The “LilyPad Knits” etsy store was not a success. We were not willing to work for 50 cents an hour, and no one was willing to pay any more. You had to actually see our creations in person, we reasoned, to appreciate the fine craftsmanship. We needed a bricks and mortar store. However, rents were thousands of dollars a month (that’s a lot of scarves) and we would have to sacrifice all of our precious free time. Tracy, the most entrepreneurial of the knitters, was on a mission to find us a home. She had experience running home shows and selling through boutiques. She was ready to be her own boss.
Someone proposed starting with a craft fair. Sally and I tried a craft fair once. We constructed wooden displays from dowels to showcase our scarves (displays that fell apart within five minutes). We looked quite the amateurs in the church hall as the other vendors backed up vans of multi-tiered displays. We sat there all day watching crocheted toilet paper covers selling like hotcakes while our scarves lingered on their dowels. A friend once told me that “crap sells”. Did you know you can still buy these classics at your local craft fair?
I also tried a craft fair with my mother. She convinced me that people would buy my paintings and her silk flower arrangements. She spent weeks hunting down eclectic containers and stuffing them with fake greenery. I hauled a tent, weights, tables, chairs and a car-ful of art and sat on a blacktop with heat radiating through my flip flops. Nothing sold.
Tracy finally found a brilliant solution to our problem – the Pop Up Store. We would sublet retail space for one month around Christmas. We would have parties. We would sell everything in a few weeks and then pack up and leave.
Tracy negotiated a four week deal with a new art coop in our town. The owner, Mark, had painting classes in the back and hung some local art on the walls in the front. We would bring in our wares and man the store for one month. We would give him a percent of our sales. I accompanied Tracy to discuss some of the details with Mark. When I met him, it was clear he had no great interest in this venture. This was his business and he did not want partners. As he really wasn’t using the retail space, and because Tracy wore him down, he agreed to let us try.
We were so excited. We knit like crazy and pulled all the old projects we had out of storage. Of course, we had the felted wreaths that we hung in the shop window.
We borrowed displays and set up the store:
Tracy politely explained that she did not think the name LilyPad Knits made any sense and renamed us Passing Fancy. We put together a Kaper Chart and and we opened for business on a Tuesday.
This “store” was, until a month earlier, a dentist’s office and not really conducive to retail. It had what looked like a bulletproof window in the center surrounding an interior office. It looked a little unfriendly sitting behind the glass, so we sat in front of it (in the “waiting room”). It was a little crowded in the corner of the retail space. If we all came at the same time we filled up the entire store.
Within two hours of my first shift I remembered from my youth that retail is a very lonely, boring business. You sit there most of the time with no customers (especially in this location, we discovered). When the rare customer pops in, you have to walk the fine line between letting them have their space and letting them off the hook. I recalled some advice I received from another artist. He instructed me to greet the customer with an open ended response – “Let me know if I can help.” Don’t ever say, “Can I help you?” Now the difference may seem subtle, but apparently if they decline your help they may never buy anything as they have already decided they don’t need your help. Once you leave them to roam with your friendly, reversible greeting you wait for them to make the next move. If they compliment your work (which they will ultimately feel compelled to do), don’t ever, under any circumstances, say “Thank you”. That let’s them off the hook. They feel like paying you a compliment is just as good as paying you real money. You are supposed to respond, “I’m glad you like it. Let me tell you about it …” I am a terrible salesperson. I merely pretended to straighten up the opposite side of the store while they browsed.
Drop-in traffic was about two people per day. Most (OK, all) of the paying customers were either friends or family who felt obligated to come in and buy something from us. They spent inordinate amounts of time trying to find the lowest priced item in the store. As we had all been to their numerous shop-at-home parties, they at least owed us a small purchase.
I started studying what was selling and why. We had lots of hats, but few sales.
Then Tracey found a pattern for the “Brangelina” – a hat similar to one Angelina Jolie wore somewhere. I’m not sure why it’s called the Brangelina and not just the Angelina. Anyway, we knit a prototype and made a little copy of Angie’s photo wearing the hat.
We sold the hat. We made more hats and sold more hats. This was the key – celebrity knitwear! We envisioned an entire line of celeb hats – the chunky white one from The Way We Were and the red one from Love Story for the baby boomers; Twilight hats for the younger crowd.
Display was also critical. Tracy made these cute gauntlets but no one knew what they were. We cut out a hand and placed them on and – voila! I still don’t think they sold, but they got a lot more attention.
Noelle’s wig form was renamed the “Magic Head”. Everything we put on that head sold.
I reasoned that it was hard to envision knitwear, so perhaps any little display photo would help. I photographed myself wearing a scarf – no good.
When Mary Ellen and I were working, a young mom stopped in and hunted through our knitwear. “You know what you should make?” she said. “Baby legs. They are so expensive.” After a few minutes of discussion we ascertained that these were basically leg warmers for babies.
I ran down to the yarn shop and bought some sock yarn and tiny needles. I whipped up a pair of baby legs and a matching hat. It was adorable and only cost me about $20 and 20 hours of work. She wanted to buy them for $8. I still own them.
I did hit on one item that sold – the needle felted dogs. Be careful what you wish for. Everyone wanted a custom dog. I ended up making these little dogs every waking hour of the day for three weeks.
I also tried other felted holiday items.
One woman loved the dogs, but really wanted a felted squirrel. I made two. She bought one and now I am waiting for another squirrel lover.
I had a crazy idea to make a felted nativity scene. I labored over this thing for hours. I brought it to the shop on the night of our big party. Just as I was setting it out, a woman walked in and wanted to buy it. She could tell I wasn’t ready to part with it. I finally decided that was ridiculous and sold it to her. Then she ordered a custom dog.
We had one big party at Passing Fancy. We invited all of our friends and neighbors over for free food and lots of alcohol to induce shopping. We sold like crazy that night.
Overall, the pop up store was profitable. The problem was that we sold to everyone we knew in that one month. When we tried it again in the spring we added some new merchandise for the grad and dad crowd.
Sales were lower. Tracy tried one more time. Like most housewife endeavors – you can’t rely on your friends to support you forever. While we all keep trying – you just can’t build a local economy of housewives buying stuff from each other.
Retail is a tough business. Profits are low and the work is long and lonely. I think this was the tipping point that convinced several of us to go out and get real jobs.
I always wanted to be one of those people who creates beautiful objets d’art. I have tried painting, quilting, photography, knitting, and most recently collage. I can see the end products so clearly in my mind, but something always goes awry in the execution. It is probably because I do everything the same way — a quick first draft and then edit,edit, edit. That works OK with writing and even oil painting, but not much else. My watercolors are often disastrous. My oils are better, but I know I will never be a great painter. I thought I stood a chance with knitting. All you have to do is follow a pattern. So, I bought a book and taught myself to knit. That first year I went crazy and made sweaters for everyone. This was about 25 years ago. I was young and naive and knew nothing about the world of fiber. I knit most everything out of synthetic yarn.
In my 20′s I stayed up late one Christmas Eve finishing an ambitious cabled number for my dad.
In hindsight, I’m pretty impressed with the fit and I may have actually used cotton here. In my next knitting phase I fixated on cats (this theme was also quite prevalent in my early decorating attempts). This sweater was for my little cousin. She agreed to wear it at least this once.
Kind of cute, for a five year old. You can see the sleeves are a bit baggy. I was encouraged and set out to create my masterpiece – a giant cat faced sweater that I made for myself. I splurged on some tweed (but still synthetic) yarn. I have one major problem with knitting – everything I make comes out too short and too wide. I am what they call a loose knitter. This particular cat sweater turned out so wide that it was a perfect maternity sweater. Years later, my teenaged son discovered it in my closet and thought it was so hilarious he wore it for ugly sweater day. Here he is wearing it as a joke to a recent family party.
After making everyone a Christmas gift, I didn’t pick up a knitting needle for over a decade (I think my brother was relieved that I quit before I got to him). Suddenly, a few years ago, everyone around me spontaneously started knitting. They were mostly making scarves – but the yarns were beautiful. I was inspired and ready to start up again.
Out of the blue we were then transferred to London. Desperate to make friends, I joined an international women’s group and their Stitch and Bitch knitting group. I had skills, I reasoned. They would never suspect I hadn’t knit in ages. I emailed the leader and took a bus to her large home in Maida Vale. The group turned out to be mostly American moms of senior girls at the American High School.
For my first project I brought a solid scarf that I was knitting in what I assumed to be a complex stitch (it was a simple seed stitch, they told me). I quickly realized that I was out of my league. They were all piecing together mohair cardigans or 12 row lace pattern pashminas.
I also soon learned that I had stumbled into an enclave of the super wealthy. A friend told us before we moved that we, the corporate expats, would be the poor people at the American School. I couldn’t believe it, but we were. These knitters were all married to hedge fund types. These were mostly east coast prep school grads. Their husbands were Ivy Leaguers. The host was a lovely woman, named Gillian. Gillian owned an old home in Maida Vale just a few doors down from Jude Law. (Try as I did, I never got a glimpse of Jude. I did see a sports car occasionally parked behind the iron gate.)
Gillian was always very nice to me. The other ladies said hello but no one had much interest in me. I must have been giving off middle class vibes or something. I tried to toss in a few relevant tidbits into their conversation, but eventually just stuck to listening. My knitting was subpar and I was never accepted as an equal in this group, but I could not tear myself away from their conversations. These conversations were limited to three topics – college selection, school fundraising and travel.
College selection conversations usually took up an hour of every meeting. As I only had a freshman, I was interested but not obsessed. Laura was a blonde woman from the Boston area. Her husband did something in banking (of course). She went to Harvard, a fact she managed to squeeze into every conversation. Currently she was busy traveling the world and getting her academically mediocre son into a top college. They were exploring these small east coast liberal arts schools that I never heard of. Tragically, she was not able to get him into an Ivy or little Ivy in spite of his promise in crew. As we Midwesterners tend to go Big 10, I foolishly asked why they never looked at state schools.
“Our kids don’t go to public school.”
I didn’t know quite how to react to that. Laura and I actually both had engineering degrees. Laura saw the look of horror on my face at her public school comment and was compelled to explain that, as they were expats, they did not qualify for in-state tuition, so really what was the point of a state school?
As the American School had roughly one counselor per two students, these kids all got into amazing east coast schools that midwestern kids can only dream of.
Another endless topic was fundraising for the High School. As we all paid a fortune for tuition I could not quite understand why they needed more money, but I had learned not to ask stupid questions. There was an annual auction to raise funds. This year the elementary school kids made a quilt and one of the parents bought it, for $50,000.
“$50,000?” I choked on my Earl Grey.
Laura looked at me in disgust. “It was exquisite.“
I’m sure it was. I learned it was bought by a parent who also made annual donations in excess of $1 million.
The third topic of conversation was travel. These women had seen it all. Western Europe had been exhausted ages ago. Eastern Europe was old news. They had moved on to Africa, India and the Middle East. They flew to Dubai to buy jewelry. They did the type of safaris you imagine Prince William and Kate doing. Most of them had been expats for over a decade and had no intention of going back to America. They were so frustrated by their stateside relatives. They hated even going home for the holidays. These relatives just didn’t want to hear any more about all the good lives they were leading, and (as I knew) it was very hard for them to find anything else to talk about. As I was still excited by taking the train to Paris, I didn’t not share my adventures with them.
I moved back to the States after a year and found a lovely new knitting group – one with people who had normal incomes and kids who went to public school. One thing hasn’t changed — I am still the worst knitter in the group. Here is what the rest of the group produced:
Here is an ensemble I created for me and my dog. I don’t think Chelsea loves hers.
I am actually happy with these. Most of my items, however, look more Ray Rayner than Martha Stewart. I once splurged on about 30 skeins of blue yarn with the intention of making an afghan (why are they called that?). I hated the afghan and ripped it out. I have tried to rework the yarn into many things. I finally decided to make a simple shawl with the last bits. Sadly, I ran out of the blue yarn before I hit the ruffle. I decided to just tack on some black. Bad idea:
I don’t have the energy to rip this out again. This yarn is cursed. On to my next project – a striped sweater. Perhaps in the next year or two I will actually finish and post the results.