Lauren O Farrell (33) can work 18 hour days. She is so busy building her enterprises she has moved back in with her parents.
She runs Stitch London, leads a group of knitters who “yarnstorm” the city, humorously adorning London sites with surprise knit installations and has published a book about it. She organises publicity “Knit blasts”, is hired to write Crafty Crafty an online blogazine, and blogs and tweets in various guises.
Yet last year she barely made £5000
Getting your head round what Lauren does is like delving into a bag of oddments. It’s not helped by the fact she keeps making up new words for things and identities for herself .
It took some reflection on my part to understand exactly what we are looking at here. I have decided we are looking at a coming of age story the moment when wackiness, enthusiasm and exuberant creativity get honed into something capable of making a living wage.
She shares her Deptford studio space with comic book creators. It’s in the Old Police Station so they call it The Fleece Station. A place of riotous invention where normality is left at the base of the bouncing fire escape.
On-line Lauren is read by tens of thousands of people. She writes unbelievably fast with dollops of fantasy and humor drawing her readers in. The renaming of things makes a language which cements the group, so in Stitch London Lauren is the “Chief Woolly Godzilla Wrangler”
Go to Stitch London’s home page and you get a Laurenesque explanation of the group
We’re a feisty but friendly stitching group and also an online stitching monster, crashing through the world like a radioactive woolly Godzilla with sticks and string.
Starting out in 2005 as Stitch and Bitch with three friends this meet up and knit group, has grown from 200 members in its first year to 10,000.
In November 2009 ( 5000 members) Lauren took over the group and started to run it as a business. At least she says that’s what she is doing, but you could have fooled me. She has spent all her energies keeping everyone engaged with meetings, activities, news letters, tweets and blogs. The money-making ideas are there and even some of the actual merchandise, but she has been so busy trying to keep everything going she has had no time to wake up the sleeping commercial giant.
I also think she is scared. It is a delicate business to morph a friendly, inclusive, slightly alternative knitting group into a money producing enterprise. What was once done for fun could begin to look calculating and disingenuous.
The mechanics of Stitch London used to be run with the help of a group of volunteer “Stitchettes” but these have been stood down in favour of “Knit Sages” whose role is to act as volunteer knit teachers. Lauren was fearful that when she took the helm she could be seen as taking advantage of the volunteers’ goodwill.
Lauren has been scrupulous, but that has landed her in the no man’s land of no profit yet and no help, hence the manic work load. This is the point at which the whole concept could implode, a victim of its own success. Lots of members and insufficient organisation. Fortunately Lauren has a twin sister who is about to come on board to take over the administration.
Yarn storming uses knitting to make an impact on the world. It’s about breaking down barriers of expectation, forget knitting as a solitary occupation which produces something of domestic usefulness. Yarn storming is always pointless. The Lions in Trafalgar Square do not need a 330 foot scarf nor did the phone box in Parliament Square need a coat. Lauren, who has never knitted a jumper, who claims to be “a rubbish knitter” had found a way to express her bubbling creativity.
“We’re changing the face of craft Now I feel that I’m an artist instead of just a knitter.”
As usual the words and the fantasy flooded in. In 2009 she set up the website Knit the City and then another Whodunknit and created the persona of Deadly Nightshade. She picked five companions and asked them all to make up superhero back stories. The site was launched as if it was a well established group and on their very first installation the BBC came along for the ride.
Lauren had hit the ziegest of the moment. The media were bemused by this weird rebirth of knitting amongst the urban young, for them it was if Banksy had joined the Women’s Institute, they were mesmerised.
Lauren saw the opportunity, took a 2 month freelance job to put together the money for a decent camera to record the installations, and on the back of the yarn storming her first book was born: Knit the City.
Again there was a difficulty: that discomfort of a fun, anarchical enterprise turning into something money-making. Since she was little, all Lauren had wanted to do was write a book, here was her chance, but to do it you need grown up arrangements with your co-conspirators. For some it was uncomfortable and two of the original five dropped out when the grown ups entered the playground.
Lauren now has a publishing agent at United Artists and there are proper contractual agreements and her second book is due out in September.
Publicity Knit blasts
The knit blasts are an accidental offshoot of the original yarn storming. Organisations and companies started to ask for an event. The first came through a Twitter connection who happened to work at the Natural History museum. So Plarchie was born, a life-sized replica of the museum’s giant Squid. Naturally she made him out of 160 Sainsburys carrier bags with an inflatable banana lurking in his body.
Obviously if you knit a life-sized giant squid out of carrier bags and drape it round the statue of the Darwin (Chillin with Chuck) in the Nation’s august Natural History museum there’s publicity potential and money to be earned. This first event the museum paid nothing , only covering the cost of the materials for the knitting workshop held.
This year there is to be another event in the Science museum, this time with a contract and a proper fee.
Lauren says she never really pictured herself as a business woman yet her mentor who she got from the government scheme Business Link says “He can smell the money”
There is no question the opportunity is there, but it has been a massive struggle to make a living out of what she is doing . She regularly works 12 hours a day 7 days a week and last year only made £5000 because she was naive, overstretched and reinvested.
She has a huge box of receipts from last year which she hasn’t even looked at, but things are beginning to improve, her bank account is in credit for the first time in a couple of years and this year she thinks she might make £15,000
With her twin sister coming in to do the admin the next person she is going to need is a commercial director. She has invested in product but simply hasn’t found time to exploit it. She says she could probably make a living out of the phone box image alone.
She has a fantastic skill set that means she should succeed.
- Writes effortlessly
- A skillful publicist with a relevant marketing background
- Ingenious crafter
- Friendly and nurturing
- Driven, having survived life threatening cancer she emerged ready to take over the world
That said I think she has to curb her ever-growing empire of creations There are too many persona, blogs and twitter accounts each wrapped in a fantastical back story which is beginning to make it all a bit too much smoke and mirrors for the newcomer to find their way about. Sometimes her online activities look a bit like plate spinning rushing here and there to keep it all spinning, better to refine.
I also think she has an uneasy attitude to making money. She wants to do good, help people, help the world which she does. Stitch London is one of the most inclusive nurturing groups I have ever come across, it won’t be any less so if it produces some income. Equally the knit blast events won’t be less fun.
Many really successful enterprises start off without seeking to make money but their success produces the need for money as the larger the participation the more time-consuming the administration. A good income will allow Lauren to do the bits she enjoys and create jobs for other people to do the things she doesn’t want to do.
Works 80 hours a week hopes to earn £15,000 this year