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I Took The Handmade Pledge

Fall Beckons

I know it's only mid-August, and those of you at cottages and campgrounds will curse me, but I'm just back from 10 days off, and there is a nip in the air in the evening, which makes me anticipate the arrival of fall with great enthusiasm! It's been nearly 30 years since I followed the school calendar, but fall still feels like the New Year to me.

I've been thinking about the fall of 2013 as a chunk of time full of opportunities that must be seized. Some initiatives I took last spring will continue, like the monthly featured maker. I also want to build on the fun of the summer Saturday make & take crafts with a few more outdoor tent events while the weather holds. I'm really looking forward to DIY instruments with Ryan Kamstra during the Junction Music Festival September 21, for instance.

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I'm going to try some new ideas too, gleaned from vendors, customers, sisters in business and other acquaintances who have generously shared suggestions with me. Some examples: a September tent sale on the 14th, a winter stitching retreat, and a Farch party at the shop (Farch being that dreary late February/early March time when one needs something to brighten the darkness).

I'm excited to be partnering with HarbourKIDS again Thanksgiving weekend. The Wise Daughters tent theme will be The Wonder of Wool, and it will be both wonderful and woolly, I'm sure.

January 2014 will be the start of year 5 for the shop, and I'm feeling positive. Pedestrian traffic in the Junction is up, and new people seem to be discovering the shop every week. Competition remains tough, but I think that people are becoming incrementally more conscious of the benefits of shopping local.

I'm really happy to have a business roommate in LadeeBee Supplies, and I love the welcoming space we continue to foster. Going to work is a pleasure, and when work is play, life is good.

Gifts that Give Extra

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Wise Daughters is happy to announce the arrival of Give-Itz pendants to our collection of products that do good in the world. Cindy Stanleigh creates these pendants (also adaptable as zipper pulls or key chains) as a way of giving to causes that matter to her. She actually learned the technique for making glass tile pendants at a workshop here, so it's great to come full circle! You can read more about Cindy's initiative here.

Wise Daughters has had relationships with charities and not-for-profits since we began. We carry pottery by Inspirations Studio, a program of Sistering, and will soon be adding some textiles by clients of this excellent program serving marginalized women.

We also sell sock monkeys and DIY sock monkey kits from Operation Sock Monkey, a very interesting initiative that sends sock monkeys around the world to comfort children traumatized by natural disasters or the loss of family members to AIDS.

For a little over a year, we've partnered with Epic Mart, a program of Human Endeavour in Vaughan, to sell beautiful scarves sewn by new Canadians to help them generate an income and feel part of their new community.

Recently, we started carrying wig kits from The Girl with the Curl, a wonderful one-woman project to help people undergoing cancer treatment.

As funding becomes more difficult to find, social enterprises like these are picking up a lot of the slack. So why not pick up a quality product you can use that also supports an organization making a positive difference?

My Crowdsourcing Conundrum

Yesterday, two businesses I care about sent out requests for financial support via crowdsourcing.

Today, I read in the Globe,
Crowdfunding websites helped companies and individuals worldwide raise $2.7-billion from members of the public in 2012, an 81 per cent increase on the previous year, data showed on Monday. As banks rein in lending due to tougher capital rules and greater regulatory scrutiny, crowdfunding, which originated in the United States as a way to raise money for creative projects, has expanded rapidly as an alternative source of finance.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense to invite supporters of small business to put their money (just a bit of it) where their mouth is, and help out. Especially as an alternative to building up huge debt, which is really a ticking time bomb for business owners.

On the other hand, as an entrepreneur with a background in the not-for-profit world, I have trouble wrapping my head around fundraising for a for-profit company. Maybe I've been inculcated with the American myth of the self-made man, but the truth is, nobody makes it on their own. A little help from our friends is what makes the world go around, really, whether those friends occupy high places or our own little patch of turf.

There's also the strong argument to be made that many small businesses support a whole bunch of people - in my case struggling artists - which is a pretty worthwhile cause. Sometimes I think that sending out even small cheques to dozens of artists every month is more useful than the work I used to do chipping away at systemic social change that never really happened.

It takes a leap of faith to put out the call. There's the risk of scaring suppliers and customers away from what they might fear is a sinking ship. But there's also the opportunity to let people rally around something they can't bear to see disappear.

I hope my fellow entrepreneurs are showered with cash and support, and will be watching closely to see how it goes.

Staying the Course

With the start of each new year, and especially during the long lulls that February inevitably brings, I do a lot of thinking about where I want to take my business.

This year, I have the advantage of having someone besides Daisy the puggle to bounce ideas off. Melissa is here running her shop on the lower level, and our mutual friends/customers are here every Sunday afternoon to stitch and chat. There has been lots of creative brainstorming going on, which is a huge help to me. Among the great programming ideas generated so far: to run a grown-up craft camp with bonus stretching and high tea this summer; and to use the large area of pavement in front of the shop to greater advantage by inviting vendors to sell their wares and lead make & take crafts on summer Saturdays.

The fundamental question I re-ponder every year or so, is whether to stick with my rather restrictive rules regarding the merchandise I choose to sell: it must be handmade and local. Of course, the mark-up on these products is limited, and I feel strongly about the makers earning a fair wage.

It would be tempting to get in a few mass-produced items to help subsidize the rest. This past week, I did a little probing to see what I could find that was Canadian-made but available wholesale for a good price. The answer: virtually nothing. I thought I'd found some really nice bird feeders from a Canadian company... but they turned out to be made in China. Then I thought I'd found some lovely baby blankets... but they were made in India. (Actually, the salesperson at the Toronto company where I was inquiring about baby gifts had taken the time to look at my website, and had the courtesy to warn me I might not want the blankets because of their source. She was happy to work with me to find locally-made items from their product line.)

As I was fruitlessly googling other options, I listened to a customer tell her friend that everything in the shop was locally handmade. She said it almost proudly, like she was sharing a treasure, and I realized I don't want to compromise. I've built this brand and I believe in it. At the same time, this is not a hobby, or a calling - I need to make money, so I can support myself, and keep supporting local artisans. But there simply is no quick fix, no cash cow that I've failed to milk. Soon I've have the flagship Canadian Target store a few blocks away. I can't compete with that; I can only distinguish Wise Daughters from that sort of shopping experience, aesthetic, and ethic.

Easy Product Photography

Last night Chloe Norman taught a wonderful workshop here on product photography for handmakers. Her philosophy: keep it simple, and don't break the bank. Her instructions were for any old point-and-shoot or phone, and her suggestions for lighting, bounces and diffusers were all affordable items available at any Canadian Tire-type store.

I highly recommend that handmakers attend when we bring Chloe back for a repeat, but for now I'll just share a few great pointers I picked up in terms of composition.

  1. don't stick your product smack in the middle of your picture - boring!
  2. get rid of anything superfluous in the frame
  3. change up the angles and take several shots - the winner may not be the obvious choice
  4. get in close to show detail
  5. show scale by using models or placing other relevant objects in the composition

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In the crazy competitive world of online sales, good photography is critical!

Back in Feb '09...

Today, as I slipped my February newsletter into my file of archived communication, I pulled out my very first newsletter, from February 2009. It was interesting to look back at those first experimental workshops, and also to note which of my first 28 vendors are still selling at the shop.

I wish a happy 4th anniversary to originals Crinkle Handmade, bumblebee jewelry, Leila Cools, Gingerbread Studio, Katie McLellan, Inspirations Studio, and Wendo Van Essen. Obviously, they are still here because their work sells, but also because they've all been active participants in their business relationship with Wise Daughters. Like most of the successful vendors at the shop, they serve as ambassadors, helping with promotion whenever they can, and it serves us both well. It's a pleasure to work with them.

This reminiscing has led to some perusing of the photos from opening day, when there was hardly any merchandise in stock, but the community poured in to buy what there was and show their support. It was an awesome day, marred only by the massive painful bruise on my bum from the fall I'd taken on the stairs running around like a madwoman the day before. There is photo evidence of that, too, but I'll spare you!

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Best of 2012

I always enjoy year-end reviews, so I thought I'd share some of my own highlights. 2012 boasted some hugely fun activities, mostly to do with public acts of beauty. Wise Daughters enjoyed a bit of local fame for our attempt to beat the world record for most knitters knitting on Worldwide Knit in Public Day 2010, followed by our attempt (this one successful) to cover a van with a knit cozy during the 2010 Junction Arts Festival. This type of behaviour garnered a following of people who enjoy such things, and among my Twitter readers was a Harbourfront programmer who invited Wise Daughters to participate in HarbourKIDS:Folk in October, where we yarnbombed the trees, taught knitting, demonstrated spinning and helped kids sew super cute brooches. A team of amazing women made it happen, and I was thrilled to be able to employ their talents.

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As part of this festival, we also mounted an entirely yarnbombed exhibit called Domestic Bliss, created by over a dozen volunteers. We gave the show a trial run the night of the Junction Design Crawl, where it met with delighted, perplexed and curious responses.

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2012 was kind of a funny year retail-wise, with some inexplicably strong months and some slumps, but the holiday season was the busiest and most fun ever. More shoppers had clearly embraced a buy local philosophy, and many chose gifts for everyone on their list here if they possibly could. There were lots of instances of sleight of hand as members of the same family bought under the noses of their loved ones, which is always great fun.

I was gratified that the Toronto exhibit was a big success as well. It was the last show in the downstairs gallery, because LadeeBee Supplies is coming in next month to be Wise Daughters' business roommate. The maps were an especially big hit.
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I'll miss curating exhibits, and especially giving emerging artists an audience for their work, but I'll just have to find creative new ways to showcase local talent. There will be as much art on the walls upstairs as I can fit, and now it's the season where I make space for new handmakers to join Wise Daughters as vendors, which is always exciting. I'm so happy to have forged relationships with some awesome makers in 2012, and to have continued to build on relationships with some of the vendors who have been with me since the beginning.

Having LadeeBee Supplies and Wise Daughters under one roof in 2013 is going to bring some obvious and some as-yet-unknown benefits. I can't wait! Please mark Jan 26 on your calendars - that's the day LadeeBee officially opens and Wise Daughters celebrates our 4th anniversary. Four years!

Getting Ready for Make-or-Break Year Five

Wise Daughters opened in January 2009, in the dead of winter, at the tail end of the last recession. Nowhere to go but up, right? And the journey has been a slow but steady upward one, with the odd spikes and dips. I came into this eyes wide open, knowing I'd want to commit five years to give the business a fighting chance. This type of enterprise requires wooing a loyal customer base over time, by offering a consistently good experience. I think I've been successful, reaching my target of 20% growth each year. 2012 has been tough. I won't make 20%, which throws off projections for 2013, the last year before the big decision - is Wise Daughters viable?

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Sticking to a mandate to sell only locally handmade goods requires a certain amount of fortitude. I know there are much higher mark-ups on imported and/or mass produced goods, but I just don't want to sell them, and I can only hope my stubbornness won't be my downfall. Going online in a big way might be a partial solution, though it's not easy to orchestrate when many of the products are one-offs. The uniqueness is a huge selling point, but makes inventory control a challenge. This is an area I'm going to have to explore, calling upon the expertise of others. I can't say it tempts me - I have this brick-and-mortar shop so people can see and feel all the amazing handmade objects (and chat with me), not order from a photograph. But I don't want to go the way of the dinosaur, obviously.

At this point, what I have is a revenue neutral, very time-consuming hobby. I no longer sink money in, and I have even managed to take a few bucks out, but I haven't made a dent in the debt I am owed by the business, nor am I close to drawing a salary that can sustain me. So I work anywhere from 4 - 6 other jobs at any given time. And that's ok, for now. The shop isn't really work - it feels like play a good 75% of the time - so all the hours don't put me at risk of burnout. I can't keep up this pace for much more than another year, though. I'm no spring chicken, and I'll eventually start to resent having so little time for the things I enjoy besides craft. But for now, I don't mind earning my keep from other sources.

What I do mind is when people try to go around me to get a better deal. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes a customer will ask for one of my vendor's cards so they can go to their Etsy site or next show to try to save a few dollars. There is generally nothing to be gained by doing this, and they take a sale away from me - a sale which helps me keep this operation going so I can support their favourite artisan and close to 75 others. These people all get monthly cheques from me when I sell on their behalf, so undermining me under the guise of directly supporting an individual is not really a helpful thing to do.

Another rare but disheartening occurrence is when a potential vendor balks at the 50% consignment fee. To them, I can only suggest doing the math to figure out how they could get this kind of exposure for less. At a show where they have to provide their own displays, do their own promotion, and rent the space? If they think they can do fine on their own, more power to them. There's a line-up of people who'd love to sell at Wise Daughters, and who act as ambassadors once they're part of the shop. To them, I extend my heartfelt thanks.

So 2013 will be important. I'll have a new roommate - LadeeBee Supplies - sharing the rent and bringing in her own craft supply customers, so the possibilities for cross-fertilization are wonderful. I may also have more yarn bombing-related gigs, which help pay the rent. Ultimately, though, I'll need to see a much higher volume of sales to call this venture a success. I'm not catering to the 1% - my average sale is under $50. All the support I feel from my community will have to translate into cold hard cash. Will enough consumers make the shift from supporting local business in the abstract to supporting us with their spending choices? The next 12 months will tell.

October 4, 2012 - Cool Stuff My Grandma (and Great-Aunts) Knew How to Do

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This Thanksgiving weekend, I'll be at Harbourfront Centre with a team from Wise Daughters, and I'm excited and emotional about the whole thing. I'm thrilled to partnering with Harbourfront to bring the pleasure of handmaking to the public. We'll be exhibiting Domestic Bliss, the cheeky yarnbombed installation featuring household objects, and teaching visitors to knit so they can yarnbomb their own tree cozies for the property. As if that's not fun enough, we'll be demonstrating traditional crafts like spinning, crochet and embroidery. And we'll be leading kids in a make-and-take sewing project.

I came up with the name "cool stuff your grandma knows how to do" to summarize the festivities. This truly is cool stuff my grandma knew how to do, and her mother, and aunts, and their mothers and aunts.... My foremothers were both skilled and prolific in their crafting. I don't think they came across a piece of table linen without embroidering it, or a piece of china without painting it with beautifully intricate images. I grew up crafting, of course, but not at a level anywhere near theirs. Of course, they were middle-class women born in 19th century England, so they didn't have much else to do. Which is obviously both a blessing and a curse.

Whenever I move house, I feel settled only when I have the great aunts' samplers on the wall. Emma and Susan were sisters who embroidered the alphabet as young children to practice their skills. From Victorian Lancashire to modern day Toronto, these samplers have traveled. They were bequeathed to me by my beloved Aunt Mary, herself a fine craftswoman. It gave me great pleasure last winter to almost exactly replicate the hand knit mittens she gave me 30 years ago.

The passing on of these cherished handmade goods is important - there's probably no object I'd save faster in a fire than these samplers - but it's the passing on of the creative impulse that gives me the most pleasure. This weekend, I'll be looking at the goofy faces of little kids at Harbourfront and thinking about all the times I spent making things with or alongside my mum. Neither of us sat down in the evening without a project of some sort in our hands.

Interestingly, the evolution of crafting in my family has kind of followed the times. The Victorians were creative, but very very neat and precise. My mother was a fan of colouring outside the lines and often did her own thing with a pattern or kit. Me, I never follow a pattern. Call me contrary, but I insist on experimenting, with very mixed results. My colleague Melissa called me "an artistic knitter," which is a really nice way of saying I'm not very good at it. But I don't care. I love it! Look out, future grandbabies... some wacky blankets and attire are coming your way. I just hope you'll think it's cool stuff too.

June 8, 2012 - Some Thoughts on Gentrification

A few recent events, from the very local to the global, have me thinking about gentrification.

I opened Wise Daughters at the start of the Junction's latest upswing. It had finally gone "wet" at the turn of the century (this one!), so restaurants had opened to anchor the business strip along Dundas. But commercial rents were still reasonable This has changed quite dramatically even in the 3 1/2 years I've been here. As I watch one Bloor West Village shop after another close its doors, I can't help but hope the Junction resists and escapes this fate.

I love to see initiatives that bring people out into the street to enjoy each other and their neighbourhood. Pedestrian traffic is the cornerstone of a healthy and safe urban environment. But more and more, I notice Junction events being planned or billed as "exclusive", a term that makes me bristle. It always backfires when magazines or blogs try to sell me advertising on the premise it will reach only "high end consumers." Of course I want and need people to spend money here, but counter to some business approaches, I'd actually rather have 100 people spend $20 each than 20 people spend $100 each.

My background is in the not-for-profit world, where I fought to improve accessibility and inclusion for marginalized members of society. I want to make original art and quality handmade goods as affordable as possible, while still ensuring the artists receive a fair wage. It's difficult, but not impossible. Some of the vendors in the shop (such as clients of Sistering or Human Endeavour) are selling the things they make to get out of poverty and enjoy a new purpose in life. Others are young, wildly talented, and able to pursue their passions before mortgage payments and kids' dental bills dictate their choices (if they do).

I offer as many free hands-on crafty activities as I can manage, because these community arts events make me happy. There's nothing I like better than a random act of beauty.

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Efforts to "clean up" a community can be fraught, even if well meaning. One person's graffiti is another person's free outdoor art. One person's loitering is another person's opportunity to get some fresh air. People like to boast that the Junction is full of artists, but that won't be true if they're all squeezed out, as happened along Queen West.

All over the place, from the streets of Montreal to New York to Spain, people are rightly questioning whether austerity measures that target the most vulnerable make any sense. I want the Junction's turning tide to raise all the boats, not just the yachts (ok, we're nowhere near a body of water, but you get my metaphor).

I guess my message to my community is this: be careful what you wish for.