Years ago, making crafts with your kids likely involved some recycled toilet paper tubes, a little bit of glue and paint and maybe some glitter and cottonballs.
But as the Maker Movement has taken hold the last few years, handmade items have gotten an upgrade. Makers are using high-tech tools like 3D printers to create their products, integrating coding into projects to help kids make their own video games and robots and learning how to use tools such as screen printers and laser cutters to make their handmade clothing and jewelry more professional looking than what you can buy at a big box store.
Cortney Heimerl, who organizes markets in Milwaukee for makers to sell their wares, says, “At one point, we would see knit cozies that were very obviously handmade. But now we're seeing etched leather goods, and we're wondering where their wholesale is located! And it actually is handmade ... at a certain point, it becomes hard to tell.”
For most parents, what they've noticed about the ubiquitous Maker Movement is how it's being marketed to their kids. There are after-school robotics clubs, classes that teach kids how to make their own customized clothing line, and “learn to solder” kits for sale.
But for moms who are themselves makers, the growing focus on handmade products is more than a way to entertain and educate their kids – it's a business opportunity.
The need for a creative outlet
It's typical for stay-at-home moms to talk about how much they love spending time with their kids, but how they need a creative outlet, something to keep their brains engaged and connect them to adults.
Rachel Lewis, a Milwaukee mom of a 7-year-old daughter, started her business, Flying Ox Creations, in 2015, making hand-crafted masks and costumes for children. “I needed something to keep my brain occupied, something for myself,” she says. “Every mom I've talked to who's a maker or a freelancer, a lot of times they need something that makes you feel like a human, something different than unloading the dishwasher.”
Heimerl, who's a maker herself, selling handmade quilts and flags, had the same sentiment after a few years caring for her two kids, now 4 and 7. “I had two kids, and I was like, 'well, I've never been inspired to be a kindergarten or a preschool teacher.' I love going to parks and on walks, but at some point, I was looking for something a bit more stimulating.”
These crafty moms all have some sort of artistic background, and as artists they find inspiration all around them. Since they're moms, many of their businesses were inspired by the most important people in their lives – their kids.
Lewis' masks were born directly as a result of her life with her daughter, who is sensitive to the way fabrics feel on her skin. Lewis wanted to make her daughter's Halloween dream come true – she wanted to dress up as a flamingo. “I started looking for costumes, but she hated the ways the commercially made ones felt. So I decided to make it for her – a tutu, a mask, wings. It was the most amazing thing to see her strutting down the street on Halloween,” she says.
When Lewis started receiving compliments and even orders for her masks and costumes, her business took off, and now she sells her custom-made costumes and masks on her Etsy site, at craft fairs and maker markets throughout Southeastern Wisconsin and from local shops.
Melissa Scherrer Pare's background is more traditionally art-focused. She earned degrees in fine arts and was part of the gallery scene in New York, creating paintings and photographs. But like Lewis, her entrepreneurial pursuits came to fruition as a result of life with her 6-year-old daughter.
The owner of Moraye, which sells handmade wooden jewelry, says, “I had my daughter, and that made it harder to do the kind of work I was doing. I couldn't make oil paintings in my house anymore. I sort of had to start making something that I could make with her around while we were still kind of hanging out. I didn't want to just disappear to a studio somewhere. What I do now I can do when she's sitting here coloring or playing with LEGOs.”
Grafton maker mom Lauralye Rollins, whose children's clothing line Little Gypsy Finery has been successful enough to allow her to quit her day job last year, described how one of her four children unwittingly inspired the design for her “Juice Box Hero” t-shirt.
“I was inspired by my son Lucas's juice box. He was drinking it while Tupac's 'Hero' was playing, and I thought the play on words of 'juice box hero' would be a really cute shirt, so I made it,” Rollins says.
These maker moms are building successful businesses as a result of making their handmade products. Such business models are successful in part due to the rise of online-based businesses. In today's day and age, there's no need for the overhead costs and challenges of a brick and mortar business.
That's also helpful for parents who are more easily able to work from home and have flexible schedules without the expense and hassle of stocking and manning a store. As Rollins explains, “As I got busier and busier, I cut back my hours at my nine-to-five job, and on April 1 of last year, I quit that job, and that's worked out well. It allows me to be at home with my son who has special needs.”
But there's a downside to selling online – the lack of an in-person community.
“We've been able to see what a little bit of effort could do for people who wanted to make money making things,” says Heimerl. “But it's almost become so available that people can make so much money off of their Etsy shops that there was something missing. That, 'Aww, I can't believe you made that', that validation, that moment when you get to see someone enthralled with what you're doing. People were missing community.”
While such a challenge might have proven insurmountable for some people, these creative moms are makers, so a few of them have set out to make something other than products – a community.
Heimerl, who has been attending craft fairs for years, and who has had a hand in organizing some herself, realized that there were so many people in the Milwaukee maker scene who were so focused on their online selling that they didn't realize that there were plenty of people just like them in the Milwaukee area who were doing the same thing.
There were people making thousands of dollars a year, and no one in Milwaukee knew that. They honestly didn't know where to go and how to meet new people and how to connect,” Heimerl says. “There wasn't a good resource for local makers in Milwaukee to get to know each other unless they really networked with that crowd.”
So Heimerl worked to make that networking easier. In 2014, she founded Maker Market, a gathering that happens every third Sunday May through September in the parking lot of the Colectivo Coffee in Bay View. She also partners with Discovery World to hold a Maker Market there in November.
At these maker markets, the focus is on handmade, local craft selling. The makers have the chance to network with each other, sharing business advice and experience and to meet their customers in person.
And people are loving it. The community-building among local makers is enjoyable. “It's neat when you run into the same shops and recognize the faces and just connect,” says Rollins.
Beyond community building, these maker moms are also discovering that in-person selling is good for business. “It's almost like an easier sell from my perspective. It's just different when people are in person, and they can see and touch your things. Online you just have a picture and it's kind of hard to differentiate yourself,” Rollins explains.
That face-to-face selling opportunity also gives makers a chance to receive valuable feedback from their customers. “I can talk about the process with them. There's more of a give-and-take,” says Pare. “On the internet, I'm not really sure why something sells or not. In person people will give specific feedback about things I wouldn't have thought of.”
Inspiring the next generation of makers
It comes as no surprise to these moms that a lot of that feedback comes directly from their kids. Lewis' daughter doesn't shy away from giving her mom constructive criticism. She tells her mom what kinds of masks to make next, and if she isn't sure what an animal is that her mom shows to her, Lewis immediately knows she has some tweaks to make.
And through the kids' involvement in their moms' making, and just through observing their moms at work, a new generation of makers is being trained and inspired. Many of the kids join their mothers at craft fairs, convincing customers to buy their mothers' work and even doing a bit of their own making.
Heimerl says her 7-year-old son Abraham accompanied her to a recent Maker Market, where he showed off his own creation, an eerily familiar comic book about a superhero named Abe Man with a little sister for a sidekick.
Lewis says one of the best parts of making as a mom is inspiring her daughter. Although it's taken her awhile to think of her costume-making as a career, she realizes that her daughter is observing her working hard at something. “My daughter told me, 'Mommy, I want to me in a magazine someday. Maybe, if I work really hard at my business, maybe I can.'”