Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Third Time's The Charm

For the third time, and at their behest, I signed the kids up for the local library's annual kid's craft fair.

After participating in this craft fair twice in years past, we'd learned a thing or three.

The very first thing we'd learned is Commitment. See, summer in Minnesota is like a sneeze - a nanosecond explosion and, a blink later, it's over. If we commit in June to a craft fair held in August, my kids would be tempted to spend their entire summer scheming and plotting and creating and perfecting all manner of extraordinary crafts for it. Now, not all kids are this intense, but mine kind of are. And our summer is far too precious to devote to crazy-preparing weeks ahead for a two-hour event in the sun.

So this year, we resolved to make our decision to sign up (or not) only days - not weeks - before the craft fair. We told ourselves that if we suddenly found a fantastic craft that
(a) we thought other kids would be interested in buying
(b) could be mass-produced in hours (not weeks)
(c) could be made entirely by the kids themselves (as was the rule)
(d) they could justify pricing at $2 or cheaper (as was the rule)
(e) could be made for even less than that

if we didn't have anything else going on on that particular day,

if Mother still had a smidgen of energy left by then,

we maybe, might, possibly sign up for it.

The kids were not thrilled with all these conditions, but - hey - it is what it is. Summer was meant to be live-in-the-moment fluid after all, and not be run on a militant crafting schedule.

Thus began our summer. And there we were, living easy all through June and July, when one day, the oldest child remembered the twirly ribbon sticks she'd played with as a small person, and asked me if I had any ribbons to make one.

I had, and we did.

Minutes later, she stopped mid-twirl, eyes shining, and said, "We could do this for the craft fair!"

And - behold - the stars aligned, and even I couldn't find any reason to say no.

So, a mere two days before the deadline for signing up, we registered the girls for the craft fair. We gave ourselves just the few days before the day itself to throw together the goods.

The oldest child went online and did her research. She learned, to her horror, that single-face satin ribbons were horribly expensive at local craft stores, and sold in very limiting yardage, besides; moreover, bulk-purchases at warehouse-type online sites were promising alternatives only until one factored in the exorbitant shipping costs. It was somewhat depressing, especially for a young 'un, but cost-analysis is part of running a business, and setbacks are wonderful ways to teach one to be resourceful in ways that one had hitherto not considered.

Enter Etsy. There, we found our ribbons, accompanied by much rejoicing,

and, while waiting for them to arrive in the post, the girls got to work on the dowels.

They painted them, added stripes with painter's tape, and finished with a coat of varnish.

They even did the ends.

When the ribbons arrived, I helped measure and cut 4 yard lengths, and the kids hot-glued one end to the dowel.

I heat-sealed (with a candle) the other, and the kids rolled them up nice and tight, and secured them with these Rainbow Loom rubber bands.

The kids also designed the packaging:

I was very impressed - I'd personally buy something like this, if I saw it in a store, for way more than $2.

Twirling ribbon sticks, it turned out, were just the beginning.

The oldest child, who'd been making Harry Potter wands for months, decided she'd make some for the craft fair as well.

This was the result of weeks of prior research and experimenting with chopstick prices and lengths, Pinterest inspiration and her own designs and paint techniques.

There are about a million tutorials on the interwebs to make these. Here are some photos of the basic technique: hot glue on a chopstick, layered in different random formations.

We painted ours with acrylic paint.

The kids also made wand sheaths. 

Super simple: a long strip of felt, roughly twice the length of the wand. Fold in half and serge both sides together.

We didn't fold ours exactly end-to-end; we left the front layer shorter than the back layer 

so the wand could peek out at the top of the sheath.

Took literally minutes to make.

Kate, who is 8, wanted to do her own thing as well, and made polymer clay charms, of which we will share a photo later.

The kids then worked out their prices, and how they wanted to publicize and advertise their wares. They had me draw them a poster after convincing me that it wasn't breaking the rules, because while the organizers were firm about the crafts being made only by the kids, they were vague about the signs.

While we were coloring, we talked about our business policies and customer service. It was all very exciting and thrilling, the girls said, and they wanted to take it very seriously.

Finally, the day arrived. 

The girls were beside themselves with excitement.

Here were the Harry Potter Wands and their sheaths.

Here were Kate's clay charms. The girls offered a free service to string them on skinny ribbons to turn into necklaces. They made a ribbon holder to dispense the ribbons .We had some smiles from visitors who recognized the Tinkertoys!

And here were the twirling ribbon sticks, which the girls took in turn to advertise via live demonstrations. They also cunningly invited other kids to try out the demo sticks. 

We had a blast. 

I loved watching the kids plan and execute this in the one week (as opposed to two months) leading up to the day itself. And I loved watching them enjoy interacting with their customers, playing with the younger kids who came up to say hello, handling money, and drinking in the whole experience of seeing someone else take delight in playing with something they'd made with their own hands.

The middle child, who expresses her energy in more measured and deliberate ways than either of her sisters, dutifully did her ribbon twirling demo shift along with them, but much preferred the actual transactions, recording of sales, and analyzing the relative popularity of the different colors of wands or ribbon sticks. She also took the time to explain to interested visitors how the different wands and sticks were made.  

And when I, their slightly clueless mother, wondered if, in her quiet way, she might be bored just watching everything, she replied with a smile, "It's just hot, Mom; I'm having the time of my life."

It was a learning experience many times over - for me, too.

But our most memorable lessons came in the last 10 minutes of the fair, when the organizers announced Trading Time, during which sellers could take their own goods and approach other sellers to negotiate a trade. 

I have very mixed feelings about Trading Time. In theory, it is a wonderful idea, but in practice, there are many ways it can go wrong. This in itself is a learning experience - it's a bit like life in how, sometimes, we have to deal with people who forget to be nice, or who have boundaries that you don't expect. You can read about our experience with Trading Time in our previous craft fair here. In the light of that experience, the kids and I talked about our expectations during Trading Time, specifically, and how we wanted to respond to other kids who came to trade with us. We all remembered what it felt like to watch Kate get turned away twice when she was too little to even comprehend what was fully happening to her.

The girls decided that this time, we would trade with anyone, for anything, even a piece of paper with a leaf stuck on it, because a child had made it and was proud enough of their work to put a value on it and hold it up to someone else to judge. 

But, oh, the pandemonium! And the creative ways in which Chaos Theory applied itself in those ten minutes of good intentions! 

Literal crowds flocked to our table from the get-go. Little kids brought trays of their goods, dumped them on our table and told us to "pick whatever we wanted" in exchange for a wand or a ribbon stick. Too late we realized that the only reason we hadn't completely sold out yet was because other sellers had been holding out in order to trade in these last few minutes (as the organizers helpfully suggested at the start of the fair). 

We traded with everyone and anyone, sometimes twice to the same family, who then formed collaborative teams with other sellers to strategically barter for even more wands and ribbon sticks. We accepted everything from rocks to photocopied coloring sheets. We met teenage boys who, unable to leave their own tables earlier, had hastily come only now, with money in hand for the Harry Potter wands they'd been eyeing, but whom we had to turn away because we'd already given our last one to a 3-year-old girl in exchange for a sticker on a popsicle stick.

We let it all happen. Not only because it was madness in a matter of minutes, but because we'd agreed on the principles beforehand: trade with anyone, and be gracious. 

And then - all of a sudden - it was over. We hadn't a single thing left at our table, save for some of Kate's little charms. We'd given everything away that we hadn't sold, in an indiscriminate free-for-all that was our socio-environmental experiment on human behavior.

My girls, their faces flushed with the thrill of being in the thick of it, laughed and said it was the best day ever. We packed up, and gleefully post-mortemed the experience over lunch: what we liked, what we thought we did well, what we'd change the next time around. They raved about how the fairground looked with their ribbons streaking the sky, and about the smiles of the kids who were twirling them. They laughed with delight at one boy's stunned expression when he'd hesitantly held out a pebble to trade for a wand and was told "yes". They talked candidly about the immense difficulty of putting a price value on handmade, about the objective ways to tell if a product is marketable (and not just because a friend's mother came to 'support' our efforts), about supply and demand, and when to adjust prices and how to target certain audiences, about workmanship and manpower and breaking even and setting business goals for the future. All adult business concepts, but learned hands-on in a kid's world, and elucidated in a kid's vocabulary.

And because they wanted to feel a little more in control while still being gracious, we talked about how they wanted to manage Trading Time at the next craft fair.

"Have a Trading Basket," they eventually decided. "Set aside some of the unsold goods in it and tell people we're happy to trade anything and everything in it, and when it's all gone, trading is over at our table, but we can sell you whatever stock we have left."

Will this work?

They'll find out for themselves the next time around, and keep learning from whatever happens then.

And did Kate fare better this time with her own trading efforts?

Believe it or not, she was turned away once, but someone kinder convinced the vendor to relent. Kate returned to our table and reported this, completely matter-of-fact, and I was struck by how it all happened without me even being aware of it, let alone involved to offer solace should it have fallen through. It was a proud but bittersweet moment; it seemed my kids are growing up all on their own.

Finally, we visited with the moms of friends who came to patronize the fair. They were all inspired to have their kids try their hand at being vendors next summer. 

It looked like so much fun, they said, and would be a good learning experience for their kids to run a business. 

Yes, I agreed, it was all true. But it took three fairs for us to find our groove, and discover what kind of people we wanted to be behind our table, and we're still learning ways to more efficiently use our time and resources, to be more assertive, to be kinder with ourselves and others. Sometimes the lessons we take home from running a business have very little to do with the business, and much more with being human.

Later that night, the girls were still talking about how much fun they'd had. Jenna, unflappable and even-keeled, said, "I wish I could rewind this day and live it all over again."

There's always next summer, love. And every day for the rest of your life; it's the learning that made it fun and that, thankfully, never needs to end.


  1. Replies
    1. Hi Jess! I'm in your old hometown now - Chicago. Holidaying with the kids. Found real barkcloth in the Field Museum and thought of you.

  2. "I wish I could rewind this day and live it all over again." - That says it all! What a wonderful learning experience! Way to go, girls!!

    1. Hello old friend! Sorry for the radio silence - we were packing for a trip to Chicago. Thanks for the comment! Yes, the craft fair was a really good learning experience for all of us. The girls are determined to do it again next summer, but we will play it by ear, I think, just like we did this year.

  3. Thank you for sharing this experience! This post was so lovely to read, and I was moved to tears by the ethic of generosity and abundance and joy that you and your children brought to the craft fair. Your writing is always as well crafted as your creations, too. So inspiring--thank you!

  4. waow ! your post is so full of emotions ! I love the lessons you learned and above all, who you are (your kids and you). I imagine how many bad manners would appear on such a day ... AND I love the crafts your girls did ! good job (in crafting and educating) !

    1. papelhilo: I don't hold anything against the other vendors for feeling possessive of their crafts and wanting to have their value recognized as what they were. I totally get it. It's so hard, pricing stuff this low and trading with no boundaries whatsoever, especially for the older kids (like the tweens and teens) who clearly are more aware of value and money and hard work than, say, the three-year-olds.

  5. What a beautiful story, and so well told. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. I always enjoy your blog, but this is one of the loveliest posts I've read in a long time - on any blog! thanks for writing it!

    1. MKG: Thank you for one of the kindest comments I've read in a long time, too!

  7. So many lessons learned. What a great idea.

  8. I love your blog for all it shares, wonderful crafts, fun stories that are so similar to my own but also moments and memories of your life that are caught and shared in words. Todays post was awesome, I love the craft faire concept, I love the rules you set for participating (and greatly admire your strength to not "do it" for them or try to make it so over the top that it becomes more of a hassle than a fun event. When you shared about Kate's trading experience, I had to pause and cry. I cried because as a mother of three precious angels, I know the pain of another child being mean even unintentionally. I cried because it was such a touching moment that happened, I'm so glad it happened. I wish for a childhood filled with happy experiences, lessons and to equally be kind and considerate. Thank you for sharing this post.

    1. scrappychica: Oh, it was SO hard not to "do it" for the kids and instead step back and watch them try to live out our guidelines. And I sometimes wonder if our kids are actually more resilient than us moms when it comes to setbacks. Perhaps it is because we are there to buffer the fall, whereas no one is usually there to buffer US when we watch our kids come up against something less than pleasant. Thank you for your kind words!

  9. What a magical day! I love the "buy a wand get a case free" marketing. Emma has been making wands all summer, so I will have to show this to her.

    And those ribbon twirl sticks look like the perfect favor for Lily's upcoming birthday party. I'll have to check Etsy for ribbon.

    "summer in Minnesota is like a sneeze" - LOVE

    1. maryanne: yes, Etsy is good. Email me if you'd like the links to the stores we patronized!

  10. I teared up, your story was so sweet! You and your kids are wonderful! :)

    1. Oh, Alli, you sweet thing. We aren't always wonderful to each other, especially when we forget to be deliberate and choose to be. But that day, we tried, and I loved what a difference that deliberateness made.

  11. Thank you for all the good you are putting into the world with and through your girls.

  12. A pebble for a wand?
    Oh, so shines a good deed in a weary world!
    Expectation management is the hardest job of a mom. I think the four of you handled it very well.
    And a pebble for a wand!

    1. SJ Kurtz: granted, it was a pebble with a face painted on it, but it was still a pebble. And it now sits in our garden, and I have used it as a paperweight for newspapers on which I set dowels to spray-paint. When I first saw it, I laughed, thinking (foolishly) that it would be one of those things that we'd smilingly accept and then put in a corner and not know what to do with, but I was wrong. This pebble has been useful many times over!

  13. Im literally tearing up with gratitude for this post. Lier you have so much to offer and you offer so much freely. Inspiring, motivating, encouraging, thank you thank you thank you for taking the trouble to share so much more than excellent craft tutorials. You share life with us and the lessons and your own specialness and i do not take that for granted.

    1. Aw, thank you, Hannah, for your own kind words and for encouraging me to keep doing what I do!

  14. Wow, this sounds like an amazing day for all. So many lessons learned. I wish we had something like this where I live, I know my daughter would love to participate.
    In addition my daughter has been twirling ribbons about all week, so I think I will have to show her this post just so that we can make some of those sticks together.

    1. Kara: yes! Make ribbon sticks! They're really as easy as they look!

  15. it is so sad that there are nasty people out there all ready to take advantage for even such a simple thing as a neighbourhood fair. what horrible terrible bad people

  16. catching up and just now reading this. I wish we had a similar fair in our neighborhood! Brings to mind the thought that the long-term craft projects that we invest the most in are our kids. "I'm so crafty, I make people."

    1. Reeni - that is so true, and such a sweet reminder for me today, at the end of summer when I'm missing my kids already (they head back to school next week!) Thank you!

  17. I loved reading this! I remember doing something like this in school, we called it mini-society, and absolutely loved it. Pretty vivid memories, from probably 20 years ago. Those wands are fantastic! Glad they had so much fun.


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