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!


  1. I love the life lessons involved in this process. Your daughters seem like lovely young women. You should be very proud.

  2. Ok, wow! Firstly the fair sounds awesome & I wish there was something like that here where we live and secondly, what an awesome family you have - all the lessons learnt & communication! Totes proud you should be!

  3. It is always fascinating to watch kids grow.And you have such a interesting way of telling the story. Waiting to see more from them..

  4. What a great learning and teaching opportunity! They are well on their way to learning how to start and grow their own businesses!

  5. I always enjoy your blog posts, but I especially loved this one. It's great to hear how you help your girls learn life lessons, and see them developing into caring and responsible young adults.

  6. "being okay with saying no for no other reason than we feel like we need to"
    This is a great lesson in general, I believe. So often we are expected to give and give and be kind, patience, never be selfish. But too much of that and we will fail to set out boundaries. I thought your insight in the craft fair progress was really interesting and helpful!

  7. I have loved reading about this experience each year, and watching the ongoing process of self-discovery and handling the creative:marketing hurdles so many of us deal with, including myself. And I've been an adult for a loooong time!

  8. It was so fun to read about the decisions that came about after last year's craft fair! A trading basket sounds like a great idea, then the decision is already made as to what one is willing to trade away. Those wands look absolutely super fantastic!! I would have bought the ones with jewels at the ends! For triple the $2 cost!

  9. I love the many lessons your girls are learning through this experience.

  10. I always love reading about this craft fair. I dream of having something like that near me one day. And reading about your daughters thoughts and growth through the process make it really special. They sound like amazing girls!

  11. I'm going to nth those who love hearing about the craft fair.


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