Like many businesses, UK-based CraftyMonkies had to pivot as a result of the Coronavirus. With a launch just seven months prior, the luxury craft retreat business found itself at a crossroads.

“Initially we presumed that it would be a couple of weeks before restrictions were lifted and some kind of normality would return’’ said founder Rachel Pierman. ‘’Then, as time went on we realized this was going to have a devastating impact on the business because we purely offered face-to-face retreats.’’

The original concept for their business was to offer sewing retreats in a luxurious setting, beautiful hotels that had a personal touch and personal service as well as, ideally, a spa, ensuring the retreat was a real treat for the attendees. The goal was for attendees to really relax between classes and also enjoy fabulous food alongside their sewing. CraftyMonkies also provided full kits for all classes so people only had to bring their sewing machines avoiding the advance preparation required for many retreats.

The original concept for CraftyMonkies was to offer sewing retreats in a luxurious hotel setting with time to relax between classes.

CraftyMonkies offered both dressmaking and quilting classes with the premise that it would be interesting to give people a taste of something they hadn’t tried before, to challenge them, as well as teach them more about the area of sewing they were already familiar with. Bonding and friendship-making was also a goal. They had planned to run six of these luxury retreats per year, each lasting 72 hours.

Before founding CraftyMonkies, Pierman worked as a TV presenter on both network TV and a specialty craft channel so it was always part of the five-year plan for CraftyMonkies to capitalize on her television experience by adding online video content to their offerings with the idea that they may set up their own TV studios in the future. Those plans, though, were for much further down the line, when the company would be well-established.

Everything changed, however, when set up a Zoom call one day, during lockdown, with one of her quilting teacher to create some content to use on the CraftyMonkies Instagram.

The quilter she was talking to said, ‘’If I had my hands on my machine I could be teaching you right now.” For Pierman, that was a lightbulb moment. Why not teach quilting online via Zoom?

They decided to focus on live, synchronous Zoom classes rather than pre-recorded, asynchronous classes. Each class would have a craft studio set up with a guest and presenter. In the early months of lockdown there were such strict social distancing measures in place that getting a crew, guest and Pierman herself into one space to film was simply impossible so filming these classes remotely from craft instructors’ homes was the best solution.

One goal for the CraftyMonkies classes was to recreate the social experience that people typically get attending the company’s in-person retreats, a feeling so many people were sorely missing during this time of isolation.  In their workshops people don’t just talk about the craft, they talk about the weather, where they live, what snacks they are having during the break etc. It’s very much a community based class and not just a case of instructors barking orders.

The concept of online workshops was appealing for the CraftyMonkies teachers, too. Many had been reliant on teaching in-person classes for income and were searching for an alternative when traveling and teaching was no longer an option. Being able to share their knowledge from the comfort of their own home was a great solution. Pierman reached out to instructors who were either social media personalities or had television experience so they were comfortable in front of the camera and not daunted by the thought of teaching live on video.

Sarah Payne (left) and Janet Clare (right) teach online classes through CraftyMonkies on the Take 3 subscription platform.

Building on the success of the Zoom classes and the fast-growing CraftyMonkies online community Pierman and her husband decided to launch a monthly subscription club called Take 3. Each month subscribers get three different takes on one particular craft project, three different craft techniques, and a piece of bonus content such as exclusive interviews with a teacher, a discount, or a set of sewing tips. For example, in August, members got three different bag projects, three quilt blocks, a video from artist Janet Clare about designing collections for Moda plus another video of rotary cutting tips. Many of CraftyMonkies teachers have also provide content for the Take 3 club.

A recent addition to their business is a video store. When the international audience for CraftyMonkies classes began to grow, people in other countries who wanted to attend their workshops but couldn’t due to the time differences asked if they could access a recording. Due to data protection laws in Europe and the UK, the CraftyMonkies team has to edit the live classes to make sure that nothing personal has been said and to ensure that attendees’ identities are protected before they can make them available to download. This means the video store is a work in progress with more classes being added on a slowly as they’re edited. Workshop attendees have the options to buy the class for just £5 if they want to re-watch at their own leisure. In the future, as CraftyMonkies expands its class library Pierman is considering adding a monthly subscription option that would allow customers to watch the classes rather than downloading them to keep.

A recent CraftyMonkies class with improv quilter Nicholas Ball had attendees from all 5 continents.
Founder Rachel Pierman believes the change in direction for CraftyMonkies has been hugely positive.

Although Covid-19 caused CraftyMonkies to change course, accelerating its business plan and creating a different future than they had in mind last summer, Pierman believes it has been a hugely positive shift. Without it they would not be catering to an international audience, for example (a recent class with improv quilter Nicholas Ball had attendees from all 5 continents). Plus, the ethos behind CraftyMonkies was always about experience and community. While not everyone could afford a £400 retreat the Zoom workshops allow people to become part of the CraftyMonkies community at an affordable price and enjoy everything they have to offer.

The Piermans have lots of exciting plans for the future, including an online shop selling craft supplies and potentially a quarterly subscription where a box of supplies would be sent out. They’ve also not ruled out a broadcast angle in the future, perhaps a production company. CraftyMonkies does plan to return to running retreats in 2021 but less retreats than they’d originally anticipated. Now that the online side of their business has taken off they want to leave time and space to continue to build on that success. “The business has been changed and gone in a different direction, a successful direction,” Pierman says. “So why change the recipe if it’s working?’’

Fiona Pullen

Fiona Pullen


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