Handmade with Care: The Joys & Challenges of OOAK

by Jessika Hepburn, O Happy Day Handmade

The term “handmade” has come to mean so many things, the diversity of items listed on Etsy under that category alone is simply amazing, and proof that the definition of the term is changing. I have always been a bit of an extremist and I have a “more is more” approach to life, so it is no wonder I am a purist when it comes to making my art, though maybe ‘control freak’ is more honest!

For my textile work I like to start from scratch with natural, uncarded wool roving and huge un-dyed vintage wool blankets, from there I custom dye all my wool with fibre reactive dyes on a propane stove or using the sun to heat the dye bath in a laundry sink on my back deck. This way I can get the exact colour that I see in my minds eye and the end result comes as close to that mental picture as possible. Also, it is the only way to keep costs down on materials since wool is expensive! From there I cut and stitch everything by hand, and ‘by hand’ I mean, the old fashioned way-with needle and thread (I am not extreme enough to work by candle light though).

Above: Custom play books are one of my favourite things to make, I use Mercurius felt for these to keep time down, also I love the smoothness and durability of it.

I am not suited to production work, I make everything once and then revamp it the next time around, watching me try to follow a pattern is laughable. I love to work this way but it also means that I have little to no inventory on hand making it nearly impossible to branch out from doing custom work or to expand to selling wholesale. Even with doing custom work sometimes I end up making way less than minimum wage when all is said and done.

For the paper-free plush invitations pictured above not only do I dye the wool and hand-stitch each one I also design and print the graphics onto printable paper. I have started making my own (of course) using a fixative called Bubble Jet Set and freezer paper. So now I can print on any lightweight fabric I want, including vintage and patterned silk and cotton. I had the invites priced at $5.50, the same price as a letterpress card, but it ended up being financially irresponsible so I had to raise the price in order to keep making them. There is just no way I can make them as quickly as a printer can, unless I start putting the kids to work (believe me, I’ve considered it!).  That is the main issue with OOAK and custom handmade work, because it is so labour intensive the price points inevitably end up being high,  so your potential market is quite small.

In January I was hired through my Etsy page to create a custom colouring book with illustrations to go along with a poem for a little girl’s first birthday. I am embarrassed to say that they are finally being printed this week. There is much to be said for patient and gracious customers and I am really pleased with the illustrations (see below).

Why do I do it? Because I love it. I love taking raw materials with their potential to be anything and transforming them into something I have imagined. I also spend a lot of time being cerebral, using computers and technology to develop and market clients and projects, when it comes time to make art I want to get my hands dirty. Unfortunately if I want the handmade aspect of my business to grow I have had to decide to get over my dislike of repetitive work and develop a product line that will be the bread and butter to the more creative (and time consuming work). I will be sharing more on the process of researching and designing a new product line and I am excited about taking on this challenge. I am also realistic about having the art I choose to make pay the bills, which is why I love the counterbalance of the marketing, design and consultation side of the work I am doing. It will pay the mortgage when the other will not and allow me the flexibility to pursue my other love, art for art’s sake; custom, one of a kind (OOAK), and handmade the slow way.

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