Saturday, December 31, 2011

What a Year!

Toy Car Still Life; by Dorian (and/or Callan)

 2012 already? When I look back at the year; I can hardly believe how much my life has changed; looking back; it seems like this year was a very LONG year; simply because of all that has happened. The beginning of 2011 found me with a brand-new etsy shop; I had just listed my first few items; and was surprised right off the bat to get a few orders! Looking back; I can only imagine what my poor customers were thinking; my pictures were terrible; my shop back then was a far cry from professional. I was content throughout January to get the few sales that I got; and worked on my shop just a few hours a day.  I remember it through the haze of reminiscence as being a simpler time.

I remember somebody saying to me early on in my etsy "career"; probably in March; "You're going to be an etsy star; I can tell!". I still remember flattered I was that ANYONE thought I had potential; I feel mostly like a fish of out water with the online selling stuff; and every day is a learning experience. Starting out; I didn't have any experience with any kind of selling; and my limited computer knowledge made a steep learning curve. I still come up against "techy" type things everyday that I don't know how to do; I have shed many a tear of frustration trying to learn the ropes at being an online business owner. With the support of some AWESOME etsians and others; I've muddled through; and I do feel proud that a SAHM with a high school education and a sparse resume has hung in there even though there were many times I thought I couldn't do it.

Of course; I'm no "star", and I'm bowled over often at some shops on etsy that are wildly successful because I know how much work this all is. 2011 was a huge learning experience for me; and I know I'm a better person for having done everything I've done along the way. I've made lots of friends; and feel like I've "come out of my shell"; after 10+ years where I was consumed with raising babies and was fairly isolated.

I've given up some things; too; I used to spend hours a day cooking elaborate meals; and my house was spotless all the time; it's been an adjustment trying to be less hard on myself when I look around and the house is not clean (again) and I "mail it in" with dinner. But I feel like what I am spending my time on is more lastingly important; and I also know that in time I'm get everything figured out and hopefully have more time for my hobbies. For now; I'm enjoying growing my business; and taking pride in the little bit of success I've managed to achieve. But as a perfectionist; I'm never satisfied; and every day; I plot and plan my next move.....2012 will hopefully bring some great changes and innovations for me!

Today I was thinking that it will shortly be the centennial of 1912; I year I've always thought was a benchmark of sorts; a time before The Great War changed people's way of life; so I made this fun treasury on etsy:

Party Like it's 1912

Tonight I'll be drinking some sparkling Riesling and eating some late night burgers with my husband; Welcome 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hello, Migraine; My Old Friend

Illustration of visual migraine aura from a participant in the National Migraine Art competition. © 2007 Migraine Action Association and Boehringer Ingelheim
I've really enjoyed giving my blog-ees a little behind the scenes look at my business (and by extension, my life), and migraines have been such a part of it all; I wanted to share.

First of all; I've always had migraines; but until last summer; they were occasional to rare and never really affected my life. I just took to my bed, and tried to get through them as best I could. When I was pregnant with baby Elvis; I started having an upsurge in the visual disturbances that accompany migraines for most people; but I thought it was just a weird pregnancy symptom. So I went along, blissfully unaware of the storm that was about to rage out of control in my nervous system. When I look back at that time, I wish I had enjoyed all the pain free days I had!

Very suddenly last summer; right in the middle of a busy summer; and an unexpected upsurge in my business, I had what I think of as the "life changer". A migraine that was so bad it caused me to have an emergency CT scan; and Labor Day morning found me sitting in a wheelchair in front of the hospital, attempting to vomit gracefully in front of the nurse and all present. Not the best day I've ever had! After that migraine; it became clear that the "migraine gods" were not smiling upon me; and this was going to be an affliction I'd have to bear, probably for life. I was thrust into a whole different world. I felt like I went overnight from a healthy, vibrant, go-getter to a shell of myself. The pain was often overwhelming; and my entire family was affected. For a short time; I really felt without hope. i imagined myself not being able to care for my children; not being able to attend to my business; and my entire life being over. Chronic pain is a whole different animal from the pain I was used to; and believe me; as a mother of five naturally born children; I thought I "got it". Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional impact of living in fear of pain.

I had so much support from my husband and family; but still I floundered all through the autumn, trying to come to grips with not being "myself". I often joked with James that if I could just remove a quarter-sized section of my brain; all my problems would be over! (and so would higher reasoning). But, we adjusted. James took over 100% of the shipping duties for my business; and even Andrew stepped up by making simple dinners when I needed it; or watching a few of his brothers while I took quick trips to the store or the PO. Finally, just as the holiday "busy season" kicked off on etsy; I started seeing a doctor that has had great success helping migraine sufferers using a combination of traditional chiropractic treatment; along with physical therapy of the jaw, electrode treatment, and neck traction. One problem? Our insurance only covered a small portion of this treatment, which is considered experimental. Thankfully; my etsy business was now healthy enough that my soapmaking paid the bill for the treatments; which were three times a week for four weeks; by now I feel I practically live at the doctors office! But it has helped tremendously; bringing my migraine frequency down from a torturous every other day; to a much more manageable once a week or less. And my migraines are much less severe and I'm thankful to say that after my Labor Day debacle; I have never experienced a migraine that severe again.

Now I feel lucky that I can function so well "considering", and I appreciate the lessons I've learned from my migraines; mostly not to take good health for granted. I've also become much better at tolerating pain in general; and much more responsive to the signals of "I'm tired!" that my body gives me. I'm hoping that in the fullness of time; I'll look back at this time of my life as a "trial by fire", and that someday; there will be a cure!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How We Did It

This last month has been a wonderfully exciting, exhausting learning experience. I'm so grateful for my customers' support of my little venture; and my husband's help. I could not have done it without him!

So how do this "details" guy and a "big picture" gal work together to make this etsy shop run? I thought it would be fun to do a little "behind the scenes"!

First of all; I make every item in my shop, from scratch. All the formulas are rattling around in my head and I have certain items (probably 50+) that I keep in stock all the time. Without James' help; I would have ingredients, products and bottles strewn about every which way; I'm not the most organizationally minded person, and when I'm "in the zone" of creating; I simply can't be bothered with trifles like putting items back on the shelf....that's where James comes in. He's a very level headed, precise, methodical person (everything I'm not), and he invested in several industrial shelving units a few months back. He's spent many a weekend organizing my ingredients; packaging, and items. There's a place for everything, and everything is in it's place. He even found tiny bins that perfectly fit each flavor of lip balm; for easy order pulling. I try really hard to maintain the system he has in place; however; after I've been out in the workshop packing orders it has a tendency to look like a tornado hit it....he's very understanding; although he did look at me like I was crazy when I explained that having everything in certain places makes it so I can't think....if you'd ever seen my desk; you'd understand!

Being in a marriage is a lot like working together; so over the course of our 13 year relationship; James and I have settled into our roles and that helps. James is the detail guy; he pays the monthly bills, organizes our house, calms me down when I'm in a tizzy. I'm the "big picture" girl; I make wild plans (like telling James in 1998 that I wanted to have five boys and name them alphabetically); and usually manage to execute them. I'm the dreamer, and the "make it happen" one; and James keeps me from crashing and burning; or cleans up my drama when I do.

So, soapmaking. It's not as exciting as it sounds, really (because it SOUNDS so exciting right?). I make two different kinds of soap; my hot process soap that I mold in my old style molds, is cooked in a crockpot until done; then molded and cooled. It looks like this:

Riveting, right? It cooks for about an hour and a half; stirring, sometimes boiling over, until it tests done; which means that I touch it to my tongue; and if it's not fully saponified; it will "zap" my tongue. NOT fun; fortunately; I'm good at knowing when it's ready now; so I rarely get zapped.

My other kind of soap is a modified hot process; meaning that it's cooked in the molds; in the oven at 170 degrees. I heat up and melt the oils and butters in a pot; add the lye mixture; stick blend until "trace" is achieved; then pour it in the molds and pop it in the oven. A combination of the temperature of the oils when the lye is added (I soap "hot") and the heat of the oven; cause the soap to go through the "gel stage" while in the molds. I let it cook for about an hour; and then allow it to sit, stacked in the oven with the door closed for several more hours. This causes a much shorter cure time than cold process; and again; this is tested with a combination of tongue testing and ph testing. It looks like this:

I use these disposable trays to stack my molds because I can just toss them instead of cleaning them. Consequently, the inside of my oven always smells lovely, like whatever soap I just cooked in there. BUT......I have to always remember to unload the oven before preheating it; I have had melted molds before from a careless preheater! I'm going to get yellow warning tape for my oven; because I've been known to shriek, "DON'T OPEN THE OVEN!".

Someday; I'm going to have a dedicated soap oven, I'm working on a design that is self contained and energy for an engineering degree.....

So that's the basics for "how we do it"; lots of work; cooperation; late night movies, and coffee! Always coffee!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

We Did It!

The last bin of Pre-holiday orders! Whew! 

600 items sold
299 orders
2 cases bubble mailers
1 pound activated charcoal
8 gallons olive oil

= A tired and grateful me!

The last month has been beyond my wildest expectations as holiday buying season on etsy was in full swing. I approached what is generally considered "rush time" with a healthy dose of scepticism, because I don't consider my items terribly "giftable" and being my first real holiday season on etsy; I didn't want to get my hopes (and my supply stock) up and then end up disappointed.

So, I stocked up, but not overly so; I prepared by buying a fresh case of bubble mailers and bubble wrap; and then I prepared to have my hopes dashed. Well, the hope dashing was not to be! On Black Friday alone; I had over 50 sales; and in the last 30 days have averaged 20 sales per day. WOW! I had a few memorable days over the Thanksgiving weekend where I did nothing but stare at my screen in amazement as the sales count rose; and click "renew sold" 24 hours a day.

The last month has been a blur as I made my unexpected smash hit, Blacksmith shaving soap in my dinky new crockpot. There were days where I made batches and batches of the stuff and ended the day looking like I was about to break into "Chim-chiminee, chim-chiminee, chim chim, cheree; a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be.....".

Every day I raced around filling orders all day; and had late into the night labeling/packing sessions with my husband; who spent his evenings in my workshop (formerly the garage), which, although insulated, was so cold he could see his breath! Fortunately; he worked tirelessly; requesting only that I keep him in imported beer and Pandora radio! Often at 3am, I had to beg him to go to bed, and then he'd be up at 6; dressing the boys for school and letting me sleep. I'm completely serious when I say that without him keeping me grounded, I would have run away to Bermuda when the pressure was on!

We ate a lot of pizza; some fast food (I tried to mix in a veg or two or the occasional home cooked meal to avoid the "Worst Mother in the World" award). I stopped wearing makeup (no time!); wore yoga pants 24/7, drank endless rounds of espresso, finally buying this machine to save money (or something) Ok, ok; I bought it because it was cool. But presumably I will end up visiting the coffee shop less with this....

$1.00 per coffee! And it makes a mean cappuccino.....yum!

So now that all my blacksmith soaps are blacksmithed, and the last order has been packed and shipped, frantically at 3pm on Saturday; I have spent a glorious Sunday sleeping in, eating brunch (late), milling around on the internet, cuddling with my boys and husband, and generally becoming bored out of my 2012; bring it on, I'm ready for ya!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Where to begin? As much as I love my homemaking blog, I sometimes felt boxed in by it; I didn't want to spam all my lovely followers by talking business stuff; but it has become such a huge part of my life that it seemed strained to not discuss it. But now I have the best of both worlds; I'll be able to delve into the inner workings of my business without feeling torn.

This new blog comes at an exciting time for my business. I've recently undergone intense reevaluating, and have ended up with a new name; new look, new attitude. But it's still the same me; in fact; this new identity is more me than "me" is! There's going to be a lot of work behind the scenes in the next few weeks; so that I can switch everything over seamlessly....I hope!

As I'm going through an identity shift with my business, It's led me to reflect on my own identity; and how  I got to this point in my life. Like all of us, there's more to me than meets the eye, and I thought it would be fun to explain. Many of the followers to my homemaking blog know that being a wife and mother is a priority to me; but I'm not "just" a mom. In fact, the groundwork for my starting a business was being laid when I was very young...very young!

I was raised by a stay at home mom and a dad who was basically a workaholic. He managed a construction-related company and was very good at it. Since my dad was a valued employee (to say the least) and was in charge of his branch of the business; he had the flexibility to bring myself and my siblings to work; which he often did. Some of my earliest memories involve job sites; trucks with lumber racks; and the scent of sawdust. My dad is not an extremely talkative person; but I felt that we bonded on those days when I went to work with him. When I was fifteen, my dad struck out on his own, starting a family business. I went to work with him every morning at 7 am; to answer phones, write up (by hand) work orders, and help in whatever way I could. I quickly learned the ropes, with my dad often remarking that he wished his others employees learned the business as quickly! I enjoyed having my own money; saving quite a bit at such a young age, and completing my high school education in the evenings and during my breaks at work, through the now defunct correspondence course system. As my teenage years went on, my independent nature caused me to start having the usual conflicts with my parents. It came to a head shortly after my 17th birthday; when I was given an ultimatum: do things "their way" or move out, AND leave my job at my dad's business behind. I moved out.

I was in the unique position at the age of 17 of being well-equipped to support myself. I had working experience, and the drive to support myself. In fact, it was necessary, since I had no financial support from my parents whatsoever. I applied for a position of a clerk at a small printing and copy shop; and started there full time making $6.50 an hour. I didn't have many expenses, except the rent on my apartment, which was $585 per month, and utilities; so that, and my savings, would have been plenty. Within a few months, however, I was given several raises, and was making over $9 an hour, not bad for a teenager in 1997! I absorbed as much about that business as I could, and I enjoyed being my own "boss" as you will, since I got off every day at 5pm, walked home to my own apartment, and could do as I liked. Unlike many teenagers in this situation, I did not have a wild social life; I've always been a bookish and serious sort, and my and focus was on supporting myself and doing well at my job. During this time, I was also dealing with an eating disorder, which sapped my energy and my health.

One day in 1998, I had a long talk with my best friend after work, which convinced me to take the big step of moving from Idaho to Southern California. I had relatives there, and had been considering the move for a while. I was sick physically, and felt that I needed a complete change of scenery. In my usual fashion, I worked quickly. I decided to move on Tuesday; and was on a plane on Saturday, having sold/given away, and finally, in a panicked rush, thrown away; all the belongings I couldn't ship to San Diego.

It was the summer of 1998, just shy of my 18th birthday, and for the first time ever, I was a fancy-free teenager! My savings were enough to sustain me for a few months not working, and I was so exhausted and ill from years of the eating disorder, my health was my top priority. I ate, rested, swam, shopped, and watched MTV. It felt decadent! After a month of this, I was ready to go back to work; and started working full time again, my health almost completely restored. I'm not suggesting that all eating disorders are so easily overcome; but I was highly motivated, stubborn, and for me, my surroundings were a big factor in my disorder. Being removed from them helped immensely. It would never have occurred to me to go to therapy in those days, and I had no parents to insist. I got lucky.

Over the next several years which included a move back to my hometown; and the birth of four more children; I've always been a stay at home mom. For several years, James worked a second job delivering pizza at night to enable me to raise our own children; with me filling it with a few part time jobs when needed and when the opportunity presented itself. In 2010; after the birth of our fifth son; I was doing everything possible to reduce household costs. The economy had caused my husband's income to take a huge hit; and we were adjusting as best we could. Part of my cost-saving measures involved me making handcrafted soap and bath products, including shampoo and laundry detergent for our household, a craft that I truly love. After giving my soap to several family members, it was suggested that I should try to make a business out of my rather practical hobby; and so, with a $60 gift from my sister in law; a computer that I borrowed from my dad; and my aunt's hand-me-down (but wonderful) camera; my etsy shop (and business) was born.

What a ride!