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NEXT DOOR ENTREPRENEURS: Cottage industries in our area

1023
 2014


Wendy Lawhon of Brenham uses her own formulas for the mix of essential oils that go into her Besem Natural Scents handmade soaps. Many such cottage industries are thriving in the Bluebonnet area. (Photo by Jay Godwin)

Cottage businesses and handmade goods give artisans in the Bluebonnet region an opportunity to market their skills

By Denise Gamino
 
These days, creativity is for sale — maybe even right next door. Micro-businesses. Cottage industries. Makers. DIY inventors. No matter what you call them, entrepreneurs of the creative class who sell handmade goods are a national — even global — phenomenon.
 
Growing awareness of the benefits of buying local products has turned farmers’ markets and craft shows into popular events. The buy-local push even spurred Texas lawmakers to allow home-based cooks and bakers to sell goodies from home and at local events (but not online).
 
The government doesn’t track the number of creative cottage industries. But Etsy, a popular online market for handmade goods, has more than 26 million items for sale and one million active shops, including more than 25,000 in Texas. Etsy sold $1.35 billion in merchandise in 2013.
 
The 14 Central Texas counties served by Bluebonnet are filled with creative people selling handmade products.  Here’s a look at a few of them.
 


Terra Firma Studios

Aly Winningham found her career hidden in leftovers headed for the trash. While learning to weld from a friend whose wife was a stained glass artist, Winningham watched in disbelief as the artist tossed a large amount of colored glass bits too small for her artwork.
 
“I salvaged it all,” Winningham said.
 
Winningham took the tidbits to her attic apartment in Austin and began arranging and gluing them into place. She had never heard of mosaics, but intuitively knew what to do.
 
“Seventeen years later, here I am,” she said. “I never looked back and have never lost my passion for the incredible, beautiful and enchanting glass.”
 

(Jay Godwin photo)Flanked by some of her creations outside her studio in Cedar Creek, Aly Winningham strums a mosaic guitar she made at her Terra Firma Studios. Her work can be spotted in prominent places, including Whole Foods Market in downtown Austin. Her pieces cost from $100 to thousands of dollars.
If you’ve seen the large colorful “Candy Island” mosaic in Whole Foods Market in downtown Austin, you know Winningham’s whimsical work.
 
Her mosaics are among the most recognizable public art in Central Texas: a wayfinding obelisk at Seventh and Chicon streets in East Austin, the Domain shopping center in North Austin and the La Cantera shopping center in San Antonio.
 
Since 2010, Winningham has created her fanciful mosaics in a 1,500-square-foot home workshop in Cedar Creek, west of Bastrop. Creating glass mosaics and metal sculptures is her full-time job.
 
Winningham grew up in Houston and studied art at the University of Texas at Austin and Austin Community College. 
 
While working as the IT system administrator at Whole Foods, she was commissioned in 2005 to make the flagship store’s candy counter by an out-of-town art director who loved her mosaics but never realized she was a store employee. 
 
She created the entire installation at home on flexible netting. Then, the mosaic was taken to the store and installed in a few days. 
 
Winningham’s website, terrafirmastudios.com,  shows a sample portfolio of her one-of-a-kind mobiles and mosaic wall hangings. Her art is sold at the annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar in Austin and at other art shows in Texas as well as at twice-yearly home shows announced on her website. 
 
In addition, Winningham does custom work for private homes. In her own home, she created a colorful kitchen backsplash and installed a large mosaic of her one-eyed calico cat, Sparrow, above the bathtub. Charming metal sculptures dot her yard; her goal is to cover her five acres with art.
 
“This may take the rest of my life,” she said, “but that’s fine because art is what I do to stay sane and happy.”
 

Green Skunk Deodorant

Professor Russ Jessup studies leaves of grass. His job at Texas A&M University keeps him outdoors under the punishing Texas sun, so he works up quite a sweat in the grass fields.
 
Jessup’s then-girlfriend, Jeannie — now his wife — couldn’t help noticing how Russ smelled after a long day in the turf grass. She issued an odor order: “You need to take a shower.”
 

(Jay Godwin photo)A sweaty job and a lot of experimentation led to the creation of all-natural Green Skunk Deodorant, made by Jeannie and Russ Jessup of Bastrop. Their creation is sold for about $5 a bottle in numerous stores in Texas and other states. The family operation includes daughters Rosie, 6, left, and Eleanor, 2.
Washing worked, but deodorant failed because Russ is allergic to commercial deodorants with aluminum as an ingredient. He breaks out in welts. Russ tried non-aluminum deodorants billed as “natural,” but they didn’t pass the smell test.
 
So the Jessups began an unusual sweat equity project in College Station in 2003: create a nontoxic deodorant for Russ.
 
They experimented with plant extracts and essential oils. They researched the scientific literature just as they had in grad school. Russ holds a doctorate in plant breeding from A&M, and Jeannie has a master’s degree in botany from A&M.
 
It took two years of kitchen-table experimenting to concoct a natural deodorant that really kills perspiration smells. 
 
“All the (essential oils) in our formulas are used in toothpaste and in cooking,” Russ said. “There are decades of research showing it’s safe for people to put on their bodies.”
 
In 2009, the Jessups moved to Bastrop, where they are raising two daughters, Rosie, 6, and Eleanor, 2. Soon, friends began to request the Jessups’ successful deodorant. The couple realized they had a marketable product: all-natural Green Skunk Deodorant spray, which comes in three scents: bay rum, sweet vanilla and lemonwood. They began selling it in 2011 at the Bastrop Producers Market, which is open Tuesdays through Sundays, at 977 Texas 71. 
 
Regular customer Rose Goldfarb of Bastrop says Green Skunk “works wonderfully. It keeps me from smelling too stinky, even after a run in the hot Texas summer.”
 
Green Skunk Deodorant now is sold in more than 20 Texas stores, including Wheatsville Co-op and Peoples Rx in Austin and in stores in Alabama, Louisiana, New Hampshire and New York. They are looking to partner with an online retailer.
 
The Jessups devote about 10 to 20 hours a week to their cottage industry. Their gross sales are under $10,000 a year, but growing.
 
“We’re hoping to send the girls to college with it,” Jeannie said. 
 

Besem Natural Scents

Wendy Lawhon’s recipes are so precious they stay in a safe deposit box at the bank. They are formulas with enticing names like Orange Blossom, Rustic Pine and Cinnamon Spice. There’s even a recipe called Old Hippie using patchouli oil.
 
They aren’t food recipes. They are mixtures of essential oils that go into homemade soaps and candles for Lawhon’s home business in Brenham — Besem Natural Scents.
 

(Jay Godwin photo)Wendy Lawhon of Brenham uses her own formulas for the mix of essential oils that go into her Besem Natural Scents handmade soaps, which turn from liquid to solid before being cut into bars. She makes 100 to 200 bars a week and sells them on etsy.com. Her soap is $7 a bar and candles are $18 each.
Lawhon home schools her six children (another is on the way) while churning out 100 to 200 bars of natural soap every week in addition to soy wax candles as needed. She sells them on Etsy, the popular website for handmade products. 
 
She works from a craft room just off the bustling family dining room. Lawhon is a bundle of creative energy and her husband, Marcus, a local pastor, marvels at their far-flung customers in Japan, England, Australia and other countries.
 
The Lawhons began their business 10 years ago to help pay adoption costs for two of their children, who were orphans in Kazakhstan. This year, they expect about $18,000 in sales.
 
Wendy is a lifelong crafter but had no experience making soap or candles. She started in her kitchen, mixing fragrances and testing recipes. Now, during production, the bouquet of scents can be so overpowering that “we have to go smell coffee sometimes and get our nose clear.”
 
All the children have helped make soaps and candles. The youngest Lawhon, 2-year-old Elijah, participates in his own way: “I have soap everywhere,” Wendy said. “I find it in shoe bags in people’s closets and on shelves in the living room.”
 
The home business doesn’t interfere with the children’s schoolwork. “I package orders or cut soap while quizzing them on science, math, history or Latin,” Wendy said. 
 
The business is certified as “green,” with most of the raw ingredients sourced within 200 miles of the Lawhon’s home. 
 
“One of the greatest values of this is for our children to get to see a small business and to learn what it is to be an entrepreneur,” Marcus Lawhon said.
 

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