Weekly-ish notes on navigating big change

starship captain

Laureen Marchand, artist: an interview

Today I'm interviewing Laureen Marchand, full-time artist and Starship Captain. She shares her biz journey with us at TaraSwiger.com.

Today I'm delighted to be talking to Laureen Marchand, a painter and a Starship Captain. She shares a great resource for Canadian artists (Carfac), how she keeps the faith when she feels disappointed and how she built a gallery on her back porch. You can her beautiful art on her website.

How to listen

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Find all the podcast episodes here.

Adventures in Business with Fiber Artist Riin Gill

Today I'm happy to share the adventures of Starship Captain Riin, who is the owner of Happy Fuzzy Yarn. Riin knits, spins, dyes, runs Happy Fuzzy Yarn, and drinks a lot of strong black tea. She lives with her boyfriend, two rabbits, and a really astounding amount of wool in Ann Arbor, MI. Connect with Riin on Twitter, Facebook,or Ravelry.


People have this fantasy of what it's like to be a full-time maker. But what's a normal day for you really like?

Ha! There is no such thing as a normal day! Ok, there are some similarities … I get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, the minions start arriving … and after that, I could be redesigning labels, or writing a blog post, or fixing a spreadsheet whose formulas went wonky, or coming up with a new colorway, or dealing with petty bureaucrats, or designing a shawl … There is always a lot of strong black tea involved!

There are so many ways to make a living as a maker – how are you doing it? What have you combined and how has that changed through the years?

In the beginning I did everything — the soaking, dyeing, washing, rinsing, labeling, packing, shipping, getting things online, maintaining the inventory, all of the social media, all of the response to store inquiries, all of the advertising, all of the designing, all of the writing, all of the editing, all of the everything. As Happy Fuzzy Yarn has grown, all of that has grown to much more than one person can do.

I've been moving into more of a Creative Director role. The brilliant and amazing Carol Ullmann has been interacting with stores, writing, doing social media, and designing, and she's working on a business plan. The extremely talented Heather Sauntry has taken over most of the dyeing, and is also doing some designing. Other minions are doing things I never had time to do when I was trying to do it all, like make lots and lots of little sample skeins.

Aside from money I've spent on things like my mortgage and groceries, I've put nearly every penny back into the business, so I'm not sure I actually am making a living yet. I've got a roof over my head and I'm not starving though, so I guess that counts for something!


What new thing are you exploring now?

I just started advertising in Yarn Market News (the trade magazine for the yarn industry), so that should increase my brand recognition among LYS (local yarn store) owners, especially ones who don't make it to TNNA (The National Needlearts Association – a trade show for the needlearts industry).

Also I've been working out formulas to do gradient sets. I am really excited about that!

What's your definition of success in your business?

To be honest, I have two.
On the one hand, I just want to make enough money so I can enjoy what I'm doing and make beautiful things and not have to worry about whether I have enough money to pay wages AND taxes AND my mortgage AND order supplies, but just know that yes, there is enough, and I am happy, and my employees are happy, and our customers are happy.

On the other hand … ok, let's face it. I want fame and fortune (or as much fame and fortune as one can get in the yarn world anyway). I have had people tell me my yarn is nicer than Wollmeise or nicer than Madtosh or nicer than anything else at TNNA, and obviously those are subjective statements, but if a lot of people think my yarn is nicer than yarns which are thought of as the holy grail, I think my yarn should be just as famous and fast selling as those yarns! So I want that, plus everything on the first hand!


What's the next destination you're working towards?

We desperately need to move into a larger space. We've been starting to scope out commercial real estate, seeing what's available, what it would cost, and figuring out how that would affect, well, everything! Happy Fuzzy Yarn has grown to the point that it simply doesn't fit in my house any more. We need a light industrial space so we can dye more at a time, have more drying space, more storage, a larger shipping area, and so on. We're thinking a small retail area at the front would be a natural addition.


Want to learn more about other Starship Captains like Riin? Sign up here for an Early Boarding Pass and be the first to know when the Starship reopens for boarding!

Adventures in Business with Indie Dyer and Designer Karen Robinson

Today I'm happy to share the adventures of Starship Captain  Karen Robinson. Karen is a knitting designer (KarenDawn Designs) and yarn dyer (Round Table Yarns) with an advanced degree in medieval literature, so her pattern and yarn names are based on medieval texts. You can also find Karen's designs on Ravelry and her shop on Etsy.

People have this fantasy of what it's like to be a full-time maker. But what's a normal day for you really like?

I try to get up before my 3-year-old son so I can have time alone in the morning to drink coffee and check my email and Ravelry. The rest of the day depends a lot on whether or not we have any activities planned and if I have any editing projects. My “day job” is a freelance copy editor—I work with indie fiction authors and I’m also the copy editor for PLY Magazine —so the amount of work I have each day can vary quite a bit.

If it’s a stay home day, I get some yarn ready to dye by soaking it in a bucket. I dye very small dyelots (just a skein or two at a time), so I dye a little bit each day if I can. I make a list of what I need to do that day and get breakfast ready. Once we’ve eaten (it takes the 3 year old a long time to eat), the yarn has soaked enough, so I prepare the first round of dyeing and put the yarn in the dyepot. Then if I have an editing project, I may try to work a little on that or take care of some other tasks on the computer. But mostly this time in the morning revolves around my son, so I don’t do anything that takes too much concentration. Every hour or so, I swap out the yarn in the dyepot for another batch.

Then lunch and after that my son goes down for a nap. He’ll be four in August, and I know that he’s bound to give up nap time in the not-too-distant future (although we’ll change it to quiet time when he does), but that’s really when I get the bulk of my work done. As soon as I close his bedroom door, I’m on my computer, editing if I have that work or working on a pattern or making changes to my website or adding new yarn to my shop. He naps anywhere from 1-3 hours (I love those 3-hour nap days!), so I know I have a limited amount of time to work which is a great motivator for getting stuff done (although I do still occasionally get sucked into spending way too long on Ravelry).

Once my son is awake, it’s not too long before my husband gets home. Depending on how much I got done during nap time, I might have to work a little more after that or I might get to be mostly done with work on the computer that day. After my son goes to bed, my husband and I usually watch TV together and this is when I get the bulk of my knitting time.

Karen's Blanchefleur Shawl (www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/blanchefleur-shawl)
Karen's Blanchefleur Shawl (www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/blanchefleur-shawl)

There are so many ways to make a living as a maker – how are you doing it? What have you combined and how has that changed through the years?

The way I’ve been involved in the business side of the fiber world has changed over the years, but it’s finally evolved into something that I’m happy with. For a while, I wanted knitting to be completely a hobby and not something I would ever do for money or as a business. My mother-in-law is a quilter and when someone asks her how much she charges for a quilt, her response is “a million dollars.” Her explanation is that quilting is something she does for fun and that she doesn’t want to feel pressured by it, which is how she would feel if she were working on a commission. So she’s happy to make quilts as gifts for people she finds deserving, but she does it in her own time on her own schedule.

I had that attitude for a while, but then I had my son and I left academia and felt strange about not bringing in any money to the household. I was tired all the time (newborn!) and still wanted to knit, but I couldn’t concentrate on the types of projects I enjoyed doing (intricate cables or lace), so I started making super simple things like stockinette baby hats. But even though I had a baby, he didn’t need that many hats so I got the idea to try selling them. I did a couple of local craft fairs and also rented a space at an artisan shop to sell my knitting. Or attempt to sell my knitting (I also got a sewing machine during this time and sewed some things to sell as well—those things did a little better). I learned that many people didn’t understand how much work it was and I liked using “good” yarn, so the price points I had my items at seemed to be too high for what people were willing to pay but I didn’t want to give them away either, so I actually sold very little.

That whole situation (lasting about a year) was kind of a dark time in my knitting life. I look back at my Ravelry project page for that year and see how little I actually did. And everything I did do was super simple and unchallenging. That’s not the kind of knitter I had been before—if I saw a project I liked, I made it. If it used a technique I hadn’t tried before, I learned it. I didn’t shy away from something because it seemed difficult. So, quite frankly, after that year of selling knitted items, I was completely bored.

I realized I’m a process knitter. I greatly enjoy the actual act of knitting. And I do like using the items I make, but mostly I have stacks of shawls and hats even after giving away a lot of gifts. I had thought the answer to that was to sell those items, but I knew that wasn’t working. So what could I do instead? And how could I get my knitting mojo back and start really enjoying and exploring again?

I had taken a class a few years back at my then LYS about designing a scarf, and I liked that process quite a bit. I finished the scarf, got some test knitters on Ravelry, and posted the pattern for free (my Criseyde Scarf). Over the years since that experience, I had thought about doing more designing, but it was always something that was just in the back of my mind. Then I was trying to find a cowl pattern that matched the image in my head of what I wanted but was having trouble finding it. That’s when things clicked and I decided to try designing my own. I learned a lot by going through that process with the cowl (I have an entire finished cowl that I am completely unhappy with—I’ve kept it rather than frogging it as a reminder that if I’m knitting something and not liking how it’s turning out, I should stop and figure out what I don’t like rather than just thinking “I’m sure it’ll look fine once I finish it.”), which became my Lady Bertilak Cowl.

The act of figuring out how to construct something based on ideas in my head and then putting those into actual knitting is “the thing” that is making me feel completely happy and fulfilled in my knitting life. I have challenge, a lot of process, and a good reason for keeping the finished objects (samples!).

Around the beginning of this year, a friend had decided not to expand her fiber dyeing business into yarn dyeing so she gave me a bag of undyed yarn—with the idea that I could use it for swatches. (I do so many more swatches now as a designer than I ever did before!) But that undyed yarn was calling out for color, so on a whim, I got some acid dyes and started experimenting. And fell completely in love with the process of adding color to yarn. Thus Round Table Yarns was born, and I selected yarn bases that matched up to the patterns I’ve designed. And although I never want to be completely insular—so much beautiful yarn out there!—I am designing more in mind with making the connection between my patterns and yarn (and dyeing colors based upon what might work well with my patterns).

A basket full of Round Table Yarns in the Camelot base, which is a fingering weight MCN.
A basket full of Round Table Yarns in the Camelot base, which is a fingering weight MCN.


What new thing are you exploring now?

Different shapes for shawls—I love the triangular shawls but I don’t want to get locked into that construction all the time so I’m trying out some new ideas. Different yarn colors and dyeing techniques. Making self-striping sock yarn (so much work but the results are so much fun!). Knitting with breed-specific wools to see how their characteristics affect the results of the knitted item.


What's your definition of success in your business?

It took me a while to figure this out (and I figured it out thanks to a worksheet in one of Tara’s classes), but I realized that it’s pretty simple: I love seeing what other people make with my “stuff”—either one of my patterns or out of some of my yarn (or both!). So I feel successful when I check Ravelry and see someone has posted a picture of a project using my pattern. Although it feels good to sell a pattern, it feels amazing to have someone actually use that pattern. My dream is to be at a fiber festival (either as a vendor or attendee) and see someone wearing one of my designs (or something with my yarn). That experience would make me feel like I’m truly a success.


What's the next destination you're working towards?

I’ve been working on a pattern collection with five crescent-shaped shawls. The goal is to have it finished and ready for STITCHES Texas in September (where I’ll have a booth), and I’m on schedule (dare I say even a little ahead of schedule) for it. I’m working with the ladies of Stitch Definition for photography, tech editing, and layout/design, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. Along with that, I’m gearing up for several fiber festivals/events coming up in the fall.

Want to join Karen and other Starship Captains? The Starship is open now (it closes tomorrow!)

Adventures in Business with Knitwear Designer Denise Twum

Today I'm sharing an adventure with Starship Captain and part-time knitwear designer, Denise Twum. Denise was introduced to knitting by her supervisor while working at her college’s science library in 2006. Knitting kept her company as she traveled to five countries for a year of independent research, and she’s been addicted ever since.  You can see more of her designs on Ravelry  as well as her website.

People have this fantasy of what it's like to be a full-time artist. But what's a normal day for you really like?

I used to be a full-time maker when I was at home with my newborn baby, and each day was different. What I realized very quickly was that, if I didn’t lay out a plan for the day, or list out a few things I wanted to achieve, the day would go by quickly without me achieving one thing.

I’m currently a part-time maker and it’s definitely very challenging, balancing my passion and love for this with a full-time job that I also love, but which is unrelated to my knitwear business.

On a typical day now, I spend most of my day at my full-time position, sneaking quick looks at my knitting emails during lunch time to see if there’s a sale or an interesting email for possible collaboration. After work, I spend a couple of hours with the family, eating dinner and relaxing together. After the little one is asleep, that’s when I get to party!!! …Okay not really, but I love my knitting work so much that it feels like a party for just me, from around 9pm to midnight every day.

Usually I bust out my needles and start knitting anything, with a vaguely formed idea of what I want to knit. I often undo my work a number of times before I find a design I like. Once that design makes me happy, I try to knit it in multiple color combinations to see how it looks.

In recent times, as I think about how I want my business to grow, I’ve realized that I also need to concentrate on the non-knitting aspect of the business, so some evenings, I’ll dedicate some time to conducting research on what the current market looks like, what color trends are being set for fall, what my competition is doing, and ways to market my work and get it out there some more.

Denise's "Procragratification Infinity Cowl" patternDenise's “Procragratification Infinity Cowl” pattern

There are so many ways to make a living as a maker – how are you doing it? What have you combined and how has that changed through the years?

Once I accepted that it would take a lot of work for me to convert this business to a full-time endeavor, I no longer feel that pressure and burden on me to succeed right now. I’m learning how I can use the seasonality of my sales cycle to my benefit, shoring up and knitting a lot of items, or coming up with ideas for new patterns during the summer lull, in order to get ready for the holiday and winter season.

I’m also getting more aggressive about improving and scaling the designing portion of my work. Compared to a handknit item, patterns are a lot cheaper cost-wise for my customers to purchase, and those sales will also boost my visibility on the outlets I use.

I’m also looking into selling in multiple channels, as opposed to my Etsy/Craft Fair combo that I’ve worked for the past few years. I’m very excited to see how that goes.


Denise's studio space

What new thing are you exploring now?

Right now I’m exploring a more unified packaging for the items I mail out. Right now I wrap my items and add a label, and it looks nice, but I’m looking to create an experience even with my packaging, so people are excited to open a package from NiseyKnits.


What's your definition of success in your business?

My definition of success right now would be to break even, be able to forecast how much I’ll make each year, and to become one of the vendors people think about when they are looking for quality, handmade knit items.


Denise's BlockTure scarf designDenise's BlockTure scarf design


What's the next destination you're working towards?

I’m hoping I can get some of my items into some shops in the coming year, and publish some more designs.


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Adventures in business: with teacher Gwen Bortner

Today I'm delighted to have teacher, designer and Starship Captain Gwen Bortner sharing her experience with us. You can learn to teach your own craft with Gwen's Craftsy class, How to Teach It

Gwen Bortner, teacher at Craftsy


You're a full-time knitwear designer and teacher, which sounds like you get to spend all day knitting with beautiful yarns…what's a typical work day actually like for you?

I actually consider myself a teacher first, so much of my time is spent marketing myself as a teacher, preparing to offer classes and since I travel around the country, a surprising amount of my time is spent in airports and airplanes.  However, that is some of my most productive knitting time, so I don’t begrudge it! When I am in my home office, most of the “work day” is spent at the computer doing administrative things, publishing type activities (for handouts or designs) or marketing. There really isn’t near as much knitting and playing with yarn as one would think (or hope).


There are so many ways to make a living as a designer and teacher – how are you doing it? What have you combined and how has that changed through the years?


My original business plan went through a number of iterations before morphing into what it is today. And I think that is one of the keys to my success, my ability and willingness to be flexible. But once I realized that teaching is my gift and what I really love and then made that the focus of my business, it almost immediately became profitable.  So now my income is about 85% teaching and the remaining 15% is mostly from some sort of designing either for my own Knitability pattern line or for magazines or other folks purchasing designs. My continued focus is always to increase my teaching income even though that means I am away from home quite often.

 Gwen Bortner teaching on Craftsy

What's surprised you most about what full-time teaching?


I wouldn’t actually say I was surprised because I have been self-employed before and worked in the yarn industry for a short time in college, but this is a tremendous amount of work for a relatively small income. There is always a few folks who make it “look easy”. But once you get to know them, you also find out that they had to work really hard and for the most part are still working very hard. And in the end, there is no formula, everyone seems to have to find their own path.


What new thing are you exploring (in your business)?


The newest thing in my business has been teaching online via Craftsy.  My first course, Entrelac Knitting  was filmed just about a year ago and was easily one of the highlights of my career thus far. So I was very excited when I was invited back to film a second course.  This one is called How to Teach It  and is designed to help both new and experienced teachers of any type of hand craft develop a teaching business. I have long believed that the more good teachers we can develop the more likely our crafts will continue to prosper. Hand crafts just are not “handed down” any more, so teachers are just that much more critical. So I am also looking at developing some of my own online courses for much smaller markets and right now I am taking a course from Diane of CraftyPod to build my skills in that area.


What's your definition of success for your business?


For me, a successful business is a business that is profitable (providing me my desired level of income) and allows me to do what I enjoy. So specifically success means I am making a reasonable income while sharing my love of knitting, sharing my passion for teaching and encouraging and developing new people. And the bonus is I get to do this while getting to travel, meeting new people and making new friends.


What's the next destination you're working towards?


So my next destination and the reason I joined the Starship is to figure out how to move beyond the yarn industry.  The Craftsy class, How to Teach It, I think will open some of these doors, but I believe I have even more knowledge and inspiration to share outside the fields of knitting and teaching. So I am not exactly sure where my final destination is going to be, but I know I am ready to start moving beyond where I am right now!


Thanks, Gwen!

Now how about you, Dear Reader? Do you teach your craft? Do you want to?