In the Studio with Elizabeth Whitton

 

Felted Sky is my favorite resource for gorgeous

needle felting kits and accessories.

I am so happy to introduce you to the the company's owner.

Please tell us more about what it means to be a self-taught artist.

I have always loved natural fibers and I fell in love with wool when I learned to knit. I started selling on Etsy in 2009 with a five year old and a one year old. I wanted to try to make part time income from home while building something that was mine. I was on Etsy learning through trial and error for four years before I had the idea for Felted Sky. I started needle felting somewhere in the middle of that when my oldest daughter went to  Waldorf school. In Waldorf education they teach traditional handcrafts and I saw other parents felting and decided to try it out.

I realized pretty quickly that I had   

a knack for needle felting and that it was an unsaturated niche on Etsy.I decided to try selling my little felted artworks at the school and listed them on Etsy too. 

I also helped the school to put up an Etsy shop to see if their needle felting supplies would sell online as an extra source of income.  When the wool we listed started moving, I began to wonder, why I wasn’t selling wool myself?!  When circumstances changed at the school and they closed their

Etsy shop, I expanded into selling needle felting supplies and eventually had the idea to make kits. This is how Felted Sky came to be.

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What was your life like before Felted Sky? Have you always been a creative?

Yes, I have always been artistic and loved making things. My mom was a Montessori teacher and from a young age I had a little table with art supplies where I would spend hours drawing or painting and doing art projects. Every year we made different types of Christmas ornaments that still hang on my parents’ tree. I continued to enjoy art through high school but didn’t view it as a viable way to earn a living.  After college I had a few different jobs before starting my first Etsy shop. During those years, fiber art was just a hobby. I learned to knit and spin and do some dying before I learned to needle felt.

You now have 8 employees!

How has your business evolved?  What it is like now and how has it been to let go of  certain responsibilities? What are  some turns that
you have taken along the way? 

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The business feels almost totally different now than it was in those early years. I used to do everything myself at a much smaller scale and with much less branded packaging. There was also a big pivot that took things in a different direction for four years before I went back to actively growing Felted Sky. To get to full time income quickly, I pivoted into selling wool photo props to newborn photographers because it was a “hot trend” at the time that I was able to capitalize on. I kept Felted Sky going but it was definitely on the “back burner” during those years. Four years later, photo props weren’t cutting it anymore but interest in needle felting had grown enough that I thought I could pivot back and it would be able to support us. In 2018 my husband started working with me on Felted Sky and in 2019 we did a big overhaul to prepare for wholesale and growth. Attending one trade show jump started our wholesale business and then we needed employees to keep up with everything. We started with two part time people and now we’re up to eight. As far as letting go of responsibilities I’m actually really happy whenever I can turn over tasks that I’ve been doing to other people. I feel like it is important at this point for me to be working more on the business than in the business. 

I originally thought this would be part time income that I could do from home to supplement the income from my husband’s full time job. It has grown into our shared business that is our family’s sole income and we provide part time income to 8 other people, with most of them able to do their work from home.

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What are some of those things that others do for you and your business? Do you  have people that just make?

Some of the employees weigh, roll and label the wool. We have 192 colors that are sold in three sizes. The 1/8 oz. rolls go into all the kits so we go through a lot of those. Employees are also doing things like packing orders, packing kits, cutting fabric and prefelt, painting needles, filling needle tubes, making scrap bags and putting labels on mats. I am currently still doing most of the designing, buying and customer service. My husband manages the employees, does inventory management, tech stuff and printing. We also have a great photographer and an accountant who helps with bookkeeping. Social media and marketing tends to get lost in the shuffle so we are hoping to hire someone to help with that this Fall.

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How do you come up with your designs? Are you the primary designer? Do you  have a background in design? 

All of the kit designs are mine except for three by artist Dani Ives. The felted landscapes are my favorites and come the easiest to me. I love looking at beautiful natural landscapes and figuring out how to capture them with wool. I think I am just naturally an artist and designer but I don’t have a formal background in it. I am always full of ideas. I got to design some felted wearables, bags and home décor items for a friend’s business a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Sometimes I wish I could have multiple businesses so that I could design other kinds of things! For now I have chosen to stay focused on Felted Sky. It still takes all of my working hours to keep it going and evolving.

The embroidery hoops are the perfect way to make and display your designs.  When and why did you move to those? 

We moved from rectangular landscapes to putting our flat kits into hoops in 2019. I wanted to do that because including frames in kits or as add-ons brings extra challenges. People have different taste in frames and they can add a lot of expense plus are heavy to ship. I also felt like hoops might help flat needle felting appeal and make sense to people who already do embroidery and/or cross stitch. It’s already an accepted way to frame fiber art and of course hoops are readily available and easy to pack in a kit.

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Tell us about your sculptures. When did you begin creating those kits? I imagine  people having collections of these. Do you find that there are groups of people  that make many sculptures? What are some ways that you have seen them  displayed?

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I had both sculptures and flat landscapes from the very beginning. Sculptural needle felting caught on before flat, so a lot of people want to start with sculpting. I have noticed that there are some customers who come back and buy more kits and end up with collections. That is always fun to see! For the sculptures, I started with Holiday decorations like pumpkins, snowmen and ornaments. Animals are not my forte and there are already so many other needle felters who do animals really well that I wanted to branch out and make kits that no one else was doing. Of course now there are other people selling kits for pumpkins and gnomes and landscapes but I always like to be thinking of new things like my pillows or Rose Wreath.  I’m guessing that people put out the Holiday sculptures around their home or office with other seasonal decorations. The succulents can go on a windowsill or desk.

You describe needle felting as therapeutic and stress-relieving. I agree. Why is  that do you think? 

I think the repetitive motion of it is one reason. It seems to be soothing once you get in the rhythm of it, similar to knitting or crochet. I think the stabbing can also be cathartic to get out some extra stress and frustration. We’re all dealing with stress in today’s world. The beautiful colors and textures are also part of it. I think the wool itself is just nice to work with. We’re surrounded by lots of synthetics these days and wool pulls you back to something natural, connecting you with animals and the sun and rain, soil and sky. Lastly, I think it is a forgiving medium where mistakes can often be fixed easily and where people are usually proud of their finished pieces. Making something with your own two hands that you enjoy looking at in the end is always very satisfying!

What is it like to be on the road as a vendor? What are the rewards for you and  your business in doing this? 

 

It is a a huge amount of work and lots of expenses to be out in the world vending. Since we have solid online sales, we don’t like to do a large number of in person events and we like to try and do big ones. This year we are doing five fiber festivals. I think the best part about it is meeting customers in person to answer their questions and introducing more people to needle felting. It is also nice to see how customers respond to new kits and products in a retail setting.

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You said that you feel like the art of needle felting is growing.
Can you tell us more  about that? 


When I started needle felting 11 years ago, there just weren’t as many people doing it. It felt like there weren’t that many people who even knew what it was outside of fiber festivals and Waldorf schools. A lot of the needle felting I saw when I first started was crafty and folksy at best, and tacky and wierd at the worst. There wasn’t as much being made with a modern and up to date aesthetic. I didn’t know of anyone pushing its boundaries as fine art medium. When I first started vending at fiber festivals the interest in needle felting was lukewarm and now when we are at an event our booth is almost always full of shoppers. There weren’t many yarn shops that were carrying needle felting kits and supplies and now I have over 100 retailers who carry our stuff. On Etsy, I think there were around 1,000 needle felting kits when I put up my first ones and now there are over 12,000. Artist Dani Ives has114k instagram followers, an artist fellowship, a book and a course on Domestica. Sara Renzulli of Sarafina Fiber Art has 101k subscribers on her YouTube channel. Artist Janna Mattson sells her needle felted paintings at the best juried art shows in the country. There are still plenty of people who have never heard of needle felting but with each year it seems like more people find it and our sales numbers reflect a growing interest in it. The best part is that now there are so many talented artists who are pushing the boundaries of what can be done with needle felting. There is always something new and beautiful to discover.

What is your favorite thing about being a creative business owner?  What are your plans for the future and Felted Sky?

My favorite part is hearing from customers who learned needle felting from one of my kits and fell in love with it. It’s so heart warming to see their finished projects and feel like I’ve had a little bit of a positive impact on their lives by helping them to tap into their own creativity. I also like the feeling that I’m connected to the independent yarn and craft stores. I hope that our kits and supplies are helping them to bring in new customers. Of course I also like being my own boss and working on building the business with my husband. We both have the entrepreneurial spirit and don’t enjoy working for other people or in the corporate world. Felted Sky is a ton of work and sometimes I wish I had come up with an easier business model but overall I’m happy with where we are and where we’re going. We’ve had some good luck and learned so much along the way.

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