Can you make a living from your hobby?
- 6 May 2013
- From the section Business
Linda de Ruiter has done what many people dream of - she has turned her hobby into a profitable business.
Five years ago she was looking after her small children at home and knitting for pleasure. But then a friend asked her to help out on a stall and the idea for a specialist knitting yarn was born.
"I started very small, using one corner of my friend's stand to try out my first product ideas," she says, surrounded by her colourful range of knitting wools.
"When they were well-received, I booked my first small stand by myself. I used our savings to buy my first stock."
It was two years before she made any money, however, and even then every penny she made went back into the business, Tall Yarns 'n Tales.
Now, she is part of an industry worth around £3bn to the UK economy.
"I thought it would always be a glorified hobby," she says, "but I am still growing very fast."
'A way of escapism'
The UK is enjoying a resurgence in traditional crafts such as knitting, sewing, paper craft and pottery.
BBC television itself recently swapped mixing bowls for sewing machines and created the Great British Sewing Bee, its successful spin-off from the hugely popular Great British Bake Off.
The industry now has its own trade association. In a sector largely made up of sole traders like Linda de Ruiter, the Craft Hobby Association-UK was created to support and connect creative businesses.
"We're feeling really positive about crafting in the UK right now," says James Hesse, the association's director.
"The craft industry has always been a popular one in the UK and is also a sector that has been pretty much unaffected by the financial crisis - if anything it's had the opposite effect.
"Because people haven't been going out as much and have been cutting back on lots of luxury items, they've turned to their hobbies as a way of escapism."
'It can be disheartening'
It was redundancy not relaxation that caused Caroline Hanks to dig out her mum's old sewing machine and start sewing children's eco-friendly fabric party bags.
With positive feedback from family and friends, Caroline branched out into grown-up bags and accessories which she describes as "classic with a retro twist" and set up her website Funk E Angels.
Asked if turning a hobby into a business is as easy as the growing range of specialist magazines and e-commerce sites would have us believe, she says: "It is very easy to make lots of lovely stuff - the hard part is selling it and building a name for yourself."
Even at some well-known markets there can be days when she doesn't make any money at all, she says.
"When you've paid for a table, spent time travelling to a venue, created a lovely looking stall and still sell nothing it can be disheartening."
Yet to turn a profit, Caroline remains positive about what she is doing - believing that despite the tough economic climate there are customers out there who are looking for the kind of handmade items she creates.
"I think people want something that is more unique than the High Street yet more affordable than designer label."
'Know your customer'
For craftspeople like Caroline just starting out, selling over the internet can be a good place to test to the water.
One of the biggest online market places for designer makers in the UK is Folksy, which has one million users every quarter.
Many of its 12,000 sellers will be selling their handmade products while also doing a paid job elsewhere.
Managing director James Boardwell says it is a chance for them to reach a mainstream audience, "without expensive marketing".
Knowledge is the key when starting out in business, says the CHA-UK.
"You need to make sure you know your customer and whether there's any direct competition in your area.
"Not doing your research will cost you dearly."
As well as being prepared, an element of luck can also be important in getting any business off the ground.
A royal commission
Helen McAllister had to leave her job due to ill health. That bad luck gave her the time to indulge her passion for printing on fabric.
Her cushions, which are made with hand-dyed natural fabrics and feature traditional scenes of the British countryside, were recognised through a magazine competition which brought her work to the attention of an influential customer.
"Prince Charles commissioned the cushions for his tenants in the Duchy of Cornwall," she says.
"He chose five animals and we printed the Duchy of Cornwall coat of arms on the back. They were truly one-offs.
"It was our largest-ever commission and business had to be suspended for six weeks while producing it," she says.
"We screen-print the cushions, hand mix our colours - by eye - and use stitching on many cushions to make each one unique.
"I'm still surprised and delighted that something which began as a hobby is now able to support me and my team of staff at Helkat Designs," says Helen.