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Milkweed Design: a business built on passion

Milkweed Design: a business built on passion

When Sarah Smith had her first child in 2010, she was disappointed by the clothing options available for her little boy so she decided to do something about it. In 2011, she began to design and screen print clothes on her own, and what started as a hobby has now become her business.

Milkweed Design features unique clothing for kids that Smith draws and screen-prints with all water-based, non-toxic inks and mostly organic materials. Smith said she felt that generic phrases like “daddy’s little helper” didn’t fit her son’s personality so she set out to create something different.

Her first design was a set of lungs on a onesie. Smith graduated from the University of Missouri with a master’s degree in physical therapy, so many of her initial drawings had an anatomical feel to them, she said. People responded positively to her designs and that is what eventually drove her to acquire her business credentials at the beginning of 2013.

“People would tell me the designs were funny and that I should sell them so I started to think that maybe I should,” Smith said. “It stemmed from there.”

Smith’s biggest struggle has been getting people to see her products, she said. When she first started using Etsy to sell her clothes she thought it would be simple, but Smith quickly realized she had a lot to learn about marketing and getting her products out in places people will notice them.

Although it was a slow start, Smith said, her business has been growing. Her designs are currently featured in several stores around the country in states where she has previously lived, including Indianapolis, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio. Poppy, a local store that features handmade goods, is going to start carrying some of her clothes as well.

“It’s really fun to go into a store and see your stuff; it’s the coolest feeling in the world,” Smith said.

Smith sketches all of her designs and then scans them into Photoshop where she changes the levels to emphasize the black lines since her drawings are fairly detailed. She then prints the design onto a transparency. The rest of the process is completed in a dark room. She puts emulsion on a screen and puts both the transparency and screen on a light table to “burn” the image to the screen; when that’s finished she hoses it down and the image appears. After that, she clamps her screen onto the table with whatever clothing item underneath it. She then applies ink to the screen to fill the image and pulls the ink through with a squeegee until the image appears on the clothes, which are then ironed to set the ink permanently.

There is a lot that goes into it, she points out. How hard she pushes the screen, angles and positioning of the squeegee, and the type of screen all play a role in how the product turns out. Sometimes she has to make something several times before she gets it just right.

“It’s a really neat process and there’s a lot to play around with,” Smith said. “The way you want it to turn out changes the way you approach it.”

Smith runs this one-woman operation from her home, where she also cares for her two young children. Being self-employed gives Smith flexibility to balance her time. Support from her family and husband, who dedicates a fair amount of time to helping her, allows Smith to be efficient in the process.

Craft fairs have provided Smith with the opportunity to connect with others who have similar interests in handmade and “green” goods. Although she has attended several fairs in Missouri, there are none hosted in Columbia that have the kind of feel she prefers. Smith won’t give up easily though; she has been working closely with her college roommate Beth Snyder, one of the founders of 1canoe2, to find out what needs to be done to make such an event possible.

“We really want to have a local focus so Columbia crafters can get their products out there for people to see,” Smith said.

Although they are still in the planning stages, they hope to solidify a date in the fall or early spring for an outdoor craft fair. The women want to create an event that will allow local people to show their indie-modern artistic handmade crafts to their community.

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