Steller Handcrafted Goods began in 2009 with a pair of mittens. Soon, founder Julie Steller’s kitchen was overwhelmed—wool fuzz in the butter dish? Today, Steller has grown to more than a dozen artisans and you can find their products in gift shops and boutiques across the country. To meet Julie and learn more about Steller Handcrafted Goods in person, be sure to stop by her demonstration at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday 8/29 at 10am and 12noon. Her demonstration, sponsored by Arc's Value Village is all about 'Repurposing Wool Sweaters into Beautiful and Useful Products'. Learn more here!
What inspired you to begin the creative endeavor of Steller Handcrafted Goods?
It all began with a pair of mittens! I bought a pair of wool sweater mittens from a woman and I loved them so much I said "I have to learn how to make these!"
Have you always been creative? What forms or channels have you explored in your creative journey?
I have always loved making things. I told the story of remembering how happy I was making a pair of slippers for my sister out of the "Make and Do" volume of the Childcraft Books. I would have been about eight years old. Do you know that my sister still had them? I was thrilled when she gave them to me! My mom put me in a Singer Sewing class when I was in 5th grade which gave me a whole new set of skills. I was fearless: I actually made my husband a wool sport coat when we are dating!!
I continued to sew and create throughout my life: I dabbled in so may things that I had the background to teach Handwork at RiverTree School in Crystal and create costumes for their Shakespeare plays! I loved helping students be creative and MAKE things....sewing, knitting, mosaics, calligraphy, quilling, woodworking, embroidery! The affirmation I received at RiverTree had a huge impact on me personally, giving me the courage to launch out and grow Steller Handcrafted Goods.
Steller Handcrafted Goods started with mittens, but as I worked with repurposed wool I began to dream up other lovely products that could be made with these materials. I also began to hire sewers to help me keep up with demand (the first few years I doubled sales each year!) and this gave me time to think creatively about other things I could make. I was especially impacted reading an article about Katwise and her stunning coats: she sold a tutorial online that jumpstarted me into making clothing. I am always dreaming about new creations! July is my month to "try new things!" This year I worked on Cashmere hats, wool blanket carrying bags, Dala Horse coin purses, cashmere children's poncho's and Swedish Braid Bracelets! The bracelets have turned out to be a brilliant seller and are already in stores and on the website!
It's not uncommon for artists and makers to simply want to create, falling shy on the business side of their creative endeavor. How are you on the business side of your work? Is it difficult to do both aspects well?
I had no business background at all. Thankfully, I grew slowly the first three years and was able to keep track of my numbers on the outside of manila file folders! When I reached the point where I had an opportunity to make a big growth jump I was directed by my daughter, Katie, who owns Steller Hair Company, to Women Venture. Women Venture has been the key to the business side of Steller Goods being where it should be. I received a loan, Quickbooks help, marketing help, mentoring help, direction to a great accountant....anything I have needed. It has been so terrific. As they say, "You don't know what you don't know," which was so true for me. But I know more now than I did, thanks to Women Venture!
How do go about sourcing your materials? Is this a fun part of your process?
Oh this is a very fun part of our process! I call searching for beautiful wool sweaters "foraging!" We start foraging in the fall when sweaters start showing up in the thrift stores. Arc Value Village has been one of my main sources since the beginning because they are picky about what they put out on the rack and have had reasonable prices, especially on sale days. Because I want to pay my sewers (15 women now!) a good wage (at least $12/hr) the cost of my raw materials is the only way I can bring up my profit margin as sales increase. My time is worth money, as well, so I have to know that I can go into a thrift store and fill a basket, not just get one or two sweaters.
I also do memorabilia work, when someone brings me a sweater that is dear to them (perhaps belonged to a parent or grandparent, or a spouse who has died) and I make mittens, purses or pillows for them. This always feels like holy work to me and I am honored to help them remember someone that is gone.
What do you find special about working with textiles?
I love the feel of the wool and the colors, which last so long in wool. I love that these sweaters come from all over the world. Different sheep produce different types of wool and I have learned what sweaters I can use and which should be passed by. There is such a story of hopefulness and redemption to be able to take a sweater that is no longer loved or is damaged and give it new life. Isn't that great?
Each piece is different and needs to be respected for it's own beauty as we transform it into another useful and beautiful product. It is not like working with a bolt of fabric where you can cut out the same pattern and make identical items over and over. With sweaters each one is different and each combination of sweaters is different. This requires skill at every step of the process: tracing, cutting, sewing, finishing, in order to have consistent quality in each product.
What have you learned in the growth of Steller? Is it exciting to expand as you have?
Oh it has been so exciting! I can hardly believe that I get to do work I love so much and provide work for other women. I have learned SO much from other makers and business women, from mentors at Women Venture and from making some big mistakes! I say I am getting my business degree in the School of Hard Knocks, which is a great way to learn (though painful at times!) I also am quite delighted that I was able to stay home with my children for many years and then start this business in this next chapter of my life! I was 53 when I started making mittens. I asked an older friend of mine if I was nuts to start this at "my age!" She laughed and told me the best years of my life were ahead of me! That helped me a lot, and my husband and children have been my best cheerleaders.
In terms of living and making in Minnesota, do you feel connected to this place? Why is local important?
Being a Minnesotan has totally shaped my work and the identity of my company! The need for warm clothing and mittens, the Scandinavian history (I have a whole line of mittens and purses made from Nordic sweaters and using Nordic braid,) the valuing of handcrafted items....I don't think I could do what I am doing in a warmer state! I also love the many small businesses that carry my products: my success is their success and visa versa.
I hope I can grow and grow. People keep saying, "Are you running out of wool sweaters?" But so far I have no trouble finding them. I do think thrift shops like Arc Value Village realize there is a market for wool sweaters so I think they will continue offering them.
I also simply love providing work for other women. They all work out of their homes on their own schedule, bringing in much needed income. The relationships and friendships with these women (ranging in age from 22 years to 84 years!) have made my life rich and their beautiful work is the reason Steller Handcrafted Goods can produce so many quality products.
Do you feel like making and creating through your business allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself?
Absolutely. Being able to provide useful and beautiful products to so many people and provide enjoyable work for other women has been such a blessing.
Last year I was able to come along side Teresa Hamlin, an American woman who lives in Azerbaijan. She wanted to do a similar kind of business there, enabling women who were knitting slippers and socks in their homes to find a market for their work. We worked together and I was able to share the things I have learned and provide a way into the US market for her products under the Steller Handcrafted Goods label. Her business is growing and now she has her own catalog and website (www.azerbaijanisocks.com) I am so proud of her and her team of gifted women. Steller Goods will continue to support their work.