(NYTIMES) – Ms Jenny Eisler learnt to knit in the first grade and was good at it. She also did time as a Girl Scout, which imbued her with an admirable can-do spirit.
Consequently, when New York City locked down last spring to stem the spread of the coronavirus, and Ms Eisler, 25, was stuck in her studio apartment without much to do, she impulsively ordered some embroidery hoops, needles and thread on Amazon, correctly betting that a creditable chain stitch was but a few YouTube tutorials away.
“The first thing I embroidered was the word ‘quarantine’ in green thread on my grey hoodie,” said Ms Eisler, who works at an online fashion retailer.
“I embroidered all my clothes. And then when I ran out of my own stuff to embroider, I started embroidering things for my sister.”
She began documenting her progress on Instagram and, lo and behold, people started direct-messaging her to place orders – 100 in the first few weeks – for tie-dyed custom-embroidered sweatshirts.
“It just kind of happened,” she said. “My friends all wanted them because everyone was at home and wearing sweat clothes.”
The coronavirus has spawned an army of journal-keepers, sourdough seers, bakers, cooks, weavers, painters, gardeners and bird-watchers. For many, such hobbies have been a way to relieve boredom and stress, to give form to shapeless days. Ms Eisler is among those who have turned pro – making their pandemic pastime an income-generating venture.
According to a recent survey by LendingTree, an online loan marketplace, close to six in 10 of the 1,000 respondents started a hobby during the pandemic; nearly half of them have earned money, turning it into a side hustle.
For some, it’s a pretty respectable figure. Ms Eisler, who named her company Just by Jeanie, said she has netted US$20,000 (S$27,000) from a product line that has expanded from sweatshirts to sweatpants, socks, baby blankets and onesies (short- and long-sleeved models).
Meanwhile, pharmacist Lan Ngo banks US$3,000 to US$4,000 a month on sales of the dollhouse furniture she makes in the spare bedroom of her rental apartment in Clovis, California.
Just as Covid-19 hit, Chicago-based entrepreneur Adam Sarkis was walking away from a failed start-up. “I started thinking about things I’d done as hobbies when I was younger, things I hadn’t had time to do in years,” said the 35-year-old who, when he wasn’t drawing in notebooks as a child, was playing basketball or watching basketball. “I decided to merge those passions and see what it looked like on canvas.”
Using acrylic paint, sponge brushes and Sharpies, he hunkered down at his dining room table and began painting head and shoulder images of carefully selected NBA players. They included Latrell Sprewell, “because he was one of the first to wear dreadlocks that hung down his back”, and Dennis Rodman, “because he was one of the first to rock a lot of tattoos”, said Mr Sarkis, who characterises his style as a blend of Keith Haring and Jean Dubuffet.
He posted some early efforts on Instagram, and was surprised and pleased to discover that there was a lot of interest in the prospect of owning an original Sarkis.
“I was being asked for players like Ben Wallace, Steve Nash and Allen Iverson,” he said. “It just snowballed.” So far, he has sold more than 100 paintings.
But the will of the people forced him to shrink both the canvas (from 80cm by 80cm to 20cm by 28cm) and the price (from US$300 to US$50). Even so, “I’ve definitely made more money than I put into it”, Mr Sarkis said. “I understand pricing and overhead.”
There’s a lot to be said for having a tolerant family.
“I’ve definitely made a mess throughout the house,” said Ms Eisler, who has found in her mother, Denise, a willing and able tie-dyeing aide. “We put on old clothes, turn on music and go out on the deck to work.”
When Ms Tiffany Riffer, a product liability lawyer in Washington, started making soap as a pandemic pastime, she turned to her husband, Steve, a cyber-security consultant, for help in the kitchen with the lye and essential oils. Tiffany Riffer Soap, in scents such as lavender, eucalyptus and vanilla, is now available online, and in a few stores in Washington and Virginia. She is hoping to break even by the end of the year.
Another soap-maker, teenager Mary Duque, has taken over the dining room of her parents’ Cape Cod house in Easton, Connecticut. That’s where the 14-year-old stores ingredients and packing material, and where for two to five hours each week she makes soaps, sugar scrubs, lotions and lip balms, all of which comprise her “Honey Bunny Soaps & Stuff” collection.
“I’m pretty good at cleaning up after myself,” she smiled.