Before turning her yarn dyeing hobby into an official business in 2014, Lisa Bass of White Birch Fiber Arts made her living as a newspaper editor. Working in journalism, Bass had to suppress her political views in the interest of neutrality.
As the owner of a craft business based in Vermont, Bass has found her niche by being vocal on LGBT rights and other hot-button political issues via her handmade creations.
One of Bass’s most popular products is a self-striping colorway she calls Nothing Says Screw You Like a Rainbow. During the recent presidential race, she sold yarns named Nasty Woman and Bad Ombre, after a couple of President-Elect Donald Trump’s remarks during the final debate. Bass is currently selling pink self-striping yarn at a discount in support of The Pussyhat Project, a craft initiative participating in the Women’s March on Washington on January 21.
Bass says she has found a loyal customer base in knitters with similar political views. But for a sole proprietor or owner of a small company, taking a stand can also mean taking a gamble.
Not everyone has had a positive experience merging politics, art, and business, however. In 2008, quilter and fabric designer Denyse Schmidt got some flack after she organized a raffle, entering donors to Barack Obama’s campaign in a drawing to win a quilt she made with the words “Yes We Can.” The raffle raised around $18,000, but it lost Schmidt customers. “That was pretty heady and exciting, and demonstrated a lot of concrete support, but I did get some angry responses and had some folks want to be removed from my mailing list,” Schmidt says.
More recently, Schmidt publicized an election quilt in her newsletter with the phrase “Vote for equality” as well as the words “vote,” “peace,” “love” and “justice.”
“I was more careful this time to be mindful that not everyone thinks the same way I do, to not make it about one thing or another, but to make it about exercising our right to have a voice,” Schmidt says. “I had a lot of thoughtful responses to it—80 percent positive and grateful for talking about the difficulty of the time, but a couple people expressed their dislike of politics in their quilting email.”
It can also be difficult for craft business owners to draw a line between their personal/political and business lives when work and hobbies intersect, especially on social media. Suzanne Burkett, a popular Long Island, N.Y.-based yarn dyer, had some customers as Facebook friends, but ended up creating a second profile so she could continue to share her political opinions and avoid seeing posts from fellow knitters with what she says were racist and anti-gay remarks.
“On my original page, my feed has over 800 ‘friends’ and I end up missing the bits of news I do want to see from those who actually matter to me,” Burkett says. “[The second profile] has made social media somewhat enjoyable again. I’d rather be able to share my opinions of Trump with impunity and see what my former classmates had for breakfast than be forced to…post only yarn, recipes, and cute kitten memes.”
Bass advises other outspoken business owners to be prepared to lose customers and have a plan to reach out to new ones who both want your product and like your views. “If you feel strongly that you must speak out but you fear the consequences would be too severe, then I suggest starting with things that are less overtly confrontational,” Bass says. “For instance, you could donate 10 percent of profits for one item to a cause that is political, but a few steps down from white hot. It’s the difference between Doctors without Borders and Planned Parenthood. Both are fantastic causes, but Doctors without Borders isn’t the flashpoint that Planned Parenthood is.”
Ultimately, deciding whether to make your views public is a personal decision. “It depends on how strongly you feel, and what feels right,” Schmidt says. “I think it’s always important to be respectful of the fact that not everyone is going to think exactly like you on every topic, and honestly—right now, especially—I think we have to try to understand why and how we might have such wildly different ideas and find some common ground. I do not put a lot of really personal information out there, but I do try to be true to myself in how much and what I communicate. Being honestly myself has worked well for me as a ‘marketing strategy,’ though it’s more about being authentic.”
Lisa is a freelance journalist in the New York Metro area who specializes in home design, real estate and healthcare. When she’s not writing, or knitting shawls and sweaters, Lisa runs Indie Untangled (www.indieuntangled.com), a marketplace and blog that promotes the work of yarn dyers, pattern designers and crafters of knitting-related accessories.
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