The first time Sarah Jenkinson wove a basket, she fell in love. It was 2018 and the Galway resident had just taken a one-day course with traditional basket maker Kathleen McCormick in Co Meath. Having worked in various jobs prior to this, her first basket left a lasting impact that would change the direction of her life.
“I booked into a one-day basket-making course, I came home and I had decided I wanted to be a basket maker,” she tells Irish Country Living. “The penny just dropped for me.”
Sarah continued learning under the tutelage of some of Ireland and Europe’s best basket makers, including Ciaran Hogan in Spiddal, Co Galway, Clare Revera in Wales, and Anne Mette Hjornholm in Denmark. In 2020, she took a leap of faith and started working full time as a basket maker; first selling her baskets in Ernie’s Shop in Galway’s West End and then moving into online sales.
When she first started weaving, her goal was to make a shoulder bag and bicycle basket for herself, so these were the types of products she first launched for sale. She was both delighted and surprised when these products proved equally popular with her customers.
“I designed these three bags with leather straps and they just became my bestsellers,” she smiles.
Sarah credits the pandemic for providing her the time she needed to hone her craft. It also gave her time for the all-important task of developing a social media presence. This online presence has provided a global audience and customer base for her work.
“I was never on Facebook. I must be one of the only people in the world,” she laughs. “I started my own private account on Instagram, just to follow other basket makers. In 2019, I set up my own account [@sarahjenkinsonbaskets]. In the beginning, I really struggled to create content. I would put one post up every three months and I would think about what to post for ages.”
Sarah was offered a place in a business development course organised by the English Basket Makers’ Association. At this stage, her sales were growing organically but she knew she would eventually have to start promoting her work.
“I did the course through Cockpit Arts in London over 16 weeks,” she explains. “They were impressed with my Instagram page and encouraged me to be more ‘front and centre’, which I’m still working on. I have people following my journey and I owe it to them to keep my Instagram full of content through stories, reels and posts.”
While most of Sarah’s larger pieces are sold via Instagram or direct sales at Ernie’s Shop, there is another important piece to her sales puzzle: Etsy.com.
Etsy is an e-commerce platform for artisan makers. Craftspeople create a web-shop and Etsy takes care of the site management and sales while charging the maker a fee for their services.
“Etsy took me out of my local and national sales and brought me into a much wider market,” Sarah says. “In my first year, my woven birdfeeders and Brigid’s crosses were my bestsellers – and with Etsy, the St Brigid’s crosses are still my bread and butter. There’s an Irish expat community out there who remembers them being in their homes or their grandparents’ homes in Ireland.”
At first, Sarah sold her full line of baskets on Etsy. Now, she sells most of her larger pieces within Ireland, via Instagram, as Etsy has increased their fees (from 8% to around 14% of each sale) which take a larger chunk of her earnings out of her larger pieces. Despite this increase, Sarah still plans to maintain a presence.
“I will probably leave it there for my smaller pieces,” she says. “I love the fact that I sell my St Brigid’s crosses to people internationally who are really delighted to get them – that has always been really special to me. I appreciate the sales Etsy brought when I didn’t have another way to get international business.”
Her next step is to build her own e-commerce website via Squarespace (a website building and hosting site). She plans to complete building her site in the coming months.
Sarah has shown it’s possible to make a full-time living as an artisan maker, but is there longevity in her plan to continue selling through digital platforms? Euromonitor, a UK-based market research company, conducts ongoing global research on e-commerce trends and offers reports on their findings. In correspondence with Irish Country Living, a representative explains that Irish e-commerce sales declined “modestly” in 2022, but still have an extremely bright future.
“It is important to note that retail e-commerce sales in 2022 still remained significantly higher than pre-pandemic figures, indicating that COVID-19 has played a key role in the expansion of retail e-commerce across Ireland,” they say.
Euromonitor also offers some insight into the next few years in relation to e-commerce growth in Ireland.
“Retail e-commerce is expected to grow at a significantly faster pace than sales within physical stores,” the spokesperson says. “This is expected to be particularly driven by the expansion of existing, large e-commerce players, such as Amazon who recently opened their Dublin distribution centre, as well as established companies looking to expand their omnichannel presence, such as IKEA.”