Text by Emily Kathleen Alberts | Photos Courtesy of Beth Sanborn Newman
She didn’t want to find out the sex of her baby in advance, so during her final months of pregnancy, Beth was busily painting the nursery in gender neutral shades of teal and orange and shopping for unisex decor. Her mother-in-law joined her at the fabric store, where the cutest little owl pattern caught Beth’s eye.
“You want that? I’ll buy it for you!” her mother-in-law eagerly offered. Like any grandmother-to-be, she was chomping at the bit to shower this baby with love in the form of all things darling. But darling can be difficult to pin down without a pink or blue theme to work around. The owl was just the thing. She bought the fabric, and Beth spent the afternoon attempting to make curtains. It had been years since she pulled out her sewing machine. But there she was, hunched over, cursing and ripping out stitches in the room that would eventually become her studio.
Beth Sanborn Newman comes from a family of creatives. She remembers her mother busily moving from one craft project to the next, quilting and sewing furiously behind piles of fabric. Her aunt is a professional artist, though finding success was much different in the days before social media and Etsy.
It’s no surprise that Beth’s passion for arts and crafts led her into the field of elementary education. For six joy-filled years, she worked around the clock as a 4th grade teacher before the arrival of her baby…GIRL!
“I swore I wasn’t going to do it!” she says of her sudden proclivity for dressing her baby in ribbons and bows, tutus and tiaras. But her little Baby Owl had a mind of her own, and her mind was fixated with fairies and princesses.
Through several failed attempts, Beth finally perfected the art of the handmade fairy costume, complete with an impeccably tufted tutu, matching fairy wand and headband. She was proud as a peacock. Feeling restless after years in the classroom, she was longing for something to fill free time between baby naps and feedings. Creating darling outfits for her baby girl was the perfect outlet. Soon friends were calling to order custom creations from the talented Mama Peacock.
“I was a handmade genie!” she laughs. She was customizing entire costume sets and decor for themed birthday parties and creating everything from banners to bowties. It was exhilarating, and exhausting. During a birthday photo shoot led by her trusted friend and gifted photographer, Christina Wolfe, Beth was reinvigorated by some simple, yet powerful advice. Christina suggested that Beth could totally sell her creations on Etsy. That was all the push Beth needed. She slowly pulled away from the demands of being a handmade genie and started building her product line. “‘No’ is a powerful word!” she says, leaning back and tucking her ombré blonde and peacock blue hair behind her ear. Hundreds and hundreds of yards of tulle later, Mama Peacock Baby Owl is an Etsy success. And her Baby Owl is practically famous!
“What’s the best part of working with my baby?” she queries, thinking aloud. “I always have a model, albeit not always a willing model. And she works cheap!” Beth jokes that one pack of Smarties gets her baby owl through an entire photo shoot, and now it is Beth who is snapping the shots. Christina convinced Beth she wouldn’t need a fancy camera, just a fancy new lens.
Beth also received pivotal advice at a Mama Movement meeting last fall. The Mama Movement is an organization dedicated to helping mothers find and follow their passions. Jessica Jones, Mama Mentor and former owner of Blacksburg’s Burnt Creative, told Beth outright that she needed to raise her prices. Beth was not expecting to hear that. However, after running the numbers, Beth determined she was paying herself about $1 per hour.
“I improved my craft and worked on presenting my brand more professionally with packaging and presentation. Now, I use a formula that takes my time into account. Many of my products are quite time consuming to design and make,” she explains. She personally designs a handmade card to accompany each gift certificate she sells. These gorgeous watercolor cards are adorned with gold filigree and her hallmark peacock and owl emblem.
Within three months, sales had increased tenfold. Jessica had insisted that an item’s perceived value was tied to its price point, and buyers wanted quality handmade items, not outfits that would fall apart after one party — and they are willing to pay more for it. Beth’s creations are toddler-tested, and proper care instructions are explained via YouTube videos and cleaning guidelines.
So let’s take a quick inventory: Beth designs all of the tutus, tee shirts, banners, Easter baskets, hair bows, magic wands, etc., and orders all the materials, takes her own photos, creates handwritten thank you cards for every customer, fills and ships every order, does her own marketing, graphic design, website, SEO…and everything. She’s expanding the line to include the cutest vinyl transfer onesies made possible by the purchase of a new heat press.
Will she ever return to the classroom? “It’s what I was put on this earth to do!” she insists. The first class of students she taught is graduating this year. “They’ve come so far! I am so proud of them.” She, too, has come so far.
Emily Kathleen Alberts is a Blacksburg-based freelance writer and regular contributor to New River Valley Magazine.