There is only a few of us who have not encountered the brand new viral meme of Bernie Sanders sitting on a chair, wearing large comfortable mittens and a facemask. The internet is a vast paradise filled with creative energy, and this phenomenon does not stop at the screens. Makers tend to take advantage of these trends, and many of them emerge with great stories such as the one we are about to tell.
Although the article will mention "brooches", they are the same wearable items as "broaches" - the vocabulary depends on where you are from. Brooches have a whole world-wide culture to their own, and there appears to be no limit to what can be added under this label.
Meet Caitlin aka. Frankie Peggotty, the creator behind the charming Bernie Sanders Chibi Brooch!
Caitlin is the maker behind Frankie Peggotty, specialising in laser cut acrylic brooches. Living in rural Australia, Caitlin splits her time between her day job as a doctor, her hobby brooch business and spending time with her three dogs and homogenous blob of cats.
In our interview with Caitlin below, she describes her journey from the advantages and disadvantages of having her acrylic pieces cut by a third party, to acquiring her very own laser cutter machine with the income from her products; the learning curve and the benefits of having her own tools of production in order to save time, cost, and be able to work on her hobby projects at any time she chooses. She also lets us peek into the complications between a work-hobby balance as a doctor, and how she still manages to find the right harmony between the two (spoilers: owning her own laser cutter machine improved the efficiency by a lot!).
1. How did you get started in laser cutting? (i.e. where did you learn? Was anyone or anything influential in your getting started? What was good about it or bad about it?) and what sort of things do you like to make?
I got introduced to acrylic brooches by a friend of mine who collected. We have a great subculture of collecting acrylic brooches here in Australia, and we have a lot of indie makers.
That same friend of mine said she'd like to start making her own acrylic brooches, so a group of friends and I decided to use the idea as an excuse for a get together, and organised to go on a course to learn how to make acrylic brooches. Normally these courses were just assembling pre-cut acrylic designs, but we mentioned before we wanted to know more about the making process, so they also taught us the process of going from a design into vectors for laser cutters.
It turned out I really enjoyed the course. Making acrylic brooches provided a creative outlet outside of work, so I decided to start making and selling my own designs as a hobby - and thus, Frankie Peggotty came into being. I mostly make brooches that I intend on wearing, so I'm mostly focused on pop culture characters and cute animals.
I originally just vectored designs, and sent them off to a third party to have laser cut, before assembling and selling them myself. However, this was quite limiting for a number of reasons. Not only was there a prolonged wait time involved, while you waited for someone else to laser cut and mail back, but it also limited what I could design. Because there was a minimum cost to cutting acrylic, I'd have to wait until I had a number of designs in the same acrylic colours to justify the purpose. I also found myself limiting the number of acrylic colours in a piece, for the same reason. It was also annoying if I lost a piece, because it meant starting the process all over again, and getting more stuff cut to justify getting the one piece I needed.
I really wanted to get a laser cutter, but given I'm mostly a hobby maker, I couldn't justify the cost. However, over time I earned enough money selling brooches to buy my own laser cutter last September, which has been amazing! The learning curve with cutting my own acrylic has been huge, but I was lucky enough to be friends with some other indie makers who helped me out with learning how to use my laser cutter. Still, it's been a lot of experimenting to find the optimal laser settings for different types of acrylic.
2. Does having your own cutter make things quicker for capturing a meme (like Bernie and his mittens)?
Back when I was getting someone else to cut my acrylic for me, it usually took a minimum of two weeks between starting a design and getting a completed brooch - and that would be considered very fast. Now I have my own laser cutter, it's hours.
When I decided I wanted my own Bernie brooch, I ended up drawing Bernie on my iPad during my lunch break at work, then came home, vectored, cut and assembled him in a couple hours. This meant that within 24hrs of the inauguration, I already had a brooch that captured the moment. That kind of speed is just not possible without your own laser cutter.
3. What would you suggest is a good way to get into laser cutting?
I was really lucky that when I was introduced to brooch making, that I had a group of friends who were also interested. It meant starting out that I had a number of people who were also learning, and we tended to bounce our problems off one another and work things out as a group. It was also really useful to have someone to debrief to, when something went wrong (which it has, and will continue to).
In retrospect, the fact that I learned in stages was really useful. This allowed me to master each skill before adding the next step on, so it wasn't nearly as stressful as it would have been trying to learn every step at once. I only moved on to laser cutting my own acrylic after I'd already mastered vectoring and assembly, which meant I only had to focus on how to use the laser, rather than everything else that came before and after it.
4. What are the limitations you find around your side hustle (I understand you have a full time job as well)?
I work as a doctor in rural Australia for my day job, which unfortunately includes a lot of on call and emergency work. This means I don't really have a lot of free time, and the free time I do have regularly gets interrupted. I also work across multiple hospitals across the state, which means I'm away from home a week a month.
That being said, I find making acrylic brooches to be very enriching, and it's a great way to unwind and do something that's completely separate to medicine.
As Frankie Peggotty has grown, I've found it really important to try and reach a balance between my hobby and medicine. I only have my Etsy open for a week a month, and now I have a laser cutter, I'm making a limited amount of made-to-order brooches each month, to make sure that I don't take on more than I can take. It's been a bit of a learning process finding that balance, but it was really important that my creative outlet remained enjoyable and didn't add extra stress to my life.
Having my own laser cutter has both added to and reduced my burden, in terms of workload. It's added a lot of freedom to what I can make - I'm able to make a one-off just for me, or fifty of the same brooch if it's required. However, it's added to my active production time considerably. I do have to factor in how long it will take to cut acrylic into my making time, which is something I'm still getting the hang of.
5. Could you tell the story of how things panned out with the Bernie Chibi (i.e. levels of interest, has it raised your profile, what sort of questions do people ask, are people being demanding or sweet, where are they going)?
I was really surprised by how my Bernie chibi brooch caught people's interests.
I originally made the Bernie chibi for my own entertainment. I saw the photo of Bernie on Reddit, and watched as people quickly produced their own creative version of him - mostly photoshopping in the beginning, but also painting, drawing, baking, etc. I wanted to join in, so I quickly sketched a Bernie while at work, and made him that night and posted a picture of him.
I thought when I posted the picture on Instagram, it would get a few laughs from people, and a few others would think I'm insane. However, after my post got hundreds of likes, and a lot of people saying they wanted one, I decided to put them up for sale. I didn't actually think anyone would want to buy him. He was a meme, afterall. The zeitgeist was going to settle quickly, and I didn't really expect anyone to actually follow through and buy one.
The first 25 I put up for sale sold out within two minutes (and I only announced I was selling them 20 mins before I put them up). I put another 25 up the following day, which sold out in under a minute. It was crazy.
Normally when I make brooches, I tend to make between 5-25 of them, so to sell fifty so fast and have so many people upset because they missed out was surprising.
I have had a lot of people message me, asking me to make them one, or to run another preorder, but unfortunately I just don't have the time to make so many brooches. I work between 25-27 days a month, and I average between 12-14 of those on call. I really had to stick to my limit, even though I felt bad about so many people missing out.
Most people were nice about asking, others slightly more demanding. On the whole, it was really flattering. I don't know if I'm ever going to make another brooch that is so well received, so now that everything's mellowed out I'm able to look back more fondly on the few crazy days of Bernie-mania.
I ended up making one more Bernie brooch in a special colourway, and decided to auction him for charity for the Women's Legal Service of South Australia - a not-for-profit that provides free legal services to vulnerable women in my home state. He ended up selling for AUD$280, which was amazing! It was a great feeling to raise money for a worthwhile cause, and it was the perfect end to this whole experience.
You can find and follow her on Facebook as well to keep track of her updates and inspiring new projects.