It was around Christmas time in 2019 when I hurt my back. I was bedridden for over a week and extremely bored. After scrolling about online, I had the idea to take up a craft. Something that would keep my hands and mind busy would be ideal. It was then that I remembered that my late grandma used to do embroidery. So, taking a cue from her, I went on to Michael’s website and ordered everything I’d need to start stitching. I had no real idea what I was doing, only that I wanted to stitch.
Now, I’ve known how to sew (by hand and by machine) since I was 5 years old. I used to make plushies and clothes for my dolls. Since I was 12, I even attempted to make my own clothes. So it’s safe to say that I wasn’t a newbie to stitching with a needle and thread. However, I soon discovered that embroidery was different.
I didn’t realize that you had to split the 6-strand embroidery thread into only one or two pieces before you begin. So, I ended up going through entire skeins (a unit of 8-yard-long thread) like it was going out of style. One of the first pieces I made was inspired by the videogame Animal Crossing. Since Animal Crossing came out around the time I first started stitching, the characters from that game were the majority of the pieces I made. I was part of a group where users posted their art and received critique, and everyone who saw my first pieces gave me some really helpful tips. Following their tips, I began to improve. I went from 6 strands to 4 and finally made it to using only 1-2 strands per piece.
Gradually, my art began to improve, and I began to venture into bigger and bigger pieces. I began searching for stitch guides online and teaching myself how to do different techniques. Then, around May 2020, the pandemic hit, and I was laid off of the teaching job I had taken in 2019. I had moved back to my parents’ house then, but I had no idea that I’d be there for so long. I decided to hone my skills more and reopen my then-dead Etsy shop. I had an Etsy where I used to sell clay charms back during my undergrad years, but I hadn’t used it since leaving for Peace Corps in 2017. My friends kept encouraging me to sell my embroidery there, and so, feeling emboldened, I put up my first listing. It was, of course, Animal Crossing. I advertised my first listing on all my social media accounts, with my Animal Crossing discord group, and in my art group. And eventually, I made my first sale!
From there, I continued to improve, trying new stitches, inventing new designs, and also, venturing outside of Animal Crossing. I began to make fanart from other franchises, and I even made original designs. I put my drawing skills to good use by creating my own designs to stitch and never using a pattern. It made my pieces more unique and easier to market. I continued to post my finished pieces on all my social media, not knowing that I had caught the eye of someone important.
One day, I was approached by an editor who worked at a publishing company. She told me that she needed someone to create test stitches of designs that the company was planning to publish in a how-to book. I gladly agreed, and she sent me 6 designs. Color guides were already printed on the design, but the style and type of stitch were completely up to me. The theme was the zodiac and space. I had 2 mini pieces and 3 large pieces themed after the western zodiac. I was assigned Leo, Virgo, and Libra, along with one solar system design and one random mushroom mini patch. I had to leave instructions on a diagram about which stitches I used and which colors, if any, that I decided to change to match the original artist’s design.
It was an exciting and fun project, especially for someone who had only been stitching for a little over a year at that point. I had made almost $2000 for those pieces, and they would be published in a book!
Over time, I discovered that stitching is like meditation for me. As I have ADHD, it is hard for me to sit still for long periods, but keeping my hands busy helps me to focus better and to become more invested. I stitched during my virtual classes and lectures at Thunderbird and found that I was better engaged and able to focus. An added bonus is that because I stitched so often, my pieces began to improve more rapidly. I also learned that as I gain more experience, the prices I charge for pieces need to reflect that, and undervaluing myself because I criticized my work too harshly is no reason to lower the price. I asked for opinions from my art group, who was such a huge support to me when I was starting out. I learned that although the material cost of embroidery supplies is very cheap (hoops are at most $3, cotton fabric is around $5 for 3 yards, and good quality thread is only about $0.50), it’s a very time-intensive hobby, with some pieces taking weeks or even months to finish.
I found that I am a very fast stitcher, with most pieces taking me only 3-5 hours to fully complete, but that’s where the cost of experience comes in. My group members told me that even though I can finish commissioned pieces quickly, the cost of time doesn’t only include the time that it took to make it.
It also includes the time it took me to get to the level of being able to finish so quickly, along with the time it took to get my art to the level where it is worth selling.
Embroidery taught me a lot of things. It taught me to be patient with myself, not to undervalue my work, and how art can be made from the simplest things. It also taught me how to slow down and not over-complicate things, and that my fingers are tougher than they look.
(From all the poking my fingers have experienced, I’m surprised they don’t look like Swiss cheese by now!)
Note from Das Tor: If you want to support a fellow T-bird’s entrepreneurial art, Erica is still accepting commissions. Please refer to the poster below for her pricing and how to contact her. You also can follow her on Instagram here and visit her Etsy account here.