TAFA’s First Five Years
This month we celebrate five years since TAFA was launched. Here is a look back on our story.
Back in 2009 I had a group on Ning, Fiber Focus, that I had set up for people who had a textile business and who were interested in the international connection between contemporary and traditional techniques. Social media was just starting to take off and we were all floundering, setting up accounts here and there, trying to understand how to navigate this new world. I kept bumping into some of the same people in different places and it seemed to me like we needed a central place where people could find us as a group and see where we were all active. Although the Ning group was fun, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to manage two groups, so I closed that one and launched TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List on a Blogger platform. It’s still there, if you want to take a look:
By the end of the year, we had grown to a couple hundred members and it was clear that we needed a “real” site to showcase members and products. Here is our first video:
Funny how things look when going backwards in time…. Some are no longer with us and others have grown tremendously. But, from the beginning, one of my goals was to narrow the divide between contemporary and traditional textiles, to see a weaver from Guatemala on the same platform as one from New York, to celebrate diversity and originality. Five years later, when I look at the member list, I feel so proud and moved! I am inspired daily from what I see on our humble site!
TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List or The TAFA List had intention in the choice of the name. I wanted something that search engines would pick up easily. A couple of people have said that “The List” is kind of a boring choice. But, to me, it has always been about creating a destination that will attract anybody who is interested in textiles and fiber art, in the hopes that they will find inspiration, sure, but more importantly, that the connections can be made where our members can thrive in their businesses. Ultimately, we all need to sell our work in order to keep on doing what we love. The word “list” is also a good keyword as we get hits for searches like “list of textile artists”. I think that success has been achieved, too, in realizing that getting “listed” is a great honor as our membership is screened as they come in. We look for professionalism, originality and community involvement. It’s an impressive list and you can see the List as a directory here.
Although the internet helps tremendously in accessing works to the larger market, to the world, there is nothing like being seen in real life. I live in Paducah, Kentucky, where we have an annual AQS Quilt Show every April. Perfect audience to show off our textiles and fiber art, right? Well, we decided to have a live show in April 2011. Members sent their textiles and products in from around the world and several drove in with enough to have a stall. We had our first TAFA Market! It was beautiful but unbelievably stressful. The weight of being responsible for these products terrified me, even though I had had retail stores for 20 years.
Then, it started raining. And, raining and raining. The barrier walls went up and the Ohio River rose. We had rented an empty retail space that was two blocks from the river. The convention center, where the quilt show was supposed to be held, was located on the other side of the walls and was flooded. We broke even on the event and had a great time, but I learned that we need to be stable as an organization before we try something like that again. Here’s the video:
Meanwhile, we had online meetings and discussions about our site needs. That summer we held a fundraiser on IndieGoGo and raised $5,000 to build a new site.
New site was launched! So exciting!
Most of the year was spent in getting member info loaded and developing our social media presence.
Headaches with the new site. Loads of glitches. No spam control, comments had to be disabled. The blog didn’t work properly. There was no member forum. By the beginning of 2013, I had taught myself how to use WordPress so I launched a companion site where we could have a blog and a forum, www.tafaforum.com. Big headache as Buddypress, the platform we were using, was going through huge changes. Ugh. But, we plodded on and continued to grow although more and more members were not loading there profiles on the new site. By the end of 2013, we had 150 members who were not up. Plus, technology continued to change, the site was not adaptable to tablets and smart phones and all of us were still grappling with all of the rapid changes in social media.
Still, even with the site headaches, our group continued to engage and solidify. We have always had an active core of members and then a larger group of silent ones, like any organization. That active group is the one that benefits the most from what we do as they learn, share, and support. Collectively, there is so much experience and insight between us all and that old desire to share in the struggles of having an online business remained true. It’s so much easier to be a part of a supportive group than to try to figure it all out on your own! And, I have to say that this group has been truly wonderful as people, for the most part, treat each other with integrity and respect, unlike many other online spaces these days. Artists can be a temperamental group to work with, but there must be something calming about working in the textile arena as our people seem to be pretty zenned out.
TAFA Red is from 2013 and the last video that I will do showing all the members in one place. We are too big now, at over 500 members from 44 countries. I want to improve my video editing skills and make thematic videos that focus on one area.
All along, about half of our members have had shops on Etsy. Currently, I am seeing a move towards more indie sites with shopping carts, but there are many pros and cons to any of the shopping cart choices we make. For three years, I tried to organize our TAFA shops into an active group or team where we could share responsibilities and promote each other. There were spurts of activity here and there and we had a nice blog set up to promote our shops: TAFA Team Blog. The demands on having an online business are extensive: creating or getting the product, then photographing, listing, promoting, packing, sending, dealing with customer service, keeping records, and so on. It’s just too much.
Several of us explored the idea of going for a collective model where each shop paid a small amount to have one person do the marketing for them. We tested it here on this site and called it the TAFA Market, again (I like that name!). The end of 2013 was pretty much consumed by that with a core group of about 20 shops participating.
What has worked: we’ve created a nice destination on Etsy for our TAFA shops there. We use a common tag and our members usually have around 4,000 products in the search result.
The TAFA Market experiment was deemed successful, but we decided to make it separate from TAFA, on its own site, and open it up to other techniques. Artizan Made launched in January of 2014.
My thinking in opening the site up to other techniques was that I believed that it would help the textile and fiber art people reach new audiences. Sometimes I think we are too insular and stick around our own people too much. What a joy it has been! Such a lovely group of people! And, their work is stunning! I worked with clay for three years a long time ago and loved it and the clay people that I approached were the ones to first embrace the idea. We now have 60 shops and a third of them are textiles, another third ceramics and then a mix with the rest. Our focus there is on home decor and eco-fashion. I would eventually like to set up a similar site for handmade supplies and tools, but can’t handle it right now. 🙂
There has been a lot of discussion about the value of handmade, of competition with China and factory goods, and so on. Lots of angst, despair at all the competition, and the hard work of it all really brings our community down. But, through both TAFA and Artizan Made, I hope to send a collective message:
Not all that is handmade SHOULD be made!
I see so much junk being made out there and would like to see people who are serious about a handmade lifestyle think about what they are contributing to the mix. Can you push yourself a little harder to make something that will become a family heirloom? That is worth being exhibited? That will be treasured for decades? It takes as much time and energy to make 1,000 headbands as it does to make one heirloom. And, that is the feedback that I am getting from people on both TAFA and Artizan, “Wow!” Yes, we like the WOW factor…
Artizan Made video:
By mid 2014 I realized that we would have to change our site yet again. I was now much more confident with WordPress and found the theme that we are currently using and started working on the makeover in August. It took several months to transfer the member profiles over here, to load those 150 that had never gotten up, but most of that was completed by December. There is still a lot to do! We merged the two urls, tafaforum and tafalist into one site in December and now all of the blog post links are broken and need to be fixed. This will be an ongoing project. But, then, these things never do end, do they? At least now I have access to the back end, can work on things and tweak them and our site traffic has been growing daily.
Here we are, January of year five! Looking back, I see thousands of hours spent at the computer, struggling monthly to make ends meet, and having to constantly try to understand the changes happening in technology… Has it been worth it? Even though I have been a maker/artist most of my life, I am pretty much self taught. I have learned soooo much by being involved with these people and feel so strengthened and hopeful when I think of what everyone is doing all around the world. My takeaway from these five years is that we are all connected and that everything we do has an impact on how we live in this troubled world.
The textile niche, especially, has deep implications on the environment and has such an ancient history and practice around the world that I find it a constant learning experience. I feel that I know a little about a lot. I can recognize where most cultural craft traditions come from, materials used, and can even determine a good guess at how old something is. But, what I know is just the tip of the iceberg. Our TAFA and Artizan members, on the other hand, are experts in their chosen fields. I am never bored, always interested, so this is truly work that I love.
TAFA’s first five years have been difficult, for sure, but I believe that we have created a strong base. In looking forward, I want to explore how we can be effective in helping our members achieve their business goals. There are many other textile groups out there, but I think that we are the most diverse and we are the only ones really focusing on the business end of things. These are the things I would like to explore and possibly implement in this next stage:
- Help sell our member’s products. We have a nice shopping cart on this site and we will soon have member products available for sale there. This will be tested on a limited basis to see how it goes. I’ve listed some of my things and from Afghan Tribal Arts to get things going. You can see them here.
- Participate in trade shows. For our members who wholesale, we can save a lot on expenses by showcasing as a group.
- Connect with interior designers, corporate buyers and museum shops. I am especially looking for a way where we can promote our high end products in a way that is effective and that makes sense.
- Get TAFA out into the “REAL” world. We have a wonderful textile community on Facebook and some interaction on LinkedIn and other places, but for the most part, I think that we have been pretty insular. A lot of this has been due to all of the technical issues that have consumed me, but it’s time to engage with and participate in arenas where we can build bridges in new ways.
- Achieve financial stability. This is a huge one for me as I long for staff, for some security, and for the ability to market TAFA adequately.
These goals are enough to keep me busy for the next five years! I want to keep improving this site and to find people who can work with me, complementing my skills in areas where I am weak.
How you can help:
- Introduce yourself if there is an area that interests you. Engage with our members. Encourage them and support them!
- Share our site and what you see here. Blog about us. Tell your people to come on over.
- Shop from our members. Take their classes, buy their books. Help them stay in business.
- Support us financially. Become a sponsor or take out a Classified Ad.
I hope that you have enjoyed this review of the last five years. Time flies by, doesn’t it? Well, if I had a big, virtual cake, I would invite you to our party!
Seize the day!
About Rachel Biel
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