Friday, March 4, 2011

Answering Your Questions :: Building a Full Time Handwork Business

I knit my first gnome back in 2001 and started selling them on Ebay shortly after to contribute a small bit to our family's income.  At this point in our life, Mike had lost his job a year or so prior and he was still on the path of working himself back up to a similar position that he had previously had. (which never did happen)

The gnomes sold well and I started knitting some other toys of wool in the waldorf tradition of simple form with natural materials.

Over time, I worked up to a small store front and added some other items that I resold.  This means I purchased wholesale and then sold retail.  Still though, for several years this income was small but helpful.
I learned about the internet and selling and kept my eyes open, watching other store fronts that made and/or sold toys and how to market without paying for advertising.  I started to see the potential, but knew that I could never make enough to support our family - you can only knit so many gnomes in a day.

In 2005, I am not sure how I learned, probably through a natural parenting forum online, that a new site was opening where artisans and hand crafters could have their own shop within the site - called Etsy.  I signed up right away as knittingmomma.  At the time I didn't realize that my username was going to have to be my store name.  But we still have this shop today.  The fees are affordable.   Twenty cents for each listing and etsy takes 3% of each sale.  They also process credit cards for you. 

In 2006, my husband, Mike, came up with the idea to use branch slices to make a matching/memory game.  At the time we lived in a duplex that had a bit of forest in the back.  He had a chop saw to cut the slices.  I stamped them with rubber stamps and crochetd a bag to put them in.  I also asked him if he would make branch fences to go with the animals I was knitting.  At this time he still worked full time for a property maintenance company near Boston and spent at least an hour commuting each way and worked long hours, so building the business was a slow process.  This was still a very part-time business.  We did start selling wholesale to A Toy Garden at this point.  This means offering our goods at a 40 - 50% reduced price but in larger quantities.

In the fall of 2007 we moved to Vermont, secure that we would at least have some money coming in from our toy sales while Mike looked for a job. 

Upon arriving in Vermont, we brainstormed and came up with many more products that we could make from branches - including walking blocks (clompers), building block sets, lacing sets, hooks, and more.  Making these kind of products as opposed to the time intensive process of knitting and crocheting, made the possibility of actually earning a living from the work of our hands seem real.  Our etsy shop grew and we also had more sales from our online store. 

We also sold our handcrafts at a farmers market where we also sold our produce and baked goods.  Generally, we sold just a small amount as we live in a very low population area.   Our nearest city has just 6,000 people (25 minutes away) and our own little town just 600 or so.

We knew that selling online was going to be our best option, although we do still sell local from time to time at an occasional fair.

Through continued stocking of our etsy shop and then adding another shop, the Vermont Branch Company, over a year ago to capatilize on the Vermont name brand, our sales continued to grow.  We also started making wedding decorations which resulted in higher volume sales.  For example, someone might order 150 birch branch place card holders.  Last year, before expenses, we had $20,000 in sales and Mike had about $10,000 in property maintenance accounts. 

This year we are on track to have $38,000 - $40,000 in sales before taking out for expenses and shipping costs.  (We now have 6 wholesale accounts.)  Mike will take on less property maintenance jobs as a result and we will spend more time on the business and homestead. 

A key for us is to have very few expenses.  We are still using an eight year old desk top computer with dial up.  For tools, Mike has a chop saw, small table saw, and sander.  The rest of the tools are hand tools.  We still don't have a workshop.  Mike works in the basement on the dirt floor with a desk lamp hanging from the ceiling.  He has to go outside first to get downstairs.  We have piles of products here and there in various stages of completion.  Our stainless steel kitchen island also serves as a sanding, drilling and hand work station.

A workshop and studio is in our plans but it may still be several years away.   This year a small barn is a must in order to get our dairy goats and move our chickens into a better coop.  We make do and think through every expense and whether or not it will really make a difference and result in more income or not and if we can afford it.  Our new purchase this year for the business will be a drill press.  We are very excited about that, but again, it will be an inexpensive one, probably about $150.00.

We also have bought very little advertising and only yesterday did I purchase my first advertising spot on a blog I enjoy, Farmama. 

I don't think our business  fits any business model.  Instead we do things very simply, one piece at a time, one day at a time, work consistently, and keep the faith.

If you have any questions, check back here in the comments, as I will do my best to answer them.

Warm wishes,


  1. Tonya,

    First I must tell you...'Thank You!' for sharing your knowledge and for wanting to share it in the first place.

    I am in the process of doing the same thing with Etsy, but always found myself apprehensive in starting a store online.

    I am a dressmaker, which I know so many people out there do sewing, hence my apprehension :)

    But watching you sell something so simple as an adorable knitted gnome, shows that if you have an idea and you make a good product, there is an audience for it.

    Thank you so much for being such an inspiration!


  2. Thanks Tonya, that is very useful information!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing these details. Since my family's life is similar to yours, it's really interesting to see how you all have done it.

    You probably noticed we are advertising on Farmama, too. I'm happy to be there because I love Sara's blog and have for a long time now.

  4. Thanks for sharing!
    I do have a question; How did you market if you didn't buy any pub?

    I'm trying to start a shop as well. I want to sell Waldorf dolls and there are so many shops already! Somehow I don't know how to stand out!

  5. Thank you for your story. We are at a point where I should go back to work to supplement our income. I have always wanted to have some kind of crafting business so I could stay home with the kids, but I have always lacked the courage to do so. I'm so glad you shared your story, for it shows me that anything is possible!

  6. Tonya,

    I have known you since homesteadblogger...I think you were pregnant with your youngest at the time. I have watch from a distance as your business has grown. I am so blessed that you share this with us...because you make it look easy for the rest of us:)

    We also have an Etsy shop and I was selling alot of knitted items but like you said you can only knit so fast:) We have started selling a few vintage items as well....I love adding my knitted items in the mix:)

    I was wondering how much time you spend on your business on a average it everyday or a few times a week?


  7. Thank you for sharing your story. It helps to have knowledge as my family is moving into new waters. I love that you and your family keep it simple. Simple works for me.

  8. Thank you for sharing! You have a very generous spirit.

  9. great post! Loads of helpful, (and hopeful) info out there for aspiring businessfolk! I hope your business grows and wonderful to make part of your living selling beautiful, natural products so lovingly made!
    xo maureen

  10. Thank you so much for sharing with such honesty Tonya. I hope the comments give you some idea of the appreciation we have for it. I read your blog daily, but only just read about your family's journey. It is such an inspiration, and when I see how far you've come, is such an inspiration. I had assumed you had always lived this way.

    My husband and I currently live on the west coast of Canada, and although we kept going along acquiring more and moving into a bigger house, something always felt missing. It is only in the past few months, as I am pregnant with my 3rd child, that I realize we need to make a drastic change now, and not keep going on our current path.

    We are planning a trip out east this spring, to look at moving to a smaller community and start out own business, focusing on simplfying our lives and spending more time together.

    I hope that this small movement continues to grow as more and more people realize that society as it is today simply isn't fulfilling and that money is the root of so many problems in the world.

    Thank you Tonya.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing. I always have these questions and I really appreciate your openess. You all have created a beautiful life for yourselves-absolutely wonderful!
    xo, Angela

  12. thankyou for this story..i am a teacher in a life before my son got an illness where I am now his carer and teaching him at home..i would love to do some sort of etsy shop and forever trying to come up with something that would sell...your story has given me hope....take

  13. Thanks so much...there are so many crafty souls out there, afraid to take the leap because there seems to be so much...but your advice to start small and work steadily is so wise. Not many businesses take off in the first year, but with faith, patience, and diligence, it CAN work. I still dream about supplementing my income with my arts/crafts...when my kids are a bit older and leave me alone for five minutes!

    Good for you, and for your by your values and creating beautiful, useful items with love.

  14. WOW! Wonderful how you and your husband and family are all workign together to live and love and support each other. Throuhg any event in your life knowing that you and your husband and family can work together is a blessing and I am sure a great strengthening bond between the two of you. I would love to do more homesteading and we live off grid and do many things very simplely. I have a soap and candle business on etsy and this post is very inspiring to me. We have had chickens and I would love to have goats, yet much depends on what my husband is also desiring. Thanks so much for sharing and may your business continue to grow and it's so great to see God gives you what you need...and may even fufill desires of your heart in the process! Alisha

  15. I love reading your posts like these. Thank you. Daisy xxxx

  16. I too am a home school mom with simple needs, trying to prioritize well. Creativity is the key. And what a blessing that life is richer when we simplify. Thanks for sharing your example!

  17. "you can only knit so many gnomes in a day"...I totally understand. I got frustrated at one point, and then I learned, like you did that sewing and other forms of creating go a little more time efficiently. Thanks fo rsharing this with us. It is so nice to hear your stories.


  18. Thanks for posting this. It has been very helpful to me (and, obviously many others!). I hope your business continues to grow right alongside all of these other 'hand-grown' businesses that seem to be popping up!

  19. So interesting to read your story. I particularly like what you wrote here -"Instead we do things very simply, one piece at a time, one day at a time, work consistently, and keep the faith.". I find that to be a wonderful sort of short-hand for how we want to live life - very inspiring. I wish you continued success with your family business.

  20. Ah ha! THIS is the post I've been looking for! I spent an absorbent amount of time reading over your blog today, and finally came across a post I was hoping to find--on what you do to keep your family together and your dad home. I just find this SO inspiring!!! We've been working hard on our etsy shop ( to make it be the key for us to, to work at home together, but when I hit a low, I love finding and reading stories like yours! What an amazing work your family is! :) I am so happy after spending the day reading your blog--that means you are really doing something right with your lifestyle choices and family!!:)

    May you continue to be such a strong example in a sad world and may God continue to bless your family abundantly!! I feel blessed to have had the chance to get to 'know' your family through your blog! KEEP it up! :)