Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Photo Reflectors

One of my big challenges is learning to take good photographs of my work to use in my online store. Now that the weather is sometimes nice enough to shoot outside, I'm trying to do that more.

I keep finding myself challenged by one particular feature of outdoor shooting: shadows. If the weather is anything but completely overcast, the light is usually much brighter from one direction, making the shadowed side of the garment look dark and featureless.

Tonight after dinner I decided to make a couple of reflectors to help with that. One of them is small, for bringing light into one particular area. The other is very large and will be used to bounce light onto the dark side of an entire garment at once. The larger the reflector, the more diffuse and natural-looking the bounced light will be.

The place where I live is always full of camping gear, much of it with real problems. People leave tents with us if they lose some parts or if something breaks.

As a result, we have lots of leftover tent poles, rain flies, and more. These reflectors were made from a silver-coated canopy cover for which the frame was broken, a bunch of mis-matched tent poles, and a spring steel ring.

In a day or two I'll have before and after photos of some garments shot outdoors with the new reflectors, but for now, here are some quick camera phone snapshots to show how they work.

Of course, this example is contrived. I'd never try to shoot a shiny object with just one lamp about 18" away. It does show just what a difference a reflector can make, though. If I could get the light to look even that good with this lighting setup, imagine how well it will work with lighting that's already "pretty good". I can't wait to see the results.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Printed Receipts

In preparation for my new retail space and the eventuality of doing shows, I decided to spend a little time last night integrating a new function to my workflow: real, printed receipts.

Here's the whole in-person sales system that runs from my still-kicking first generation iPhone. It uses three apps that integrate together, even without the fancy features of iOS 4.

RingItUp Pro handles inventory and sales tracking.

CC Terminal handles credit card processing.

Print n Share does the printing.

First, I enter all of my inventory into RingItUp Pro. This lets me know on-the-fly how many of each item I have in backstock.

Then, when a customer makes a purchase, I enter a sale. If it's a credit card transaction, I enter their address into my contacts so it will be there to verify the credit card. If it's cash, I don't have to do that, but I do always try to enter people's email and get their permission to be added to my mailing list. I haven't started an email newsletter yet, but I will someday.

To process a credit card, I then click the credit card icon at the top of the screen. All of the details about the transaction and address info are sent over to CC Terminal.

One day I'll get a more modern device that can connect to a swiper, but for now I just enter the card number by hand.

After the charge is approved, it sends me back to RingItUp Pro and marks the sale as paid.

I then have two options, send an email to the customer or print a real receipt. When I choose Print App, it sends the receipt document to Print n Share.

And here's where it gets crazy, fancy, and robust. I've configured it to use a gmail-based print queue. This means that the document gets sent from Print n Share to a special gmail account.

On the computer, there's a software called WePrint that checks this account every few minutes. When a new printer document email arrives, it is downloaded and printed immediately.

This solution is robust because it doesn't depend on the computer being turned on with the print server running in order to initiate a print job. Since I use a notebook computer for everything, it's likely that I would forget some step of the morning setup. No big whoop. The document sits in that gmail account until it gets printed. I just turn on the computer, connect the printer, turn on the print server and poof! The document spits out as if nothing happened.

And here's the result: professional-looking sales receipts printed from an inventory tracking, credit card processing sales workflow that runs on my phone. Maybe I'm just getting old, but this technology seems miraculous to me.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Business Planning

One of the things I find extremely helpful as a business owner is to keep my business plan up to date. It's easy to look around at all of the finished merchandise in the studio and feel like resting on my laurels. Surely this much cloth indicates some measure of success, right? If I could just sell it all right now, I'd be doing great, right?

Well, a good business plan review session takes the emotional component out of the equation and lets me see where I really stand. A few months ago I posted a graphic to represent my current development strategy: build up my inventory before focusing too hard on selling it.

Here's a new version with the "Now" label moved to the current position in time.

And here's the graph of actual inventory and sales with the data pulled from Quickbooks. The next two weeks are projected based on the fact that I'm waiting for yarn to wind the next beam.

If you look at the second half of this graph, starting at the end of February, you can see that it matches the startup phase of my business plan pretty well..

Looking back to the plan, you can also see that it's going to be another few months before this business is stable. And that's the answer to my question. Can I take a break from production and focus on selling this batch of cloth? No.

I need more color variety in order to get into the markets that I want. If one of my future venues "hits", I need the ability to keep them supplied. ie: backstock to feed into the pipeline while I produce more cloth.

It takes six weeks to produce each color. I will need those new colors as fast as I can make them. Every time I look at this a different way I get the same answer: stability will arrive in late summer if I can keep the production levels up. Even though I'm flat broke, every penny still needs to go toward yarn so I can keep on weaving. It's good to know.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Getting Excited For Red

Now that the beam is completely empty and we're finishing garments while I wait for the new yarn to arrive, it's time to take stock of what yarn I have to compliment pure red and start thinking about beam design.

The next batch of cloth will be based on the colors of fire, including the gold sparks and charred wood.

Taking this picture of my "mood shelf" was really tricky. There's not really enough room to back up so I had to use panorama software to stitch together multiple shots. It's bent, but gives a good idea of the colors I'll be using and a vague idea of how they'll be arranged.

Seeing it all laid out like this has me really excited. This beam is going to be beautiful!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cutting Outside

The weather is finally nice enough that I can do some of my work outside. While Wispr is sewing and shrinking, I'm out here cutting and repairing. The saleable garments are really starting to pile up!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lots Of Fringed Scarves

I'm at the end of the blue beam. Now that I've got the big garments I wanted, it's time to use the odds and ends of plied yarn to make scarves. It seems funny to make so many scarves just as the weather warms up, but I know that I'll be happy when December rolls around and I have 100 scarves to sell.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Am I Blue?

It's kind of amazing how fast yarn travels through the studio. It was the end of March that big boxes of blue yarn came in the mail. Just two months later and that yarn is almost all gone. There are a dozen or so half cones that I'm using to finish up the beam, but otherwise the stash is depleted.

In its place, there are many, many yards of cloth.

Two friends are helping in the studio now. Wispr is stitching the edges of the cloth and washing it. I somehow lost the picture of him sewing, but here's what the table looks like while he's putting the previous bolt in the wash.

And there's just not enough room in the house for Harlan to cut while I weave and Wispr sews. He's set up a table in his cabin instead. With 3 of us working part time, we should be able to make merchandise super fast!

I think we'll be able to get down to 4 weeks per batch. This includes custom plying the warp threads, warping, weaving, shrinking, cutting and sewing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Weaving Community

Some friends and I were talking recently about the place of craftwork and cottage industry in our intentional community. I was talking some about my intent behind bringing a weaving business to this place and some of the symbolism involved.

Weaving is a perfect metaphor for an intentional community. Every thread in the weft touches every thread in the warp. These threads are inseparable from each other. They share the strain that's put on the cloth, with no one thread taking more than the others. The reason we put threads together is so that they can work together in a new form called cloth.

And the reason we bring people together is to work together in a new form called community. We come together to be together. Just like with cloth, we need to watch out for influences that would put strain on individuals, that would cut us apart or that would isolate a few of us from the others. The question we need to be asking ourselves is this: "would the item/action/behavior in question bring the community closer together?" If not, we should reject it or, at the very least, be wary of embracing it.

The thing that gives me energy for my day-to-day work is a greater vision. I am focused on an intentional community of nature-loving craftsmen where everyone takes part in the work that supports us all. Everyone is doing the additional work that it takes to strengthen themselves individually and to remain woven in with the others. My drive comes from focusing on something bigger than myself and putting substantial energy every day toward its creation.

The rest of my energy goes into supporting the people and the place where I am now. Who would believe me if I said I didn't have energy for community until the community was exactly how I wanted it?

Actually, I don't expect to ever see a community that's exactly what I want, and I'm glad for that! At its core, community is about shared vision and there are many people in my life with better ideas than mine about how to create it. Yay, diversity!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Break From Blogging

Those of you that follow my blog have no doubt noticed that I disappeared for a while. There are many factors that are making this happen.

1. Spring is here, and with it comes the opening of the land. We move our household out of the main cabin and into the barn after cleaning and recomissioning the large kitchen.

2. Our first "festival". We hosted about 275 visitors for a week. It's a jarring culture shift for those living here and a TON of work to pull off.

3. Preparation for weaving sales at that festival. I needed to double-time it for a while to have enough merchandise off the loom so people could see what I do and help support me by buying beautiful clothing.

4. Training an assistant. Wispr is now fully trained in production weaving and sewing on the commercial machine. He's helping me get my inventory levels high enough to pursue new markets early this summer.

5. Blogging burnout. I feel like production isn't that exciting. I'm weaving 100 yards of blue. Before that was 80 yards of white. Next is 100 yards of red, then 100 yards of green, then 100 yards of brown, then 100 yards of black, then another 100 yards of blue. Once I've written and photographed the process in white, how interesting is it to see the same process in blue?

The result of this is that I'm rethinking the place of my blog in the overall picture. I'll probably stick to things that are new, which may mean that I blog less often.

On the other hand, energy is shifting around several large aspects of my life path. There is a group of people crystallizing around the idea of a new monastery. It will be exciting if we can start some real movement in that direction this year.

I am looking at retail space in Wolf Creek. It might be as early as July 1st that I move my weaving operation into a storefront right across the street from a historic inn. It would put my work in front of many more people, leading to sales and publicity. That whole process will certainly be something to write about.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Less Drama, Better Tension

After achieving such beautiful tension so rapidly on the blue beam, I started wondering what I did to have it happen. I thought of one big change that saved me time and stress, and may have contributed to the good tension.

I pulled each section through the heddles as soon as I was done tying it.

(In writing this post, I realized that I don't photograph this step very often, partly because it's been too harrowing to stop midway and grab the camera. These pics were cobbled from 3 different tie-ons.)

Here's the old system where I tie all the knots and let them hang together until it's time to pull them all through at once. This is stressful, even though I know it will work.

Before pulling them through the heddles, I stick them to the sandpaper breast beam and back up the warp beam to get them under tension. This tension is tenuous, adjusted thread by thread until it's "good enough". As I advance the breast beam to pull the knots through, there's lots of futzing to get those knots through the heddles.

This is the new system. Each section is pulled through immediately after tying. It's simple for two reasons: I'm only dealing with 39 threads, and they're all about the same length so getting them under even tension is easy.

The end result is that I've removed one of the most harrowing and risky parts of the process and achieved good tension much sooner than before. Yay, experience!