A Traditional Craft Gets a Modern Spin
I met our first Handmade Hero under very unusual circumstances. Although we are both from Montreal, I first shook Stefanie Nakamura’s hand on the set of a music video that was being filmed on a scorching summer evening in Leslieville, a trendy Toronto neighbourhood. We were both extras, our scenes primarily positioned on the stairs, facing each other. I’m sure my performance was horrible, but Stefanie—an actual actress, not some chump pretending to know what she was doing—was casual and calm.
But when I learned that she owned her own handmade crochet business, I’m pretty sure I talked her ear off. I had, at that point, already taken a year off from my own handmade crochet business.
Stefanie of Miyuki Crochet is pretty much the definition of a multitasker. Aside from her ever-expanding crochet business, she also (as previously mentioned) is a hard-working actress who seems to be on the constant lookout for the next opportunity to express herself.
She agreed to be my first Handmade Hero without hesitation and I’m so thankful for it. For any crocheter or knitter who’s been dabbling with the idea of starting their own shop but just can’t seem to decide one way or another how (and if) to start, stick around for some inspiration!
It’s a Friday morning. Our Skype time has been pushed back. Stef needs to update her software in order to use it—it’s been a while since she’s Skyped anyone. When I finally see her on my computer screen, she’s wearing funky, old-school frames and a simple cozy tank top. When she lifts her coffee mug to take a sip, I notice that the teacup is quite ornate with flowers and possibly gold filigree. Behind her stands a fabric steamer; shelves line the walls next to her computer. Each cubby is stuffed with skeins of yarn. I try not to drool at her wicked set up.
Can you tell me briefly how your handmade company came to be?
It first started when my friends kept asking me to make hats. It turned into this weird rite of passage where, if you were in our group, you had a hat. My sister-in-law has breast cancer and one day we did a fundraiser at my job where I was working. So I kind of did a “dress for the cause” kind of thing. We raised a lot of money. I made a lot of headbands and little knickknacks. Then I posted it on Instagram and people just kept messaging me wanting to order headbands. It started just becoming a thing where I was making headbands, scarves, and hats and I was like, okay, I guess I’ll obviously start charging. And it just kind of grew from there.
So where does the business name come from?
It’s actually my middle name. It means beautiful snow or snow princess. It kind of fit like crazy.
Where does your design inspiration come from and how did you first conceptualize your bathing suits?
I like to look at things that are not crocheted or knitted, and I like to break them down and figure out how to make them in my head. So yeah, I don’t know the first time it happened where I was like “crochet bikinis are so cool.” But about 2 years ago I started making crochet tops and bikinis and stuff, and it took I don’t even know how many hours of practice to even be able to understand how to make things fit a body. It took so much trial and error and practice to be able to get it. Even now when I’m designing a product it can take me days to make one item, just to really get it down. At this point, it’s a lot easier than it was before.
So you didn’t take any formal design classes or anything like that? It’s just by eye and trial and error?
Yeah exactly. My friend in college taught me how to crochet a hat and I just kind of went with it. Honestly, because I learned from just understanding how it functions, and just trusting myself and having made so many mistakes for so long…it kind of made me understand how to make an item.
As a crocheter, I’m always so fascinated by other crocheters, and one of the biggest things I wonder about is how long it takes artists to complete a project. So I was wondering how many orders you can start and finish in a day.
It definitely depends on how detailed an item is. The thicker and bulkier the yarn and hook, the faster I can crochet. So bikinis and stuff take longer because the hook and material are much thinner. But I redid the pattern for my hats so they’re tight, tight, tight, so it takes double the time than it did before. But yeah, I can get quite a lot done in a day. I can get a couple hundred dollars worth of stuff out in a day. Yeah. I’m really fast.
When you’re focused on your crocheting company, can you walk me through a typical work day?
Yeah, so I wake up, shower and get ready. And then I have my coffee, and put on some Netflix in my office. I’m really lucky cuz I have my own office space where I get to put all my stuff. And then I just start making things. If it’s something I’ve made a hundred times I can just pick it up and do it. Otherwise, I write all my own patterns and notes and descriptions and gauges and stuff.
Do you ever tell yourself “okay enough’s enough, my workday is done?” or do you go until you’ve finished a certain amount of orders?
Last year I said “just keep going! Keep going!” a lot and I really discovered in the last few months that it wasn’t the healthiest way to work. So I’m being more kind to myself where my workdays are depending on how I feel. At the end of the day, it’s so important to protect yourself from exhaustion because I literally drove myself to the ground, and I was like I can’t live like this every day. I was working 7 days a week and I’m also doing many other things at the same time. So it just got to a point where it was too much. This year, what I’m saying to myself is to slow down and I’ll be more productive because I’m taking the time to do things calmly and not to be crazy about it. And then I realize that I am one person, I am handmaking everything. So, if it takes me a week to make your order, it takes me a week.
What is the weirdest or most unexpected perk in working for yourself?
For me, the best thing about it is that I can pick up and go wherever I need to go. Like for instance, I was living in Toronto for 6 months last year for acting and I was able to continue my business from another city and it was like, it didn’t matter or make a difference. It just fits perfectly with what I’m doing and where I want to be in life.
I know you’re an actress. So, would you consider yourself an actress that does crocheting on the side or a crocheter that does a bit of acting? Or are your passions split down the middle?
Definitely acting is something that’s a part of me from when I was probably born. It’s something that I just feel in my soul. It’s hard to compare the two, really, but I do know that when I was just acting and I wasn’t crocheting, I needed an outlet to be creative. I was very frustrated as an artist. The thing about the acting industry is that you really have no control over it. You can practice all you want and hopefully produce your own stuff but the reality is that so much of it is out of my hands. So, with crocheting, I get to be creative every single day of the year and there’s a beauty in being able to release that artistic energy into something creative that I can see. It’s cool because I can make something and see a result, and with acting, you can make something and you won’t necessarily see a result right away. I don’t think I have to choose between the two. I wouldn’t give up either of them. Some people have straight up told me that I need to focus on one thing and decide which one makes more money. But I think we live in a world where the more you know, the better you are. The opportunities and experiences that both have given me have made me a stronger person because of it.
There a lot of handmade artists out there who want to start selling their products, but I think some people are intimidated by what it takes to get started or get noticed. I was wondering if that influenced you in any way when you were first starting out.
I never had that moment because I never intended this to happen. When I posted photos on social media and people started wanting to have them, I thought, cool okay, I’ll make them. So I wanted to put it out there, so then I made an Etsy [account], and through Etsy I wanted something that I had more control over so I went with Shopify. I started as a tiny little thing and just kind of went with it without actually thinking to myself, hey wait a minute! You’re creating a company. It wasn’t something I actively went into knowing that would happen.
But I would definitely say to anyone that, if you have the urge to do it, you should. There are so many ways you can do it now. For example, Etsy is a great place to start because it doesn’t cost a lot of money to start up. I have a bit of issue with Etsy in the sense that you basically have to pay a lot of money to them in ad space to even show up on their own page, but it doesn’t really help you with Google.
I think that connecting with people is probably the best way to start. Surround yourself with people that inspire you, that are doing what you want to do in life, or who give you that fire, that energy. I think if you surround yourself with people like that, it’ll push you to always improve, to take chances.
Explain where your skill came from?
I was in college and it was my boyfriend’s birthday or it was Valentine’s Day and I didn’t have money to buy him a present. So I thought, if I could make him something, it would mean so much, but I don’t know how to make anything. So my friend said, “I’ll teach you how to crochet, it’s super easy.” So I learned how to crochet so I could make him a hat, and I just never stopped.
Do you have any advice or actual practical tips for other crafters or designer who want to start selling their products for a living?
One thing that I did starting out was that I linked up with people. I was really lucky because one of my good friends is a graphic designer. So she designed my logo because she was practicing and it’s the same logo I use now. So yeah, we kinda just did an exchange. I made her some stuff and she did the logo. If there’s any way you can do a trade—because you know, your goods are worth something too—sometimes it’s not just about money. As much as possible, try to find really smart ways to spend your money. Don’t put yourself in a position where you go into tons and tons of debt because you bought something that you couldn’t afford necessarily. I still barter all the time.
In one word, what are you?
You know I’ve struggled with that for so long because one person was like, just say you’re an entrepreneur or just say you’re an artist. But it’s so hard to describe yourself in one word. I feel like I have so many things that I still struggle to find the right word or sentence of description to describe what I do because it’s confusing so I usually go like this: “I’m an actor that also has a handmade crochet company.” That still confuses people.