Meet Handmade by Norma May, our featured vendor in our Summer Box. We spoke to mother-daughter duo Norma May and Naomi about starting a business, supporting the BLM movement and the art of quilling. Part one of our interview is below.
How did Handmade by Norma May come to be?
Norma May: I’ve always been interested in art and studied art in school and college. I think sometimes when you have children some of your interests take a back seat , and then you have a completely different career. In 2018, Naomi bought me a book for Christmas and it was about Quilling. I thought, let me have a try at some pieces. I had a go and made a card. I can’t remember who it was, I think it was you Naomi , that said well you can sell that. And it started from there. I really enjoy it. It’s a hobby I love that turned into a business.
Naomi: I encouraged her, empowered her, in a way, to believe that we could turn this into a business. Because I studied business in uni and I am a manager at my full time job. I have some knowledge of how business works. I’ve signed us up to the events that we have done in the past, going on to Etsy and various other platforms as well. She [my mum] creates the cards and I’m behind the scenes doing the finances, promotion, adverts. So we’ve got a partnership going on.
What is quilling?
Norma May: Quilling or paper filigree is an art form that involves the use of strips of paper that are rolled, shaped, and glued together to create decorative designs. Paper quilling can trace its origins back hundreds of years to at least the 15th century and maybe earlier). It is believed to have been created by French and Italian nuns they used quilling to decorate religious objects in an effort to save money. It came to Europe in the 18th century, nuns and monks would roll strips of paper that were gilded. You just get a long strip of paper and basically roll it and form it into different shapes. You have to be really patient though! But I love it.
The process [when making the card], is that I picture the design and sketch it out. Most of the faces I've drawn already and then the hair is just the quilled strips. It depends on how big it is, but on average one piece can take about an hour and a half, two hours. It’s a great and quite relaxing, you can watch television at the same time.
What is the inspiration behind the name?
Naomi: So I actually formed a survey with a bunch of different names, and I sent it to about 40-50 different family members and friends who then passed it on. And I encouraged them to give ideas as well. We had a long list that we liked. We highlighted the top ones. But then in the end, my mum just decided that she wanted to go with Handmade by Norma May. It wasn’t the top ranking name! Because quilling is handmade and Norma May is her name, we went with that.
What makes your greeting cards different from the rest?
Norma May: At the moment, in the UK, I feel like I’m the only one doing quilled Afro pieces. I haven’t seen it here, maybe in America. I think it is bigger in America. Quilling is quite new to the UK. There’s only a few U.K companies that sell the quilling strips.
Naomi: And the quilling cards that you do see, they don’t focus on afro hair or Black faces. So there is definitely a gap in the market. When you go into Card Factory or Clintons, you don’t really see quilled cards in general. If you do, it’s in the shape of a heart or a letter but it's never focused on hair, especially afro hair. We looked around and did a lot of research on quilled companies on Google and Etsy, as my mum said there are barely any. Even going to different events that we’ve been to with greeting card companies, there’s never been anyone selling quilled cards. So we feel like our cards really stand out. Lots of people have never heard of quilling, we do feel like we have a growing audience for this.
Norma May: It’s nice as well because you can have it as a card but you can also frame them as well they make a great keepsake. People who have had them have said, “You know what I’ve kept it and framed it” It’s a two in one.
What does it mean to you to be Black owned business?
Naomi: I feel like it’s quite empowering. I don’t know how you feel...
Norma May: I would say the same word.
Naomi: I don’t think there’s ever been a time where you felt like oh, I could actually have my own business. You almost always go to this “let me just buy something” but think to yourself oh I could make this make better myself but you never really believed in yourself. Being Black women in the UK, is difficult enough on its own, regardless of if you have a business or not. It’s a growing trend and with everything going on at the moment it has encouraged us even more. Going to the different events, we didn’t realise how many Black businesses were already out there. There are Black businesses for literally everything you want but you have to do the research. It’s not as convenient as going to the Card Factory or ordering something on Amazon.
We want to empower people around us, empower family members, empower friends. We’re just two ordinary Black women and we’ve managed to start this. We’ve only been going since October of last year but the things that we’ve learned, the people that we’ve met and the opportunities that have arisen have really encouraged us to move forward. We’ve got lots of comments and shares that continue to help motivate us. So we want to show that if you just believe in yourself, you can turn your hobbies into a business if you really want to. Yes, it’s going to be difficult, you’re going to have success and loss but you have to see them all as lessons learnt and take it as an opportunity to do better next time.
We just want to encourage Black women especially to take that leap forward and know that we would support them and that other people are willingly to do the same.
Norma May: Yes, definitely, I feel the same! As Naomi said, I definitely do feel empowered. I’m still getting used to the idea that people really like what I do. At the moment, to me it’s something that I really really enjoy. It started off as something I do for pleasure. It’s great to know that people want to buy what I love making. I get a lot from that.
What have been your greatest accomplishments and challenges as a business so far?
Norma May: The challenge is that I work full time at a school. Naomi works full time as well. It’s finding that time to put towards the business. Hopefully one day we can just do the business but at the moment it’s finding that time just to do it all.
Naomi: Because it changed from a hobby to business, we didn’t get any investment/funding or have a pot of money saved up. We’ve just been paying for everything out of our own pocket. Because we’re brand new to this we underestimated the price of posting, delivery, and things like that. For post, it’s the stamps, the first class stamps!
But yeah definitely I agree, the time and the actual finances behind it are challenging. Luckily because we work full time, we do have income that we can put towards it. I think, what would you say is our biggest success? I would say the sales on Etsy. Because we’ve gotten a lot of sales from friends and family. But having complete strangers that don’t know us, have never seen us before and maybe have never even heard of quilling, go online and purchase multiple cards and keep coming back is a great accomplishment.
Norma May: I suppose one of the things that really amazed me was that one person came to a craft fair specifically to see our cards. Which I thought oh wow! They came all the way down just to see our cards.