Áine Kenny: From Donegal to Cork, small designers tell the Irish Examiner how they are getting by in the Covid-19 business storm

From Donegal to Cork, craft firms tell Áine Kenny how they are coping in the Covid-19 storm
Áine Kenny: From Donegal to Cork, small designers tell the Irish Examiner how they are getting by in the Covid-19 business storm
BUSINESS : Taryn de Vere, who makes jewellery, badges and other hand-crafted items from her home in Donegal, launched her online shop in September of last year. All of her materials are sustainable and she tries to up-cycle where she can.

ÁINE KENNY: Small creative industries, including small local shops or artists working from their own homes, are starting to feel the effects of Covid-19. However, there is hope. 

The potential for an uptick in domestic tourism when the restrictions are fully lifted, as well as the public's reluctance to order items from abroad due to long delivery times and concerns about the safety of factory workers, may all benefit Ireland's creatives.

The lock down restrictions are set to be eased on a phased basis, but in the meantime, small-scale creative industries are keeping busy by pivoting to online sales.

Taryn de Vere, who makes jewellery, badges and other hand-crafted items from her home in Donegal, launched her online shop in September of last year. All of her materials are sustainable and she tries to up-cycle where she can.

The business was always more of a sideline project, as Ms de Vere is a freelance writer by trade. However, when that work dried up due to the media's declining revenues, she turned towards her creations.

"When the lock down happened, I was feeling helpless and useless. I felt like I didn't have the skills to contribute... what could I offer?", she says.    

Ms de Vere put a call out on Twitter, asking people who were feeling overwhelmed or isolated to contact her, and she would send them a small gift.

Ms de Vere purchased a badge machine and began creating badges with uplifting messages on them. "I wasn't making any money off it, but I wanted to make people feel better."

She has now started selling the badges on her website, emblazoned with lock down related slogans such as 'If you can read this, you're standing too close'.

"I wouldn't have sold any of them if I had made them last year. The National Museum of Ireland also contacted me, and asked if the badges could be part of their contemporary history collection, as they are reflective of this situation we are in."

Ms de Vere adds that some employers have bought the badges to give to their employees, and a local shop has purchased them to give to customers.

One thing the Government could do to help small businesses is lowering the postal rates, she say. "Sometimes the postage costs more than what it cost to make the item."

She also believes that the general public have rallied around small designers, especially on social media.

"The coming months will be difficult for small businesses. Hopefully once people have had that experience of buying from an artist, creator, maker, they will come back.

"Everything is gift-wrapped with a personalised note," she says adding she wants people to feel there has been care and thought put into the items.

Lucy Lee of Lucy's Soap Kitchen makes soaps, shampoo bars and skincare products from her home workshop in Leitrim. She started her business in 2013.

"I have seen an increase in orders, but I was fortunate because I ticked quite a few boxes. I didn't have to leave my premises, and I make a product people need, soap. People are buying more of it now," she says.

Ms Lee adds that she already made the shift to online and has a website that works well for sales, which has proven invaluable.

She says her Local Enterprise Office has been excellent. "Their services are brilliant, smaller scale crafters may not know what is already available to them, they can provide contacts, courses and grants."

She has also received great support from Leitrim Design House, a non-profit which supports designers, makers and artists who work in the creative sector.

Ms Lee hopes people will continue to support industries such as hers, as there is a personal touch to every craft. "I know my customers by their first names, I remember their orders."

She notes that many small-scale creative businesses are female-led, and the burden of childcare may now fall to them. Crafters who were able to go to a workshop, or work alone at home, are now finding themselves homeschooling their children, as well as trying to keep their business afloat.

Ms Lee has been homeschooling her children for a few years now, and says looking after one's mental health is the best advice she received. "Homeschooling is only ever going to be successful if the person taking the lead is in a positive headspace. This is more important than ever, especially now when you are juggling a business and homeschooling kids," she explains.

Dee Mangan of Kinsale Leather says her business, like many located in Irish seaside towns, hinges on tourism. Kinsale Leather is known for its handmade leather handbags, wallets and tote bags.

"A lot of businesses would close for January and February because it is so quiet, open back up around St Patrick's Day, and work for six or seven days a week for the rest of the year. The lock down happened just after the low season, which is really unfortunate," she says.

However, she is planning ahead by ordering materials. "This year I trimmed the order right down" fearing she wouldn't be able to reopen until the middle of summer.

Ms Mangan also had to let her staff go temporarily, which she says was very hard. "I have one full-time girl and one part-time girl, who both had to go on the relief payment," she explains.

The lock down has also made her focus on her website more. "It was my Achilles' heel, it tipped away, and the shop was so busy," she says. "It made me realise how important it is to have a good website that sells the products."

For the first time ever since the shop opened in 2015, Ms Mangan had a sale. "I didn't have any other costs as the shop was closed, so I could afford to do this now. I had 30% off. I am almost completely sold out, which has never happened before. It's been fantastic."

She knows that people will have less money to spend once they emerge from the crisis, and she is currently looking at ways of reworking her products to sell them for less.

The support from people in Ireland "would make you emotional", Ms Mangan says. She believes that people will continue to shop locally, and support smaller Irish creatives.

She also hopes people will start to think more critically about where their purchases are coming from and who made them. She believes buying from retail giants who are able to sell items cheaply is not sustainable. "I am passionate about fast fashion, and supporting handmade Irish products. They are more expensive, but hopefully people will buy differently after this," she says.

Waters and Wild Perfumery, based in Glandore in West Cork, was just preparing to open for the busy tourist season when the lock down started.

However, Joan Woods, the woman behind the perfumery and eco lifestyle shop, says there is potential to be positive.

"When the shop closed, immediately there was a drop in online sales. But I took the time to be creative, to make new perfumes, as well as making hand sanitiser," she says.

The hand sanitiser is created using an organic alcohol base and is softer on the hands than the traditional versions. "It's made with aloe vera and seaweed, it's of a really nice quality, using the best ingredients. It's in line with our perfumes," she explains.

The hand sanitiser comes in a glass bottle, similar to the perfumes, which can be reused or recycled. Ms Woods says it is important to remain sustainable and eco-friendly.

"We are planning on giving a percentage of the sales to charity, and have been giving bottles out for free to any healthcare workers we know. We don't need to be making money out of it, we are all in this together."

In terms of potential government supports, Ms Woods says a reduction in the cost of posting would help enormously. "The postal system in Ireland is an amazing, reliable service. We have a lovely small post office and I have a great relationship with them. But the cost of posting is way too high, especially when compared to the UK," she says.

Ms Woods also says the Local Enterprise Office has been very helpful, especially by offering online trading vouchers to build up small businesses' websites, which are more important than ever. "You really need to keep putting money into the website, especially to encourage people to buy in Ireland, and not order from Amazon," she says.

The business is quite dependent on the seasonal tourist trade, much like Kinsale Leather. Ms Woods is hopeful the shop will be able to reopen, with social distancing in place.

However, Ms Woods says ultimately, whatever advice the government gives will be the right advice. "Keeping everyone safe is key."

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