Caitlin Rethwish

Founder of Etcetera Embroidery

Caitlin Rethwish is the creative mind behind Etcetera Embroidery, which offers a variety of finished art pieces and DIY kits and patterns. Designs are inspired by botanical themes, nature, food, and a heavy dose of bad jokes. Caitlin lives in Portland, Oregon, and is often inspired by all the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Caitlin has an undergraduate degree in Business Management, a graduate degree in Communications, and has worked for 6 years as a freelance copywriter. She was able to merge her education, writing skills, and love of art into a successful side business that has been featured by DMC and Etsy on Instagram, and grown a following of over 16 thousand. She also teaches classes locally and has her kits stocked in several stores.

When she’s not sketching or embroidering, you can find her taking photos around Portland, going on hikes, or cuddling her cats.

Where did the idea for Etcetera Embroidery come from?

I’ve always had my head buried in a few crafting or art projects at the same time, from sewing my own clothes to participating in Inktober to making refrigerator magnet likenesses of my parents’ cats. A couple of years ago, on a whim, I decided to make embroidery hoop ornaments for all my friends and family for Christmas. That’s when I realized that out of all the crafts I did, embroidery was the one I was motivated to stick with. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career as an artist while I was still in my 20s, and so I kind of fell into it at that point. So here I am now!

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

At the moment I need to balance making art and fulfilling orders. Making art consists of creating one-off pieces for sale, designs that will become digital patterns or kits, and commissions. I fulfill orders every few days, which means assembling any kits that sell and getting any other art pieces packaged up safely. Each day can involve working on any one or all of the above!

I also work hard to stay active with my followers on Instagram, as that’s where a lot of my customers are (I sell on Etsy but about half the traffic comes from my Instagram following). I used to push myself to the limit to create and post art almost every single day, because I thought that I needed to to stay relevant – it’s no surprise that I burned out. When I was on that grind, my typical day consisted of brainstorming ideas, rushing to complete and photograph them before the daylight ran out, and then obsessing over metrics. Now I make a couple of posts per week that are higher quality, and stay active on my Stories each day by posting updates on pieces I’m working on, sneak peeks of releases, or just pictures of my cats.

To stay productive I make sure that I have a running list of things I need to get done and decide each day which items I’m going to check off my list. I also make sure that I don’t work on any one thing for too long unless I’m in a really great groove and don’t want to stop, or I’m up against a deadline.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m a big fan of bullet journaling — I’ve been doing it now for almost 4 years and it’s changed the way that I stay organized and on track. However, what makes it work so well for me is that it functions as both a planner and a sketchbook. I dedicate space to writing out future ideas for pieces and for sketching out rough ideas of designs. Having it all in one place like that helps me stay inspired and constantly put pen to paper.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The re-emergence of traditional DIY crafts. I’m a bit biased, obviously, but embroidery used to be seen as just something that your cute grandma and her friends did to pass the time. Now embroidery, macrame, sewing, and many other crafts are having a huge moment in fashion and interior design, and it’s even cooler to make all those things yourself.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Wow, how do I choose between the 6AM yoga, daily massages, and nightly essential oil bath? Just kidding. Aside from the bullet journaling I mentioned earlier and getting a good night’s sleep each night, it’s paying attention to where my inspiration is flowing (my friend and I say “the spice flows”, a la Dune). If I’m struggling through the design of a piece or constantly getting distracted when trying to do inventory, I’ll try to switch gears to what I actually want to be working on. I get on organizational kicks where I love to tally up my inventory, and I also have creative spikes where I love to brainstorm and sketch up designs – I try to respect those urges, because I always want to love what I’m doing.

What advice would you give your younger self?

To lower my standards and be nicer to myself! I’m one of those people that expects everything I do to be perfect on the first try and I get upset when it isn’t. I’m still that way but I’m trying to loosen up a bit – I wish I could have consciously practiced making work in new mediums that was just “good” (or even just straight up bad) so that I could be more comfortable with it.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

“You can successfully sell products on Instagram using an iPhone.” This advice is practically a meme from the entrepreneurial guru crowd, but there are some huge caveats that come with it that often aren’t even acknowledged.

In some cases, sure, that works. Especially if you have the newest model iPhone. But speaking as someone with an iPhone 8, there was a massive increase in the qualities of my photographs when I invested in a basic DSLR. When you’re in the business of product photography, capturing detail and lighting and color is going to be so important, and the quality of your camera is going to make a difference, and it bothers me that people pretend it doesn’t.

I think this is most evident in saturated markets. Polymer clay earrings are having a huge moment in fashion right now, so decent photos taken with a phone are fine because the really high quality earrings are flying off the shelves. Embroidery patterns, on the other hand, are a saturated market. If I put iPhone photos of my designs next to higher quality photos, my sales are going to suffer.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I put in a lot of time cultivating real, genuine relationships with my followers on Instagram. I’ve chatted with customers and even became friends with someone who commissioned a piece from me. Just because my business is online doesn’t mean I should cut myself off from being kind and empathetic to people! In fact, I think that humanizing yourself helps your brand. I think every entrepreneur should make an effort to connect with the people they sell to. It’s good for business, it’s good for your brand, and it makes you feel a little bit better at the end of the day that the world feels a little bit closer.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Dedicating time each week to brainstorming new ways to grow. I started by just making one-off pieces, but that’s not scalable. So as I practiced and got better and more confident, I was able to consider new avenues: teaching classes, creating kits to stock at local stores and sell online, writing digital patterns, etc.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Just before Coronavirus became a part of our vocabulary, I actually stopped everything for about six weeks to take a mental break from my business and reconsider my strategy. I was putting in too much time without enough engagement. I was also creating products that didn’t quite strike a chord. That was the burnout I referenced earlier, and I had to step back in a major way.

What I did to overcome this obstacle was realize I needed to stop churning out content on Instagram and spend more time on perfecting my product design. I’ve since posted less on Instagram but re-allocated that time to refining the products I sell. It probably helps that people are stuck indoors right now and killing time by learning new hobbies such as embroidery, but I’d like to think that’s not the only reason sales are better now.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Buckle up because this is extremely niche to embroidery and I’m very passionate about it. There is a vast and inefficiently run market for embroidery hoops and other needle arts-related gear and I for one would love to have a more reliable, quality source of them. Obviously many factories are in China, which is heavily impacted at the moment, but this need has been present since I started in embroidery. Every embroidery artist I know has noticed the quality of embroidery hoops declining – they’re warped, thin, splintering, and have cheap metal findings. They run about $1 apiece, and are what many beginners buy (and hate). There are extremely nice hoops that are out of a beginner’s price range (or my price range, to stock my kits with), and they run upwards of $4 apiece. Michaels is coming the closest to meeting this market, but their hoops have horrible, impossible to remove blue plastic covering the metal that has to be painstakingly picked and peeled off with tweezers.

There is a huge market for decent, blue plastic-free hoops at a “middle” price, around $1.50-2 apiece.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The Apple Pencil, 1st generation. Embroidery patterns don’t draw themselves! I treated myself to an iPad and from what I’ve read, other styluses just aren’t as good.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I recommend Canva to everyone. The free version has everything I need to create gorgeous product literature and instruction manuals. I love that their model allows small creators so much access to the program, and it’s so intuitive and user-friendly. I used to use Adobe InDesign at a previous job, and Canva is comparable for $0 – how can you beat that?

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It gives insight into how people make decisions and that your gut instincts aren’t always right. It reminds me not to solely rely on my own ideas and to reach out to other people to vet out what I think is right. Entrepreneurs can get trapped in a bubble and be afraid to share their ideas because they think it’s the best idea ever, and they don’t want anyone to steal it. Instead, I always share what I’m working on and get feedback as I go, because if people aren’t interested I know my time is better spent elsewhere (even if I love it).

What is your favorite quote?

“The moon is still the moon in all its phases.”
This quote actually inspired one of my designs, and I love it. It helps remind me that the changing tides, evolution, and growing pains of my art are all normal, and that phases I go through (being creatively stuck, making mistakes) are also normal. I’m still myself at heart, and I go through phases and can’t make perfect things all the time.

Key Learnings:

  • If you’re on social media, stay human to your audience and connect with them as much as possible. Especially as an artist, I want people to emotionally connect with my art, so I try to connect emotionally with them as well.
  • To avoid burnout, follow what excites you. Sometimes things just have to get done, but if you have a list of tasks, try to pick what you’re most motivated to do. If you have a list of ideas to work through, follow the one that interests you the most. It helps associate motivation with tasks that need to get done.
  • Do your research about which tools are worth investing in and which ones you can get by just as well with the free version.
  • Dedicate time each week to brainstorming new ways to grow your business. It will help you keep inspired about the future and set great stretch goals.