When the death of her sister put her consulting career on hold, Lois chose to pursue her long-term creative passion, selling one-of-a-kind hand-knit scarves, shawls, and wraps.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, the oldest of four children. I have lived on both coasts and in the Midwest. For most of my adult life, I have gone back and forth between the southeast and the Midwest without needing a passport. Currently, I am living in Atlanta, GA. My family consists of two sons, one daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren. My animals are stuffed, and my plants are silk, allowing me to go anywhere at a moment’s notice!
For most of the past 25 years, I was self-employed as a marketing communication consultant working on long-term projects in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. I worked with organizations such as United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and the States of Wisconsin and North Carolina. In nearly every position I held, I have been able to create opportunities to address children’s health and welfare issues. I was graduated from Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL, with a Bachelor of Arts degree and hold a Certificate in Grant Writing from Emory University, Atlanta, GA.
Knitting is my passion that has its roots in childhood. I learned from my mom, way back when we were carving our needles out of dinosaur bones. And then, sadly, I fell off the wagon and embraced needlepoint and counted cross-stitch for countless years.
However, being a woman of true grit and strong character, I saw the light and found my way back. I began knitting for family and friends until I eventually ran out of necks and shoulders for which to knit.
When did you start thinking about making a change?
I had just completed two grueling marketing communication projects and took several months off to relax and do things around my home that I had not had the time to do. I had just started looking for a new consulting project, when my second sister, who lived in Chicago, had an aneurysm and spent several months in neuro-intensive care. While going through the ups and downs of her medical condition from a distance, I found it almost impossible to concentrate on my search. I was on constant call and always had my laundry washed and ready to be packed on a moment’s notice.
As my brother and mother were local, they had asked if I would wait to come and help out after my sister left the hospital. That never happened, as she went from the hospital to hospice. I flew to Chicago and was able to be with her over the following two weeks, giving me the opportunity to say goodbye. What I didn’t know until that time was that I was the executor of her estate; she had never mentioned it to me! So, I spent the next year travelling back and forth between Atlanta and Chicago settling her estate. I was honored to be able to do this for my sister, but boy, was I worn out!
About this time, several friends and family members had suggested that I might want to sell my hand-knit items on Etsy. As I mentioned earlier, I was already knitting voraciously for friends and family and personally thought that they were tired of getting scarves, blankets, afghans, etc. as gifts from me for about every special occasion real and imagined! At first, I rejected the idea; it took me a while to be convinced that anyone would want to buy the items that I was giving away as gifts. Eventually, the thought of an online shop where I could sell my knit items began to kind of grow on me.
What is your next act?
I own Foxy G. Knits, an online boutique that features hand-knit, one-of-a-kind shawls, wraps, and scarves that are fashioned by combining diverse yarn textures and color palettes. Designed for today’s woman, each piece of wearable art encompasses both style and comfort. My inspiration comes from colors and textures in the everyday world around me.
Being visual and tactile, I love the look and feel of yarn. My favorite part of the creative process is coordinating and blending various yarn colors and textures. I have the ability to conceptualize and see various colors, textures and designs before they are actual completed items. (The answer is no, I do not see dead people!)
I strongly recommend buying handmade knits. Not only are handmade items one-of-a-kind, but also years of practice and talent have gone into the creation of those items. They are infused with enormous love and passion. In giving a handmade gift, you are telling the recipient that he or she matters enough to receive something totally unique.
How did you go about setting up your business?
I am self-motivated, self-disciplined and project oriented, all big pluses in “taking the plunge.” I spent about four to five months planning my Etsy shop before I ever listed my first item. That included learning how to use a digital camera to take the product photos. And then in September 2008, at age 66, I opened Foxy G. Knits where everything is knit by hand – from my heart to yours.
The name was easy. When my first little granddaughter was born and we were selecting our grandparent names, I joked that I would be “Grandma Lo” by day and “Foxy G.” by night. Two years later, when I was trying to come up with a name for my shop, Foxy G. Knits was a natural!
I would have to say that one of my biggest challenges was finding my niche. What I thought would sell did not always. And what I thought might never sell sold quickly. While I had the demographics on Etsy shoppers, I did not yet have a good handle on the demographics on Foxy G. Knits shoppers. And if I am completely honest, I am still not sure that I have found it yet.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Sometimes you don’t necessarily learn something new, but receive validation that you are on the right track.
For the past 25 years, it has been important to me that I stay true to my own personal life mission. One night in the late 1980s, around 1 a.m., I had an epiphany; it was at that moment in time I realized that my personal mission was to improve the quality of life for myself and those around me. What sounds wonderful and life affirming was not without its downside. I had to give up and mourn the idea that I would ever be rich and maybe a little famous—two very shallow and meaningless concepts, I eventually realized. However, once I did come to terms with the gain and loss, each “next act” became increasingly easier because I had direction. Each “next act” had to be aligned with my personal life mission.
Foxy G. Knits provides me the opportunity to continue to live my personal life mission. In addition to creating fiber art for sale, I have been blessed to be able to knit for various charitable organizations, including hospice, LGBT homeless youth, and a local neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
What advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
In midlife, you have a maturity and experience that you might not have in earlier years. You’ve done what your parents wanted you to do. And then you rebelled and did what you thought you wanted to do. And then you found your groove. And then you lost your groove. And now, you are trying to get your groove back. Only your previous groove no longer fits or feels right. But you have not yet found another comfortable groove. My advice during this potentially turbulent and uncomfortable time is three-fold.
First, spend some quiet, alone time listening to the sound of silence. Journal, meditate, do yoga, anything that gets you to a centered place. It is in that place where you will identify your passion. Perhaps you already had an inkling of what that might be. Perhaps you are just discovering it.
And then, follow your passion. My best advice is to volunteer in your field/area of interest, and use those positions to get to the next step in your journey. And when I suggest volunteering, I am not necessarily talking about being a “Pink Lady” at a hospital, although there is nothing wrong with that, should “Pink Lady” be your goal. What I am suggesting is using your professional skills in a nonprofit or voluntary arena.
For example, in a previous life, I volunteered my community relations skills for an international track meet. After spending several days working very hard for long hours, I conveniently maneuvered myself in front of the major sponsor’s Director of Corporate Communications. Over shrimp cocktails, I let him know that I wanted to work for his company and would give him a call the week after the event was over. He ended up creating a position for me in his department.
In another former life, I went through intensive training as a North Carolina Guardian ad Litem volunteer and became an advocate for children going through the court system. When a marketing communication position was created under the Governor’s Crime Commission, I was right there to put my name into the hat. And guess which name they drew!
And finally, take this time to build a skill or skills that are of interest to you. Take a class; attend a seminar. Today, there are many online opportunities for learning. Perhaps you want to check out your local community college for new computer skills. (I got certified in grant writing.) The possibilities are endless.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path and, specifically, in opening an Etsy shop?
Take an inventory of yourself to make sure that you have the right disposition to be an entrepreneur, having to start from scratch and do everything from creating the product to marketing it. Are you self-motivated? Can you work out of your home, or are you easily distracted? Do you need to be in an actual office to maximize your potential?
If you are ready to take the plunge, then, run your business like you are the customer; be that customer. What makes you want to shop in a particular place? Service, attention to detail? I know that many artists and artisans do not like to promote themselves, and I truly understand. But my advice is “get over it!” You have to promote yourself. Otherwise, it is like throwing a party and not sending out invitations; I bet no one shows up. But there are ways to promote yourself that are not distasteful.
For example, Etsy offers a digital community feature where members can connect with each other. These teams are great for sharing information or getting advice about running a business from experienced members, or even gathering with peers to socialize. My advice would be to join an Etsy team and participate, for example by “hearting” other people’s shops or sharing useful information with your team members. It can be very isolating to work on your own, so having the ability to network and share business concerns can be very nurturing.
Use Social Media. Not long after joining Etsy, I joined and became an active member of the Etsy Twitter Team, which was made up of artists and artisans with a wide range of experience and skill sets. Some were very tech savvy, and others had vast knowledge of photography and/or merchandising. Although each of us worked individually, we shared the common bond of using Twitter as a social media tool to promote our goods and services, as well as supporting each other. I developed some marvelous virtual friends through the Etsy Twitter Team.
When I opened my shop, I wanted to build a Foxy G. Knits Facebook Fan page and secure my vanity name. To achieve that, I had to have 100 fans. So, I offered to knit one children’s scarf for the local homeless shelter for every new fan I received from July 15 – August 15. And I posted that information on my Facebook page as well as on Twitter. I thought that it would take me a month to reach 100, but it took only four days. By the time the promotion was over, I owed the shelter more than 200 scarves! (And I delivered all of them, thanks to those angels who offered to help me reach my goal.)
I also started a blog and featured other members of my team and their products. If you are going to blog, you need to publish on a set schedule so that your readers can manage their expectations. It can be once a week, twice a week, bi-weekly, etc., but it must be consistent.
Etsy offers, at no cost, an online sellers handbook which contains a wealth of information on subjects like photography, shipping, getting noticed, and branding and marketing, growth strategies and seasonal tips. In addition, there are sellers on Etsy who will design your banner, avatar, even your business cards, for very reasonable fees. When I was setting up my shop, I went to Etsy.com and did a search for “shop banner set.” Currently, there are more than 8,000 listings in eight different categories, including Art and Collectibles, Wedding, Clothing, Accessories, etc. Anyone interested in setting up a shop need only select from the graphics that best suits her product(s), and the shop owners will work with you individually. I was very surprised to learn that these graphics are very reasonable and can easily be purchased for under $10.00. Other seller support includes forums, teams, events, online labs, and various newsletters.
One question that routinely comes up is how the financials/fees work on Etsy. This link gives you the basics.
Another one relates to working part of full time as an Etsy seller. Here’s the link to responses written by actual Etsy shop owners.
And here’s another great article.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Just one? Heavens, I am certain that I have at least several.
When I am not knitting, I continue to collect, source and research my 20-year tobacciana collection (ashtrays, cigarette cases, etc.).
I am also the self-appointed family historian and have been working diligently on our family tree for the past seven years. I see it as a way of honoring those who came before us and letting the ones who come after us know from where they came.
My children have told me in the past that they don’t worry about me, as I reinvent myself every few years. And, if they decide to put me into the home early, I will be the home’s chief Webmaster, tweeter and researcher!
How did you get into collecting old ashtrays and other smoking items?
I guess that I almost had a collection before I even knew it. I received my first cigarette case in the 1970s from a friend’s mother who had left it to me in her will. At that time, I was a smoker, which is presumably why she left it to me. Even after I stopped smoking, I cherished the case because it was a gift from her. I acquired my second cigarette case quite by accident. It had been left by a former resident in a hotel owned by my grandparents. I carried these two cases around with me, packed in with my sterling silver, for more than twenty years before they became the seeds of a magnificent obsession.
In May 1995, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin and hanging out with my friend, Susan, in Sauk City one Saturday. We walked into a resale shop, and I came across a cigarette case for $2 and bought it. To this day, I have no idea why I did that, but a collection was born. (They say that one is an item, two is a pair, and three a collection.) From that moment on, I was possessed. I went junking at least one day of every weekend, sometimes traveling 100 miles each way. As luck would have it, I was working for the State of Wisconsin, and my job required traveling throughout the state. So that gave me additional opportunities to go junking as I traveled in and out of the many towns I would visit. But, I digress.
I got bored collecting JUST cigarette cases, so I expanded to collecting anything that HELD cigarettes: cigarette boxes, cigarette dispensers, and smoking sets. While at a citywide garage sale, I purchased a walnut cigarette box with a glass lid for $3. The seller was asking $1 for the matching ashtray. While I didn’t collect ashtrays at the time and thought $1 was a bit much, I purchased it as well and threw both items in the back of the car. Months later, I found out that I had purchased a mid-century Higgins Glass smoking set worth several hundred dollars!
At the same time as I was collecting cases, boxes, and dispensers, I began purchasing lapel pins. We were approaching the Millennium, and I thought that it would be interesting to illustrate a history of the 20th century with these pins. I also began to notice that ashtrays were far more interesting than cigarette cases and far more affordable. So I transferred the idea of illustrating the history of the 20th century with lapel pins to illustrating the history of the 20th century as seen through ashtrays.
I eventually expanded my search to include any items of interest that pertained to cigarette smoking, such as magazine ads, sheet music, and promotion items given away by the tobacco companies. I even began picking up anti-smoking information in my travels, as well.
More than 20 years later, I have more than 4,500 items, including cigarette promotions, magazine ads, cigarette ephemera, and an ever-growing tobacco library that I eventually plan to donate to a museum. My goal is to, one day, curate an exhibit of the 20th century as seen through these items. (As an FYI, they live in my master bedroom, and I inhabit the guest suite!)
Other little known facts about me:
“If you are getting run out of town on a rail, pick up a baton and lead the parade.”
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Buddhist Proverb
If I were stranded on a deserted island, with my family, the five things I would bring?
1) A waterproof copy of Robinson Crusoe
2) A hand-cranked phonograph with Johnny Mathis’ Greatest Hits
3) A year’s supply of TAB soda
4) Lots of yarn and needles and
5) Toilet tissue
Contact Lois Corush Stifel at LStifel@bellsouth.net
I loved everything about this interview! So inspiring and encouraging. I am so happy to have met you Lois! Your work is gorgeous! What a great story, thank you for sharing.
Terri: Thank you for your kind words. I am happy to meet you as well and am appreciating your blog. I am so very sorry for the loss of your son and, unfortunately, belong to the same club – one where no one would ever want to become a member. I know how writing can help you deal with your pain, and I wish you peace and comfort.
Thank you so much for a lovely article. I hope that it inspires women to follow their passions – at any age – and perhaps turn avocations into vocations.
Lois Stifel is awesome!
I love that Lois is pursuing her passion with knitting. Her shawls and scarves are beautiful. I will have to share this with my son’s girlfriend who is a big knitter. She may follow in Lois’ footsteps – it’s never too late to purse what you love.
Hi Judy: If there is any assistance that I might be able to offer your son’s girlfriend, please let me know.
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Gorgeous pieces and a very inspirational story!
Wow, this is a great interview and really great read! Knitting is a good hobby to have. It’s always nice to see people doing something they enjoy and making their hobby profitable. The work you’ve posted here is lovely! Thanks so much for sharing!