Photos courtesy of Anne Oliver.
Anne Oliver lives in a Kodachrome world. Just one look at her vivid, vibrant, color-filled embroidery designs proves it.
“Color drives me,” says Oliver, owner of Lolli & Grace, where brightly hued embroidery kits make even the most reluctant stitcher itch to pick up a needle and floss.
“I believe color is integral to our emotions,” Oliver continues. “Seeing a gorgeous palette of colors almost instantly sparks a new design idea.”
Oliver describes herself as “a pattern designer, stitcher, doll maker, and lover of all things colorful,” and has incorporated all those skills into her business, which began with an Etsy shop in 2012, where she listed three doll patterns and — much to her surprise — sold some.
Today she still has doll patterns, including a felt Beauty and the Beast-inspired set, but the shop has blossomed to include a bouquet of embroidery patterns and kits, felt ornaments and a floss-winding tool she created. Wool felt designs (perfect for ornaments) run the gamut from whimsical polar bears, hedgehogs and llamas to vintage inspired sewing machines and seed packets. Shoppers can buy just digital patterns or complete kits, all with detailed instructions, photos, and some video tutorials.
Learning to run a business
Oliver gained her business – and teaching — chops working in a locally owned craft store in her hometown of Dallas.
“Working there was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I loved creating designs for people to make things themselves, as well as writing instructions to help them be successful. I loved chatting with people about crafting and handmade art and sharing techniques and tools to create projects.”
She started a furniture and mural painting enterprise, but stopped when her daughter was born. As her daughter got older, Oliver yearned to get back to crafting, especially working with felt and embroidery. When her doll patterns sold, she believed she had the seed of a business.
“When I was designing my first three doll patterns, I thought, ‘I think these are good, and I’m pretty sure there might be someone, maybe a few someones, who would buy these.’”But, she adds, “You don’t really know for sure until someone actually buys your product. When a few someones did buy them, I knew that maybe, just maybe, this could work.”
Refining the product
Making dolls, she discovered, “is very time-intensive, so I gradually transitioned to hand embroidery patterns, which is perfect for me,” she says. “There’s resurgence in all types of handcrafts and needlework, and an eager audience for both traditional and modern embroidery designs.”
She knew little about starting an online business, but Etsy, she says, made it easy because she could create listings “with a minimal investment of money. However, I soon realized you can’t just create a listing and then wait for people to find you. Being successful takes a lot of research, intense product refinement and hard work.”
She took a deep dive into Etsy Facebook groups to learn some marketing tips. She weeded through many groups, including some that were “definitely not my style,” until she found those that had “good information as well as a community spirit that matched my outlook. But there is always more to learn, and I’m still figuring out a lot of things.”
Getting the hang of Instagram
Instagram, being a highly visual platform, is a natural fit for her colorful products.
“I enjoyed spending time on Instagram, immersing myself in the wealth of creative people and art being showcased. I gradually learned how to build a community of people who were interested in what I had to show and say.”
Again, she scoured the internet for Instagram tips and “gradually accrued the skills for making Instagram both a fun place to hang out and a great resource to find customers.”
There were a few hiccups as she transitioned away from doll patterns and embraced embroidery.
“It was almost like starting over, because I had to again find customers who wanted hand embroidery patterns rather than doll patterns. Hand embroidery is an increasingly crowded field, and I’m constantly learning how to get people to find me.”
Despite her best efforts — posting quality photos daily, adding chatty content, engaging with others – “I was getting as few as five likes and zero comments. I felt like a fool, chatting away like an idiot to an empty room.”
So in a fit of frustration she shelled out $300 on an internet business course that she thought “would give me the magic bullet for how to make Instagram work for me. While $300 might not be a lot of money for some people, for me it was a huge amount.” And it didn’t help.
“It was overpriced and not an environment that made me feel good. I was doing everything I thought I was supposed to do.” The discouraging feedback she received in the group left her feeling defeated. Finally, however, one encouraging group member said, “You’re doing it right. Keep at it. It takes time to build a community of engaged customers. There’s not one way, or a quick, magic answer that will make you successful immediately.”
So Oliver persevered.
Focus on quality
“I worked hard to make sure that my patterns and kits are worth the money, to make sure the designs themselves are what people want. The instructions are thorough and detailed, there are numerous photos and diagrams to explain the steps or techniques, and I make myself available for questions to help my customers have a great experience.”
“I am meticulous when it comes to packaging my kits, so when customers open that box they feel like they’ve received something really special, not just a piece of fabric, a handful of thread, and a needle tossed into a plastic bag.”
And little by little, things picked up. “I saw a steady increase last year and hope to also grow this year,” she says. “Creating an engaged, interested group of stitchers on Instagram has been one of the best things I’ve done for my business.”
She’s had success with her “Stitch Alongs,” in which enthusiasts buy a specially designed project (they can buy the pre-printed fabric only, a mini-supply kit with the fabric, felt and threads, or a complete kit with all of the above plus needles and beads) and follow along as Oliver shows the stitches via video. Patterns and instructions are free.
Stitch Alongs are gratifying, she says, because “they foster that sense of community I really love, and also engage both experienced and new stitchers.”
Sticking with Etsy
For now, Etsy remains her selling platform because it offers “built-in features that I don’t have to create myself,” she explains. “I put many, many hours into creating new designs, sketching, drawing, refining the designs, then stitching that design; writing the instructions and photographing each step; editing the photos to match my brand’s aesthetic; creating diagrams for stitches and techniques; creating one set of instructions for PDFs and another for kits; sourcing the items and assembling the kits; creating listings and on and on.
“New products drive sales,” she adds, “so at this point, the ease of Etsy allows me to spend as much time as I can on creating more new designs, which is the fun part.”
Roberta G. Wax
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com