Seller Handbook

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Seller Handbook

Inspiring Workspaces: These Isles

Could you take your Etsy shop on the road? See how one weaver runs her business while traveling the British countryside in a camper van.

By Julie Schneider Aug 18, 2016
1989 Mercedes Coachbuilt camper van
Photography by Alice Carfrae

A 1989 Mercedes Coachbuilt motorhome transformed Eloïse Sentito’s approach to life. For 11 years, Eloïse taught writing and academic thinking courses at Plymouth University in Devon, England. At the same time, she ran a small business selling dresses she made from recycled material. The rigorous schedule left her little time to sing and play traditional British folk music on the melodica. Although working with students was stimulating and rewarding, Eloïse craved a more rural life, removed from the stress and politics of academia — and without a two-hour round-trip commute. “I had one foot in the craft world still and one foot in the very sensible job,” says Eloïse. “I wasn’t truly making a go of either of those things. I felt I had to jump one way or the other.”

In 2014, Eloïse took “voluntary redundancy” from the university and started a weaving business on Etsy called These Isles. She had been renting a smallholding — a parcel of land similar to a farm, but smaller scale — since 2009. In her post-academic life, she planned to live self-sufficiently off the land, raise crops and animals, including chickens, horses and sheep, and make her own yarns. But the smallholding plan didn’t pan out. As a tenant, it turned out that she didn’t have the autonomy or space she needed to accomplish her vision. For the second time in a year, Eloïse made a total life change: she rehomed her horses with a cousin, bought a camper van and started a mobile weaving studio.

Handwoven blankets
Eloïse finds inspiration in the natural surroundings outside the camper van’s windows.

The camper van needed to meet a specific set of requirements. It had to be big enough to house Eloïse, her hound dog Murphy and a weaving studio, and it needed to fit her tight budget. After Eloïse spotted the 19-foot-long motor home on eBay in April 2015, she drove three hours to Wales to scope it out. “I snapped it up because there aren’t that many of them around,” she says. “I also knew that these are the best engines in the world, known as the ‘million-mile engine.’” Eloïse and her friend fixed a few mechanical issues and renovated the interior. They ripped out the original velour sofas and “cheap nasty” furnishings, replacing them with simple wooden furniture. They swapped the chemical toilet for a composting toilet for easier waste disposal. At the end of May, Eloïse hit the road and has lived in the van ever since.

Lurcher hound and tiny weaving studio
Top: Murphy’s dog bed is in the cab of the van, where the passenger seat used to be. Bottom: The van keeps Eloïse’s work and life intertwined. “I really love the ergonomics of it and that everything is within reach,” Eloïse says. “I love the fact that my musical instruments are stored with my shuttles for my weaving.”

For a tiny place, Eloïse says her mobile-home studio is surprisingly roomy. “When it’s tidy, people come in and say, ‘Wow, there’s so much space in here!’” says Eloïse. “It’s a bit of a Tardis. There are an awful lot of things in here, but it’s spacious as well.” She manages to fit her workspace into a 7-foot-by-7-foot space with a 7-foot ceiling, next to the kitchen. She sleeps in a cozy nook (7-feet long, 4-feet wide and approximately 2.5-feet deep) above the cab of the van. Keeping the space organized is crucial to Eloïse’s sanity and workflow. She stores her books, magazines, documents, weaving supplies and musical instruments in baskets snugly wedged in place and secured with cords, so they don’t fall off when the van is in motion. In overhead cupboards, she hides away other necessities, including packaging materials. She keeps a bicycle on the rack on the back of the van, so she can easily make short trips into town to the post office when she gets an order on her smartphone.

Adventure awaits, motivational pinboard
When Eloïse embarked on this adventure, friends, family and customers sent her encouraging cards to wish her well. She keeps them on a pinboard.

When selecting a place to park the camper, Eloïse factors in natural beauty, privacy, quiet, access to water and personal safety. “What’s massively important for a woman traveling alone is the vibe of a place,” says Eloïse. “Does it feel safe? Is there an exit route? Can I get out in a hurry if I need to?” She is sensitive to the stigma associated with living in a van. “I want to look like a holiday maker, not a van dweller,” says Eloïse. She makes a point to befriend locals and not intrude on other people’s spaces. Even if she parks in a wild place far from houses, she’s aware that people might come by regularly to walk their dogs or tend to sheep. Despite staying in one place for short stints, sometimes only a week, Eloïse has a knack for quickly settling in and establishing a routine. “It’s amazing how I only need to be in the same place for a few days and fill my water tank from the same stream, and a place can start to feel like home,” she says. “Those little simple things can really help you connect to a place and feel comfortable.” Since she parks the van in rural areas with verdant hills and craggy cliffs, Eloïse is tuned in to the wildlife, the seasons and the weather. When it rains, the drops boom onto her roof, and wind gusts can rock the whole van. “An eagle perched on a rock about six feet away from my van a couple of times, which was amazing,” says Eloïse.

weaving tools
“People think that if I’m a weaver all I do all day is weave,” Eloïse says. “But weaving is about a tenth of the actual work time. Setting up is very, very slow.” She weaves on an Ashford four-shaft folding table loom. Her work bench is stuffed with wool.

“There’s a synergy between my livelihood, craft and my way of life,” Eloïse says. The landscapes of Britain and Ireland where she parks her camper van are a backdrop for her life and work. Eloïse’s work is woven with local fiber, in every sense. She is deeply inspired by the hues and textures in nature as well as local history and lore, elements that she weaves into her designs for blankets, saddle bags, scarves and stoles. Her material of choice is yarn spun from the wool of locally raised sheep. “It's the fabric of the places I love,” Eloïse says. “I like undyed yarn because it’s uncultivated, like my favorite landscapes.” She also is fond of using the same textural virgin British wool that's spun in the mills of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland for the signature cloth, Harris Tweed. Eloïse visited the Harris Tweed mills last year. She met the weavers and learned more about their traditions and processes. “When I go to the Outer Hebrides, my whole life and work is with me,” says Eloïse. “My work is inspired by the landscape when I look out of the window on the island, just like their work and their designs are informed by the same landscape. It’s all connected.”

Camper van adventure, on the road
For a 3-ton vehicle, Eloïse says her camper van maneuvers remarkably well.

Reflecting on her first year living in her camper van, Eloïse only has one regret. “I’m doing now what I should have done at 16,” she says. “I wish I had done the folky handmade life from way back — although, I might have messed it up. I’ve learned an awful lot in my professional and academic life since then.” As she looks ahead to the coming months, Eloïse plans to leave Devon, England, where she has been stationed for an extended period to attend to family matters, and arrive in Ireland by October. “Sometimes I think I could drive and drive and drive and never arrive,” Eloïse says. “I love it.”

Check out These Isles to see Eloïse’s latest weavings. Follow her adventures on the These Isles blog. To pitch your space for the Inspiring Workspaces series, fill out the Seller Handbook pitch form.

Author

Julie Schneider

When Julie Schneider isn’t writing and editing Etsy’s Seller Handbook, she’s carrying on her family’s pun tradition or scheming in her cozy art studio. Keep up with her latest projects at juliesmithschneider.com and on Instagram.

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