Emoji embroidery: a post-mortem

On Thursday night, my emoji embroidery was part of the first-ever emoji pop-up market at Eyebeam Art+Technology Center in Chelsea. I had no idea what I was doing when I started. Here’s what I learned.


In search of a project to get myself off the computer and making things with my hands again, I turned to embroidery and sewed a poop emoji because it was the most absurd thing I could think of. Serendipitously, there was an emoji art show accepting submissions, so I sent them a photo of my one embroidered piece and hoped for the best. A week later I was excited to hear back, but confused when I saw that I had been accepted into the accompanying pop-up shop instead of the art show. Pop-up shops are for people with multiple pieces to sell. I had one lonely poop.

I found myself with an invitation to be in a pop-up shop with zero inventory, little experience, and only three weeks to prepare. I was terrified. I didn’t feel ready. Selling something that I had created was an experience I knew I wanted to have (hell, it even made my about page), but I had envisioned it happening in a year or two after lots of practice and research and careful preparation. A lesson that I’ve learned repeatedly recently is that growth doesn’t happen if I first wait to feel comfortable; risks are where the magic happens. So, I accepted the spot in the show and immediately started working.

The next three weeks were insanity. Beyond the hours I sunk into sewing (on the train to and from Thanksgiving, during Thanksgiving, at the doctor’s office, at 6:30am before work), a lot of other things happened all at once, the least stressful of which was my second bout of strep throat in two months the day before the show. I had every excuse at my disposal to back out of the show and give up. I almost did.


As a designer, creating an entire set of packaging and collateral for a product is a coveted opportunity. In addition to the embroidery itself, there was packaging, price tags, displays, artist cards, receipts, and signage that needed to be made. Correction: that I wanted to make. Inventing self-imposed requirements is one of those good-but-really-sometimes-bad traits that I have, like perfectionism and impossibly high standards.

For a little while, I treated this event as both the first and last time that I’d ever be able to do something like this. I was going to sew my own drawstring bags to protect each piece, dammit, and it was going to be great. The 200 artist cards that I was going to get printed were going to have stitching on them as well, and this was magically going to happen in my spare time. Reality set in at some point when I accepted that each piece was going to take about 4-5 hours to make and that I wasn’t going to hit my self-imposed goal of 15 pieces, let alone create Dieline-worthy packaging and displays in a matter of days.

So, I got crafty. I used the fact that it was the holiday season to my advantage and turned blank gift tags into price tags. I scoured my collection of cute little bag things for drawstring bags large enough to fit the embroidery and used bright tissue paper to wrap the other pieces. I pulled a Sound of Music and used old curtains as fabric for the backings when the fancy and overpriced felt I bought wasn’t going to work. (Sidenote: being a packrat has its advantages.) It kind of felt like being in my packaging design class in college with zero budget and a rapidly-approaching deadline. Instead of trying to fight time in a losing battle, I used it to my advantage to force myself to get creative.

Reminding myself how to let go and to make quick but effective decisions was perhaps the most rewarding part of the whole experience, even more so than the break from the computer I originally sought out.


Working at Kickstarter has taught me the importance of honest pricing. Creators will sometimes set their goals or their reward pricing too low to ensure that their project is successful and that people feel comfortable spending the money. In actuality, this ends up hurting creators when they have to invest more of their own money to complete the project in full, which is why we always encourage creators to be realistic about how much money it takes to make a project happen.

Despite being hyperaware of the impact pricing has on a creative project, I set my prices too low. I asked for $45-55 per piece, which amounts to about $10 an hour for my work, material costs excluded. The amount that I charged was slightly arbitrary; I had to submit prices per piece upon accepting my place at the show without any idea what the materials were going to amount to nor how much time it would take. I guessed what I thought was a fair amount for each piece and what I thought that I’d pay for a lil embroidered emoji.

After (lovingly) laboring over 12 pieces, I realized that they were worth more. More because of the attention to detail that I was putting in, because of the hours that I was spending, and because there’s nothing out there like them. Putting a numerical value on something that you create is absolutely terrifying and is one of the reasons why I will probably never be a freelancer. But the reality is that I have to charge as much as will be worth it to me to make them and for someone to own one. And $50 for five hours of hand-sewing is a steal.


And the show? It was a huge success. I sold out of two of my three patterns before the first hour of the show, was mistaken for an actual textile artist, and learned that people have the same weird sense of humor that I do. When I first started down the path of a crafty side project, I never could have anticipated how much I’d learn in the process. I’m only three weeks in to figuring out how all of this works, but I have big plans for what to do next.

ETA: These are now available for sale on Etsy and through Big Cartel!

Posted Dec 14, 2013

Jessica Harllee is a staff product designer at Etsy in Brooklyn, an avid crafter, and an amateur writer.

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