Life Crafting Role Models: Kirsten

It’s Thursday and I’m Crafting my Life! July’s theme is looking to our role models. Because other people have walked this path before, and we can learn from them. In previous weeks I talked to Andrea Gregg-Aylott, Sue Sinclair and Christine Budai. This week I’m talking to my very good friend Kirsten Zerbinis, all-around cool person, fibre artist and teacher. Read on to hear what Kirsten had to say.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
My professional background is as a technical writer and college writing teacher, which has nothing whatsoever to do with my business. I had a career path that was pretty typical for 20-somethings at the time. I graduated, I temped, I got so bitter that I couldn’t even temp effectively and got turfed, I got a lucky break with a short tech writing contract, I got a longer contract somewhere else. I applied for a couple hundred jobs in a handful of cities. I phoned the local college every time I completed a new contract to see if my experience was good enough yet for me to teach for them, and eventually it was. I had taught four semesters for them, loving every minute of it, when I got pregnant, then we moved when the baby was born, and I found myself far away from any potential contacts with a resume that didn’t reflect what I knew I could do. And I had a young baby that I was not willing to put in full-time daycare, under almost any circumstances.

How did you decide to start your own business?
I tried to return to the worked I had done before, the work I loved and thought I was good at. Give me a room full of surly 19-year-olds and a required-but-not-desired “here is how to write a business memo please don’t mess it up when you get your first job or we’ll look bad” class, and I’m a happy woman. I took a teaching contract locally, but then didn’t get another. I started a little handspinning business just to see where it would go. I bought some dye, bought some wool and a wheel, signed up for the local farmer’s market as a vendor, and for an Etsy shop, and hoped for the best.

My goal was to make enough to pay for the two days a week of daycare I’d signed my daughter up for on the assumption that I’d be getting another teaching contract. I wanted to keep the daycare spot, and I felt the two days away from me was okay, but not excellent; it was justifiable if I was getting a ton of work done and recharging my own batteries, doing something I loved. If either of those conditions wasn’t met, I would have found another option. Fortunately I broke even within a couple months, and the business kept growing, just a little then a little more, until eventually I realized it was Plan A, not Plan B anymore.

What led you to fibre arts, and teaching handcrafts, specifically?
I’ve been a knitter for 28 years, and I’ve dabbled in all sorts of other handcrafts along the way. Moving from knitting to spinning was natural. It seemed to me that a lot of the handspinners out there were making yarn that was very neat to look at, but not really very nice to touch. They were making yarn for yarn’s sake and didn’t have much of a sense of what the final fabric would be. I thought that, as a highly experienced knitter, I could bring something unique to my yarn, and I still think I make a more knittable/crochetable hands-on than a number of my competitors.

Adding teaching to my business was a fluke. I started out just making and selling yarn. A local handcrafter and arts promoter found me and asked me to do a knitting demo at a local arts day. I did that, and that led to me teaching at the local arts centre. I had experience teaching adults already, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to just teach a new topic. Then one day, a reporter did a profile on me in the local paper, and that led to me being asked to teach at the yarn store that was just opening. The former program director at arts centre moved to another arts centre, and this summer I’ll be teaching at the new place – embroidery and sewing as well as knitting. One thing has just sort of led to another, it’s been kind of amazing.

You are one busy mama. How do you juggle all your different commitments?
Honestly? I drop a lot of balls. My house is a mess. I don’t have a lot of time to form and nurture friendships, and I get kind of lonely. Sometimes bills go overdue, I don’t call my mother enough, I haven’t read an entire novel for 5 years, and if it weren’t for my calendar program bing-bonging at me regularly, I’d also miss doctor’s appointments, school casual days, and knitting classes I’m scheduled to teach. I’d like time to take more classes, I’d like to have the energy to throw parties, organize my closets, make love to my husband more, be more patient with my kids. Wouldn’t we all?

I live by a “D is for Diploma” kind of rule. The house is a mess, but it’s clean enough that you don’t have to worry about your health if I’m serving you food on my dishes. I’d like more of a social life, but I have a couple friends who seem to still enjoy being with me, even if it does take me ages to return a phone call – it’ll do. My customers get their packages, I make enough yarn and dye enough fibre to keep a decent stock in – it’ll do. I figure I’m getting most tasks done to about the 70% level, and I know it won’t be this hard in a year or two when the kids are that much older and more self-sufficient.

The nature of my business makes a big difference to how much I can get done. I was briefly trying to start a freelance writing business. Given my education and my previous experience, it seemed like it would be a natural progression. It didn’t get off the ground before Yummy Yarn did, and in hindsight, I’m glad it didn’t. How I would manage to make phone calls to clients in my household, I have no idea. How I’d find the mental energy for prospecting new clients when I’m as sleep deprived as I often am – no idea. The though of trying to complete a job, when writing is so much a process of gathering your mental energy and then finding a quiet place to concentrate for an hour or two, is mind-boggling.

I can spin in 10-second bursts, and the yarn is of the same quality as if I did it in a single session. I can list an item in my Etsy store in 30 seconds, and then go make snacks for the kids before I list any others. I can take pictures while the kids are bouncing on the bed next to my photography area. I can design colourways in my head while breastfeeding. I can paint dye on wool while the baby is strapped to my back (although she gets restless after I’ve done two trays). I can wind yarn while I make faces at the toddler in her high chair. I can combine mailing things with a walk to the park. I can answer customer inquiries when I’m awake at 3am. I can spin while playing pretend with my 5 year old. I spend quite a lot of time spinning while playing pretend, actually.

My working life is a lot like playing Tetris, trying to fit a critical mass of odd-shaped pieces together before your buffer tops out.

What are the upsides, for you, of running a business?
The biggest upside is that I’m here. I believe in attachment parenting, and I believe children benefit hugely by just being in their own space, having unstructured time to play. By having a business that can be run from home, I can be here with them, for the long, relaxed, unbroken stretches of time that do them so much good.

Having a home-based parent is really handy. When a kid is sick, I don’t have to stress about checking in with a manager or rescheduling meetings. When the plumber can come “sometime between 8am and 5pm”, I can be here for that. I can grocery shop at 1pm on a Monday, instead of 11am on a Saturday when the stores are crazy.

The feminism I was raised with in the 80s and 90s was focused on ambition and career, and that’s awesome, but I’ve come to see the value of having a lot of invested, intelligent adults inhabiting the domestic sphere, too. I think our communities are well served by having stay-at-home folks, and I’m proud to be one of them. I may choose to return to a traditional job in a decade, but for now it’s very satisfying being where I am.

Is there anything that you wish you had known before starting out?
I guess if I could tell my 4-years-ago self anything, it would be that so many opportunities are available if I just put myself out there, talked about what I did, met lots of people, tried new things. I was surprised by what just fell in my lap because I was out in public doing my thing. If I’d known, I would have started doing the networking-type stuff earlier. There’s a hunger for handcrafts, for making things. It’s a great time to be doing this.

What is the biggest challenge you face in balancing your family with everything else?
There are certainly days when I think that if I just got a part time teaching job, I’d make more money for less time. But then I remember about the marking and the deadlines, I try to envision how I could meet those commitments on a week when a kid is sick and one is teething and my husband is on a deadline himself and barely home…then I’m back to begin grateful that I can do what I do, on my own schedule.

Thanks so much for talking to me, Kirsten!

Who inspires you? I’d love to hear. And I’d also love it if you would link up any posts you’ve written on role models this month.

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  1. Beautiful yarns! I took a couple fiber art classes in college, while getting my fine arts degree. Unfortunately, it was my senior year, and I was ready to be done… looking back, I wish I’d taken more.

    It’s inspiring to read about other mamas who’ve started their own businesses. I know we’re out there, yet sometimes it feels like in the world, all you encounter is the “working mom” and the “stay at home mom”. I enjoy this series, Amber, thank you.
    kelly @kellynaturally’s last post … Going VeganMy Profile

    • Kirsten says:

      I’ve always thought that the supposed conflicting dichotomies that the media likes to write overwrought sounding columns about — the stay at home vs. working mom, the … I dunno, suburban vs. urban, whatever. They don’t exist. I know very few people who fit entirely into one or the other. I know moms who are entirely free of paying work, but they’re homeschooling a few kids and doing volunteer work. Are they working? They sound like they’re working to me. There are moms who log many, many hours working behind a closed door in their own house while a nanny watches the kids. Are they much different from the office-working moms? I know moms who work only a couple days a week out of the house, and are totally present to their kids when they’re home. My mother in law logged a bunch of hours doing complex work on projects that her higher-degree-and-contacts-having husband brought home; they were two people sharing the paying work. Was she a work-at-home? I have no idea. Worked great when their family was young, though.

      The more parents with young kids I meet, and the more different plans and schemes and strategies I learn about, the more impressed I am with how resourceful people can be.

  2. I like reading about how she uses her time in 10 second bursts to be productive!
    Lady M’s last post … Piano Lessons in the World of Star WarsMy Profile

  3. To me, this is the most realistic and inspirational interview in the series. Kirsten is an awesome business woman, creative artist and amazing mum. I smiled in recognition at the comments on friendship nurturing and loneliness, and at her reflections on running a business around the family childcare, etc.

    Thank you Kirsten, thank you Amber 🙂

    PS: you list on Etsy in 30s??? i must get your secret! 😉
    pomomama aka ebbandflo’s last post … wordless wednesday- sadness bustersMy Profile

    • Kirsten says:

      Well I didn’t say I *finished* a listing in 30 seconds, although I’m close. I’m a point-and-click maniac when I get going. I have all descriptions in a text file so I just cut and paste, I edit the photos before I get started, and I just go go go when I have a moment.

  4. I love the pictures of the yarn! They made me feel cozy immediately, and I love that feeling 🙂 Thanks for sharing Kirsten and Amber!
    Wendy Irene’s last post … Christmas in July – Leavenworth- WashingtonMy Profile

  5. Christal Beacon-Hueston says:

    Really awesome and inspiring.Liked the "…see the value of having a lot invested, intelligent adults inhabiting the domestic sphere, too. YES!!

  6. I would totally be her friend even if it took her forever to return my phone calls.
    allison’s last post … Wordless Lazy-Ass Wednesday- Pardon Me- Youre Standing On My HeadMy Profile

  7. Love this series of interviews…I can always identify.

  8. I wish I could list an item in my Etsy in 30 seconds! I love the idea of fiber art, what a great career.
    Francesca’s last post … Fridays Flowers caper blossomsMy Profile

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