Welcome to my sweatshop. Then & now.


This was my day today. Waking up at the crack of dawn to mass produce almost 500 individual pieces of art for Target.com (Red Hot Shop). This picture is just one tray of the goods. Sheesh, we haven’t had an order like this since the movie “Frida” came out on DVD and Buena Vista Home Entertainment had us hand paint 65 oversized chunky jewelry boxes with Salma Hayek’s picture to give as cast and press gifts. Man, I wished I had made an extra one to keep! It was such a daunting job, I didn’t want to make anymore than what was needed.

Actually I take that back. 65 jewelry boxes is nothing in our history.

In the early ’90s when Patrick and I first started making our Mexicana-inspired arts and crafts, no sooner than a few months into the process we haphazardly picked up two national gift show sales reps. One in L.A. and one in NYC. Patrick and I were freshly married and out of nowhere we had to deal with hundreds of wholesale orders from boutiques all over the country. Now that I think of it, England, Mexico and Japan too!

Little did we know we had hit a nerve: hip, fashionable Latinocentric home decor and jewelry. Oh yah, it was all fun and exciting until the corporate orders hit, like Bloomingdales. They ordered our jumbo flower pots in chunks of 300 at a time. And then there was MTV that ordered magnets. And Hallmark. And Microsoft. And McDonalds. What budding entrepreneur could say no?

When it all went down, we had two toddlers and we lived in a teeny-tiny house (800 square feet) and every room was used as part of our production. There were flower pots lined up along the floorboards of every wall, on the window sills, the front and back porch, the driveway, on the kitchen table, and every countertop available. Even in the bathroom! Our living room had work tables instead of couches.

We had so many orders to fill and no money to hire help. Anytime friends or relatives came over, I’d see the look of shock on their faces when they saw our sweatshop operation. 80% of the time, they felt so sorry for us that they’d volunteer to help pack boxes, glaze flower pots, or write up shipping labels. Everyone wanted us to succeed. Down the street was a little liquor store and the owner would save us his best boxes. On another street was a print shop, and that owner saved us bubble wrap and packing peanuts so we wouldn’t have to spend extra money. It just wasn’t enough to save us.

A few years of this non-stop, I remember sitting on the bed and crying in Patrick’s arms because we were so overwhelmed. We didn’t have Internet, so shop owners would call at all hours of the night asking for their order or placing new ones. It took 3 months for us to make, pack and ship each order, and then the shop owner would recieve it, open the box, love it and then call us and order double! Aside from the flower pots we made chipwood boxes, crosses, earrings, bracelets, birdhouses, magnets and more. We didn’t have the heart to say no because Patrick and I had vowed to live the dream of making a living off of art. We were so honored that so many merchandise buyers would want to carry our art in their stores! However, it all happened so fast and we weren’t prepared how to make it a success. Even worse, everyone operated on “Net30” payments, or often times their checks would bounce. Talk about stress! Plus, we had no time to spend with eachother or the kiddos. We barely scraped enough together to move to a slightly bigger house, but it was still crafting madness!

One day we got an order from Santa Fe perfume for 10,000 handpainted pots. The company planned to package them with a bottle of perfume inside. I was excited, thinking it might be our big break to get caught up financially – but Patrick flat out said “Hell no!!” Not only to the order, but to all of it.

It was then we decided to give up the sweatshop life. Our sales reps parted with us because of all the headaches we gave them. I always wonder if they know what I’m doing now, and if they cringe when they see my name or picture. They were so good to us, but Patrick and I just weren’t equipped to handle so much volume, so fast, no start up money, and two kids to feed.

Needless to say, we swore never to take on large quanitity orders again unless it was for something HUGE. So that’s when I took the job at The Arizona Republic as a clerk – I needed to get out of the house and be around people again. Granted, we never stopped making our art, even to this day, as you can see!

At the time I felt like I had failed. I was so depressed. I wanted more than anything to prove I could make something of myself. I thought of how I had this special gem and lost it. Little did I know that accepting that defeat and moving on to a new adventure would be the ticket to my destiny. That part-time clerk job at the paper led to a college degree, a full-time entertainment reporting gig (I’ve always watched movies while crafting!), book deals, my craft column, time to refine my design style, – and “crafty chica” of course!

I learned that sometimes no matter how bad you want something, if all the signs show it is NOT meant to be – get out of the situation, and most importantly – keep the faith!

So here it is, more than 15 years later. Now we only sell online so we have control of the volume (sorta…). Our customer base continues to grow, and it amazes me how loyal our buyers are. At Spanish Market a couple of weeks ago, several people came by proudly wearing polymer clay jewelry I had made more than 10 years ago. Designs I had forgot about! And they still looked very cool!

While we were was working on this huge order today (who could say no to Target??), I thought about all of this. I don’t regret any of it, because that crazy, kamikaze crafty boot camp is what helped make me what I am today. I’m so much happier now, at peace with all of it. And I know what the missing ingredient was back then. I was meant to share ideas and inspire others, and that’s what I’m focused on now!! I can tell crafters what not to do, and what to do instead!

But I have to admit. I had fun today. It brought back so many memories. And it doesn’t hurt to crank out a super ginormous order now and then.

It feels good to know I still have it in me 🙂


Love & light,

2 Responses

  1. What a fantastic story! I loved reading this. This is so reassuring and inspirational. Something I love *so* much about your writing and projects is the constant sense of fun and playfulness, mixed with a healthy dose of reality. Thank you so much for sharing these stories alongside your fantastic projects and impressive adventures. They offer great perspective and inspiration!

  2. I love hearing your story too. I’d love to get orders that big…or at least I think so. Maybe not. 🙂 I just got my first ‘corporate gift’ order and am looking forward to the production work. We’ll see how I feel when I’m done. It’s only for 25 though.

    I’ll look for you at Target although our Target up in Cave Creek is kind of lame.

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Kathy Cano-Murillo

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Hi, I’m Kathy, The Crafty Chica! My specialty is creative motivation. I’m an artist, author, and speaker and this is where I share my craft tutorials, artwork, articles, books, product lines, and workshops!

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