I certainly spend a fair amount of time on Etsy. Don’t we all? It really works that way–suggesting items, like little pieces of candy, leading us down the rabbit hole of hand-crafted treasures…
Speaking of rabbits, one evening, I started a search with “cute taxidermy,” and ended up at a felted rabbit wearing snowshoes! Cute, right? Yes! So cute! That little treasure led me to a dangerous, irresistible shop. Dangerous, I say! It was the kind of Etsy shop your wallets beg you not to enter, filled with crisp, clean photos of handmade jewelry you never knew you always needed. Images of sharp, laser-cut wood, pastel colors and soft, fuzzy felt, flood your brain, and you’re dizzy from wanting – no – needing every one of them! You know the type.
The shop, Once Again Sam, is based out of South Carolina. It’s run by an enthusiastic artist that dabbles in all sorts of styles and media. She is even an interior designer and a published novelist! This busy, busy gal took the time to let us know how she turned her crafty ideas and hobbies into a fun and sustainable business. Let’s meet Once Again Sam…
Who is behind this beautifully manicured and fashionable brand? Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m Sarah Mandell, the brains and busy hands behind Once Again Sam, a handmade business where I create leather jewelry using upholstery scraps and old thrift store clothing, giving the luxurious material new life, once again, in a whole new way. I’m also addicted to the time-intense craft of needle felting with wool fiber. My collection of “Felted Curiosities” includes everything from anatomical hearts, to quirky animal sculptures, and even realistic looking plants.
From what I’ve read, I take in that you have always been creative. Tell us about your adventurous, artistic background. How did you get here, to be a maker?
My mom was an artist, and she always encouraged creativity. I took an awful lot of extracurricular art lessons as a kid because it was the only thing I was good at! All those years creating led to my decision to go to Maryland Institute College of Art for my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Environmental Design. Even though I was focused on interior design and architecture, I did get the chance to dabble in fiber arts, sculpture, and graphic design. So, once I started my career in interior design, after graduating, I was still itching to create things with my hands at the end of the day. So I did little knitting projects and made jewelry for myself just for fun. Well, I guess I was having too much fun because I was making way more jewelry than I could ever wear, so, thanks to the encouragement of my husband, I opened up an Etsy Shop. After a few years on Etsy, being a maker became my full time dream job come true.
Image by Josh Mandell
How has your business blossomed? What was the initial idea that gave birth to Once Again Sam?
Repurposing stuff is fascinating to me. When I first began making jewelry, I was drawn to leather and suede. They look & feel great, but also you can cut the edges and don’t necessarily have to hem them (sewing is not my strong suit). I discovered there were all kinds of ways to get leather material for little or no money. So I honed in on upcycled leather cuffs and earrings, and those are still a huge part of my business today.
At the very start, I had so little physical space to do work, just a drafting table in our small apartment in the DC metro area, so I was somewhat limited with what I could actually create. Once we moved to a house in SC, we had a lot more space and were able to invest in a laser cutter and other cool equipment that has greatly expanded the Once Again Sam collection.
Right before I started the business, I was just making things I liked for myself. After a while, I realized I enjoyed the progress of making more than wearing all of these pieces I’d spent so much time on. So it only made sense to try and sell them, so I could keep making more. I really just wanted a way to make money for more craft supplies to feed the addiction!
What’s your studio like?
I work out of my home in Greenville, South Carolina. Making is a big part of our lives, therefore it takes up quite a lot of room in our house. My studio space is a spare bedroom dedicated to jewelry making, photographing pieces, and shipping out orders. I also keep a closet full of leather and suede clothing here, for future repurposing.
The basement workshop is where all of the messy stuff happens, like laser cutting, wood-turning, etc. The basement is technically unfinished, but it’s actually a pretty cool production space.
Lastly, I do all of my needle felting work on the couch in our living room, feet up on the coffee table, with some sort of depressing indie film or nature documentary to keep me company. I have all of my wool fiber sorted by color and stashed under the furniture in bins for easy access.
Do you/would you work with a team?
I work mostly on my own, and it’s probably because I have a hard time giving up any part of the process. I really enjoy designing, prototyping, adding new items to my line, photographing, selling, and marketing everything myself, but it’s a lot to juggle. My husband helps with some of the woodworking items and photography. He chips in with supply runs & post office trips, and he’s always with me at craft shows. He’s my “operations manager” and Once Again Sam wouldn’t be a business without him. However, if the business keeps growing like it has been, we’ll need to think about expanding our team (beyond family members) in the future.
I notice you use an array of mediums, but as far as brainstorming and blueprinting goes, what’s your process like? Do you sketch, use digital drawing programs, eat a sandwich, etc.?
I’m inspired by everything! Just being out in the world – seeing a textile pattern in rug somewhere, watching a bunny wander through our backyard, flipping through an old medical textbook – these are all things that can lead to the development of a new collection. I’m always watching, taking notes, and gathering ideas for later.
When it comes to designing jewelry, I start with very messy sketches. Then, once I’m happy with a general idea, I make templates for prototypes. I figure a lot out as I go, so I almost never know exactly what something is going to look like until it’s done. I use a drafting program to draw my cutout designs, and Illustrator for my engraved “Curious Cameo” collection. Thanks to those programs, I’m able to use those same designs and drawings over and over. I like having some pieces that can be repeated, and also other pieces like the turned wooden pendants that are truly one-of-a-kinds. That balance is important for business.
As far as the needle felting goes, I make that up on the fly. Sometimes I’ll look at reference photos for whatever it is I’m making, but then it’s really just a matter of patiently sculpting the shapes from fiber, layer after layer, until it looks just right.
What has influenced you to become an entrepreneur?
I never planned to be a small business owner. I’m an accidental entrepreneur. I enjoyed making, then my pieces were selling well, so I had to quickly fill in the rest and learn how to run a business. There’s a lot more to it than I ever realized!
Once I discovered I could actually do this – make a living making things – I felt even more inspired to keep going, to push myself. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m so grateful for every opportunity that has come my way.
You don’t only practice several kinds of crafts, but you also write novels, right? So, I am wondering, what is it you do to relax?
Yes, I have many many MANY interests! It’s weird to admit that I don’t really have any true hobbies left, because interior design, jewelry making, fiber art, and writing fiction are all part of how I earn an income now. It’s a blessing for sure. I feel very lucky, but if I’m honest, it’s hard for me to relax and be carefree because my creative outlets are actually my job.
I guess the few last things that I do purely for my own enjoyment would be photography and joy rides through the countryside in my Mini Cooper. My favorite way to unwind is to take a drive to nowhere in particular and find old rusty stuff or weird abandoned buildings to shoot. If I had the guts, and wasn’t afraid of asbestos or getting arrested for trespassing, I’d be a pretty bad-ass urban explorer!
Do you have any big changes coming up or future goals for your company? Have you thought about expanding?
I’m always looking for ways to expand! I’m signed up to do my very first trade show this coming January, and it’s a huge undertaking. I do 15-20 craft fairs & festivals a year, but a trade show is completely different. My big goal this year is to intentionally grow my wholesale audience. I do a lot of wholesale business as it is, but that has happened purely by luck, and I feel it’s time to take matters into my own hands rather than hoping buyers and boutiques continue to find me. I’m also in the process of developing my own website and catalogue. These are all big big goals for a little business like mine!
All images by Sarah Mandell
It’s always such an inspiration to talk with makers turned “accidental entrepreneurs.” Doing what you love for a living is a reality that we see coming to fruition more and more, and Pop Shop America is so excited to support and report it!
Wishing Once Again Sam good luck and prosperity for the future. We’ll be watching and waiting to see what posh and dreamy accessories are up next.