Living with textiles and fiber art through the web
Rachel Biel is the founder of TAFA (the Textile and Fiber Art List), a business community of entrepreneurs rooted in textile business and fiber art products and traditions. We’re really grateful that Rachel has taken the time to offer some words of wisdom to the TextileArtist.org readers. In this epic article she explores the way textile artists can use the internet as a means of getting their work out there and making sales, among other things. It’s a fairly long read, but there’s a lot of great advice and it’s worth sticking with.
A window to the world
Our world has become smaller and larger in these past ten years, all because of the web! We can be in daily contact with people from all over the world, collaborating, sharing ideas, building communities, and yes, running businesses, from wherever we choose to live. Computers have given us access to lifestyles we never dreamed of twenty years ago. This makes the world seem smaller, easier to reach, doesn’t it? At the same time, most of us who jump in and run around on this internet highway, soon realize that there are another several billion people trying to share the same space.
Every few months the next big thing pops on to the web, wanting you to invest your time, load your photos, fill out your profile, and dedicate hours and hours to building your place, your portfolio, your corner on the market. Remember life before Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Blogger, WordPress and all of the other social media places? It wasn’t all that long ago. You’ll see an infographic at the bottom of this article which just might give you pause…
What does this mean for fiber art and textile business?
We have seen several cycles of revival over the years, starting with the Bauhaus movement and again in the 1970’s where textiles and fiber art awakened the interest of artists who understood the appeal of the materials and the historical connection to techniques while pushing for recognition in the world of fine arts.
The mainstream textile industry has had and still has its fair share of blame as a top violator of human rights, as a polluter of the environment, and of contributing to a world where cheap seems best. This cycle of exploration coupled with disgust at this waste of resources has finally blossomed into an amazing time in our history.
Designers in the fashion and home décor industries partner with weavers in India, Mexico and other countries to deliver new hand-woven fabrics. Quilts have evolved into expressions of popular and fine art. We wrap ourselves in wool, step on it, sculpt it, and transform it. We have websites like TextileArtist.org, Maiwa, SAQA, SDA, and so many others supporting artists as they dye, twist, sew, braid, punch, embroider, embellish, and redefine the world of textiles and fiber art. Hand/Eye Magazine and Fiber Art Now not only publish, but shape communities, push the dialog, encourage and promote. We live in a time of renaissance as never seen before. And, it’s all because of the web.
Sure, we had access to much of this in the past, but never before have the tools been in place to have an idea, explore it, share it, get feedback, develop it and then make it effect change so quickly.
Not that this is paradise…
Far from it. Those of us with small businesses face immense challenges in making that idea translate into an income. Here is an example: I started selling ethnic crafts on eBay back in the day when digital cameras were so expensive that we had to scan real photos to create digital images. We were on dial-up and I would have a project next to me to work on while things loaded. I would buy from small importers and re-sell at a decent markup. There was a small community of textile businesses selling the tribal stuff on eBay back then and we did well. I sold Zulu baskets, Hmong embroidery, Indonesian batiks and so on. Now, all of that is available straight from Timbuktu, India, Turkey, and Thailand. I’ve been pushed out of my livelihood because of the success of the internet. Studio artists and small businesses who wish to generate income from the web face the same dilemma: How do we reach the right audiences who will buy our stuff?
Competition is fierce
Take scarves for example. It’s probably the easiest wearable “product” to make that crosses all of our industries. Scarves are knit, crocheted, stitched, embroidered, felted, etc. A basic shape and there are millions of beautiful ones out there. How many scarves can one person own? (I probably have 30! Sheepish grin…) they can also be hung as art, used as table runners, belts and hair wraps. But, at some point, even I will have to say, “Enough is enough!”
What actually goes into being on the web?
Some things are easier than others to see in your mind’s eye when you shop on the web. It’s not so hard to imagine how big a shoe or a laptop computer might be. But, textile business is especially difficult because of the tactile qualities of fabrics: how soft, silky, the drape, the sheen, the actual size… We want to touch it and try it on! Is that art quilt big or small? Are the colors accurate?
We find ourselves having to become photographers, prop experts, curators, and lighting experts in order to show our work. We have to shoot and edit, then write copy, and if it sells, pack it up and ship, give great customer service, deal with foreign languages, and don’t forget record keeping for the tax man… We need to promote it: get a website, blog about it, post it on Facebook, tweet about it, figure out where to sell it. Etsy? Big Cartel? Another venue. Then, there is the community. The local group, a bunch of them on the web… Where is the time to create, design, or live the “real” life?
All of these things kept bumping into my mind three years ago when I launched TAFA. My mantra has been “Together we can do great things.” Instead of having to do everything poorly, how about if we each focused on a couple of places and all promoted the same place where the others could be found? What if that place focused on marketing the group? How about if we tackled this fast changing window to the world together? If it has changed so much in the past ten years, imagine what the web will be like ten years from now!
So, TAFA came into being in 2010, grew quickly and now has a firm presence within our community. I am constantly inspired by what each of us is doing, and at the same time am overwhelmed by the daily tasks and what lies ahead. I’ve walked the road and done my time with art fairs, getting gallery representation, operating brick and mortar shops, dealing with inventory, putting on shows, leading workshops, importing, wholesaling, and selling online. None of it has been easy and I understand to the core what our members need in terms of making a living at what they love. TAFA has an extremely diverse membership with almost 500 members from 44 countries: artists, cooperatives, small family farms, organizations, educators, magazines. We all have a product to sell and we are all about handmade textiles and fiber art.
Let’s look at seven examples of textile-based businesses:
Nancy Zeller operates a small farm in New Hampshire. She raises sheep for the wool, sells supplies online, gives dye workshops on the farm, and recently spent time in Rwanda working with dye techniques with a community of women there.
Salley Mavor has developed her techniques over the last 35 years, illustrating many children’s books along the way. Salley lives in Massachusetts, USA.
Ariane lives in the Paris, France vicinity and is one of the local leaders in exploring felt and nuno felting. Multi-functional garments have been a special interest along with sculptural work.
Deborah has created a fascinating marriage between textiles and encaustic techniques, creating intricate sculptural work. She was trained at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and now lives in Central Mexico where she also runs a free artist residency program.
Canadians Ellen Agger and Alleson Kase work with groups of women weavers in Thailand and Laos. Most of their products support sustainable silk harvesting.
Another Canadian, Mary Pal creates moving portraits from sculpted cheesecloth. Mary has had active leadership in SAQA for years and is a world traveler.
Nicky graduated from the Manchester Metropolitan University (UK) in 1988 with a degree in embroidery and has worked as a free-lance artist ever since. She has international clients, lectures and teaches workshops.
What is the common need?
Many artists don’t like to think of their work as “products”, but that is what they are and most of us would like to sell what we make or charge for our services. We have different needs, in many ways. Some have a simple lifestyle or live in countries where the cost of living is still reasonable. Others have huge mortgages, support whole communities, have kids in college, need health insurance and so on. We identified “markets” as the common need for TAFA members. We want that audience! We want to be seen, heard, followed, read and we want people to come to our shops, galleries, programs and websites.
Along the way, another need became clear: education and sharing of resources. I found it shocking to learn how few skills many of our members had in actually navigating and understanding the web. Most figure out how to tweet, post some stuff on Facebook and send emails, but only a minority of us actually take the time to read tutorials, click around and tweak what’s in front of us. So, we do a lot of sharing, asking questions, and digging around for information, helping each other out. Check out our new Member Forum! www.tafaforum.com
I believe firmly that we should be about supporting other organizations that are already out there and stay away from what is already effectively done by others. Many of our members would like us to have exhibits, our own marketplace, and many other things that are already offered elsewhere. We have a core group of active members and then the majority is either silent or pops in when they feel the need. That is exactly how it should be. Those who are active will grow and benefit from the community. Who knows how they might collaborate in the future? What windows will open, which doors will close? What I want every member to know is that we will promote them and their textile business and that we will help them when they need it.
Where’s the Balance?
So, how do we make sense of it all? Here’s this great opportunity to be on the web, to find community, but so often we end up preaching to the choir…
WE ARE NOT EACH OTHER’S AUDIENCE! Sure, it’s nice to have like-minded people who understand what goes into our products, but most of us are not the primary buyers. We need to reach that person who wants one more handmade scarf, the corporations who will buy huge textiles, those who have the disposable income to purchase art, accessories, expensive hand-spun/hand-dyed yarn, wearable art, and home décor.
How do we keep from drowning in social media? What tools do we actually need to promote ourselves? What should we really be doing? HELP!
10 Tips for conquering the web as a textile artist:
- Make a plan. What’s the dream? Where do you want to be 10 years from now? What do you need to do to get there? How much do you need to earn? How many products/services do you need to sell to get there? Work backwards and break it up into years and then months. You can change it along the way, but be clear about your path. Summarize it into a Mission Statement that works for you in one paragraph.
- Focus. Get rid of what you don’t like or doesn’t work. Pick two social media places to be in and work those hard. Don’t just post on Facebook, but join a couple of groups and get to know them, participate. It’s better to have a couple of rich places where you show activity then to be in twenty with no new information for three years. Google yourself and find where you are. Clean out the places that don’t work.
- You website is your mother ship. How old is your website? Still from the dark ages? Is it responsive? (Meaning: does it rearrange itself on cell phone or tablet, not just shrink in size.) Get rid of music and keep it clean with good navigation. Everything you do outside of your site should point back to it.
- Blog once a week. If possible, merge your blog to your site so that they are in the same place. Blogs help websites get better traffic because they bring in new content and help with search engine results. Show off your strengths: if you can’t write, stick to images. If your photos are awful, then write. If you can’t do either, then don’t have a blog.
- Make your photos pop. Learn some basic editing skills: cropping, saturation, contrast, color correction. Get a decent camera. Don’t use flash to photograph products. Don’t post blurry photos. Watermark them in an attractive way without destroying the image.
- Understand your target audience. Who are you trying to seduce? Get to know them. Learn about their networks, what they read, where they go. Find some local representatives in your community, interview them and then take that info to the web.
- Ask questions. Look at other websites, blogs, images, props, and lighting. If you like it, ask them how they did it. If you don’t understand a web term, ask what it means. Search for it on the web.
- Get help. Can’t do it all yourself? What do you have to offer to someone who can? Can you hire someone part time? Barter, trade? Think about your local resources, grab that geeky kid and get that bored neighbor involved.
- Love what you do. If you don’t, it will show and that will put a definite end to any plan. Don’t be afraid of change, of testing new ideas, of changing directions. Everything you do now will inform tomorrow.
- Don’t be a victim. The resources are out there for anyone who wants them. It takes work, but if you see it, you CAN build it! TAFA is proof of that.
Come visit us on TAFA and join us if you like what we have to offer. It was tough picking six members to show off here as there are several hundred more who I admire and have no trouble promoting. My other mantra is “Made by people for people.” I feel fortunate to be a part of such a vibrant and meaningful community. We may think that the web is a virtual place, but must never forget that behind each textile business, each word, each screen, there is a real person waiting to meet you.
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