of software and equipment. Making it approachable so people are willing to try it.

As a teacher, the phrase “That was worth the whole price of the class right there.” is a huge high five for me. That means I exceeded expectations and that’s awesome. I took a silversmithing class once where the supply list was so full of technical jargon that I showed up for class with not quite the right supplies and ended up spending a lot of time (and $) making something I hated. The instructor assumed that I knew more than I did. Expectations can work both ways.

What do you think this class is about?

Another question I ask in my pre-class survey is “What would you like to get out of this class?” Sometimes people skip over this one, but when they answer, the answers are always super helpful. For the “teacher training” class I am teaching next week, most of the answers were about getting ideas and inspiration for high school students and projects to do in their classrooms, specifically for interior and apparel design. Which is exactly what you would expect from that audience and assures me that I am preparing the right things – less about personal designs and more about ways to incorporate this into lessons, projects and how to break it down into components you can teach to others. I can do that.

I have had overzealous copy editors edit my class descriptions in ways that unfortunately changed the student’s whole expectation of the class. I learned this the hard way in one of the first professional classes I taught at an art center venue. It was a purse making class that I thought was a beginner sewing class where you made your own simple paper pattern, but it suddenly evolved into a pattern drafting class for designing your own purse. Similar on the surface, but a few words can make all the difference. I ended up with a horribly mis-matched class of beginners who didn’t know how to use a sewing machine (which I was prepared for) and a few students who thought they were getting a pattern drafting class for custom purse making (which was far beyond the scope of what I was teaching). It was awkward for everyone. The beginners felt like they were dumb, the experienced students looked at the project samples and said “Is that all we are doing?” and I wanted to crawl under a table and die. The venue had written the description for me since I was a newbie. That was a valuable lesson. Most venues still don’t check back with me when something gets edited before it gets sent out, so this survey question is also a quick reality check for me to make sure we are all still on the same page.

So, I am curious, what’s the weirdest venue where you have taught or taken a class? How did you make it work? Can you beat my hotel room story?

Shepherd’s Harvest Festival this weekend.

I think this is the 7th year I have been at Shepherd’s Harvest Festival with my friends Doreen and Jen. If you have never been to a fiber festival like this, it’s a lot of fun. It is held at a county fairgrounds. We have been snowed on and had 80 degree weather, which is pretty typical for May in MN. It looks like this year might be one of the nice ones. The 4H barns are full of vendors selling yarn, fiber, fiber tools, candles, soap, baskets. There are animals in the barns. You can watch sheep shearing, angora spinning, weaving, and all kinds of demos. There are food trucks. They’ve moved the festival back to Mother’s Day weekend after trying some different dates and we are really happy about that. It makes a great family outing for Mother’s day. I will have all of my zipper bags and punny fiber art geekery. I have BRAND NEW geeky designs debuting at the festival inspired by Dr Who, Firefly, Harry Potter and Settlers of Catan. Doreen, my boothmate, is a handspinner and dyer. She has all kinds of gorgeous yarns and she will probably be doing spinning demos most of the weekend. She has emu feathers that she has been spinning in to new yarns and I can’t wait to see them.

Being an artist is all a side hustle.

I first heard the term “side hustle” at a cocktail party with colleagues. When someone asks what you do for a living and you reply “I’m a full time artist”, every person you talk to pictures something different. Her vision was something like sew dresses all day and sell them to boutiques. (Which is really not what I do at all.) I tried to explain how my job is different every day of the week and I like it that way: I teach, I sell on Etsy, I do shows, I do community projects… And she said “Oh, it’s like teaching is your side hustle.”

Really, I think being an artist and being able to do it full time is all side hustle. It’s hard to support yourself by just making things and selling them. Not only do you put in the time to make it, but you have to put in the time to get it in front of people and hope that someone likes it enough to pay you for it. And you have to hope the economy is encouraging people to buy handmade. So you also sell it online, which doesn’t require you to be there standing in a booth all weekend and that helps with some of the overhead. And you teach it. And you write about it. Sometimes I wish I was making it more of the time, but balancing it with all of those other things really works better for me.

I was curious after I had this side hustle conversation with that colleague, so I pulled up my numbers for the past 2 years. 2015 and 2016 were the first two years that I have been my own boss full-time. Many of these things I have been doing part-time for many years along with my regular day job so these are established micro-businesses for me.

These are the percentages of my total income that I can attribute to each of my “jobs”.

Commissions/Digital Items includes things like the items I sell on RedBubble and Spoonflower. I make a commission from each of those designs that sell. That grew a lot in 2016. (It doesn’t even show up in 2015.) Why the growth? I put in the time. I added a lot of new designs, cleaned things up and put some care into my online shops. It made a difference.

In Person Sales includes consignment items I have at shops and art shows that I do, like the American Craft Council, Craft’za, Shepherd’s Harvest etc. I participated in more shows in 2015. I was really busy traveling to teach in 2016 so I couldn’t do as many.

Etsy sales is the things I sell on Etsy, obviously. Same story here: I did a lot of work on my Etsy shop in 2016. I rephotographed a lot of items and gave everything a fresh look and some polish to descriptions. I weeded out some things that weren’t selling and added a few new ones. Since this is a percentage of my total income, what you don’t see is that my total Etsy sales doubled from 2015 to 2016. (My income overall was greater too, so the percentage looks the same.) Seriously. The work to clean up and focus was completely worthwhile and so far 2017 is keeping pace with 2016, which is encouraging.

Teaching was huge for me in 2016. I taught a lot of classes, but I also started to adjust my teaching rates slightly to reflect what I should be paid for the expertise that I have. When I was teaching once in a while for local guilds it was fine to charge a “friends and family” kind of rate, but now that I am traveling and teaching more complex classes, I also need to be able to cover liability insurance, travel and things like that. I am hoping to roll out online classes this year, so I am teaching less in 2017 to have the time to get those up and running.

Misc is my consulting category. I have fees for writing articles & tutorials, web consulting, small graphic design projects.

Grants. I think this category is the least sustainable. I was super fortunate to get a whole bunch of large and small grants over the last two years. They are a lot of work to apply for and usually involve a lot of work for the grant project itself, but they are the thing that makes the big projects happen. I was able to do two huge teaching residencies, mount my first solo exhibition and first public art piece all because of grant funding. I will keep applying, but I know 2017 will be decreased, because I didn’t get one I applied for and I took a break from applying because I didn’t want to have too many overlapping projects. I was making myself a little crazy with so many balls in the air.


I thought these numbers were really interesting. (Did you know that my teaching degree is in math? Does this surprise you?) When I started on this adventure of being my own boss, I gave myself permission to just try stuff. I said yes to nearly everything. I applied for things that I thought would be cool and ones that I thought would be a long shot. I taught at a prestigious craft school and at the neighborhood library. This year I made enough actual profit to be able to contribute to a SEP IRA. But it was a LOT of hustle.

I’m still in the “trying stuff” phase of my business at this point. I am doing some serious thinking about opening a second online shop with all of my clothing & accessory items which I currently only sell at in-person shows. I am working on online classes which has been a goal for much too long. Time to make that one happen. I think my ideal balance would be in thirds: teaching/sales/grants. I don’t want to become a manufacturer where all I do is sew stuff to sell to other people. I like the one-on-one work of teaching people and I already have several more exhibitions dreamed up. That seems like a great balance to me.

If I want to have one message from this post to leave you with, it is actually something that I wish I could tell myself from about 8 years ago. I used to get really discouraged about not having thousands of blog followers and not being a craft-internet-celebrity or the most popular Etsy shop or whatever the success benchmark was. I was sure I couldn’t cut it on my own because I didn’t have the social media following or the giant mailing list. But I realized that doesn’t really matter. It’s about going out there and doing it. I had 11 students at the last class I taught and they could care less about how many Instagram followers I have. The 12 of us got to do nothing but make art for 2 hours together and how often does that happen? I had the privilege of being on the Etsy Sellers Advisory Board last year not because I had 16,000 sales, but because I stepped up and said “I have something valuable to contribute” and they believed me. If you don’t show up/ask/apply, they can’t say yes.

 

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