I Want To Be… A Crochet Queen!

Twinkie Chan!

I can’t tell you how excited I was to get an email from Twinkie Chan, offering herself up on the sacrificial platter for my I Want To Be… careers series!

Twinkie’s business is totally unique & since having established herself as an independent designer, she’s now making steps towards expanding into mass-production!

She was kind enough to offer us HEAPS of information. I hope you enjoy it!

Tell us about what you do.
I am a designer/crafter/crocheter (mainly a crocheter) out of San Francisco. I crochet unique, food-themed scarves (cupcakes, pizza, bacon & eggs, etc), but I also love to make other accessories like gloves and hair baubles and even tissue box cozies (yes they CAN be cool!).

I started the Twinkie Chan brand in 2005, and this year I launched my mass-produced line Yummy You! by Twinkie Chan and got my first how-to/crochet book published in November! My crafty/creative career is definitely my second career.

I spent ten years in book publishing as a literary agent, helping writers make their dreams come true, and now I am so incredibly excited about trying to make my own dreams come true!

What does an average day at work look like for you?
I am a night owl who follows The Muse, which means, I usually end up doing the bulk of my crocheting from 12am-6am. When the mood strikes me to create something, I usually just go with it…even if it’s 4 in the morning and on until the sun comes up. I usually wake up around 11am or noon, and start the day by catching up on all the email I’ve been missing (since it’s well into the afternoon on the East Coast by the time I get up!).

During the work day, I end up corresponding a lot with my business contacts via email and phone. I also make runs to the post office and yarn shops and craft stores. I savor the night time for creative time, which includes crocheting, sketching ideas, also shooting and editing photos of my products, and keeping up with blogging/marketing stuff. I mostly work 24/7 out of my house, and sometimes my boyfriend lures me out to eat dinner or see a movie!

Do you work alone or with other people?
I started out by working alone. I am very anal and attentive to detail, so I couldn’t imagine letting any of my crochet work go to someone else. However, when I made the decision to ATTEMPT to make a living from my craft, I knew that I had to let go of some of that control. Out of the blue, a girl named Rita from Las Vegas sent me a very eager and heart-felt email, asking me if I was looking for any help. I felt like this was my opportunity to try it out. I had her make some samples for me, and with some trial and error and a little learning, she is now my right-hand-lady when it comes to crochet. She’s indispensable!

Since then, I also got help from Rita’s sister Catherine, as well as my friend Marissa. They all have regular lives and jobs, so I’m grateful for whatever time and energy they can give me.

I will admit, I am probably the WORST business person. I couldn’t really figure out how to keep my head above water financially, even with some extra help. I then made the huge decision to sign on a business partner, and that’s how my mass-produced line Yummy You was born.

Working on Yummy You has been extremely different, incredibly eye-opening, and filled with ups and downs. I end up working around other graphic designers and project managers and CEOs and CFOs, and everyone has an opinion! Of course, mine is the only right one! 🙂 Everyday is a learning experience!

Is this what you wanted to do as a child? Did you end up in this job by “accident” or was it a planned career choice?
As a child, I wanted to be a mermaid, so, no!

I never really thought about about crocheting for a living until I was many years into my publishing career, and still then it seemed like a pipe dream. I majored in English, so publishing was quite a natural direction for me. The crocheting was a hobby that exploded entirely by accident and luck and the best customers and fans and friends ever. I never would have planned this! I come from one of those typical Chinese families that pushed me to be a doctor or a lawyer. I was a good student and I loved studying. I actually did sign up for the LSAT once years ago, but I never took it. Who was I kidding?! Can you see me in a court of law?

How long ago did you start on this path?
My best friend’s grandmother taught us both how to crochet when I was around 10 years old, so you could say this started back in 1986! But Grandma Wendleton’s advice was to NEVER crochet unless you had absolutely nothing better to do! Oh, how I live by the exact opposite of this advice now!

Throughout the years, I always fell back on crocheting and crafting to make presents for people, especially my former boss, who was one of the ladies you imagine having everything. So then you have to go and crochet her a tiger-head kleenex cozy, naturally!

In 2005, I moved to the city (I grew up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area), where it gets chilly and foggy at night. I set about to make myself some funky fresh scarves, and was really surprised that people liked them and started wanting to trade paintings or jewelry for scarves. The rest is history!

Twinkie Chan!

How long were you doing it before you made it into your career or primary form of income?
I think I put in about 3-4 years, crocheting when I got home from work and on the weekends. I was selling on eBay at that point, and eBay auctions were really good to me. I had no idea people would bid up to $300 for a handmade scarf!

I left my job in 2009, and that was a rough year, to be honest. I racked up quite a credit card bill. I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was too proud. I wanted to be successful and self-employed! I considered my credit card debt my personal investment into my future! I don’t really recommend doing it that way. I told myself that if by December 31, 2009, something “big” didn’t happen yet, I would go looking for a real job again. Luckily and thankfully, my deal for Yummy You materialized around the end of the year. I can safely say that I felt like a self-sustaining designer this year in 2010, but I’m realistic (cynical?) and don’t assume it will last forever!

Did anything significant happen to get you to that point, or was it a series of small steps?
It was really a series of small steps that spanned years. In early 2006, I was very honored to be featured in Giant Robot magazine, and through this feature, I got connected to my current business partner. However, we didn’t work together immediately. I was still intimidated and weirded out by mass-production. Would I be selling out? Would it be the worst mistake ever? Then it took me a really long time to really develop my style and my favorite materials. Back to being anal and attentive to detail, the color and and weight and feel of yarn is very important to me, so I spent a few years figuring out what worked best for my particular pieces.

Meanwhile, I was slowly growing weary of my job in publishing. Publishing was changing. The quirky books that I loved were becoming more and more difficult to sell. I didn’t feel like I enjoyed books that were sellable anymore. When I left my job, I knew my finances would take a giant dump, even while crocheting 24 hours a day. I knew I had to give myself some kind of deadline. I told my would-be business partner that I was rarin’ to go or else drop it all completely to find a desk job, and he actually stepped down a little due to personal reasons, but I felt confident in my work and figured I could find someone else to help me or just do everything on my own (even though I despise business-related and accounting-related things!). As it turned out, we ended up working together anyway. After having known him for a few years, I felt confident he had my brand’s best interest in mind, and he went out and helped me start up Yummy You!

What kind of education do you have?
I have a B.A. in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis in Fiction from Stanford. I applied as a science major. I loved biology and chemistry in high school and wanted to go into genetics, but once I got into college, I balked at how much time I’d have to spend in a lab, and I was dying to take courses about Beat literature! Oh, how foolish I was! Now I yell at all my friends for letting me let go of the sciences! I suppose it turned out okay, though, since I really did love my job in publishing for a long time. Maybe there is still a novel in me somewhere! I thought I wanted to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, but my teacher at the time, Tobias Wolff, suggested that I wait and experience the world and get a job, and if I still loved writing, I’d appreciate pursuing an MFA a bit later. He was kind of right. I didn’t really keep writing once I started working. It might have been a waste. It’s still always an option if I get bitten by the bug! However, I have no formal training or eduction in fiber arts or business. I’m just winging it now!

Do you think official qualifications are important for someone entering your industry?
This is hard for me to judge, since I did not really take any courses that relate directly to the fashion/apparel industry or running a business. I think as far as qualifications or education, it’s less about the degree on paper for this industry, and more about what you might learn in those programs. Basic accounting courses might be enlightening. I can’t say whether art school would have helped me or not, since I never went and don’t know many crocheter/knitters who did, although saying that I have a masters degree in 3D Fiber Arts would be awesome. Do they teach you about line-sheets or style guides in art school? That would have been helpful as well!

I DO think what was helpful for me was my publishing job. Publishing is about turning someone’s art into a commodity. It’s about turning a personality into a brand. THIS is what I took away from my first career. You might be talented, but there are a kabillion talented people out there. You have to figure out other ways to stand out. Maybe it all comes down to marketing. And luck! It’s kind of an obvious statement and ridiculously logical, but everything you’ve done in the past has helped you get where you are today.

If you went to school, did you enjoy studying? Could you see where it might lead you at the time? What advice would you give to someone else who might be studying to get into your industry?
I LOVED studying in high school! I love to challenge myself. I love to solve difficult situations or problems. But I had no idea I would end up crocheting for money. That idea would have been ridiculous to my high school self. I thought I was gearing up to cure diseases with gene therapy. Sometimes I feel like pursuing the sciences would have been a much better use of my time and a much more noble adventure.

However, I love what I do. It’s still challenging. There’s a great quote that sums it up: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman)

A teenager once asked me on MySpace whether I thought she should continue going to college, because she thought I found success in an industry that did not necessarily require a college degree. I told her try to keep up with it! I just believe in education on principle. Just because I don’t use my high school calculus in my job today, doesn’t mean it wasn’t good for my brain. I know school is not for everyone, but I guess I am old-fashioned. It’s a good fall-back. And I do use basic algebra to write crochet patterns!

Twinkie Chan!

What do you think is the best thing about what you do?
I’m my own boss. I create things that make me happy and that hopefully make other people happy, too. I get to cuddle with my dogs and take them on a walk in the middle of the day. Yeah, that’s probably the best thing. Hanging out with my dogs :P.

What’s the worst thing?
In the beginning, you’re not quite sure what you might make in a month, so there’s a lot of bill-paying anxiety. There’s a lot of pressure to work constantly. Sure it sounds awesome to do what you love all the live long day, but you have to remember that you have decided to make this your JOB, and a job is a job is a job. It’s still work. There are still deadlines. You’ll probably still have to make stuff you don’t really feel like making sometimes! And then there’s tax time!!! Oh, lordy, tax time!

Also, since this is a new industry for me, I have no idea what’s typical or what’s expected. I’m kind of just taking a bunch of chances and seeing what happens. It’s kind of scary. But you never know what might happen unless you try. Everyone’s going to give you advice, and everyone thinks they are right. Go with your gut. If you have a trusted advisor or mentor, that’s fantastic. I don’t really have one of those!

Would you call yourself a workaholic, & if so, are you alright with that? Do you think that’s normal for your industry?
I am totally a workaholic, and I don’t think that’s bad! Workaholics unite! The funny thing is, that when I was in college, my parents got a call from a local radio station that was doing a story on young over-achievers. I think my jr. high gave them my name. I didn’t end up doing it because I didn’t want to miss my class!

I don’t really know what’s normal for this industry, but I have to assume that people working for themselves have to be workaholics unless they are really good at management and outsourcing, which I am not. It’s difficult to outsource when you feel like what you do is very personal or artistic. And I don’t want to take up all my time managing others instead of creating new things. It’s a tough balance. When you’re a hobby crafter, you probably craft after work, so that’s kind of like a second job, but you don’t really think of it that way until you quit your day job and then start hustlin’! Even though I have a business partner now (and probably more in the near future), it’s still a ton of work. I am just really old school in my work ethic. I just can’t imagine someone getting anywhere if they don’t work for it.

What would your number one suggestion be for someone who wants to do what you do?
Focus! I think it’s important to brand yourself, whether you are known for a certain style of crafting, or whether you make a certain kind of product. I think it’s important to be MEMORABLE in the beginning, so that people associate your name with a very particular vibe. You need to figure out what makes you unique and develop it. This will help people get excited about you!

…How about number two?
Take good photos of your products! There are tons of tutorials on the internet!

What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
Please yourself first and foremost. When I started out, I just crocheted fun things to make me happy. Then, you start to wonder, “Should I make such-and-such a product because it’s trendy? Should I stop making such-and-such a product because it’s not popular?” Or, “This company I’m working with wants to do things a certain way. They must know what they are talking about, even though I disagree.” I think you should always stay true to your own vision. It’s your own name on the product that people are wearing, so avoid having regrets about how something turns out and speak your mind always!

If you start to work with other people or other companies, you have to assume that nobody is going to work as hard as you, and nobody is going to care as much as you. It’s almost even MORE work to work with more people! But stick to your guns. I am super afraid now of being perceived as a diva, but you really have to stand strong. Nobody is going to “get” you more than YOU!

Are there any major misconceptions about your job or industry?
I think crochet still gets a bad rap as the ugly step sister to knitting. There’s a Vogue Knitting. Is there a Vogue Crocheting? Knitting is absolutely more beautiful and has better drape for garments, and crochet can be clunky and hideous, but I hope to help show that crocheting goes beyond lace doilies and giant granny afghans. I’ve tried to bring the cuteness of crocheted plush dolls to fun, wearable items. There’s a lot of freedom with crochet that people should use to let their imaginations run wild!

As far as running your own business, you have to remember it’s not all that glamorous. Say goodbye to your social life!

And then as far as working with investors or a business partner: I feel like a lot of crafters and artists perceive this as selling out or losing control. To me, it’s a trade off. My confession is that I never wanted to be a business woman. I don’t exactly love running my own business and doing my own bookkeeping. I just want to be creative. If there’s someone who believes in me, who has experience in the industry, and who wants to take over the business aspects, I am open to considering that. That’s just a decision that everyone has to consider whether is right for them. There’s give and take.

Former-writing-client/friend/artist Erika Lopez always cautioned to keep one thing sacred. Pimp out one of your talents to pay the bills, but keep one thing that is truly yours and that you truly love. I am going to aim for the stars with “Yummy You” and what ever other projects may develop in the future, but “Twinkie Chan” will always be 100% me.

Do you ever have any ethical dilemmas with the work you do?
As I begin my adventure in mass production with Yummy You!, I do have a lot of questions about fair trade and who is making the items that we wear. It’s just so much cheaper to get things produced in China … but I am honestly uneducated about the working conditions there, whether there are certain factories there that are “better” than others to their workers, or whether it’s all just 100% terrible.

I already get complaints that the prices of my items are too high, but since all my accessories are handmade and crocheted, we just have a lot of labor costs to contend with. When I started to bring on assistant crocheters for my Etsy shop, it was really hard for me to figure out how to pay everyone fairly since one scarf can take hours and hours of work. So, in a business sense, I probably over-pay! If I could bring Yummy You! production back into the U.S. I would, but we’d need to do a lot more research about whether that’s possible.

What is the best thing that’s happened to you as a consequence of the work you do?
I found My People!! When I worked in publishing, and I spoke to other agents or editors, or hung out at conferences, I always felt like a fraud. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I always thought I was a misfit among misfits, and that the other publishing people could smell me from a mile away. When I took meetings with writers, they were always asking me if I was the assistant. It really bothered me!

My mother bought me an Ann Taylor suit for a big conference, and I just wanted to die. I’m just not an Ann Taylor kind of girl. But I put it on, I wore it, I sweat in it in a poorly air-conditioned convention hall. I tried!

But now, I really feel like I found where I belong and where I feel comfortable. I’ve met a ton of awesome crafters and designers and creatives, and I am so proud and honored to know all of them!

What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?
I don’t know. I just love it! I love dreaming up an idea and bringing it to life. It probably comes back to my love for problem solving. I like to make things happen.

Who do you look up to within your industry & why?
Whether by accident or subconscious decision, I haven’t befriended very many crocheters or knitters. I find myself more drawn to people who don’t necessarily practice the same skill sets that I do but who embrace the same spirit or aesthetic that I do… which means people who make plush dolls or cute clothing or amazing art.

That said, I have looked up to Heidi Kenney of My Paper Crane for a long time. I was like, “If Heidi can do it, I can do it!” How thrilled am I to get to hug her now at a craft fair and gab about our experiences as craft book authors?! Gosh! Pinch me! I love her unique crafting style. I love her inspirational blog. This woman knows how to squeeze the living bejeesus out of 24 hours in a day. I don’t know how she does it, but I want to figure it out!

I’ve also admired Amy Doan of Shrinkle (clothing) and Sugarpill (cosmetics). Amy has figured out how to market her brands flawlessly. She has a huge following. And everything she puts out is quality. I used to buy clothing from her eBay store years ago before I figured out that I wasn’t cool enough to wear it! It’s so surreal to me that now she’s hanging out with me on my bday or wielding a ball of yarn in a short and funny music video I’m making to promote my crochet book. Seriously, I don’t even know how life ended up this way, but it’s amazing.

Rate how happy you are with what you do out of 100 (100 being the best, 0 being devastatingly awful) on an average day.
100 for sure! I am not even exaggerating! Even when I’ve pulled like three all-nighters in a row and I’m haggard and gross and oily and can no longer form English, it’s very easy to pull back a little and realize how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing.

Is there much career progression available to you? What would you like to do next?
Well, I’m already the boss, so, no, not much progression. I kid!! I think that once you are the boss, you probably end up trying to be the boss of something even bigger and better. So right now, while my personal projects might take a back seat (as evidenced by my completely empty Etsy shop), I really am trying my best to make Yummy You! as big and bad as it can be.

Also, one of the things I told myself when I quit my publishing job, was that I’d take lots of chances and just try to do a ton of different things, because you never know what other opportunities might pop up that you could never even have planned, like crocheting special scarves for the Sanrio 50th Anniversary!

Do you think you’ll continue doing this for the rest of your life?
I love it, and if it were possible, I probably would. But I’m pretty realistic about it all, and my gut tells me it won’t last forever. I will always crochet in my spare time. That’s a given. But what’s in the future is always a mystery to me. Even at 34 years old, I know I’m not done growing and evolving. We’ll have to find out what Career #3 is in due time!