Ysolda is away travelling for a couple of weeks, but we’ve got some guest posts and treats lined up for you while she’s away. First up is the interview Ysolda did with Saremy Duffy of Chicken Boots. Ysolda met Saremy a few years ago at a Stitches show and picked up an Accordion Case for each of us, we use them all the time. I love mine for travelling and I know Ysolda has her’s with her now — more on our needle storage solutions tomorrow. Enjoy the interview, and don’t forget to enter the prize draw, details at the end of the post.
Let’s begin with a bit about your background. Were you a crafty child? What was your journey to owning Chicken Boots?
I’ve always been one of those people who like to figure out how to do something. And yes I was pretty crafty. My mom is extremely creative and my dad is an artist (although I have never lived with him). I used to create clothes when I was eight or so for Belle, Snoopy’s girlfriend, and used twistie ties to hold them on to her. (Do you know what those are? Little pieces of wire covered in a bit of paper used to close bread bags and similar). I stumbled in to sewing — I was sort of forced in to it — in my high school years. I learned pretty quickly that I had a knack for it which made me embrace and accept it and ultimately inspired me to go to FIDM in LA (the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) where I received a stellar education in design, production and pattern drafting.
I worked in the apparel industry for a long time starting in children’s clothing and eventually ended up in outerwear designing technical clothing for sports enthusiasts — especially waterproof breathable clothing or clothing that was articulated to best fit the wearer while in the position of their sport — for example, pants and a jacket (or drysuit) for someone paddling a kayak that would fit them best while in the boat, not walking around. I specialized in fit, articulation, grading (sizing the garment in to multiple sizes), and construction. I have always worked places where the clothing was made on site. I designed, managed sample rooms, created prototypes, and created all my patterns — first through production. I eventually went freelance and utilized my skills helping others get their designs to life.
After 11 years of this, I decided it was time to do my own thing. I had been working with a wonderful high school arts program and the students reminded me how much I liked designing. Because of antiquated laws in the state of California, I couldn’t go in to clothing without attaining an expensive manufacturer’s license. This is because one is not allowed to sew and sell wearable items from their place of residence. I worked from a great studio in our backyard so designing and sewing clothing wasn’t possible without getting that license. I didn’t want to take a chance so I took my little side projects for my knitting friends and made them in to my business today.
Does your experience working in the apparel industry inform the decisions you make for your business? I noticed that you emphasise that all of your products are made in the United States, for instance.
Absolutely. I have an incredible skill set that I am extremely thankful to have especially for my age and I attribute this mostly to having been able to work at companies where we manufactured everything on the premises. This affects my designs quite a lot. I hope that most will realize that what we do is not clever just because it works well, but it’s also clever that we made something that works well AND can be made affordably right here in our shop. We could certainly design something with more features or using expensive material/hardware but we just couldn’t make it at a cost our customers can afford. I also have the great advantage of being able to be a part of each phase of the production(for better or worse!). I really believe in respecting craft and placing value on labor. This also means that those who make things and sell them MUST price them accurately. There is no shame in making a living or even breaking even if that is what it takes for awhile. I certainly know this!
How do you go about developing new products that knitters will love to use?
Well, I do like function. A lot. If I don’t see a need for it, I won’t work on it. I also don’t add a bunch of extra stuff. I like to wait until I have a lot of requests for a particular item. There are trends in how we carry our projects and tools. By the time I designed the Interchangeable Case, I had had 19 people request it. I asked those 19 people to review my process and prototypes and took all of their notes in to consideration. There are too many ways to use something — not just my way! I have to respect that. But I always have to remember that I’m trying to make the best product, at the most affordable cost, in the best possible way but all on site. It’s a tricky balance.
What does a typical day look like?
Ooh! I love when people answer these questions! But my response is probably pretty boring! A typical day at the shop is: Checking email and responding, printing packing slips, filling orders, checking in with Rayann (my assistant who is busy sewing), and making sure she is set up for what she needs and finding out what I need to sew for her since I still finish some of the more technical items, and I’m really enjoying Instagram lately and check it frequently.
There are always lots of things happening at once here and this goes along with one of my mottos. I have three: 1) Let it know who’s boss (anytime we’re sewing we may have to remind ourselves that we’re the boss of this machine!) 2) Ensure success (don’t cut the corners during the prep!!), and 3) Chip, chip, chip away at it! This is especially useful if you are a new mom and suddenly find that 20 minutes is the most time you get to work on something in a day if you’re lucky — I’m not a new mom but 11 years ago when I had my daughter my world was rocked when I didn’t have as much time as I wanted to work on my own projects. I became an expert at getting a lot done in a little amount of time.
Most of my day is reacting to everything that comes our way in a day — I also like to think of us as Micro-Sew. You know how there are micro-breweries? Well, we sew small batches and often sew for orders. It sounds crazy but it leaves us available for having the gigantic line that we have and all the side projects I constantly distract us with. Sewing in small quantities also leaves our fabric available for what our customers want. I am fairly awesome at keeping up-to-date on my to-do list but my assistant will tell you that I’m always cooking up a side project. I’ll clear off the table only to pile it high with oodles of stuff in the blink of an eye. And I do get messy.
What do you wish you’d known when you started your business?
I’m glad I didn’t know the icky bits. But I’m also not the type to be discouraged. I’d more likely take it as a challenge. But if I had to pick something- accounting! My previous business was service-oriented. A product-oriented business is far more accounting. And I honestly don’t want to be an expert in it. But I do still handle it all (except payroll) so I can stay informed. Hopefully someday soon I’ll find someone to help us with this aspect! Will trade Chicken Boots for expert accounting!
I first discovered your needle cases at a Stitches show, can you tell me a bit about your experiences selling your products at events?
I really enjoy shows! They are our only face-to-face contact with our customers. It keeps me going! I also love to meet other vendors-especially competitors. I always try and introduce myself to my competitors because I feel like we’re in this together. We each offer something different and feeling threatened is a waste of time. I would freely help any one of them if they needed it and I hope I can call on them in a time of need too. Indie yarn dyers always seem to be friendly with each other-why not us seamsters? The friendships I have as a result of these shows are invaluable to me! Since I am mostly selling direct to customers I do not go to the wholesale shows where I could be with other business owners in this industry. I really miss out on the camaraderie so I try and always make connections at shows like Stitches and Vogue and at the same time pay attention to how customers shop in our booth, what they are looking for and also what fabrics they gravitate towards.
I encourage everyone to go to a show (whatever your craft interest is!). I guarantee that you will be glad you did. Meeting designers like Ysolda, seeing your favorite yarn dyers in person, and meeting others as passionate as you are about your craft is more meaningful than I can describe here. And to get a little off track…I think crafting in public is very important. In fact I lead a 4-H Knitting Project and my secret goal is that they eventually just come and knit at the group I host at our public library. When you craft in public it is meaningful in many ways- you are being creative in front of others, getting help from others, sharing with others, and it also demonstrates that these arts are still very much alive. Art is essential in all its forms.
So, truth time, are all of your tools perfectly organised or do you have a junk drawer?
Sneaky, Ysolda! Well, truthfully, my tools are very organised — but my desk is a mess (but I swear it’s organized too!). My sewing area is always set up the same, as is my pattern making area. It’s not to say that I don’t make a terrific mess every day though. And I have this habit of throwing all scraps, threads, anything on the floor to keep it off my work surface. Rayann can tell when I sneak on to her machine. And this is something I don’t tell everybody: I have a very small yarn stash, knit one project at a time, and all my yarn is organized by weight. I’m very conservative about my knitting supplies and yarn. Don’t hate me. But if you saw our shop — then you’d see that we do have some chaos and not think I was a neat freak. We have a lot of fabric coming and going all the time! My knitting stays mostly at home and my sewing is at work.
What challenges to you face and how to you approach them?
We deal with a lot of challenges. And while I do not shy away from a challenge, they can sometimes get to be big problems that take a long time to sort out. Our top three at the moment are: the calibration of our sewing machines (sewing vinyl takes its toll and a good mechanic is far away), sourcing materials (finding the right stuff at the right price takes a long time and this is a continuous effort not just for the cute printed cottons but for nice webbing or the amazing vinyl we use), and cutting! We recently bought a stack cutter to be able to cut out a lot of fabric at once. But the accuracy leaves a bit to be desired which is mostly due to our inexperience with the stack cutter.
I think 75% of every job is in the prep and cleanup — mostly the prep. And when our machines don’t work well or our thread is not the right one, this can really set us back. We are always trying to maintain a certain level of quality but this also makes our seconds sales a big hit! One woman told me at the most recent show that she had bought something from us at our recent seconds sale and had no idea what was wrong with it. That’s a huge compliment. I think the more people talk about the issues they have as they craft make the process human and we realize we all deal with the same issues. And sometimes trying an unexpected technique or material may sort everything out.
Thanks to Saremy for the prize — the Double Double and Single Case in Floral. The Double Double has a pocket accessed from the inside — but you can see what’s inside from the outside. The Single Case is for interchangeable needles or short DPN needles. It has cord pockets and a built-in notions case on the exterior.
To enter the giveaway leave a comment here on this post by 7 April with your favourite knitting or craft related storage solution. On Monday we’ll close the comments and draw one at random, announce the winner and share some of your suggestions.