Last week, as I continued with this 6 part series, I explained that as I was creating my new business at the end of 2013, Fair Fit Studio, I was so incredibly happy to have found a new avenue of expression for my skills and expertise by creating a teaching platform that allowed me to share my skills of sewing, fashion, and design. I was able to teach many of my technical skills that I had accumulated over the last 15 years in while creating my two clothing lines.
But as I mentioned in a previous post in this series, its one thing to be a footloose and fancy free early 20 something making clothes and doing shows who doesn't have a lot of financial responsibility, and its another to be a mid thirty something trying to run a new business that needs investment and financial nurturing to grow. And the massive debt from grad school really bothered me.
To be honest, it was because when I had decided to go to graduate school, I thought I was going to leave with my masters and become an academic professor. And I shaped that idea, because of my limited understanding and conception of how artists are financially supported in the world. Now that I have paid off the debt, I can separate the feelings of frustration and just recognize, that was not really the path for me and my capacities. Instead of that path, I have a new path that enables me to really use and apply that education, so I'm not angry anymore about the pressure I felt paying it off.
But back then I saw the limitation that as was I would build a business, always my student loans became a liability upon my growth. When I was doing runway, and creating Fair Fit Clothing, part of the reason I felt so much pressure was the debt. And it caused me to make rash and harsh decisions that I might not make today without that burden. I also felt as I was growing my new business, Fair Fit Studio, those limitations would present themselves again, and I didn't not want to make rash and harsh decisions in this new journey. It was time to pay off that extensive education.
While growing the classes and Fair Fit Studio, as my name got out in my new city, people would see I offered classes and asked if I could help them with sewing services like custom clothing and alterations. It was always something in the past that I was afraid to do. Its one thing to cut, sew, and refine your own design, its another, and often really stressful to cut into something that has already been made and make it different. But I needed to do something to create more income streams, and since this was showing up, I took the leap.
Have you ever had to create your own job? I once did as part of my professional growth, and in this post I share how my student loan debt taught me about creating income and helped me to find a way to make my own job and pay it off. I’ll share with you the steps I took and questions I asked to pay it off. Read along and learn how I turned this big problem into a path to grow professionally.
First, I got focused. This part of my professional growth took 2 years of hard discipline and personal development. Getting a college education in the creative arts can be very expensive, but our career paths aren’t as clearly defined as other professions. Artists in school are trained to become problem solvers and critical thinkers, to create amazing objects of art and design, and they are trained to have compelling writing and speaking skills to articulate their process. However, I left not knowing how those valuable skills can be applied to business or income strategies.
Today, I want to share with you why I made my school debt such a focus, and while it did have some pitfalls, how it also helped me grow professionally. Maybe some of these ideas I found will help others in my same situation and create some understanding as to why I made getting out of debt my primary goal for 2 years.
Why pay it off?
It was not my education that was the problem, I'm grateful to have the experience and for all that I learned. And I am not going to blame my problem on choosing a creative path instead of another more proven or defined profession. The pivot point came when I realized that if I set out to learn how to earn enough income to pay off the loans in a short amount of time, then I will know more about the value of my skills.
If you are a creative, you have a unique and individual professional path. You do not have to be a professor, or work in a design company, or be a institutionally legitimized artist to make money in your craft. I did not know this. And I started to make a transition, that focused on relationships, and found a great place to start by considering where I had value as a problem solver, where do you offer value to others, and how your skills, services, and “products” or creations can give to the world?
I asked myself these 6 questions to learn the value of my skills, and how they generated the income to pay off the debt. If you want to create an extra income stream, or make a career jump, just one of these questions might you to get started in a new direction- and back then, I was seeking lots of new directions!
1. What skills do I have that others find interesting?
I’m trained in conceptual craft, and that might be a very tight niche and small audience of interest, but man, a lot of people love clothing. And a lot of people want to know how to sew or make things with cloth. I made a list of skills that I had to break me out of the idea that my professional experience could only look one or two ways, based on how I saw OTHER people being successful.
2. What skills do I have that I can teach, or share, that others want to learn?
Not everyone wants to teach, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is not teaching because of those awful things people say about teaching being a form of giving up. Like I discussed last week, I love teaching because it reminds me why I love my craft and why I spend so much time in the studio. It also forces me to continue to educate and train myself. Teaching isn’t the only form of sharing, list some ways your work can engage others beyond what you are already doing.
3. What skills do I have that other people need and will pay for the help they provide?
And this question, began my 3 year freelance sewing journey. I ended it last year, but at this time when I was creating a part time job to provide additional income, I found out that a lot of people pay for the type of work I can do. I did work for factories, stores, individual clients, movies, and television. While I had worked on my own designs and ideas for 15 years, I never wanted to sew in other areas for fear of being distracted. Doing some paid work for projects not of my design really helped build my value, my professional experience, and it improved and developed my existing skill set, because I had to take a break from how I believe it had to look, fit, or be sewn.
4. What audiences am I not considering?
This is a good one- often we reach beyond the people who we relate to and know towards what is perceived as a professionally legitimate audience. Often the people who already know, like, and trust you are the first ones that you can share your talents and services with. I see it a lot, and I made the mistake myself, of just assuming that my product has the value of a hefty price tag, and since people buy $1500 dresses at Barney’s, well then I just need to get my product in front of them. What helped me here is to understand that if I don’t know a person right now, that I can talk to, who has bought a $1500 dress, then how the heck am I to know that person’s motivations and desires? It really made me check myself to see how I was making a lot of assumptions that were costing me opportunities for income.
5. Where am I not showing up, giving up, or making assumptions?
Sometimes when I was in my black hole, and frustrated, I found it easy to blame my problems on outside influences and assumptions that really have nothing to do with me. During times like that, it really helped me to see a new world by spending time with people in different professions and interests. Sometimes to find your real audience, you have to get away from the one you are so eagerly pursuing, like I had to do with runway shows. There are people like you and support you. How can you engage them?
6. What’s not working, and what should I put down for awhile to make space for something new?
Trust me, its painful to let go of a certain idea- I've had to do it a few times myself and its so hard. I got super attached to some aspects of my clothing line and how I thought it had to look to be successful. I stopped making clothing for periods of time in order to receive a new approach. Sometimes you get so in the thick of what you want, or think you want, that you can’t see the real opportunities to prosper you while taking a break.
So what happened?
Just by giving thought to these questions, I was able to have a break through. I think the breakthrough shifted my energy enough that a lot of freelance and professional opportunities appeared. And while they aren't permanent, and I no longer do this type of work, what I learned helps me in my teaching and how I work with other people. I learned these fair fashion lessons.
1. We really need to start having more positive relationships with clothing.
When I worked as a freelance alterations tailor, I had some clients who had to have an extensive wardrobe for all of their social events and professional engagements. And I started to FIX what already exists. I didn't see it that way at first, but I was using my creative and professional expertise in design to go in and alter, now I call it fix, an existing designer's work.
Tailoring is a hard profession. I often would hear from my clients, "that tailor was mean to me" or "that tailor was rude to me and wouldn't help me." Now there's never a real excuse to be mean, but I'd like to share some compassion for the profession. Because people don't know what goes on with sewing and alteration anymore, because not many people make their own clothing or do their alterations, often times tailors come off as rude because their minds are calculating how much risk they are going to take by cutting into your garment. Its so stressful, and oftentimes, I could have many conversations with clients as to why you can't alter a garment the way they had in mind. And arguing is stressful, if the person doesn't want to hear your perspective and have compassion for the risk you are taking. The risk is all on the tailor, because insurance won't cover workmanship. So likely if they are coming across as hostile to your request, it's more likely the request isn't able to be made, or their is too high a risk to perform the alteration.
In short, I did enjoy a lot of my clients, and I wanted to help them. I also appreciated what they taught me about fit. But I did not enjoy tailoring. While I learned so much about how to work with existing items and to understand the problems of fit, and its a one person at a time exchange.
The lesson in fairness came to me, the hard way, when I recognized people were putting my opinion over their own as to what looks good. In this profession, I had to be objective and helpful, but that's not fair to me, or fair to the client to transfer authority like that. No tailor, no designer, no stylist, and no teacher, should ever be placed above your own internal guidance. That person can help you see things another way, but if you are making them an authority, both parties are going to suffer. Ultimately, I concluded, that it was more fair to give space and compassion and ask folks the right questions to come to the answer of how they want to look and feel on their own.
Also, by being asked to fix what exists, another person's pattern and design, I used all of my creative energy and critical thinking to do that- and I did not design very much because I spent all my energy fixing. Creative energy is NOT an unlimited supply, so it's important to learn how you spend it. Now that I see this cost, I can no longer offer that service, which is why I advocate going to the contacting the right people to get questions answered.
2. The problems with fashion can best be solved one person at a time, not by other people telling you what's the ethical thing to do.
Not everyone has the ability or time to sew, so my perspective is not relevant outside the sewing word. But because I'm in the sewing world, what I realized was by offering sewing services, I went against what my business stood for, which is that I want to share the skills. And by fixing the problem, instead of showing someone how to solve it themselves, I was acting in opposition to my own business.
By cutting into so much, and very expensive, designer ready to wear, I saw so many problems that are rooted in size standardization and mass production. We used to look so well put together in the past decades not only because people made a lot of their own clothes, but they knew how to fit and alter the clothes themselves. In conversations with others about sewing, people often expressed regret that those skills are taken for granted as women’s work, or the work of the disadvantaged. Some expressed deep regret in how they dismissed those skills and never learned them from their talented family member.
And now, we are reaping the effects of those choices, and good clothes, quality cloth, good tailors, and good sewing professionals are hard to find. And I think if you like to sew, and care about your clothing being made to your specifics, then you will be happier making it for yourself and have the opportunity to step outside this old system of production. I completely understand that's only one solution for one unique group, and don't expect that to apply to everybody. My capacity is to care about sewing, and helping individuals in their practice of learning how to make clothes. There are other experts out there taking on the problems with fast fashion and production.
After my working in this aspect of the professional sewing world, I was able to really look at how I was making decisions and where to focus next. So where does that leave this story? Next week, I will share with you my recent breakthrough's and next steps for the fashion that I design.
Thanks for reading, and see you next Thursday!