Monday, August 28, 2017

Cathartic Making

What does your back-to-school making look like? 

Mine looks like this:

So, the children have asked for pencil cases.

You know the mandatory "one 8 X 5 plastic pencil box" that's on the school supply list every year? This year, the children have decided to disregard that. They've convinced me that it isn't really mandatory, and that, since the dawn of time, all their friends have been using soft pencil cases because they don't crack, they contain much more stuff, and they're plain nicer to look at.

So they picked fabrics and designs and specific dimensions and I made them their pencil cases. If you'd counted, you might have come to the misconclusion that I have eight children, assuming there's one for each child.

Not so - part of the benefit of this PencilCase-On-Demand service is being able to order extra pencil cases for things like "home" markers and "precious mechanical pencils from Japan" and other collections not required in school. 

I didn't mind. They could've asked for backpacks, which would've taken a week. Or clothes, which would've taken so long that I might've given up halfway.

Sewing pouches, though, is extremely cathartic. You cut a fabric rectangle, find a random zipper and ta-da! Pencil case in under an hour. I made six of the eight cases in the photo over two days, and the remaining two earlier in the year. 
In case you don't recognize the various designs in the photo above, I'll list them for you with links to the posts where we discussed how to make them:

In the top row, left to right: #1, #2, #4 and #5 are darted pouches. #3 is a simple flat pouch.
In the bottom row, left to right: two simple flat pouches stacked on each other, and a simple flat pouch with a zippered pocket and grommets, similar to the inserts in this utility case.

Slightly related: I've also been collecting random pencil case designs from the internet in general, and online stores specifically. For instance, some of the japanese/chinese online stores have some really interesting morphing pencil cases that I want to make. I'll try them out on my kids first and if they are impressed, I shall share them here. 

P.S. Thank you for everyone's comments to the last post on the convertible summer bag. The masses have spoken, and deconstruction it is, then! 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Convertible Summer Bag

Last week, I suddenly realized that it was almost the end of summer.


Quickly made a summer bag. You know, in an effort to channel more summeryness before the bad S-word comes a-falling out of the sky like atmospheric dandruff.

So, this bag, like so many other craft projects, has been in my head for a long time. But then I procrastinated: first, I had to go find the cord for the strap, and then hunt down grommets that were big enough for it (the typical 1/2" ones on the notions wall of JoAnn and Hobby Lobby were too small) that also didn't require an expensive Installation Tool that I might use only a couple times before it joined the other obsolete sewing gadgets I've collected in my lifetime.

This is how big the bag is. And how it looks carried over the shoulder, according to the original design (spoiler: there's a twist to this later - read on).

Couldn't be simpler: a round bucket with grommets.

Some inner features: a key lanyard, which I now put in all the bags I make, because it's my favorite way to secure (and find) my keys, and leaves the pockets free for other things.

Speaking of pockets, here's a new pocket I've been working with for future bag patterns: a zippered welt without the welt-technique, and with as few layers as possible for bulk-lessness.  Easier for beginners (and mass-producing), I'm thinking.

I have no idea what this picture is about. 

So that was Bag Version 1.0. 

And then Emily comes into the sewing room and says, "Hey! I like that bag. But it should be a backpack, too. Make the straps become a backpack, Mom. Actually, make it convertible. Put a thing at the bottom so the straps stay put there."

Let it go on record that this next bit is Emily's design. 

Again, I have no idea what I'm doing in this picture, but the bag at least is behaving itself.

The peapod fabric, incidentally, is from Jessica Jones' gorgeous-but-sadly-no-longer-not-in-print Modern Flora collection. The strap and piping fabric is a green linen I've had forever.

Let's now go off on a totally different tangent for a while and talk about instructions and such.

Many bloggers and pattern-designers may do things differently, but I generally share my instructions for making things in three formats:

1 Deconstruction tutorials
These are the shortest and quickest way I share instructions. They feel most like an overview, and the how-tos offer the least hand-holding. Most of the photos will have been taken after the project is completed, and I'd refer to techniques and methods in retrospect, rather than "Step 1, do this." Usually, there are no templates or dimensions (apart from those of the finished project), because I didn't want to take the time to record them or sketch and scan a cutting or layout diagram. My 2016 Zip A Bag series was a collection of deconstruction tutorials.

Upside: Deconstruction tutorials are my secret weapon for sharing how-tos for a maximum number of projects on this blog in a minimal amount of time.
Folks who've made similar projects could read a deconstruction tutorial and gain enough inside info to make this new one on their own. 

Downside: Deconstruction tutorials tend to by skimpy on details, so readers who are unfamiliar with this kind of project will probably not be able to make this themselves. You'll know you're reading a deconstruction tutorial when, at the end of it, you find yourself asking, "Where are the dimensions? Oh, she didn't say how long the zipper was, or what size the pieces were. Dangit."

2 Full tutorials
These are step-by-step instructional posts with in-progress photos. Depending on the level of sanity in my life at the time, I may even annotate these photos. Full tutorials offer a lot more hand-holding and details, including dimensions of the various pieces in the layout. Blog readers ADORE full tutorials because they are like sew-alongs. However, they require a lot of time to put together, and drag out the actual sewing process which has to be interrupted every few minutes to photograph each crucial step. Which in turn increases the possibility of having to stop to, say, prepare dinner, before even the prototype is completed. Which in turns runs the risk of abandoning the entire process altogether.  Here is an example of a full tutorial.

Upside: If I keep my wits about me and write them properly, anyone of almost any sewing level can follow along most of my full tutorials, particularly when I provide templates for download and immediate use.

Downside: They require so much time that I could only share a small fraction of the projects on this blog as full tutorials compared to what I would've been able to share as deconstruction tutorials. Often, the prospect of photographing, photoediting and writing a full tutorial is sufficiently overwhelming that I surrender in the early stages and the project never makes it to the blog even as a brag post. As I've gotten busier in recent years, I find myself taking time to write tutorials for simpler projects, like those which can be documented in fewer than 20 photos. 

3 Sewing Patterns
Unlike deconstruction and full tutorials which are free to access on my blog, patterns are digital instructional files that you buy. Sewing patterns are ridiculously detailed, to the point where they make full tutorials look like child's play. They can run for pages, to include everything from yardage and fabric treatment and alternative materials if you can't get the first-choice materials we recommend. They might include tips and additional background education for stitches, the use of a special sewing tools, and trouble-shooting if you have X kind of sewing machine vs. Y kind of sewing machine. They often feature photos of everything, including variations of that project in multiple fabrics and adaptations. There might even be photos of the side view of the sewing machine and the front view of the sewing machine and the back view of the sewing machine just so you can visualize stuff. There are cutting plans and 45" -width layouts and 54"-width layouts and checklists to help you organize the one thousand pieces of bag innards you need to cut out. 

Upside: One, ultimate hand-holding. The aim is to get you from the first to the last step without mishap and with minimal Figuring-It-Out-Yourself, after which you are the proud owner of a tote bag, or a stuffed animal, or a ball gown or whatever. Two, once I'd committed to writing instructions for a particular project at the sewing-pattern level, I'd be equally open to simple as more challenging/unique projects (case in point: Menagerie and its hundreds of photos).

Downside: Sewing patterns take FOREVER to produce. This has less to do with the complexity/simplicity of the project and more to do with the inherent process of pattern-making: creating multiple prototypes, sourcing easily-available materials and testing out alternatives, writing the drafts, refining in rounds with outside testers, incorporating feedback, and so on. So it may be months between seeing a brag shot of a project on my blog and actually being able to sew it with my instructions. And they're not free - you actually have to invest money in them.

Okay, here's where I'd love for you guys to weigh in. 

Before I had any shapeshifting ambitions for this bag i.e. while it was just a common drawcord beach tote, I'd thought to do a deconstruction tutorial for you guys because you see the photos in this post? Them's all I took. No in-progress shots at all. No annotations needed. No dimensions or measurements. Quick, minimal and maybe even in time for Labor Day!

Then we added the infinity rouleau strap, and the convertible loop to turn the tote into a backpack, and it felt like it was becoming a pattern, because there were new techniques that could be helpful to teach, and variations for the strap should people be unable (or disinclined) to make a rouleau strap like this. 

But instead of me making the final call, I thought I'd ask you guys what you'd prefer. We could do a skimpy deconstruction or a sewing pattern with variations. Either way, I'd say a beginner could make this bag. Seriously. You'd have to step out of the quilting cotton comfort zone a bit, but you could absolutely get all the materials and hardware at Joann's or Hobby Lobby. 

So if you have an opinion, I'd love to hear from you in the comments: skimpy deconstruction or sewing pattern?

And feel free to say you're not interested either way because this bag design does not call to your inner fashionista. I would not be offended. In fact, I might cheer and say, "Yay! I can go swimming instead of sewing." It's all good - I just want to put my time where it can benefit you guys most.

Thank you so much, friends!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wizarding Wands in the Shop!

Thank you everyone who visited my shop in the last week - the kids have been thrilled to share their felt pizzas and twirling ribbon sticks with you. They were very excited to watch each transaction notice pop in my inbox, not just because it meant a sale but also because they were able to experience the entire Etsy process from start to finish in less than 48 hours.

I didn't mention this in the previous post because it was already very long, but Emily largely ran my Etsy store this past week. She took and edited all the solo shop photos, for instance, and uploaded them into the listings. I showed her how to create a listing, and then let her handle the rest. Yesterday, we worked together on how to weigh a product and estimate the shipping cost, then how to pack it and double-check the contents and address against the packing slip. And then we drove to the post office right after to drop off our packages. It was all very exciting to a twelve-year-old, I suspect, to learn how an online small business works - at least the retail front of it, anyway (I'll spare her the documentation and taxes for now!) She'd been familiar with face-to-face sales at craft fairs and the like, but it's another thing altogether to sell over the faceless internet while retaining as much personal-ness as possible with our customers. Your support means a lot to us, and has added so much to the kids' learning about how a business works.

Today, she listed all her wizarding wands in the shop, so you'll be able to find them there now. 

Most of them are original designs, but a few are inspired by actual characters in the Harry Potter universe. This one, for instance, was inspired by Queenie Goldstein's wand.

Because they're all unique, she's listed them individually, each with a felt wand sleeve that she sewed. They have very cool names!

The twirling ribbon sticks have been flying off the shelves, but there's still a good variety of colors left. 

There are also a few pizza sets which are great for a kid who's into play food. Many of our felt pizzas at the craft fair were bought by librarians who told us they were planning to use them for their felt board presentations.

Thank you for stopping in!
Thank you cards made by Emily. Watercolor and ink

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Valuing Handmade

How has everyone been?
Our summer has been busy!

I've made one bag that I'm excited to share with you - as soon as I get some photos taken of it. 

And we have a relative's wedding to attend and sing at, which we're looking forward to. I am very happy to say that I didn't even consider sewing a dress to wear to it, let along outfitting my girls in handmade, unlike previous weddings (see and here for a success story and here for a total flop). We went shopping instead, and found very nice dresses that required minimal alteration (mine required none, which is a miracle). I know many people who legitimately enjoy tailoring dresses en masse for their families for occasions such as this, but I am not one of them. I'm actually happiest when I don't have to sew-on-demand, especially during the short MN summer when time is a currency of far greater value than, well, anything, I suspect. Summary: I am a better person to live with when I buy stuff instead of sewing it. Now, when my girls start doing proms and weddings themselves, I will be doing an about-face on this philosophy, but that's not for another few years, and I'm going to embrace the blessing of retail garmentry for now.

My kids, incidentally, have been busy working on their craft fair projects. 

For those unfamiliar with the ongoing kids' craft fair saga, our library holds a county-wide kid's craft fair every summer at which kids can sell hand-made items for $2 or less. For the last couple of years, my girls have signed up at our local city library to sell a variety of things, which they adjust according to their market research findings. Last year, we tried twirling ribbon sticks and Harry Potter-inspired wands, which were very well-received. This year, we made a new batch of ribbon sticks in multiple colors. To do this, the girls planned far ahead and when we were visiting family in Singapore in the spring, picked up bulk satin ribbon for much less than they'd ever find here in the US,

so they could offer customers a wider choice than the four colors we sold in 2016. Here are 2017's colors:

They spent many happy hours picking paint colors to coordinate the dowels with the ribbons,

and packaging the finished sticks.

They also made more wizarding wands.

I continue to be amazed at how gorgeous these are.

Some of these were inspired by the actual wands of the Harry Potter characters (e.g. Queenie) and others are Emily's original designs.

This year, the girls thought they'd diversify into fabric, specifically felt food.

I'd made felt pizzas for their play pizzeria in the past, and Emily thought they were easy enough to take on herself, so she sewed puffy circles of pizza dough, and Jenna and Kate helped cut out the toppings.

I was allowed to help with the cardboard bits. Technically, the craft fair is supposed to feature stuff made by the kids, not their parents, but we figured that the cardboard, while usually superior to all other crafting media, would play only a supporting role as packaging in this instance, so the kids said I could make some pizza boxes.

They also let me draw some rudimentary artwork on the boxes (but not participate in the coloring)

and turn the leftover cardboard into pizza peels.

This is how we packaged the pizzas. Here is the basic pizza kit -

 a dough disc, a circle of sauce and classic pepperoni and cheese toppings.

The girls also assembled expansion packs -

a pizza peel, additional toppings and order forms,

to create new and exciting flavors.

Here they are assembling the sets.

Then came the signage:

Finally: the day itself.

Check out Voldemort's wand - that was snapped up pretty quickly.

The girls planned different ways to advertise and market their products, from walk-about live demos and inviting kids to try out the ribbons for themselves,

to interactive displays.

Our craft fair experience is constantly evolving. Each year we're learning something new about marketing, or economics, or simply about ourselves as makers and human beings. The actual selling process itself is full of teachable moments, many of which are learner-initiated. My kids had to try out different crafts (and watch other vendors) before finding these twirling sticks and wizard wands which were easy and relatively inexpensive to make, and which also sold well. Then there was Trading Time, which happens during the last 15 minutes of the fair, during which vendors can take their own goods and solicit trades with other willing vendors. 

Trading Time is one of those things that can go so well and so disastrously badly at the same time. It's also full of teachable moments, particularly if an adult is around to manage expectations before and process the outcome after. Last year we were all about exploring empathy and unconditional generosity. Allow me to recount that for you here - for one, I feel it will make this year's experiences all the more meaningful. For another, I know that there are readers who are interested in organizing a similar craft fair and who might not mind the more detailed analysis.

After watching Kate get turned down during a trading opportunity at a previous craft fair, all three girls resolved in 2016 to honor every request to trade, no matter what was offered. As a result, we received everything from pebbles to coloring sheet printouts and items whose function we still can't decipher to this day, and traded away every last one of our own sticks and wands.

Not surprisingly, my girls had mixed feelings about this after. On the one hand, they loved being able to say yes to little kids and watch their eyes light up in surprise and happiness. On the other hand, they were surprised by the sense of imbalance inherent in the process: "We worked for hours on our wands, Mom! We gave them away and got a sticker on a popsicle stick in return. The other kids will get to play with their twirling sticks for months, but I have no idea what to do with this popsicle stick!"

Even more unexpected was having kids come up to our table who wanted to buy a wand after we'd traded off our very last one. They were unable to stop by earlier, they said, because they were vendors themselves and couldn't leave their stands until Trading Time. My kids were beyond dismayed, not because they had missed out on a sale but because they simply would've loved the chance to sell a wizard wand to a teenager boy (a teenager!) who'd thought they were cool.

"Do you regret trading, then?" I'd asked, when they had finished berating themselves for possibly having been too quick to trade everything away.

"No! Yes! I don't know!"

So we talked about it. And somewhere in the middle of all their value disconnects and sincere desire to be kind, a lesson in boundary-setting was emerging. I tried, then, to help them define what they were okay with and what they weren't, and why. It was hard not to put words in their mouths, but eventually they were able to tell me themselves: they wanted to be generous but needed a limit on how much to give away, they wanted to be able to say no without feeling bad, and they were beginning to understand that there were different levels of handmade, which had less to do with the aesthetics of the outcome and more to do with the time invested in the process, and it was the latter rather than the former which translated to a higher value.

Very nebulous concepts for little ones to grasp, so the kids brainstormed some practical, concrete changes for the next year's fair. Among them:
  • have a Trading Basket in which they'd set aside items for trading.
  • have a finite number of items in that Trading Basket and trading ends when those items have all been traded away.
  • be willing (and happy) to trade the items in the Trading Basket for anything.
  • be okay with coming home at the end of the fair with some leftover stock - it might feel like they didn't "sell out", but it also means they might have something left to sell to someone who couldn't stop by earlier.
  • be okay with saying no to other traders when the Basket is empty.
  • be okay with saying no, period, but say it kindly.

It would be an experiment, we reassured ourselves, and it would be okay if it failed. 

So that was 2016.

And then we waited a whole year to carry out that experiment.
Want to know how it went this year?

First, the Trading Basket worked - for all the reasons for which the kids had wanted to introduce it. During Trading Time, my kids were able to tell hopeful solicitors that they could trade anything for anything in that basket. When the basket was empty (which took about 5 minutes), they said, "I'm sorry we have nothing left in our Trading Basket to trade, but you can still buy wands and sticks and pizzas if you'd like." They reflected later that they'd felt glad they had a reason for turning other kids away, as well as an alternative to offer them. 

Inserting moment of Mom-transparency here: my kids later told me I didn't sound kind enough when I was explaining to the disappointed traders that we were all traded out. This I appreciated, even though I was slightly mortified that I might've made a little kid miserable in spite of how nice and helpful and explain-y I thought I was being, because sometimes you never know how you sound to another kid who isn't your child.

Second, the Trading Basket made at least one of my children feel awful, because it was just hard saying no to other kids, period. "Let's put our remaining wands and sticks back into the Basket so we have more to trade!" was the woeful suggestion, which had merit, but her sisters chose not to take her up on it because they felt it would've defeated the purpose of setting that particular boundary in the first place. 

Third, the Trading Basket did not affect our total sales significantly. In previous years, we wondered if many vendors were choosing not to buy each other's stuff because they were hoping to trade for it during Trading Time. This is a good strategy, notwithstanding the risk of being too late to actually snag a particular item because it'd been earlier purchased by someone else. We are happy to say that we enjoyed a steady stream of buyers before Trading Time, as well as during (no teenage boy this year, but we did sell a wizard wand to a grown man who spent a long time choosing his wand, and thereafter declared them all "sweet"), and even after: the girls were delighted to make a last sale out of the trunk of our car as we were packing up to go home. These would not have been been possible had we traded away every single item as we'd done last year.

Fourth, an unexpected side-effect of the craft fair as a whole (and the Trading Basket specifically) was suddenly understanding the value of handmade: that handmade feels like real time spent, that handmade has a monetary value that usually far exceeds what we actually make ourselves ask for it (because we're embarrassed, or modest, or not confident that we have any skill or talent at all), and that sometimes we'd simply rather give handmade away, or save it for ourselves, than try to sell it to someone for a fraction of what it's truly worth. Those of us who handmake will resonate with this - we do it because we love it, and enjoy it, and it's excruciatingly hard to slap a monetary (or any kind of concrete) value on the work of our hands, isn't it?

Here's one last story. One of the other vendors was a little girl who couldn't have been more than 8 or 9, who hand-stitched the most adorable felt animals with incredible detail, and accessorized them with bedding in little matchbox beds. During Trading Time, Kate and I walked over to buy one of her creations and were very pleased to hear that her mother, who was helping her run her stand, was not accepting trades for them (but was happy to trade some of the other, less intricate items at their table). Emily, who'd also wanted one of her animals but was too busy manning our table to come over, later told me that she would've refused to trade with her even if she'd been willing, and would've still insisted on paying for it instead. I like to think of this as a kind of creative empathy - something which people who dabble in handmade will eventually develop.

The girls post-mortemed their experiences and reactions with me over lunch, as has become our tradition after each craft fair. There were things that they liked (the Trading Basket will probably make a comeback) and things they plan to do differently (put a bit more stuff in the Trading Basket). And we talked about boundaries, and being okay with saying no for no other reason than we feel like we need to. This, I feel, is a very important thing for kids to learn; girls especially. Some of us have personalities that make it easier to do this, and some of us struggle with it, even well into adulthood, don't we?

And now we move on to the rest of summer! We have a wedding to enjoy, and some weeks of sunshine and swimming left. I am so not ready for school, friends. 

But first, here is a treat for you: we're putting some of our craft fair stock into my Etsy shop for you to buy. Please come and browse and - if you feel so inclined - support my kids' creative efforts. There are some twirling ribbon sticks

 and felt pizza sets already in the shop.

We will list the wizard wands in a few days (they're all different and have to be photographed and listed individually).

We think they're perfect for little stocking stuffers and party favors (Harry Potter party, anyone?), or even back-to-school gifts for the kiddos. If you'd like to purchase multiples, convo or email me and I can bunch them together and set up a reserved listing of your picks, and give you the combined shipping discount. Click here to browse the shop!