October 4th, 2009
My third victim is Sue Harris who runs Blue Box Studio and designs and makes amazing sea glass jewellery as well as beautiful hand dyed textiles.
1. What is the name of your business and how did the name come about?
Blue Box Studio – my studio is blue and box shaped. I resorted to this after all the other domain names I wanted were taken and I was getting desperate for ideas! Now, I rather like it.
2. Tell me a little about your business – what is it that you make and sell and where are you based?
I’m based in Clevedon, North Somerset, in the south west of England. I work in 2 disciplines, jewellery and textiles. I started making gemstone and sterling silver bead jewellery 15 years ago, moved onto working in just sterling silver and then, when I found it hard to get outlets as there were so many jewellers, decided working with the unusual medium of sea glass collected from English beaches was the way to go. I gain as much pleasure from walking along beaches collecting the sea glass as designing and making the jewellery. Anyone who knows me will confirm exercise is not high on my agenda (but all the wrong foods are) so I consider searching for sea glass to be good exercise – all that walking, scrambling along cliffs and bending down to pick up the glass! The main sea glass items I make are earrings, necklaces, pendants and bottle stoppers. From time-to-time I get other ideas and sell these as well. I also sell loose sea glass, partly to fund purchases of colours I cannot get in the UK, partly to reduce my stocks – I always collect far more than I can use.
Whilst I have always loved working with textiles, my initial sale of silk scarves, dyed using Shibori techniques was a fortunate accident. I was at a very quiet craft fair and bought a book on Shibori dyeing from a book stall. This looked like fun so I had a go that evening, brought it in to the fair the next day and people wanted to buy it, so I made more to sell. When people said they’d like to try the process themselves, I designed my first kit, still a popular product and ran 1-day introductory workshops. To broaden the range of textures and colours I offered customers I developed a range of devoré (burnt out) and hand painted velvet scarves. Again, customer requests have led me to design and selling my own kit to devoré and double-dye velvet to make a scarf. A kind gift of some fabrics otherwise destined for the skip led to me making some shopping, tote and hand bags. Initially I thought just making some bags to replace plastic shopping bags would be the right items for an eco-fair I was attending, but customers also bought my handbags so more needed to be made. Using recycled, rescued, remnant and re-made fabrics I make a variety of bags including some with metal frames. A recent commission and challenge was to make 2 small clutch bags from an off cut of bridesmaid dress fabric. I made it with hardly an inch to spare!
The main textile items I sell are silk and velvet scarves, my Shibori and devoré fabric kits, all kinds of bags are very popular. My Shibori test pieces, not to be wasted, are made into small pocket mirrors and lavender bags and, a new idea for this festive season is webbing and fabric wristlet key fobs: well known in America but not widely available in the UK.
3. What inspired you to start your business?
I sort of fell into it! I’d love to say I was ‘inspired’ but it wouldn’t be true. Nothing could have been further from my mind when I started. Now it is my passion. At the time I was running a stall at a once a year 5 day craft fair in Dorset for a wood turner. Fed up with being asked if I was the wood turner and did I really have a man’s name and ‘what do you do, dear?’ I decided to sell some silver and gemstone bead jewellery; it was easy and inexpensive to make and gave me something to do at the fair. I planned to do this for 5 days and forget about it until next year when I would do this, or something else, again for 5 days. The commissions and continuing orders made me realise I could do more than just occupy my time at the fair and when I, not the wood turner, got asked to attend other fairs I realised I could have my own business. As they say, ‘the rest is history’. I was soon selling through more fairs and outlets than the wood turner and able to see working for myself as a viable option.
4. How long does it usually take for you to complete a piece?
Scarves can take from a few minutes to many hours depending what I am making and how many processes are involved. Earrings and necklaces can be a few minutes to perhaps an hour, depending if the sea glass is drilled or not and how many pieces of glass make up each piece. I try to maximise my time by perhaps getting a second piece ready whilst a first piece is drying, dyeing, fixing or whatever but it is not always possible.
Add onto making time the hidden time of sourcing fabrics, mixing and preparing dyes and chemicals, pressing and preparing, washing and ironing of fabrics; sourcing sea glass – perhaps on holiday for about 4 hours a day or perhaps a round trip of 300 miles in a day to visit favourite beaches in Cornwall, then there is the photographing of work, listing on my database, pricing and labelling, bottling my own blended dyes, printing instructions, care leaflets, labels, making up packs and packaging, and so much more. Let’s not forget the time taken to maintain workshops, complete tax returns, sort out insurance: National and business, market products, attend fairs, maintain websites, network. Many customers don’t realise that there are a lot of minutes spent in not actually making but still part of selling a product.
5. Where do you work?
I am fortunate to have 2 timber workshops in my garden. The smaller, about 7ft by 9ft is the original ‘Blue Box Studio’ is for jewellery work. The larger, still an ugly brown but destined to become a soft green colour when I get a minute and a dry day at the same time is for textile work. Both have power and lighting, stereo and heater, the larger also has hot and cold running water.
I also have use of the box room, euphemistically called a 3rd bedroom by the estate agent which I use as an office. In theory I keep to these 3 spaces, in reality I also take over our beautiful conservatory, using the table to set up my light tent and lights for photography, store my mannequin ‘Delores’ and generally clutter with boxes, bags and trays of sea glass awaiting sorting.
6. What would be your dream project?
I’d love to have the time and financial backing to be able to take a year out and explore the history of sea glass in the UK – Pure Sea Glass by Richard LaMotte is a stunning book but very much US based – or perhaps tour the world researching the history and sources of sea glass worldwide. I’d also like extend my range of techniques for texturing and colouring textiles. I’d love to have the opportunity to put together a body of work that could form part of a touring exhibition but currently have neither the time, funding nor confidence to do it.
7. What is the most challenging piece you’ve ever made?
Many things are a challenge for me! Because I only have a couple of days a week to work at my business (and appreciate that is more than a lot of people have) but still have to show a return at the end of the year I tend to keep to safe things and not challenge myself too much! No doubt a psychoanalyst would have a field-day sorting me out but for the moment I prefer to not take risks and keep within my comfort zone. Having said that, that is not to say there haven’t been a few challenges along the way. Having not made framed clutch bags for long, I find the loveliest bag is sure to be the one where the glue goes everywhere and I can’t get it removed – these are usually in my personal collection! Another challenge was to design and make 2 clutch bags for bridesmaids from 6 inches depth of fabric saved when the dress was shortened. It couldn’t be pressed or wet and creased easily. The customer was delighted with the finished results but for several weeks I felt my blood pressure raised.
8. What is your favourite thing to do when you are not crafting/working?
I know this is a ‘busman’s holiday’ but I am addicted to beaches and searching for sea glass. I lose myself when walking alone, concentrating o0n the search in hand so it’s a great ‘time-out’ stress reliever. If I can’t give that as an answer then I love having the time to sit in the sun and lose myself in a good book, but not on a beach as I’m quickly bored so would be off looking for the sea glass, or itching to get somewhere where there would be sea glass.
9. Who are some of your favourite crafters/artists/designers?
I collect signed pieces of contemporary glass perfume bottles so some of my favourite makers are Stuart Ackroyd, Siddy Langley, Adrian Sankey, Jane Charles, Catherine Hough. I bought my first pieces in the 1980s from Glassform.
10. What inspires you / where do you get your inspiration when you are designing/creating your products?
Textures and prints on fabric can often be inspired by whatever I am listening to on the radio as I make and paint. It’s hard to explain what I mean. If I am working with batik wax, then lots of large sweeping moves probably means I was listening to Classic FM, small dots, intricately coloured on a velvet scarf probably signals a play on Radio 4.
Outside influences would be the sunset over my workshop, the colour of flowers in my garden or perhaps, if I am designing for a specific venue colours and shapes relating to but not copying the venue. I love Art Nouveau and fashions from the early part of the 20th century so often jewellery and textiles reflect shapes and styles from that period.
11. What are your favourite blogs and what online site do you visit a lot?
I have so many favourite blogs it is hard to single one out. I tend to just read through the reading list on my Dashboard and pick out what sounds interesting. As for online sites, I’m usually browsing the forums on Etsy and Folksy. I love the internet but tend to have an internet/life imbalance if I’m not careful and my family do like to see me from time to time.
12. Where do you source your materials/supplies?
As the man in Tesco said when I struggled to find the right loyalty card, ‘you’re loyal to a lot of stores!’ My silk and velvet mainly comes from Exotic Silks in California – the price / quality combination is generally better than the fabrics I got through an Arty’s account. My dyes mainly come from Fibrecrafts in the UK; my sea glass is from English beaches, although I do buy a little from the US through Ebay but only for colours I cannot get from a UK beach. My silver is supplied by CooksonGold – and my beads usually come from www.burhousebeads.co.uk. I also buy a lot of supplies from Folksy and Etsy sellers and other random stores I come across in my travels.
13. How do you balance your day job [if you have one] and your crafting enterprise?
I am fortunate to be able to work 3 days a week in my day job, with at least 2 days spent on my business (and the evenings when I can). Fortunately my husband is very supporting and, as he often works evenings and weekends, I get to spend as much time as I need in my business, so long as I leave some time for him. I’d like to get to a position where I could work full time in my business but financially it won’t be for a year or two.
14. If you could have any super power what would it be?
Can I turn base metal into gold and become a supplier? No, that would be greedy. Could I have three wishes, the 3rd wish being to have 3 more wishes each time? No, that would be cheating (and greedy). Then in that case I’ll settle for the gift of fore-sight, to know what will be a good idea and what won’t, to know what will sell like hot cakes and what will be with me in years to come. With that I would also need a good memory – I can’t remember what I did yesterday most of the time so I guess knowing the future would need me to have a good memory to be of use to me.
15. What is the last book that you read and enjoyed?
The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I loved the idea that Henry time travelled whilst Clare was a constant in his life. Sadly I missed the film when it came to my local cinema.
16. What is the last film you watched and enjoyed?
Ignoring the repeats of favourites, I loved The Lake House. It is a story about a doctor who leaves a lake side house with a note for its next resident, only the note is read by what turns out to be a former resident but in a time shift. A beautiful love story and a good one for a night in with a bottle of wine and a good weep. Seems to get to me every time.
17. If you won a million on the lottery tomorrow what would you do with the money?
I’d set up a fund to help other middle aged crafts people start out – there is a lot of funding for young people but nothing for older people who could offer so much if given the opportunity. I’d then take time out to explore ideas I have but not the time or funds without having to continue selling. Lastly I’d employ someone to come and set and pack up my stall at fairs so I didn’t have to do all the hard heavy lifting. I love fairs so wouldn’t give them up. I just have a problem with the lifting having had a back injury last year and waiting for an operation on a damaged elbow next year.
I sell through the following galleries:
Fizz, Clevedon, North Somerset
Over the Moon, St Agnes & St Just, Cornwall
Savoy House Gallery, Mullion, Cornwall
The Cottage Gallery, Wedmore, Somerset
The Yarmouth Gallery, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
The Walnut Tree, Sixpenny Handley, Wiltshire (also has some of my work on their on-line site)
Raft, Dunster, Somerset
I can be found at the following fairs in 2009
Saturday 3 October – Green Dragon Hotel, Hereford
Sunday 4 October – Chase Hotel, Ross on Wye
Saturday 24 October – Guildhall, Salisbury
Sunday 25 October – Grittleton House, Nr Chippenham
Sunday 1 November – Westland Leisure Complex, Yeovil
Saturday 7 November – Green Dragon Hotel, Hereford
Sunday 8 November – Chase Hotel, Ross on Wye
Saturday 14 November – Guildhall, Salisbury
Saturday 21 November – Somerset Hall, Portishead
Sunday 22 November – Whitminster Inn, Whitminster
Saturday 28 – Sunday 29 November – Winter Gardens, Weston-super-Mare
Friday 4 – Saturday 5 December – Create Festive Fayre, Create Centre, Cumberland Basin, Bristol [Provisional]
Saturday 12 December – Guildhall, Salisbury
19. Any advice for other crafters out there who may want to start their own business?
Go for it! Start by speaking to the Tax Office and National Insurance as this gets them on your side, is a legal requirement and they are a wealth of knowledge. Have your work and publicity material ready when you start so when someone shows interest you can meet their needs and expectations. Don’t skimp on quality – a professional appearance is everything even if you have managed it on a shoe string. Have your own ideas, know your product and market and get used to talking about them. Talk to your customers, they may not buy from you today but they might ‘tomorrow’ and they will give you useful feedback. If at a fair, speak to other stall holders, they’ll offer support and tips as well as tell you about other fairs, pitfalls and organisers to avoid (sadly there are a few!).
20. What is your favourite recipe – savoury or sweet – care to share it?
My current favourite is still coffee and date muffins – having made and eaten them I blogged about them.
Many thanks Sue for taking the time to answer all my questions.
All photographs taken with kind permission from Sue’s online shops/blogs.
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Do you want to get featured on this blog? ‘Milomade 20 Questions’ is going to be a regular spot on my blog which will showcase other crafters/designers/artists who work predominantly with recycled, upcycled and reused materials. If you are interested in getting featured then please get in touch.
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