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A Hand Made Business






What if you want to do-it-yourself but don't know how to? While many suffer from the mass market blues, not everyone is ready to craft their own jewelry, sew their own clothes or corner the ETSY market with their incredibly innovative whatchamacallit.

Siobhan Lyle feels your pain. It's why she opened the Blue House, a place where kids of every age get together to make, learn and share creative ideas. The focus is on do-it-yourself but not necessarily by yourself.

Now rounding the corner of its first year in business, this intimate space is a workshop where locals learn how to make things, market them, and, hopefully, sell them. But founder and owner Lyle, an Ann Arbor native, stresses that these aren't your grandmother's handicrafts. "They're handmade and hip."

When you first walk in, you're liable to stumble over any number of precocious children laboring away at workstations and tables scattered with shreds of mixed-media. In one corner of the central space is a set of well-kept sewing machines with thread and fabric arrayed above in orderly fashion.

Step through the back door, nearest the small parking lot, and you'll find yourself in a kitchenette festooned with mobiles, works of art, and signboards filled with flyers and announcements for upcoming events and gatherings. The walls in each of the vintage house's small rooms are rich with color, tempered by the civilized lines of original Victorian-era wooden moldings. Upstairs a pair of studios stand ready for instructional workshops or photographers needing space.

In the tiny shop in the Blue House's front room, precisely wrapped and finished stationery, paintings, and jewelry are evidence of ever-busy hands and minds. The work of 20 to 30 artists  populate the store at any given time. Many of them lead the Blue House's workshops -- usually one-session affairs that teach everything from photography and silk-screening to purse-making and knitting. Class sizes are small (usually less than 10), allowing for a hands-on focus.  

While locals generally sign up for classes and events so that they can learn or hone a skill, they also get a rare community experience, says Lyle. "In pioneer times, people would get together to make things -- quilts, barns, etc. Now that's largely absent from our lives," she explains.

Indeed, recapturing the benefits of a bygone tradition is partially why she hosts the Blue House's well-attended MakersMEET sessions. These are open invitations to crafty people to come work on their projects alongside other makers. Although the popular sessions are free, Lyle suggests a donation of $5.00 to cover costs and keep the effort going.

Craft shows are also a hit with Ann Arborites - typically drawing so many people (between 200 and 250) that Lyle is now seeking a larger venue. The Blue House even facilitates swap events, held for makers to exchange their excess craft supplies.

"There are so many talented people who have been out there doing it on their own because they had no outlet through which to share their talents," says Lyle.

Not homemade - hand made

There is nothing half-finished about the works of art populating the Blue House's artisan shop. "Each one is beautiful, finished, and conceived in the mind of an individual artist," Lyle boasts.

Of course, Lyle's artists takes a great deal of care with the presentation and appearance of each work for sale -- and the example they set is the foundation of yet another teaching opportunity. One of the Blue House's most popular classes is "Etsy 411" -- a class that helps artists maximize their sales potential on the popular artisans' sales website through coaching, strategy, marketing and more.

If there is one thing the ongoing economic downturn has accomplished, it has been to create a little more freedom for some to experiment with and invest time in arts and crafts when other avenues for making money are closed. Less income and more time creates a drive to pursue new avenues for generating income, Lyle points out. She believes a growing market exists for unique, handmade products, with the better artisans finding a viable second income stream via the web and local shops.

This same cost consciousness has led to strong interest in Blue House classes like "Do It Yourself Portraits" and "How to Take Really Good Pictures of Your Kids." The workshops frequently sell out.

If there is one challenge Blue House continues to face, it's getting the word out about its classes, opportunities and community. Lyle laments the shortage of affordable outlets for advertising in Ann Arbor. "There is no real avenue for small businesses with small budgets around here." Lyle has therefore focused most her business on word-of-mouth, Facebook, Twitter and her website.

A hand-crafted business

Lyle is a self-confessed dreamer and dedicated "maker of stuff." Throughout her life she has produced hand-made arts and crafts, and was always on the lookout for a place where kindred spirits could share their time, knowledge and skill. Eventually, she did what any true maker does: she made it herself.

But life, as it usually does, initially took Lyle in a different direction. A graduate of the University of Michigan (she played soccer there as well) Lyle first went to work in marketing and communications for various companies. In the process she met her husband, started a family, and settled in Ann Arbor.

The Blue House (originally just a blue house) on Main Street had long been in Lyle's husband's family. When its long-term tenant decided to leave and the troubled economy made finding the right new tenant an uncertainty, Lyle saw an opportunity to get back to what she loved most.

"It was a kick in the pants," she laughs.

After all, she thought, why not fill the space with something more interesting than just another tenant? Why not create a space dedicated to creative inspiration, high-quality workshops, mentorship and a venue for purchasing local artists' work?

The first step was to determine whether such an idea could be made into a viable business. After all, nothing like it had ever been done in Ann Arbor. So,  Lyle researched other craft/art organizations such as Renegade Handmade of Chicago ("the creme de la crème of handmade goodness," Lyle claims). What she discovered convinced her that her idea could work. She then found several Ann Arbor-based artists who were very enthusiastic about the prospect of having a similar venue nearby.

Of course, funding was an issue: "No bank is going to give money to an art studio in this economy," says Lyle. "We had to figure out how to make it work on a young family's income."

And so, with a lot of creativity, hard work, and a massive renovation, The Blue House opened for business about a year ago. "And we'll see how we did!" she laughs. "I haven't filed my taxes yet."

Risk-takers and dreamers are behind any successful business or community. Lyle is a poster-child for this attitude, even if she did have moments of fear and doubt here and there. "I've learned to stop
being a perfectionist and let the Blue House organically become what the community wants."

"I'm looking at this as our test year to see if artists want it," says Lyle.

The answer so far has been a resounding yes.


Leia Menlove is a crafty gal. She is also an Ann Arbor-based writer and regular contributor to Concentrate. Her previous article was Ann Arbor's Old Lonesome Sound.


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All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos

Siobhan Lyle at The Blue House in Ann Arbor.
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