A WEEK BEFORE Thanksgiving, Sara Selepouchin sat in her 11th Street studio surrounded by a pile of freshly screen-printed towels with diagrams depicting everything from unicorns to the Brooklyn Bridge to the Philly Phanatic. With a two-page to-do list in front of her and the holiday season in full swing, Selepouchin, the one-woman show behind the crafty houseware seller Girls Can Tell, has been in holiday mode since June.
Selepouchin, like thousands of craftspeople, sells her wares on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade designs.
"You can't prepare early enough," she said of the products she sells. "I thought I was ahead of the game, but all of a sudden I realized I am completely out of towels. I am bare bone dry."
Selepouchin laughed before adding, "Every time I'm bulking up and thinking I'm ahead, I'm not!"
While retailers are occupied stocking shelves during the holiday season, Selepouchin and other crafters are hard at work in a holidaze, crafting homespun items nonstop to keep up with demand.
Most of Selepouchin's items are purchased through her own website, but she also uses Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade designs, and Supermarket HQ, a curated online outlet for designers to sell their work.
Last holiday season, Etsy's sales jumped from $17.7 million in October to $21.9 million in November. During the final December push, $25.6 million worth of goods were sold, making the holiday season prime time for artful entrepreneurs.
"We really had no clue about the holiday demand that existed when we first started," said Kristen Garber, half of the Philadelphia-based Chicken Noodle Knits, which Garber and her sister Sarah began two years ago. "What we were experiencing had probably been nothing."
Since Selepouchin makes half of her annual gross sales during the year's last quarter, the holidays are crucial.
"The holiday months are the rest of the year on steroids," Selepouchin said jokingly. "If I didn't work the rest of the year and I only worked those months, it wouldn't be all that much different in what I make for the year."
From mid-September to mid-October, Selepouchin sold 1,000 of her diagrammed towels, the most popular part of her houseware collection. On Selepouchin's schedule for the coming weeks are trips to craft fairs in Boston, Baltimore and Brooklyn, N.Y., along with licking envelopes to send orders to wholesale retailers and online customers.
Though the Garber sisters began amping up their production by stockpiling popular knitted neck warmers and slouchy berets in late summer, Garber said the two were already sold out of their best-selling items in early November.
Garber, who works full time as a graphic designer, said holidays are the time when she realizes that what was once a hobby has become a much larger ball of yarn. Not only has an entire room of her home been dedicated to knitting - keeping the yarn intact and away from her cats - but Chicken Noodle Knits has forced Garber to multitask.
"It feels like I'm working two jobs at this time of year," Garber said, adding that she still enjoys working with her sister and watching nothing turn into something as her needles move to create patterns. "But whenever I'm getting stressed out, I think, 'This is not your full-time job.' "
Running Girls Can Tell became Selepouchin's 9-5 when, two days before Thanksgiving 2008, she got a phone call informing her that her position at Etsy managing cities' street teams was eliminated.
"I stewed about it a little on Thanksgiving," Selepouchin said. "But it never occurred to me to get another job, because I already had one."
Selepouchin turned to the basement of her South Philadelphia home, where she already ran her "excessive hobby" designing diagrams and screen printing. Though she sold prints of her diagrams on Etsy and through her own website before losing her day job, Selepouchin refocused and Girls Can Tell - named after her favorite Spoon album - became her livelihood.
That December, she made more money in online sales than she would have if she'd still been working for Etsy.
Orders for Qianna Reed's crocheted scarves, headwear, cowl necks and bags began to pour in as autumn came, but the holiday business has helped her solidify her year-old company, the Qi Pieces.
Though Reed's husband was initially wary of the start-up costs, since the company is self-funded, Reed said he became more supportive after he saw it was "more than just a bright idea."
Though Reed maintains her full-time job selling time-shares, she said Qi (pronounced key) is now running itself financially due to holiday sales on Etsy as well as wholesale orders from Erayo.com, a site that helps designers sell and distribute homemade goods. Most recently, SAVA, a boutique that sells locally made clothing and accessories at 1700 Sansom St., requested items from her winter collection.
"I'm really enjoying this business," Reed, who gets extra support from her 12-year-old son. "When I got that order [from SAVA], it was exciting for us, especially because I love Philadelphia."
Though Reed and her family of four - she is also the mother of a 2-year-old - now live in South Jersey, her husband is from Philadelphia. During the years the couple lived in the city, she grew attached to city staples such as Fairmount Park and the Melrose Diner. So, for her winter collection, she dedicated pieces to her old home: the Fairmount - a cowl neck scarf so long, Reed said, it reminds her of the never-ending park - the Rittenhouse, the Reading and the Melrose.
Naming her pieces after places and people that mean something to her is indicative of the care she puts into her items, she said.
"I've always looked for something that is one of a kind, and my gifts tend to be something you wouldn't find anywhere else," Reed said. "There is something about making something for other people that is really fulfilling. To know that someone sat there and did the labor - it makes the gift a little more special."