When I first met Shelli Martinez she was
knitting a pair of sweat pants.
I was incredulous. “Is there actually
a pattern for knit sweatpants?”
Well, no, it turned out, unless I was talking about the pattern she made on graph paper after taking apart a pair of her favorite jeans to see how they were constructed.
I remember thinking,
“I have so much to learn
from this fearlessly creative woman.”
Recently I caught up with Shelli to find out
what she’s working on and how she manages
to be so creative in so many areas.
TH: You started a business in 2016 to put your love of visual (and verbal) puns to use for the amusement and delight of knitters. The business is called Shelli Can because, (obviously) you can—and DO—do a lot of creative things. The business is “Flair and Wear for Fiber Folk.” Can you tell me how you got the idea for the business, how you set it up, and how it’s going now?
SM: I’ve been working independently for almost 10 years, but the “Shelli Can” shop only started a few years ago. I was following all these cool illustrators/designers on Instagram and saw them creating enamel pins other things based on their specific industries and interests. I remember wishing there were more cool things like that for knitters/crafters. One day I decided to just make some. I did the research to find a manufacturer, designed a couple pins and some packaging, then put in my first small orders.
I was already organized as an LLC for the freelance design work I was doing so transitioning on paper was relatively easy. I still continued to take on freelance projects and work on my shop as kind of a side hustle. My hope was to eventually make the shop my full-time job.
I worked really hard to get my work out there. Anytime I traveled somewhere to visit family or friends I would try and schedule a popup shop at a local yarn store. I taught knitting classes and other workshops at various venues in DC. I applied to vend at all yarn-related events. I mailed stuff to people. I sent emails. I messaged people on Instagram. I did whatever I could to promote myself and my brand. They don’t call it a hustle for nothing!
Everything is currently going great. I’m very happy to say that the shop is now my full time job and am very lucky that I was able to build a business around doing what I love. I still hustle every day packing orders, packaging products, planning for events, and creating new designs. I’m hoping I can continue to grow my business so I can offer steady employment and professional assistance to other people who love the crafting industry as much as I do.
TH: We met through a knitting non-profit that believed in the therapeutic benefits—physical and psychological—of knitting. They, and I think both you and I believe in the calming powers and sense of self that come from making things by hand. And I saw that you put a Handmade Mission statement on the landing page of Shelli Can. Can you talk about what benefits have come out of your experiences making things by hand?
SM: I find a great sense of fulfillment when I can make something rather than purchasing it. I like to challenge myself to try new things and I also like to know how things are put together.
TH: You are a designer, an artist, a knitter, a crocheter, and a businesswoman—plus, I’m sure you have other craft skills I don’t know about. How do you choose which craft to pursue while still keeping everything going? Does running your business make it hard for you to keep making things by hand?
SM: I definitely draw and knit the most. Drawing is for work so that usually comes first, but I always make time to knit (which isn’t difficult since it’s such a portable hobby). I also like to sew, cross-stitch, and cook. I pick up my hobbies whenever it seems convenient.
I’m also proud to know my way around a set of power tools and I actually make a lot of my own home improvements. I laid the wood floors in our last condo, changed the light fixtures, and replaced the doors and moldings too. I think there’s a societal expectation that young women aren’t handy and I get a little rise out of watching people to react to hearing about the projects I’ve taken on.
Running a business definitely takes up a lot of time. I have a bunch of projects that have gone into hibernation as my business has grown. I have a latch-hook rug that I haven’t picked up in over a year and also some seat-less chairs that I’ve wanted to re-cane. I’ll probably get around to it eventually, but when I do find extra time, I usually pick up my knitting first.
TH: Who are your craft-person heroes and why?
SM: There are so many people in the yarn industry whom I admire. There are tons of designers, dyers, and shop owners who run really amazing businesses. If I had to pick a couple, I’d probably highlight Magpie Fibers, and Spincycle Yarns.
Magpie is a local yarn company in Frederick, MD. They create beautiful products and the owner, Dami Hunter, is a no-nonsense badass.
Spincycle Yarns is a fiber mill in Bellingham, WA and is some of my favorite yarn to knit with. The company is owned and operated by two awesome women, Rachel Price and Kate Burge. I was lucky enough to visit their mill on a recent trip to the West Coast. Each of these women have started growing businesses that produce beautiful products, create jobs, and give back to the community. I’m fortunate to call them friends.
TH: What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?
SM: I’m always knitting sweaters and I love all of them equally. I usually have about 10 going at a time. I think I always love my most recently finished sweater the most. At least until I finish the next one.
TH: It seems that in general, Americans have stopped making a lot of things by hand. People tend to buy rather than make things. In your experience, have you found this to be true? What advice would you give to encourage people to make things themselves? How can a person take that first step to making something?
SM: Yes I do find that to be true. Making is just not as essential as it used to me. You can buy everything you need nowadays and even have it delivered right to your door. I think this ready-made culture has cast a lot of doubt in people’s minds about their ability to make something themselves. They just don’t have experience with it.
I think the best way to start making is to try something small and easy. Sometimes a small success will help build the confidence and curiosity we need to keep going.
Shelli was born in Northeast PA and grew up in suburban Maryland. She attended the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and graduated with a BFA in Graphic Design in 2007.
She’s been a freelance designer for the past several years, but before that, she that worked as a designer for DC design firm, Fathom Creative. Fathom being a relatively small firm allowed Shelli to work closely with Art Director, Maribel, and Project Manager, Anjeanette.
“I learned a lot about running a business from working with them,” said Shelli. “They are both fantastic designers and were very encouraging and supportive of my work. I definitely consider them my mentors. Honestly, if it wasn’t for them telling me I should, I may not have started designing and creating my own things in the first place.”
She currently resides in Alexandria, VA with her husband, David, and dog, Jessie.
You can find Shelli’s work online at www.shellican.com and on Instagram @shelli.can.