Louie’s latest book project is Quilling Phrases, in which she designed her own letter font.
Photo courtesy of Cecelia Louie.
With a curl here, a twist there, and a tiny dab of glue, paper artist Cecelia Louie manipulates long, skinny strands of paper into dragonflies, flowers, letters, and other fanciful quilled art. The colorful swirls and twirls of these strips take the eye on a merry journey that has created a nice little business she calls Paper Zen, an apt name for a craft that is definitely her happy place.
“Paper Zen is the calming serenity I feel when surrounded by a pile of scrap paper,” says Louie, who has written five quilling books, including her newest, Quilling Phrases, in which she even designed her own letter fonts. “It’s my version of cross stitching or embroidering a phrase.”
She also teaches dimensional paper crafting for Craftsy, has more than 17,000 YouTube subscribers, and more than 7,800 sales on Etsy. Her business has been evolving at a leisurely pace since she started blogging in 2006, which is just fine with Louie, who has a distinctive, looser quilling style than is seen in traditional quilled designs.
“My designs are more open, with a modern twist,” she says. “My flowers are more graphic, not as tightly coiled and dense.”
Louie has written five quilling books and been featured in several other craft books and publications.
Photos courtesy of Cecelia Louie
With a diploma in graphic design, the Vancouver-based artist has worked in both the corporate world designing brochures, logos, and stationery, and as a freelancer.
Although Louie has a full-time graphic design job creating patient medical forms for a health agency, Paper Zen is definitely a business, not just a side hustle. “My job doesn’t tax me creatively, so I have the energy to do creative things at the end of the day,” she explains. “I have security and creativity, with a lot of flexibility.”
Love of paper
Louie always had an affinity for paper, playing with whatever paper scraps she could find. “My parents were immigrants from China,” she says. “They didn’t have a lot of money, so they were resourceful. We learned to be MacGyvers, to use what we had on hand. I admired that resourcefulness.”
Her crafty eureka moment came in second grade when a fellow student made an origami balloon. “When he actually blew up that paper balloon, it blew my mind,” she says, a touch of wonder still in her voice. “It was magic. It left a mark on me.”
Eventually, she found a quilling book, Twirled Paper, by Klutz, and discovered her calling. She remembers the thrill of making a quilled card for a friend’s birthday, “how her eyes swiveled up and down over the swirls. That was like applause. I felt like a magician.
“Quilling is very freeing,” she adds. “It’s interactive because of the way the shapes move your eye. It’s vibrant, engaging, yet it’s so minimal.”
In 2013, Louie was hired to create a quilled snake, celebrating the Year of the Snake, for a newspaper ad for Home Depot. The ad ran in two Chinese-language newspapers in Canada.
Photo courtesy of Cecelia Louie.
Developing an audience
She started her blog mostly “to convince my friends to do crafts, but also as a diary to remember what I made and what I gave away.” Soon she was creating and selling her own quilling patterns, catching the eye of a book editor, who commissioned her first book. “Quilling is such a niche craft, there weren’t many quillers online at the time.”
Not only did Louie come up with 26 new patterns for the book, Pretty Quilled Cards (2014), but she also had a unique approach to teaching the how-to parts, using illustrations and diagrams instead of wordy instructions. For example, instead of writing “cut paper into six-inch strips,” readers could simply lay the strip on the diagram and cut and fold where shown, a technique she still uses in her e-books and tutorials, making her patterns easy to follow but leaving room for personalization.
The diagrams and illustrations of how to move your fingers made the book easily accessible for non-English speakers. She included card templates that could be photocopied and printed so readers could not only make the quilled piece, but “put those components into something useable.”
Her YouTube channel, full of free tutorials, templates, and video tips, was the game-changer that galvanized her business and continues to propel sales. In fact, it was a pattern for the quilled letter “A” that ignited her entrepreneurial spirit. The “A” pattern got so much positive feedback, she did “B.” Then she had an idea for C. Sensing a trend here, she figured she may as well do the whole darn alphabet and BAM!, before she knew it she had a book, Quilling Uppercase Letters, and a real business.
Cecelia Louie overcame her nerves to teach a seven-part class on Craftsy, covering dimensional paper crafts, including quilling and flowers.
Photo courtesy of Cecelia Louie
Despite the success of her first book, which had several reprints and was translated into French and Chinese, Louie realized that “you can’t make much money from a (printed) book today,” so she’s going digital all the way – books, patterns, printables, and SVG cut files for dimensional paper items. Sticking with Etsy instead of trying to build a website, and selling only digital goods, means she doesn’t worry about shipping, safeguarding credit card information, or collecting taxes. “I can stay lean and not be distracted.”
This lean approach gives her time to strengthen her photo, writing, and marketing skills; learn SEO, and create a valuable mailing list. The feedback she receives on her tutorials helps her “understand my readers, what they are struggling with” and drives her to make tutorials to address those needs, including the most asked question: how to keep glue from showing. (See glue tutorial here.)
The free tutorials, she notes, take nothing away from her bottom line, but actually enhance it because the tutorials give viewers a way to know, like, and trust her.
“The tutorials make people confident enough to feel they can do (the craft) on their own and trust their own hands.”
Although being on camera is way outside her comfort zone, she knows those videos are key to her success. “As an introvert, it is really hard to put myself out there. I don’t seek attention. Just the thought of it makes me sweat. It took a long time to get past that fear.”
If making YouTube videos made her sweat, imagine how she felt when approached by Craftsy (then Blueprint) to record her Quilled and Sculpted Cards class. “I sweated bullets. I couldn’t sleep for two days. There were four cameras and three people (watching). That much attention is my worst nightmare. But I knew it would be a life-changing moment. I had to shake myself and do it. It was a hurdle for me.”
Louie’s slow-growth policy means that for now, she’s sticking with Etsy as her sales platform. “It’s the choice of least resistance and lets me focus on growing my audience and come up with products and tutorials.” Her work/life balance is also right for the moment. “The pace right now works for me. I can pay bills with my bread-and-butter day job and I feel like I have security and creativity at the same time.”
And that’s a nice Zen place to be.
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