This interview was conducted by Michelle Genders and originally posted on the Australian Wandarrah team website.
Let’s get to know Alison Machin from Foiling Star. Her super shiny shop includes carefully hand embossed decorations, decor, garlands and jewellery made from metals such as silver, aluminium, copper and brass. Alison opened up about the experience of being a long term Etsy seller:
Where do you live and how long have you lived there?
I live in Adelaide and have spent most of my adult life here except for three years in Brisbane which I loved. My childhood was spent on the River Murray in South Australia – I still have a great appreciation of our rural and remote areas in Australia.
Can you tell me about the Murray River. Do you have any special memories of it?
The River Murray is a large river and featured a lot in my childhood. The region I lived in was all about growing fruit trees – lots of citrus, stone fruits (apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums etc) and grape vines, irrigated from the Murray. From the time I could go to school, I cut apricots for drying every summer, for much of the summer break, so it was good for earning money and starting a good work ethic progressively from the age of five! We would also fish in the river and eat them and have bbq’s by the river, swim at a sandbar in summer and have various camps by the river.
Can you describe the landscape of the place where you live?
I live very close to the city, but equally, I live close to the Adelaide Hills. The area I’m in is full of trees and greenery. My garden is relatively small but creates a little oasis, so I don’t really feel that I’m in a city. On our back fence is a glorious golden elm tree with an enormous canopy covering most of our back yard. In summer it is like having a huge shady umbrella keeping us cool. As it gets so very dry and hot here in summer and we often have water restrictions, we have adapted our garden to suit the climate. Our main living room in the house has a wall of windows which look out onto the back yard, which I love. I couldn’t live somewhere without a garden or trees.
What do you like most about where you live?
I like that I can walk to many places. I have a small group of businesses and coffee shops a two minute walk away. The library and shops are within walking distance and I can catch a bus easily into the city. It’s also only a short drive to the Adelaide Hills and 30 mins to the beach. My family live in the Barossa Valley which is only an hour away too. Adelaide is a great city to live in. Anything you want to do, is available, yet it’s relaxed and easy to get around. I also have great neighbors.
Tell me about the embossed metal decorations that you sell, how did you come to practice this technique?
It started with a small idea. I’d just discovered Etsy and began looking for artwork and decor to go with a makeover of my spare bedroom. I saw so much art I loved. I thought I could make a wire easel and bought a book about wire and metal crafts. I soon worked out I couldn’t manage working with the wire, but found some ideas for garden art using foil dishes and discovered I could manage using the foil. There’s the silver foil screen in my back garden that was the start of this really – cost me $30 all up and is a unique piece of garden art!
At some point I imagined having my own Etsy shop. I started looking into tools to emboss and found that it was hard to get any useful ones, unless you were in the US. Well, we happened to visit the US on a regular basis to see family, so the next time I was there, I bought them and started when I got home. From the very beginning, my focus was to have an Etsy shop – I didn’t see it as a hobby.
There’s a side story that goes with this. Ten years ago I had sudden onset arm pain. It worsened and soon I couldn’t drive, or do anything at all at home except self care and I had to give up work. Eventually it was found I had a trapped nerve in my arm, but by then the damage was done and the cycle of chronic nerve pain became my life.
During the next few years, I had a lot of times when it was difficult to turn the pages of a magazine, eat, drink (use my arms), turn on light switches and open cupboard doors, use the remote, hold the telephone, sign my name and sometimes even swing my arms when walking. I remember watching an elderly woman peeling a mandarin and just wishing I was able to do that.
In many ways it was a difficult time and a lot of my time was spend at appointments and continuing to look for answers. Eventually, I found a helpful doctor and started to see some progress. When I started with the embossing idea, I was still quite limited, but significantly better than I had been the years earlier and Etsy was perfect for my being able to control my workload – only sell what I’d already made, put the shop on hold when I needed and set the shipping times for several days so I could get to the post office.
Beginning this venture was so important to me as it was something I could do completely independently and it opened a door back into the world. A metaphor for my life is that I was in jail for years, then I was in home detention and now I’m on parole! I’m still limited compared to most people my age, but life is indescribably better. Through all of this, I have had the good luck to have extraordinary support from my partner and family.
Thank you for sharing the story about your health problems, I think a lot of makers can relate to it. I myself can relate to it having been restricted suddenly by an ankle injury that has been going on for months and months now. This injury was one of the reasons why I started my Etsy shop too. Sometimes misfortune opens up space for us to do something different.
Where do you make the decorations that you sell?
I have taken over a whole room in the house where I can contain my work. I am so lucky we have the room ‘cos I know that many people don’t. I love my room and love coming to work!
The sayings in the glass vials are ones I’ve been collecting, that have some meaning to me – they sit on my work bench (see image at the top of this post).
What do you like most about making the decorations?
It challenges me, it’s an escape and it fulfills my need to create. I like that I can imagine completely new ideas and that no-one has made what I make. There’s a challenge finding what works and what doesn’t and finding a way to make what I imagine the end product to look like. I love the beauty of the patterns on metal. I also love that it is something I never get bored with. It is the only craft I’ve ever found, that I just want to stay with.
What is the most difficult part about making the decorations?
The physical work of cutting and embossing – a crazy thing to be doing with my problems, but during all this I feel like there’s been a driving force behind me.
It’s funny how we are drawn to and driven to do the very thing that’s difficult.
Working out new patterns often takes me several days until I’m satisfied and even then, I can spend a long time and in the end I’m not happy with it, so don’t go ahead. I know exactly when I’m happy with something.
What is your favourite tool or piece of equipment?
I use the same few tools most of the time, but have ventured out to using real copper, which I also love. Unfortunately it is heavier and so harder to cut and emboss and therefore it gives me grief sometimes and I really limit how much I do at a time.
What is your favourite kind of metal shim to work with?
I ultimately love the silver most, but the copper, used for certain items, glows in a way that the silver doesn’t and these items are like magic.
I imagine that it would be easy to make a mistake when working with such a thin and fine material. How do you work with mistakes in your process?
Start again! Very rarely can I come back from a mistake and still be happy with the quality being good enough to sell. So I have lots and lots of scrap bits with mistakes. A real pain when you have spent a couple of hours on it and then you scratch the surface or make a mistake at the very end.
Your designs are very iconic. Have they ended up in any interesting places – perhaps you have heard back from a customer who has purchased an item about where they ended up using it?
On a happy note, I’ve sent things to Kuwait, Norway and Arneham Land. Also once for a wedding on the Amalfi coast in Italy in a stunning garden setting. Sigh. I offered to hand deliver. I’ve also had several items used for grief and loss of pets or children.
I love the name of your shop – its really fun and completely describes what you make. I’m actually going to admit something, and I shouldn’t play favourites, but your shop has always been one of my favourites on Etsy.
I will most likely buy a lot of Christmas presents from you such as these star ornaments.
I’m impressed by how coherent your shop is and the products within your brand are, and it inspires me to get to the same level. You say that you’ve been selling on etsy for many years – could you share a bit more about this journey from being a beginner seller to being an experienced seller?
You are too kind, with the lovely comments about my shop.
The whole thing has been like a roller coaster ride. When I first opened my shop with 25 items, I waited, thinking people would see them and start buying. I was in for a big shock. I watched the daily views and they were pathetic! I’m not sure why I thought my things would be noticed amongst the other 800,000 items on Etsy at the time, but I did and felt so disappointed – but determined.
I joined some teams and worked every day to learn and improve and keep adding to my shop. I also came across more helpful SEO advice after about six months in, which helped a lot too. I kept taking more photos – they are hard! – as trying to get good photos with something so reflective is tricky. Early on, one friendly Etsy seller advised me to keep working hard and that it might take six to ten months to start taking off, but that it would. And she was right!
I had very few sales the first six months, but by ten months, I was getting infrequent, but regular sales. It took two and a half years to make 200 sales and then 13 months to make the next 300. I now struggle to keep up, especially at Christmas, and really take myself to my limit, particularly the few months before Christmas. I think time has been the main factor and that my items are different (there are not many other metal embossers on Etsy), so if someone takes a liking to them, they really like them.
I am trying to make one of my rose gold wreaths at the moment as a stylist from ‘Home Beautiful’ wants one for a photo shoot for their Christmas magazine – plus some rose gold and silver angel wings!! I never imagined that this sort of thing would happen. I have my husband cutting leaves every day for me, from now until December I hope!
I put in a lot of time with my shops and try to create new and interesting things. New designs can take three days to three weeks, to come up with. My husband would say I’m obsessed and I think he’s right
Ha! I know the feeling. My partner had to help me install an art exhibition for me because of my ankle injury. I’m so grateful to have his support. I also know the feeling of being obsessive I think many of us crafters have a fair bit of obsessive tendency…!
It has been so great to hear the story behind your shop Alison. I’m sure it will be interesting and inspirational to many people!