By Lorraine Connelly
The pandemic infused this year’s Super Bowl commercials with advertisers attempting to strike the right tone during a national crisis. One ad, sponsored by Squarespace, a service for building and hosting websites, featured Dolly Parton singing a flipped rendition of her 1980s hit song “9 to 5.” Working “5 to 9” is a rousing anthem to those would-be entrepreneurs tiptoeing into the new economy.
Dolly wails in her wavy vibrato, “It’s hustling time, a whole new way to make a living.” That old “cup of ambition” won’t suffice. The new economy requires some stronger fuel. Many who now find themselves working from home, or suddenly out of work because of the pandemic, have fallen back on their inner resources to fulfill their vision as burgeoning entrepreneurs. Some have found a welcome home on Etsy, the ecommerce website, that allows sellers to market a variety of unique, handcrafted items.
While many businesses sustained significant losses in 2020, Etsy, has thrived during COVID-19. In third quarter 2020, Etsy saw their active sellers grow by 42%, according to Etsy’s Corporate Communications spokesperson Marissa Tarabocchia. Jean Jenner, a French bakery owner in Ormond Beach, Fla., opened an Etsy shop at the end of last March when the pandemic forced his bakery to temporarily close. Jenner was able sell artisanal flour and yeast, products that were in scarce supply at local supermarkets. Jenna Ray, a wedding florist from Laguna Beach, Calif., opened a dried flower specialty shop on Etsy, when the wedding industry was hit hard last March.
Closer to home, there is Karen Ripa, a retired Wallingford public school teacher, who opened PinsAndNeedleKRipa on Etsy last June, offering home-sewn outfits for infants and toddlers.
In a recent conversation, Ripa reflects, “I began sewing as a child, and by the time I reached college I was assisting my school’s theater program as a costume designer.” As a young mother, she continued her love of sewing by making matching Laura Ashley mother-daughter dresses and American Girl clothing for her daughter’s dolls.
Ripa taught in Wallingford’s STEP elementary program for many years, and also ran a theater group, West End Players, within the school district for 13 years where she was producer, director and yes, costume designer.
In retirement, Ripa made and sold a few outfits at holiday craft fairs, but when the pandemic closed down those events, she decided to open her own online shop in June 2020. She currently has more than 200 items on her site — from baby buntings to little girl dresses to boys’ and girls’ rompers.
“It was slow going at first,” says Ripa. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away last September, Ripa came up with an idea of paying tribute to the late Justice by making a RBG “Baby Ruthie” outfit. Says Ripa, “Suddenly, every little toddler and young girl wanted to wear the “Ruthie” costume at Halloween.” She sold more than 200 black flannel and white lace collar outfits. The shop’s business picked up again throughout the Christmas holidays.
Ripa purchases most of her fabric from Joanne Fabrics. But when the supply chain for a popular tie-dye flannel she uses to make baby buntings dwindled, she dispatched her friends and family in New York and Pennsylvania to purchase the few remaining yards of the fabric. (Full disclosure: I’ve recently purchased two of these buntings for friends’ newborns.)
For Ripa, taking a hobby and turning it into a business felt like a natural outcome. Ripa who lives with her husband, a retired North Branford police lieutenant, says, “We are comfortable financially, but we have to stay busy; we couldn’t just stay home and do nothing.”
“Every outfit is a labor of love,” says Ripa. Her own granddaughter Eloise is a muse for some of her creations and “Baby Ellie” makes an occasional appearance on Ripa’s Instagram account. Ripa is already thinking about how she can share further a percentage of proceeds to support causes that she champions. The Leo Romper, a one-of-a-kind design, is a lion print outfit Ripa designed for a friend’s grandson who was born with epilepsy. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from the Leo Romper benefits the Yale Child Life Department that studies childhood epilepsy. She hopes to make more “super-cute outfits to help families like Leo’s, to find their courage as they face uphill battles with their little ones.” You can follow Ripa on Facebook and Instagram @pinsandneedles2019.
The pandemic has offered not only a much-needed economic lifeline for those struggling, but a silver lining for passion projects. As Dolly reminds us, you can “Change your life, do something that gives it meaning.”
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.