Running a small handmade business is a rather solitary pursuit. Each day I sit down at my studio desk, put on my headphones, and draw and sew for hours on end, and often I don’t talk to anyone at all. I’m an introvert so this life actually suits me well, but I recognize that connecting with other people is important, especially with other makers.
Recently I helped to form a local artists group in Wellesley (I wrote about it here). We have 14 members and meet every month to make something, support one another, and share resources. And I really enjoy our gatherings, but I can’t help but feel a bit like an outlier. After all, I make stuffed animals and that’s, well, sorta weird.
Actually, in the design world generally making plush can make you feel a bit like of a misfit. Knitters, quilters, garment and home dec. sewers are by far more numerous and their communities are more heavily populated.
One of the reasons I undertook the Softies For Sale series was to explore the next steps for those of us who are primarily interested in making stuffed toys. Where do we go from here to turn our our hobby into a viable business? What are the logical next steps?
Networking with other artists can help to answer these questions. And joining together with other plush makers? Well, that is surely a good way to figure it out.
I don’t know about you, but nobody in my town other than me makes plush. I’ve found really excellent plush makers online, but haven’t joined any sort of formal group that gathers and communicates regularly. But the idea is really intriguing!
Then I read about the Etsy Plush Team. Here was a group entirely populated by people like me! I became really curious. What is this group’s purpose? What kinds of things do they do together? Would being a member be a good next step for me, and maybe for you, too?
I got in contact with Christina Ward, a member of the Etsy Plush Team, to see what the group was all about. Here is what Christina told me.
“Welcome to the Plush Team!”
That’s the first sentence new members read when they join the Etsy Plush Team. More than just civility, we really mean it!
The Plush Team was founded over six years ago by myself and a few other plushmakers who were selling our items on Etsy but were looking for more community.
When people who aren’t makers ask me to explain the Plush Team, I describe it as more of guild. A guild in the very old fashioned sense. We are a team of equals working together to build awareness and respect for Plush as an artform. And to support each other in our creative journey. That to me has been the most rewarding part of the Team.
As I type this, over half of our worldwide membership is making its way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a retreat. Some will ‘see’ each other for the first time; for others, it’s old home week! Personally, I have made some of the best friends I have among these talented makers.
The core idea for Etsy teams was to have like minded folks organize themselves around a cohesive theme. It could be geographic, political, genre, or whatever! Etsy would ‘authorize’ a Team, but did not participate in its operations. So Teams had the freedom to define their own missions.
The Etsy Plush Team Is Well-Organized
My own background is in project management and non-profit management. I knew from my experiences that for the Plush Team to be successful, we needed structure. I tried to keep it simple.
Here are the basics:
1. Leadership must rotate yearly. This helps prevent ‘cliquishness’ and burnout.
2. Participation is required. Of course there is wiggle room and understanding, but participation in challenges, events and forums is required for a healthy group.
3. Be Nice. Really! We have great conversations and discussions that encourage disagreements; but we do not allow people to be rude or insulting to each other.
4. Make your own work. Be unique! Again, we require this from the get go. It doesn’t mean that new makers aren’t welcome, but we look at plush as a unique form of expression. Out of respect to ourselves as artists, we want our members to have a clear and defined voice.
Active Involvement Without Stress
I’m super wary of burnout. We suffer it as creative makers. We suffer it as workers. We suffer it in our home life. I did not want the Team to be a source of stress for members. We have a Leader, a Number Two (who becomes the Leader the next year) and numerous Committee Heads. As we’re all adults, we feel it’s important to respect our individual and collective abilities; so we spread the responsibility of the Team throughout the entire membership. We ask that all members join and participate in a committee with the hope that they’ll want to take a leadership role at a future time.
So What Exactly Does the Plush Team Do?
The Plush Team has a number of projects going at the same time. Each year, the Leader identifies a major project to be attempted that year. In past years we have: set-up a collective sales booth at Renegade Chicago, joined Maker-Faire (San Mateo) in a 3-day extravaganza of teaching plushmaking to all comers, organized a themed gallery show at Hot-Pop gallery in Milwaukee, published a book featuring the work of all members, participated in a show held in conjunction with the Corduroy Appreciation Club, held a making retreats for members in the Virginia mountains and the Pennsylvania Amish country. Whoosh! That’s a lot!
We also have ongoing projects. We have bi-monthly challenges designed to inspire our creativity. These are then promoted on our Facebook and blog pages; which of course helps give exposure to not just the Team, but to our individual members. Challenge items are then listed for sale in our Team etsy shop, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Team.
We fund the Team through a small yearly dues ($20) and our Team Store. In addition to the Challenge items that are sold in the shop, we feature specially created promotional items throughout the year. Currently, we’ve got the Funky Friday project. Every Friday a couple of items by a few makers are released at a super accessible price. It’s fun for us and helps cover our Team costs. And it’s a great way for fans and collectors get a unique piece at a low price from their favorite makers.
At least once a year, we design our challenges to benefit a charity that is near and dear to our hearts. We have created plush for the benefit of the Childrens’ Hospital in Philadelphia, the American Heart Foundation and our most controversial; our Boobie Challenge during the October Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (Proceeds went to the Komen for the Cure group; pre-scandal!!!)
A Community To Turn To For Help and Advice
We host a private forum for our members. We designed it as a safe place for members to ask questions, vent, source materials and just talk about whatever! We have assisted each other in resolving copyright issues, ‘bad customer’ issues, and so much more. The research our collective membership has done regarding Plush Copyright Design issues is probably the extensive in the field. (Hmmm, maybe that’s a good project! Publish our findings!)
The benefits of being a part of the Plush Team are innumerable. We have worked together to accomplish more than we could have achieved singularly. Most recently, the Corduroy Appreciation Club garnered national press coverage. With items made by Team members featured on the Rachel Maddow Show. (PS: Rachel even bought a piece!!!) Wow! Who would’ve thunk it? Plush coverage in the New York Times, the Colbert Report and the Maddow Show. It really is a statement to the power of collectivism.
A Team can be many things. The limits are only the ones you put upon yourselves. The Plush Team has achieved wonderful successes. But our best achievement is that we have made the world a smaller place.
Christina invites us to apply to join this “merry band of scissor-slashed, needle-stabbed, fluff-lunged makers!” There are currently 69 members of the Etsy Plush Team. Just email Leeanna Butcher of Plushgoodness if you are interested Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you so much, Christina! I’m applying to be your newest member!