Archive for April, 2010

Handmade Felt vs. Industrial Felt Yardage

I love felt boxes. They appeal to my instinct to sort, collect and organize and they satisfy my desire to fill my world with color. One of the first felt projects I tried was turning a piece of flat felt into a box using some bits and scraps of color I picked up in a fiber medley package. Since then I’ve made many, many, many boxes in different shapes and sizes for myself and for custom orders. I love working with the heathered colors of Harrisville Designs to create infinite combinations. The best suggestions come from customers who suggest pairing colors outside of my normal habits.

Despite my love of this product, there is no getting around the fact that it is both labor intensive and not profitable. There is something so satisfying about seeing sets of boxes stacked in a row. Then I calculate the time put into the task, close to two hours per box,  and the back aches that come from working the felt until it is really rigid, which limit the number I can produce in a day. Realistically, I can’t continue selling them for $25 per box. And if I was a customer looking for a box, would I spend that much money for storage? I don’t think so.

This led me to wonder whether sewing the boxes out of industrial felt was a viable alternative. I looked up felt suppliers on Etsy then bought a yard of teal 3mm felt from a Canadian seller to the tune of $80/yd.

Could I make boxes that reflected my aesthetic using something that looked as flat as a pool table?

My first experiments have been a qualified success. I like the look, but these three boxes didn’t exactly jump off the table, and the felt was dear. The sewing machine I use, an early ’80s Kenmore hand-me-down from my mother, does not like sewing through 6mm of felt. It grinds, then gets stuck, then lurches forward a couple of stitches and then stops. Either this puppy needs a tune-up, or I need a cobbler’s sewing machine. The jury is still out on this one. In case my husband’s poker friends are wondering whether I’ve ripped up someone’s pool table, that is 3/4 of a yard of industrial felt waiting for me to decide just what to do with it.

PS. I read an article on pricing handmade items just minutes after publishing this post. With a little bird sitting on my shoulder, I relisted my soft felt box, handmade and handfelted to be durable and brighten your home, at a price that reflects the amount of work it takes to make them.

Felt Plants on a Blanket

Last year, several intermediate teachers planted a native garden on the west side of our school, after much planning, grant-writing, research, design, digging and prepping by students, staff and parents. The teachers integrated the work into the curriculum on many levels. The children took ownership and intense pride in the project.

To further extend the learning the following year, my daughter’s teacher suggested the students transform sketches in their science journals into a felted illustration. One of our school’s strengths lies in seeing how students learn through multiple media. Illustrating a plant on paper and then working it in felt allows a student to see a plant again and again through different lenses.

Each spring, our school holds a large auction to augment insufficient school district funds, paying for half our librarian, PE teacher and art teacher salaries. Each class contributes a collaborative creation for the live auction; these works of art are usually the most popular items.  In the past, artists have worked with the students to create mosaic planters, a fused glass tile installation, watercolor paintings and photo collages. This year, I volunteered to turn the needlefelt illustrations of the native garden into two afghans.

Starting with a box of recycled felt culled from fulled sweaters, the students designed their pieces paying attention to the shape of the leaves, flowers and the gesture of the plant. They worked on blending the corriedale fibers to create a broad color palette. A team of four parents worked with our class of twenty-eight nine and ten year old students for six periods to needle their designs. The students were asked to complete three pieces: two panels for our blankets and one to keep.  Several students finished six designs, then volunteered to tamp down the work completed by their classmates. After thoroughly needling each piece, the completed designs were fulled one more time in the washing machine.

Next, I worked with another parent to arrange the pieces, paying close attention to color and style. We separated those pieces worked on heavier wool felt from those worked on finer merino and cashmere; there were enough to make a large blanket with the heavy pieces and a smaller throw with the lighter pieces. We basted the heavy pieces to three yards of wool suiting bought at the fabric store.

With one week left before the auction, it was apparent just how much work remained to finish the two afghans. In swooped my mother to save the day. She took the largest blanket back to Vancouver, where she worked on it with her heavy-duty sewing machine. She stitched each piece to the wool backing, using a decorative quilting stitch, then drove it back to Seattle the day before I had to hand it in, giving the kids a chance to see their handiwork assembled in its final form.

Meanwhile, I pieced and patched the smaller throw, sewing the cashmere pieces to each other using a zigzag stitch. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Heidi of Haute Goat for her expertise and helpful consultation, not to mention her walking foot.

In the end, the pieces sold for $1250 and $650 at the auction, purchased by two parents in our classroom. Thanks to to the parents who generously donated their sweaters to the cause and to Mary Jo Dawe, Renee Derby, Edith Fuchs, and Sarah Kopf-Patterson for their blood, sweat and tears.

Felt Pebble Cushions – Part Deux

Sometimes projects need a bit of time to percolate, and sometimes they just need a push from the outside. A customer was searching for felt pebble cushions to complete forest-themed playroom and came across pictures of the pebble cushions I felted last year. She wanted to complement the pair of Ronel Jordaan stone cushions she bought with a scattering of smaller pebbles. Since I had been wanting to try super-sizing these pillows, I decided to take on the challenge for my own learning.

I scrounged a large piece of cast-off foam from an upholstery shop, sliced it in thirds and then glued the slabs together with spray adhesive to form a large cube. To get a slightly more organic shape, I carved the foam block in the back yard with a serrated knife until it was sloped and curved to my satisfaction.

The biggest cushion proved to be a logistical challenge because it was really too large to felt on my own. I had to wait until a friend could come over with an extra pair of hands. We worked together shaping the felt until it made a tight fit around the foam core. Rinsing the cushion took a very long time, and I wasn’t able to spin out the excess water, which meant it took several weeks before it was really dry. Now that I’ve finished a boulder, I’m convinced that the originals are worth every penny. This baby is going to live in our front room. It makes a perfect foot stool and perch.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and respecting an artist’s integrity. My cushions were not intended to be identical replicas of Ronel Jordaan. The wool I used is speckled and heathered, and the shape I chose is deliberately blocky. I love her work, and have no intention of creating discounted knock-offs. There is little satisfaction in copying someone else’s idea, though there is something to be learned by exploring an idea or a theme. Much as painters learn by imitating the style of a master, as a feltmaker I can learn volumes by trying a technique or project created by another; this is why I take workshops and buy felt books. My goal is to expand my stock of knowledge through deliberate experimentation.

Design and Redesign

It is no secret that running a profitable business is about efficiency: how to get the most work done in a limited amount of time. After running my Etsy shop for a year, and watching the sales pile up in the shops of successful Etsy sellers, it became clear that creating items easily duplicated greatly reduced the work load and increased the efficiency of a shop. The sellers with the greatest number of sales weren’t creating unique items, they were either selling supplies, kits or artists who sold prints of their work. Just like mass-market retail, if you can replicate a good idea, you have the ticket to profitability.

A large  chunk of the Etsy customers are also sellers. They see a good thing, then think ‘I could do it that’. Kits and tutorials are a good way to break into that ethic and capture the enthusiasm that is already lurking in the marketplace. As an Etsy seller, I spend lots of time cruising through the shops looking at interesting items, and generally turn to a favorite shop when I have an occasion to buy a special gift.

Over the course of the last two years, I ‘ve developed four kits which sell very well in my shop, certainly better than any of my one-of-a-kind, handmade items. When an item sells, I can relist it with a single click, launching it back into the marketplace with little effort. Images sell kits on Etsy, not the packaging: stage a sample of the finished product and show the kit contents. The extra work comes from packaging and shipping the sales, especially if multiple kits are sold to an international buyer. If I was to turn my energy into selling kits for wholesale market, which I’d determined was the next logical step, I needed to work on my packaging.

A slip on New Year’s Day which injured my thumb, and the exhaustion that followed the Christmas holidays forced me to take a break from felting. I decided it was time to work on the kits, creating a cohesive look for my line. A single box and variations on one label design would enable me to expedite shipping and project an image of quality for my brand.

I am fortunate to know several excellent graphic designers, so deciding what I wanted and who I wanted to hire for the job was a concern. After considering some options, I hired Cathy Rundell of Run Cat Run to do the job. She is a parent at our school, who lives nearby and has extensive knowledge of packaging design. She suggested the wrap-around label, with product information on both sides so no matter how the kits were stacked on a shelf, a customer would see enough information to be pulled in. I am thrilled with the results.

Currently, I’m working on getting the new kits loaded in my Etsy shop with a separate listing for each colorway. Next comes the fun work of walking the streets looking for wholesale accounts. If you know of a yarn store, children’s boutique, gallery shop or DIY craft venue in your neck of the woods that would be a good match, please pass along their address. I am happy to send a sample kit to prospective retailers.

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