Hobby to side-hustle: How the pandemic blues inspired Southern creatives

By |2021-01-14T16:11:44-06:00September 25, 2020|Economy, Life & Culture, Story|

In the fog of 2020, Sarah Varner’s urge for clarity was strong. 

She wanted to take her mind off the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and feel relief from the mental strain of working from home. And she found it through stained hands, back pain and a colorful bathtub. 

What started out as a way to blow off steam for Varner, an Asheville, N.C. native, is now her side gig of making and selling custom tie-dyed clothing. After starting the business a couple of months into the pandemic, she has completed more than 90 custom orders for friends and family. She also recently launched an Etsy page, Sweet Honey Tie Dye

“There is something inherently clear about creative,” she said. “You have to be present. When I’m focusing on tie-dye, I’m not thinking about all of the negativity surrounding 2020.” 

Despite widespread pain and suffering the pandemic has caused, there is evidence that more people are launching creative ventures. For example, Etsy, the popular platform for creative small-businesses reported an increase of 26 percent in active sellers between March 2019 and March 2020.

Sarah Varner started an ice tie-dyeing company during quarantine, and the results have surprised her. (Contributed by Sarah Varner)

‘I can do that’

For Varner, the business started as a way to escape the nightmare of 2020. For a while, she found some freedom from monotony by baking for friends. Eventually, she sought a new challenge and came across an Anna Joyce book about the art of ice dyeing. 

“I thought, ‘I could do that.’ I have always been someone who likes tactile projects and I needed to release the pent up energy,” Varner said.  

Crouched over the bathtub in her small Bay-Area apartment, she started experimenting. She would gift a dyed shirt to a friend and when they’d post a photo on Instagram, she’d receive dozens of responses asking for more. Eventually, she outgrew her bathroom and returned to her childhood home to spend some much-needed time with her family in North Carolina. It didn’t take long for her to take over her father’s driveway as she experimented more with color, ice placement and patterns. 

A month or so went by when she realized she’d made more than 50 shirts, sweatshirts and sweatsuits and biker shorts. 

“I didn’t know I was unintentionally jumping onto a trend,” she said. “Around the time I began selling unofficially, tie-dye videos on social media were going crazy.” 

Weeks later, she took the plunge and opened a shop with encouragement from friends and family. She designed a logo, made promotional material, got an in-home label maker and even donated a piece to a silent auction. 

“There seems to be an appetite for supporting others’ creative outlets,” she said. “People are so willing to support your endeavors and passion projects. This influx in creative is enriching so many lives.” 

‘Better days are coming’

Riley Moody’s business wouldn’t have happened without some serendipity. 

Moody, graphic designer in Charlotte, N.C., is a partner in Penman Press, a small letterpress business operating out of the Carolinas. 

She graduated from the University of Alabama five years ago and moved to Charlotte to work as a graphic designer for a non-profit organization. While planning her wedding in 2019, she met Mike Conroy, the owner of a beautiful historic building in the South End. 

“The space was amazing. It didn’t work for our wedding, but we got to talking,” she said.  “The building was an old letterpress business with all of the original equipment. It was just sitting there.” 

Conroy and Moody struck a deal to print her wedding invitations, but the partnership continued. The new year turned out to be the perfect opportunity to spend some time working on something new, she said. “The forced time and rest was great for our new-found business,” she laughed. 

Penman Press, a N.C.-based letter-press company, fully hit the market once the pandemic struck. (Contributed by Riley Moody)

Social distancing sparked a stationery industry boom and work-from-home life gave Moody time to make greeting card designs, pick ink colors and scour through booklets of textured papers. 

So far, business feedback has been great, she says. Their first couple cards sold said, “Better days are coming,” which the small team thought was necessary to reflect the times. 

“My husband and I packaged up everything we made in the floor of our living room, and we sent them out,” she said. “It’s been a joy.” 

Finding family in a brand

“Our business has brought me back to life,” said Madison Wildman, a partner at Citrus and Cane, a Mobile, Ala.,-based local textile and accessory brand. 

Citrus and Cane has amassed more than 5,000 followers on Instagram for their fashion-forward masks and sweet-smelling hand sanitizers. Wildman and his partners, Richard Hamilton and Megan Kowal, put their unique skills to work when building the business.  

Hamilton made masks for hospitals early on in the pandemic. Eventually, Kowal spearheaded the move to turn that mission into a business, Wildman said. 

But, the business means far more to the founders than profit. 

Wildman was struggling through the pandemic. The loss of social interaction was more difficult than she expected. Being a part of a three-person team and pushing toward something new and exciting brought her back to life, she said. 

The company has already collaborated with local artists for mask designs, and they plan to continue the work. 

Creatives across the South have begun to turn inward to find freedom and release, and are now turning outwardly to serve others, Varner said. 

“So many of us have found a way to spread a little bit of cheer while also staying sane,” she said. “People love to be thought of — to be treated to something special. In the midst of the worst possible situation, we’re ready to serve others and create something they can enjoy for a long time,” Varner said. 

Citrus and Cane, an up-and-coming textile and accessory brand in Mobile, Ala., is driven by the friendship of its founders — and great designs. (Contributed by Citrus and Cane, shot by Christian Hilley)

Lily Jackson is a reporter covering the gig economy and pandemic life for Reckon. She can be reached on Twitter at @lilygjack, on Instagram at @lilyforeally and by email at ljackson@al.com.

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