January 21, 2013

A Crafty Life: Beth Shorr And bshorr handmade

Happy New Year! This is 2013's first installment of the monthly series "A Crafty Life." I'm Birdy27 of Birdy27 Designs and I hope you enjoyed the holidays to the max! It's time to get to know another extraordinary Etsy NY artisan. Winter is definitely here, so I thought this would be the perfect time to interview a fiber artist and Beth Shorr of bshorr handmade is one of the best. Outgoing and approachable with a megawatt smile, this gorgeous Queens resident knits and crochets showstopping pieces. Beth's varied offerings include hats, scarves, pillows, computer and cell phone cozies, toys for cats, and more. I am also a fiber artist (among other things), so I really loved getting to know more about Beth and her process.

How did you become a fiber artist? Does fiber work run in your family?

Apparently my grandmother was a knitter, but she passed away when I was three so I never had a chance to learn from her. When I was a kid, I finger knit, made friendship bracelets, and did macramé, but eventually lost interest. Over the holiday break of my senior year of college, I went to Michaels craft store with a friend and on a whim decided I wanted to learn how to crochet. So I bought some yarn, a hook, and a "teach yourself how to crochet" pamphlet. I went back to school and, with the help of another friend, I learned. Once I started working at The Daily Show with John Stewart, I wanted to learn how to knit, so a co-worker and I shared an hour lesson. I was, as they say, hooked! I bought some more books to help me along and haven't stopped since.

I love learning how people got started. Where were you born? What brought you to New York?

I'm from Diamond Bar, CA, which is about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. I moved to New York to attend NYU and was hired at The Daily Show shortly after graduating, so I have been a full-time New Yorker ever since!

I see The Daily Show connection was really an important one for you. Many people would be totally fulfilled working for a successful TV show. So what inspired you to your start your business?

My dad passed away in 2006 and after that I spent a lot of time in my apartment unmotivated to do much, but I was knitting a lot. When I emerged from this mourning period, I had a lot of stuff made and my friends encouraged me to try and sell it. That's when I found Etsy and opened up my shop.

I'm sure your dad would be happy to know you created something positive during that difficult time. I knit and crochet, too, and I love both. However, lately I find myself crocheting more because I have more creative freedom when I'm designing. Do you have a favorite?

I don't have a favorite; I tend to go back and forth between the two. I think I get bored easily and like switching it up.

Yes! After crocheting for a long time, it can be nice to pick up two needles. What is your favorite yarn? What are the pros and cons of 100% wool? Of 100% acrylic?

I love yarn that is soft and beautiful. My favorites rotate, but right now I'm loving Malabrigo (especially merino worsted, twist, and rasta) and Misti Alpaca (especially hand-painted chunky and tonos worsted). I use high-end natural fiber yarn for all of my wearables. Some people may not like that you can't just throw these pieces in the washer and dryer, but I think using high-quality yarn makes them more special. And having to hand wash or dry clean extends their life. I use acrylic yarn for my gadget cozies, throw pillows, and cat toys. Acrylic yarn is washable and more durable, which I think better suits these items. I'm not sure if there are really pros and cons; it's more about personal preference.

Your designs are unique. What is your creative process? How many prototypes do you make?

My process is a little selfish. I mostly make things I'm interested in having for myself. Sometimes my friends will ask me for things they want and designs are born that way, too. My friend Justin wanted a hat with a bill he could wear skiing, so that's how the Chabotski (named for Justin) hat came about. I usually make new items with cheaper acrylic yarn and, once I'm satisfied with how those came out, I'll try it out with nice yarn. I don't have a set number of prototypes. Sometimes I make something, frog it, and make it again over and over, and sometimes I get lucky on the first try. It all depends on the item.

I certainly understand. I often do several prototypes before I offer a product to the public. How do you choose the products potential customers will see?

If I make something and like the way it came out, I'll show it to my friends and get their feedback. Then I'll try it out in my Etsy shop or bring it to a craft show to see how people react to it. If there's no interest, I generally stop making them. And if it seems like people are into the item, I'll make more.

Can you explain the satisfaction you feel when you've completed a piece and it meets your approval?

I'm pretty hard on myself in general, so even when I feel satisfied with a finished piece, I will always find room for improvement. That said, I feel best when I see my pieces on other people. It makes me feel so good knowing my hard work is being loved by someone other than me!

You're right. There's nothing like knowing someone picked your product above all others and knowing that they love it. Some of my pieces take hours and hours to make. How do you decide how much to charge?

Pricing is the biggest challenge! When I started, I was selling my items for much less than I should have. A lot of knitters and crocheters price their items very low on Etsy and I think I was trying to stay competitive with them, but I was really just cheating myself. My favorite yarn store in NYC was a place called Yarntopia (it's now closed) and I became friendly with the owner, who is also a designer. She reminded me that I needed to pay myself for the work I was putting into each item and not just recoup the cost of the yarn. So now I give myself an hourly wage and base my prices on the cost of yarn plus the time it takes me to make each piece.

That's unbelievable! The owner also gave me similar advice and it changed the way I saw my business. We have so much in common. How about your color choices? I tend to focus on neutrals with some brights thrown into the mix. What is your color palette?

I think I have the opposite approach. I tend to focus on bright colors and throw some neutrals into the mix.

I was floored when I found out that you were featured in Oprah's O Magazine as one of Oprah's favorite things. How exciting! Please tell us how it happened and how it affected your business.

Being in O Magazine was very exciting! My Etsy shop is more of a side project for me. My full time job is being the Talent Coordinator at The Daily Show. One of many great things about working there is that I get to meet all kinds of interesting people. The editor of O Magazine, Susan Casey, was a guest on the show promoting a book she had written and I gifted her one of my gadget cozies. She really liked it and contacted my boss about featuring me in the magazine! Being in the magazine was great for business; I had a steady stream of sales and was having a hard time keeping up with the demand for gadget cozies. It's slowed since then, but people still contact me saying they saw me in the magazine.

That's a fantastic story! Keeping up with demand brings me to one of the main challenges fiber artists face, especially those who create wearables: warm weather. What do you do when the temperature soars?

Since most of my stuff is winter gear, I don't really do any markets in warmer months. I tend to work on more of my non-wearables, like gadget cozies, as well as making stuff for the upcoming winter shopping season. Last year I tried making a skinny circle scarf using t-shirt jersey with a crocheted edging. I got a lukewarm response and found that personally I preferred a wider scarf, so started making them wider. I guess I'm more suited to make wearables for colder weather.

Unfortunately my living room is my "studio/production office." Do you have a dedicated studio?

I carry a project with me wherever I go, so I work on the subway, airplanes, waiting rooms, and in the green room at The Daily Show, but mostly I work from home. I do have a dedicated craft room in my apartment where I keep all of my supplies and have a sewing machine set up, but most of the knitting and crocheting is done on the couch while I'm watching TV or listening to music.

There are so many ways to reach potential customers now. Do you prefer selling at craft markets or on Etsy? Do you do wholesale?

I don't have any experience with wholesale, but I enjoy craft markets and Etsy. Both present different challenges and rewards. Selling at a craft market is backbreaking work. Schlepping all of your stuff is not an easy task, but once you're there and set up, it's great. For me, making my items is a very solitary experience, so to see people interact with my items in person is cool. I love seeing people try my pieces on and ask questions about them. Selling on Etsy is great because you can reach a wider audience, but the drawback is they can't touch or try anything on. Everything on Etsy is dependent on your photographs and that's challenging.

I couldn't agree more. There is huge difference between the localized immediacy of a craft market and the long-term, international reach of Etsy. How do you describe your style? Modern? Traditional? Vintage?

I describe my items as functional, fashionable, and fun!

People often ask me about classes. Do you teach? Do you sell your designs as patterns? Any plans to branch out into other areas?

I've helped some friends, but have never formally taught. I'm not sure if I'd make a good teacher, but a friend recently told me about Skillshare, so I was thinking of looking into it. I've never sold my designs as patterns either and, as of now, I don't have any plans to.

Have you reached that point in your business where you need to hire help?

Sometimes I want to hire help, but I don't think I'm anywhere near that point. In a dream world, I'd hire someone to handle all of the business stuff. As a maker, that's the hardest part. Most makers I talk to love making things, but hate dealing with the business stuff and I feel exactly the same way.

My family has really been supportive, especially since I started the handmade arm of my business. How does your family support you?

My family and friends are a great support. They give me feedback, let me bounce ideas off of them, help me promote, model for me. The list is really never-ending. I don't think I could do this without them. And I have 2 adorable cats--Maggie and Jake.They are my babies!

I see they also assist you with your photo shoots. Maggie and Jake are obviously the inspirations for your cat toys. What else inspires you?

Art, music, and the people of New York City! I love people watching and think New Yorkers have the most unique sense of style. New York City is beautiful; there is color and stunning architecture everywhere. Growing up in the suburbs felt boring. Everything and everyone looked the same, very cookie cutter. Also, there are seasons here. I love that! I moved to NYC right after high school and it was really an eyeopener for me. I felt for the first time I was interacting with real people from all different walks of life. I love people watching in NYC, whether it be on the street or on the subway. I'm always looking at what people are wearing and how they put together their outfits. I often have my headphones on when I'm walking around the city, but I'm always taking note of what's around me.

What does it mean to you to be a successful creative entrepreneur? What would you be doing if you hadn't decided to start a business?

I love having bshorr handmade as a creative outlet. I don't necessarily consider myself a successful creative entrepreneur, but I love having this as a side project. If I hadn't opened an Etsy shop, I'd probably have to go into yarn rehab! I'd also probably have piles of knitted items stashed throughout my apartment and my friends would have lot more handmade gifts. 

How has being a part of the Etsy NY team helped you? Any drawbacks?

I love being a part of the Etsy NY team. The team has been such a great resource. Everyone is so helpful and supportive of each other and I've learned a lot from my teammates. The only drawback is that I don't have the time to be more involved.

Where do you see yourself and your business in five years?

I'm really not sure. Looking that far into the future is daunting. When I was a kid, I mapped out my whole life, but after I lost my dad I realized you can't plan everything, so now I just take things one day at a time.  I'm sure in five years I will still be making stuff. It's now an obsession and I can't stop!

I'm sure you'll agree that getting know Beth Shorr is a wonderful way to kick off 2013. Thanks, Beth! We wish you much success this year and beyond!

Don't miss the next thrilling installment of "A Crafty Life." There will now be a new in-depth interview the third Monday of every month, so mark your calendar. This is Birdy27 signing off. Please support the handmade community. Successful creative artisans can change the world! Happy MLK and Inauguration Day! Chirp, chirp!

Birdy27 is an actor/writer/singer/songwriter/graphic designer/
knitter/crocheter/yarn-based accessories designer/jewelry maker/entrepreneur and founder/president of Birdy27 Designs. Please join the action at the Birdy27 Designs Facebook Fan Page


Simone said...

What a fantastic interview! Thanks so much for sharing your dialog.

Anonymous said...

Beth your work is amazing and I love hearing your about how you got started. Alicia thanks for the great interview!

Aneta Hayne said...

Awesome interview :), very inspiring to start off new year. Beth-you are a fantastic crafter, and I'm so excited to know that you are involved in creating my fav show !Now every time I will watch Jon Stewart, I will think of your cozy crochet creations :)