Friday, 22 April 2011

Competition time!

Seeing as Facebook are getting all up my face about running giveaways on there, here's a giveaway for you! Just comment here to enter, and a random number will be chosen on Sunday night.

The winner will get a fully loaded gumball bracelet in your choice of colour! Available in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, pink or purple.

If you're not lucky enough to win one, these are available at Bird's Yard for £6 each, or 2 for £10. If you want to order one on the website, here is a link!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Two years of being self-employed

Before 2009, I'd been swapping around jobs trying to find something I loved. I've always doodled, and made clothes and stuff for myself, and even while studying for my Psychology degree, I made a regular handmade 'zine with drawings, recipes and reviews.

I was practice manager in a dental surgery, and loved interacting with patients and staff, but didn't feel it satisfied my creative urges. Worries about money and love of the staff kept me working there despite this, until eventually a combination of stress and depression caused me to suffer a nervous breakdown in late 2008.

After a few months of changing medications and behavioural therapy, I became well enough (and penniless enough) to need to do something to change my life. I'd been painting while I was signed off with depression, so I decided to try and sell my paintings. I booked a craft fair in March at a local church hall, and sold 3. I carried on doing craft fairs, and it became apparent I needed to expand my stock to include smaller priced items, so I began printing my paintings onto cards. I used them to send to friends and family, and they got a good reaction. Soon I was taking my cards to people's houses when we visited them, and a couple of friends organised card parties where they invited their friends over to buy my cards.

I went back to college to do an access course in art, and excelled in the 3D part of the course, making forms out of recycled items, which eventually developed into soft toys and jewellery (or 'wearable art' I suppose) which were added to the stock at any fairs I went to. My jewellery seemed to go down well with children, as well as teenagers, and people my age who remembered the toys I was recycling. I began stocking my toys at a small gift shop in Whitby, and my recycled jewellery at an eco-boutique in Birmingham.

I was selling my stuff online well, and at craft fairs, and began wanting to interact with customers all the time. My mentor, the Leeds based artist Louise Atkinson, encouraged me that I could make a living as a self-employed artist, so I started searching for somewhere which allowed independent designers to sell their own wares, and couldn't find anything in the area.

I talked to a Business Link advisor about setting up such a shop and renting small areas to other designers, he mentioned Michelle Walton, and fate brought me to Bird's Yard in Leeds. One day last June, I went to visit a three storey art deco building, full of Tiffany lampshades and paint tins, and a red haired woman sweeping up sawdust. We talked, and had similar thoughts about independent designers getting a way to showcase the things they made, and Michelle told me of her love for vintage clothes. I showed Michelle my toys, cards, paintings and jewellery, and she showed me a little cabinet which she'd be renting at a reasonable weekly amount which I could afford using online sales. I saw it as a way to get my goods into the real world on a permanent basis.

Part of the deal was working in the shop for 3 hours a week, but I ended up going in much more often. Everyone who rented their own shops were enthusiastic, and encouraged me in display, pricing and research for my items. Speaking to customers also helped me to see what people liked and didn't like about my items, as well as talking to them about the other designers who I was becoming just as enthusiastic about. I spent time talking to Michelle about her plans, and I could see she had a passion for getting the shop the reputation it deserves. After a couple of months of being open, we had a huge launch event, with a party afterwards at The Loft. The shop was buzzing with people, and it was great to get everyone together.

After three months my little booth was more than paying for itself, and I felt it was time to rent a whole shop of my own. The first floor had a small furniture shop, so I agreed to rent half of it with the lady who owned it. I moved in all the stock I had at home, and put it on top of her furniture, hung up my paintings, and generally made myself at home. It was a different dynamic upstairs, but no less inspiring. Through a door off my shop were The Beating Arts collective, a group of young female artists and designers who work with lots of different materials, and were a constant source of information and amusement.

Unfortunately due to illness, the furniture seller had to leave shortly afterwards, but I was determined to stay in my little shop. A group of artists working together under the banner of Joined at the Print moved in to share the space, and we managed to cover the rent and the hours working in the shop. We had an amazing month just before Christmas, traditionally a good time in retail, which got us all through the January lull.

We now have what we consider to be the largest concentration of independent designers in Leeds. At the last count we had nearly 40 different people providing items for sale within the shop: vintage, reworked-vintage and handmade clothing for both men and women, three milliners, about 20 jewellery designers, homewares and aprons, toiletries, artwork and prints, and some amazing custom items such as hand etched hip flasks and leather belts. A hairdresser recently opened on the top floor, expanding the services we provide. Many of the people working in the shop have families and often bring their children with them: the whole shop has a co-operative feel, and we all pitch in watching each other's shops, entertaining children, and making cups of tea.

After 6 months, I'm still managing to stay afloat. Some days are better than others, but speaking with customers on a regular basis, getting to know regulars, and being constantly inspired by the other shop owners makes everything worthwhile. I used to have a regular wage coming in, but was uninspired and unhappy. Nowadays I might not be able to afford little treats and I wear clothes until they fall off, but I'm living a life I love, making things with my hands, speaking to people, and being constantly surprised by what each day throws at me.