For many, lockdown has provided an opportunity to discover a new hobby; whether it has been gardening, baking, or those seemingly never-ending DIY projects around the home. For others, however, it has provided the chance to spend a little more time on their favourite pastimes… and this has proved to be just the case for Irishelle Crafts.
Based in the north of Ireland, Irishelle Crafts is the chosen pseudonym of Shelley, who has been creating handmade items for people and their homes since 2014.
“I needed a hobby,” she explains, “something that, if I was having a challenging day or I needed to de-stress, I could sit down and focus on for half an hour, or an hour, or maybe longer. So, I turned to sewing.”
Sewing – and arts and crafts in general – has been a passion of Shelley’s for as long as she can remember. “I’ve always been a creative person, even at school. I studied Maths, English, Geography… all the usual subjects, but I never had an interest in them,” she admits. “It was the ‘arty’ classes that I enjoyed the most.”
However, despite this enjoyment, Shelley was discouraged from making a career out of her talents. “School and education are very different these days, compared to when I attended. Teachers, career advisers – they are more supportive today when it comes to young people and their future careers,” she says. “There are times when I regret not being pushed further (or pushing myself more) and going to art college, but then I look at the skills I have taught myself over the years and the things I have been able to make and I realise I should be proud of what I have still achieved.”
Being self-taught has been advantageous to Shelley as it has allowed her to develop her skills and talent in her own way and her own time. “I like to do my own thing,” she smiles, “and I’ve been known to take on a few creative projects around the house.” When pressed for some examples, her smile widens. “I once painted my daughter’s bedroom – but I went all out with the design. The walls were purple but I decided to also add gold and silver stars to each wall and give it a ‘space’ vibe. I loved it – as did my daughter. Then, there was the time I painted the wooden floor in my other daughter’s bedroom and gave it an ‘underwater’ theme. There were fish, dolphins, starfish, plants… anything you could imagine that lived under the sea, it was there, as part of this one large painting. It was pretty cool.”
“I’ve also been known to upcycle the furniture in my house from time to time. The nicest thing about this, is the way in which my daughters have watched me work and have recently started to upcycle their own furniture.”
So, how exactly did these DIY projects lead to Irishelle Crafts?
“I watched The Great British Sewing Bee and thought, ‘I could do that’,” she laughs, “so I tried to make my daughter a dress – and I did. I wasn’t completely happy with my handiwork, but I had made it and I started to wonder what else I could do if I put my mind to it.”
This led to Shelley investing in a new sewing machine and quickly making her first handbag. “There was a lot of trial and error in the beginning; from finding the right material and thread, to figuring out how I was supposed to fasten a zip to a strip of cotton that barely looked big enough to fit a zip! But I enjoyed the challenge and the rewards that it would bring: to hold a piece of material and have these ideas as to what I could create with it is exciting, but to make something that other people also enjoy, is a really special feeling.”
Irishelle Crafts prides itself on making every item by hand; from stitching material together, to painting or embroidering those special finishing touches. As a result, every item is unique and – quite often – a one-off piece.
“I like making items that are unique and that no-one else would have. Even if I was to make three of the same cushion, for example, I would do something different for each one. I also get bored easily,” she confesses, “so I just like to be different and not tie myself down to one specific style or area of crafting.”
This, in itself, provides its own challenges as Shelley is the first to admit. “Trying to decide what to make tends to be the first hurdle I face because there is always inspiration to be found in the most random places or at the strangest times. So, I could see something while out walking, or I’d be watching TV and an idea will start to form in my head and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I’d love to try that’. When I go away and think about it, the idea continues to grow until I leave myself no other choice but to try it out. The downside is that once I’ve finished a particular project, I can’t really forget about it or put it out of my mind as I hoped – it tends to just provide more ideas as to what I could try to make next.”
Over the past six years, Shelley has used her skills to make a range of items including handbags, baby bags and backpacks; large quilts and smaller baby blankets; wall hangings and Christmas decorations; dresses and scarves; cushions and books; felt wool animals, and more. It’s probably no surprise, therefore, when asked what her favourite item has been to make, that she struggles to answer.
“I’ve loved most of the items I have made, but if I had to choose one… I think it would be a quilt I made a few years ago. It was quite a large quilt but there was a mix of neutral and soft-coloured material that I used – a relative bought it as soon as they saw the photographs.”
While Shelley has sold some of her items (from the UK to the USA), it took her years to build up the courage to actually start selling. “Irishelle Crafts is, first and foremost, a hobby and when I started making items, I would keep them all around the house or give them to my daughters. I only used social media as a way to send the photos to my friends and family who lived overseas.”
So, what made her finally take the plunge and sell some of her items?
“My daughters,” she admits wryly. “They convinced me to attend a local craft fair. I was so nervous and didn’t know if my items would be good enough. The event itself was quiet – which sadly seems to be the case with a lot of craft fairs now (and pre-Covid, obviously) – but I made a couple of small sales. I then signed up to another fair and tried to use social media to reach more people.”
It isn’t as easy as some make it look, however. “There are a lot of times when it is quiet and months could go buy before I sell anything, but I try not to focus too hard on those moments any more. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point; to gather up the courage to let other people see what I can make and to start to believe in myself and appreciate the talent that I have been given.”
And as for the continuing support of her daughters?
“It is most definitely still there,” Shelley nods. “Often, I’ll show them the material I’m going to buy or I will tell them what I’d like to make next; sometimes, they’ll tell me what material they think would work best for a project, or they will tell me about the latest trend they think I should know about. I’ll also find them taking photographs or taking charge of the social media side of things for Irishelle Crafts (which is nice as I’m not the most tech-savvy), but it’s the cups of coffee and words of encouragement they always have for me, especially when a project is proving particularly tricky, that mean the most.”
Irishelle Crafts can be found on Etsy and social media.