Friday, April 11, 2008

Give Yourself A Studio Elf

by Katy of muchachaK and the Speakeasy Boutique

Like many of my fellow artisans, I have a lot going on in my life besides just my “handmades” business. I am a grad student, I work part-time as a paralegal, for half of the year I manage a market, and have many other projects in the planning stages that are currently incubating as I pull details together. Add to this the past holiday market/craft fair season and I was about to lose my cookies. I knew that I wasn’t going to survive through the fall and winter into spring without help.

First of all, I’m not writing about interns. For those of you who are lucky enough to find free help, I applaud and envy you, however, it’s not always easy to find free help when you need it, so I realized I’d need to bite the bullet and pay someone. As an artisan, and not a millionaire, I had put this thought out of my mind many times, thinking I couldn’t afford to actually pay someone to come help me. What made the decision for me was the fact that I literally couldn’t afford not to do it. I had already committed to three shows, had rent to pay on my studio, and a ton of fabric I’d already bought for the purpose was burning a hole in my conscience. After posting an ad and corresponding with several nice people, I found Elyssa, a terrific student from one of the local universities, who just happens to be a fearless guerilla seamstress like myself. Self-taught, and unperturbed by my unconventional pattern-making skills, she has become an invaluable asset to my studio.

Here’s some things to consider when you decide to make that leap into hiring a helper/assistant/intern:

1) But how much will I pay them? My hourly labor cost is already built into my prices for each item. My helper’s “hourly rate” is a portion of the hourly rate I include in my prices. Other people like to pay their helpers by the piece, and that can be very motivational. As mine is also a student though, I value that she is still midway up the learning curve on some tasks, and I would rather have her do them well, than hurry to finish just because I’m paying her by the piece.

2) Ask them for samples of their work when you interview them so that you have an idea of their skill level before you put them to work. As I said, my helper (frequently referred to as the studio elf...maybe I need to give her a real title soon!) is a guerilla seamstress like me. There are some tasks she’s very good at, some she is still working on, and that’s fine. But samples will give you an idea ahead of time, of what that person’s strengths may be and whether they’ll be a good match for your projects.

3) How many hours a week do you need them? You can, of course, let the budget guide you and tell you how much you can pay someone each week, and that’s basically what I did. I was AMAZED though at how much more work I got done with her there, and realized quickly that even a few hours per week was making me way more productive. And more product can mean more money...

4) If you are not used to having someone else around, make sure you make your environment and supplies easy for another person to use. I never had to mark my patterns before I had a I have to either create instructions/mark stuff properly, or make sure I show her certain things so she doesn’t have to read my mind! I also find myself doing things like taping down my sewing machine cords so she won’t trip on them, or actually cleaning off my cutting surfaces when I’ve finished, so they’re not cluttery for the next person to use.

5) Communicate clearly to them about when you need them and what your expectations are. I got really lucky, Elyssa shows up on time, is responsible, adjusts well when I give her feedback, and communicates well. Not everyone is like that, either “bosses” or “helpers”, but everybody’s happier if you at least try!

6) What types of tasks do you need help with? What you have them do isn’t so important as that you’ve thought about it before they arrive. Be realistic about matching their skills to your tasks, AND respect the fact that it may take them a minute to get used to your style of working. My elf (sorry Elyssa!) does lots of prep work and assists with other various stages of my standard projects once we’ve got the prep out of the way. That frees me up to a) get more work done in general and b) concentrate on my custom orders without having to lose production time on my standard items.

7) How does this affect your taxes? What about worker’s comp? These are important considerations and you want to think about it ahead of time. Yes, if you want to go there, you could pay them cash under the table. However, as I am a law abiding citizen, with a proper business bank account, who declares their artisan business on their taxes, I had to decide if I was going to have an actual employee, or an independent contractor, and I decided on an independent contractor. This has several legal implications but essentially it will mean that I have to have an accountant help me figure out how to issue a 1099 at the end of the year so my books and her books are all good. It also means I don’t have the extra cost of worker’s comp insurance. Additionally, because she is technically a contractor, our communication is a two-way street in terms of her schedule, I don’t set her schedule for her. We work out when the best times are for the both of us, and go from there. Good communication makes this super easy to sort out.

All in all I’d say it’s been an awesomely effective experiment. I’m twice as productive, and I’m free to be more inventive and concentrate on new items, not just the usual stuff. It’s also nice to have someone around to chat with! And even though the holiday season is long over I am going to continue to have her come as I get ready for Spring...when the market season cranks back into full gear!


  1. I'm happy to say my 'studio elf' actually has a title now--she's our Production Assistant :)

    And she does a great job. It's nice to have someone help with my copious amounts of non-glamorous prep work!

  2. Thank you! Inspiring and informative. I have been an elf - twice to good bosses, once to miserable toads - It is a great way to learn. But I have yet to figure out how to get one of my own. Your post gives me something more concrete to hold on to.

  3. Glad to be of service Linda...the key for me was realizing that this was a necessary cost, and accounting for it in my pricing. I actually feel that I have a just a little more work to do in that department on some items I produce...but I've made good progress and it's made me see my own work differently.


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