Pam Bartlett has been hooking rugs and creating artisan designs for more than 30 years.
“When you have an artistic calling or feel the need to create… there’s a real sense of satisfaction to creating something that’s unique that you can’t buy at Walmart,” said Bartlett, owner of The Woolen Pear and Red Horse Rugs. “It’s peaceful and tranquil. It feeds a lot of needs.”
Six years ago Bartlett opened a store in Loudon, where she sells rug hooking supplies and offers classes to others interested in the craft. Normally, the store is bustling with women learning rug hooking, troubleshooting a project, or purchasing supplies. But since the pandemic, the store has been largely empty. In addition, events, where Bartlett might sell her supplies or teach a class, have also been canceled. Overall, her revenue is down by about 85% this year.
Bartlett has joked that the pandemic is an artisan’s dream — being locked away from the world with all her supplies. In reality, however, it’s been difficult to run a business and adapt to remote work for a craft that is all about socialization and community support.
“It’s a very touchy, feely, huggy craft,” Bartlett said. “It’s hands-on and up close.”
That makes it appealing, particularly for women ages 50 and up who have time on their hands. Bartlett’s customers include cancer survivors and others with compromised health. At the same time, that close community creates challenges in reopening safely.
With her classes still on hold, Bartlett is focused on building her business acumen. She’s taken classes through SCORE, a business mentoring organization, to build skills around online marketing and digital engagement, which will be important if her classes become virtual. She’s also taken classes through The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, of which she is a member.
Learning new skills is challenging, especially for someone who considers herself primarily an artist, and then a business owner.
“Creative people aren’t really great at doing homework,” Bartlett said.
Focusing on learning long-term skills to shore up her business takes away from the hours she dedicates to the day-to-day running of the business.
“With rug hooking I can bounce from one project to the next. With this stuff you have to focus to learn everything,” she said. “Doing that is time not spent on getting orders.”
Though her passion is creating rugs, most of her income comes from classes and selling supplies. A rug, she said, can’t be rushed. She might only finish one or two projects in a year. Because of that, she didn’t have the option to pivot quickly to selling her products.
Instead, she’s trying to cobble together enough income to get through, while also becoming better prepared for a future where she needs to rely on digital communications. The store is open, although traffic has been slow. She said customers will call to troubleshoot projects rather than coming in. While Bartlett is happy to help, those calls don’t generate revenue.
Despite the challenges, Bartlett is confident that rug hooking — a craft that has been around for centuries — will survive the pandemic. She’s eager to have her community reunited, whether that happens in person or, eventually, online.
“Most of my students are friends now,” Bartlett said. “They help each other in more ways than just rug hooking. Life skills go on here.”
This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.