Nicole Stevenson got into her beat-up Chevy station wagon, looked into her rearview mirror and cried.
She had just spent an entire afternoon at a craft fair in a parking lot in Dana Point. The organizers had wooed her and others with promises of big weekend crowds buying their DIY creations under a beautiful coastal sky. Stevenson had packed her car with her usual pop-up equipment: a 10-foot-by-10-foot canopy, an envelope filled with cash, a machine for credit-card transactions and racks filled with clothes from her Random Nicole line. She then drove down from Irvine and was almost immediately disappointed. This show was nothing like the ones she had done in bigger cities such as Los Angeles or San Francisco. It was poorly attended and badly organized; the few shoppers there were more interested in how they could make these things themselves. “The big crowds and eager shoppers who appreciated handmade goods that I’d gotten used to weren’t there,” Stevenson says.
But as she was stuck in traffic on the northbound 405 that day in 2007, Stevenson’s misery gave her an idea. She called up her aunt, Delilah Snell, and they met up that evening in Snell’s back yard. By the time they finished their drinks, they had the first drafts for Patchwork Show, an arts-and-crafts festival they went on to host six months later in a small Santa Ana parking lot behind Snell’s store, the Road Less Traveled.
Twenty-five vendors showed up to that inaugural Patchwork.
This Sunday, more than 200 vendors hawking everything from ceramic succulent holders, baked-clay jewelry, woodblock paintings and artisanal coffee to cross-stitched items, screenprinted T-shirts, hand-sewn garments and more will take over downtown Santa Ana for the show’s 10-year anniversary. What started as a response to lameness has turned into festivals in Santa Ana, Long Beach and Oakland (with more cities on the way); a four-day business conference in Ventura called Craftcation; and a successful podcast called Dear Handmade Life for which the two interview fellow makers.
Crafters and artists—local and otherwise—credit Patchwork as a game changer for the DIY scene in Southern California. Snell and Stevenson’s advice, mentoring and events have inspired people to create their own successful businesses. And their emphasis on holding events in the streets to make them as accessible to the public as possible have cities begging them to bring Patchwork to their downtowns to attract the creative class, as well as inspire new generations of makers.
“Nicole and Delilah are some of the best organizers of these kinds of shows,” says Lynn Knopfler of Brown Bag Books, a longtime vendor at Patchwork. “We’ve done quite a few of these types of shows, some of which we don’t do anymore because they’re not as well-organized.”
“I think both of them are just such dynamic entrepreneurs,” says Eric Wallner, a former creative economy specialist with the city of Ventura who brought them to the seaside town in 2012. “They’re smart and really committed; they understand what it takes to make major events. And I think they’re just super-creative individuals.”
“They complement each other incredibly,” says LP Hastings, a former Weekling, Patchwork volunteer, onetime vendor and producer of their podcast. “Nicole manages to create a good flow while placing 100-plus vendors into a space, and Delilah is . . . I don’t know—an alien? A superhuman? She can run an event unlike anyone I’ve ever seen.”
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“I don’t think a lot of people know that event production isn’t easy, to do it to the point that we do it, for the budget that we do it,” Snell says.
She and a group of volunteers are painting signs in her Santa Ana back yard to the sounds of Glue Trip’s “La Edad Del Futuro.” Snell lifts heavy, wooden slates from a storage shed, then explains how each sandwich board needs to be painted and decorated for the Nov. 12 Patchwork in Long Beach. As the crew starts on the next task, Snell takes a moment to pet her aging rescue dog, Marge. “The fact that we work with really great people to make this event happen every time really keeps Patchwork going and makes me happy,” she says.
Meanwhile, up in Northern California, Stevenson answers emails, speaks with her social-media strategist, looks over spreadsheets, updates the Dear Handmade Life website, reaches out to possible speakers for Craftcation, copy edits newsletters and talks to sponsors over the phone. “Even though [this] stuff is boring, I still like it, I love just getting things done, and I have a master spreadsheet of everything I have to do for Patchwork and everything I have to do for Craftcation—and there are hundreds of things that need to be done,” Stevenson says. “I just love checking things off that list.”
While both were the black sheep of their respective families, Stevenson was more so because she was artsy and weird; Snell was more liberal and more politically aware than her conservative family. The two were predestined to work together: As children (though aunt and niece, they’re just five months apart in age), their dream was to open a coffee shop named Aunty Niecie Waterfall, the name an homage to the Jimi Hendrix song. “One of us would be working on the floor, and the other one would be resting upstairs,” Snell says with a laugh. “And here we are!”
But they became collaborators via two radically different paths.
Snell lived all over Orange County, eventually graduating from University High (she remembers fellow Trojan Zack de la Rocha playing in the school’s Battle of the Bands one year). After attending Irvine Valley College (and winning a lawsuit against South Orange County Community College District Chancellor Raghu Mathur over his barring students’ First Amendment right to protest), Snell dove headfirst into gardening, cooking and community activism. She taught herself how to cook, can and preserve food, and eventually, she started her own preserves business, Backyard In a Jar. As she became more active, “I realized the most important thing you can do is something with your dollar,” she says. “Unfortunately, we live in a capitalistic society. We buy food every day, so that’s where we make change.”
She worked as a waitress at the Gypsy Den at the Lab in Costa Mesa before helping to open its then-new location in downtown Santa Ana in 1999, a good decade before the arrival of all the restaurants the area hosts today. Within a year, she helped to organize the city’s first farmers’ market. She set up a home office and soon began exposing other people to the eco-friendly products she found that reflected the natural-living lifestyle she was promoting with her community activism.
“‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ weren’t common terms at that point, and people weren’t really into it, but I was,” Snell says. “There’s a fuck-ton of stuff out there that people don’t realize can change their lives.”
Snell opened Road Less Traveled near the Bowers Museum in 2006; her small storefront space was an outpost for eco-friendly, creative products that she presented as mainstream. Within a year and a half, Snell took over the space next door, doubling her store size and allowing her to offer workshops, book signings and art shows.
Soon after, Stevenson occupied part of the store. She had always thought she was going to be a creative writer, despite the fact she had indulged in crafty projects her entire life and sold out her first art show during college. But the Orange native reached an epiphany during grad school when her computer crashed in the middle of writing her thesis. In a panic, she threw her pants out the window, then thought she saw a homeless man running away with them. “I had that moment where I was just like, ‘Why am I going so crazy working hard?'” she recalls. “And I thought about that art show where I sold all my art and the feeling I got when I was making art.”
Stevenson decided to move with a good friend to Los Angeles, where she slept on a beanbag in a one-bedroom apartment. To make ends meet, she sold paintings on the Venice Beach boardwalk, back in the days when it was a scruffy part of Los Angeles instead of today’s hipster haven. Tourists who walked by would “say things like, ‘Oh, this painting is really cute but doesn’t match the colors of my house,'” she says. “So I thought about making more functional art.”
She began making paintings on purses, which evolved into a business. Stevenson soon moved into her own place and started her Random Nicole clothing line in 2001. Her whimsical shirts, skirts and dresses were carried in more than 250 stories across the globe and were featured in conventions and trade shows. It became so popular that a major multinational corporation offered to buy her out.
“That’s what I had wanted—to be living off my art—and finally it was actually happening,” she says. “But there was something that felt kind of meaningless about it.”
She rejected the offer and dove back into teaching crafting classes. But soon after, Stevenson’s longtime boyfriend broke up with her. The blow was so hard, Snell invited her to move in with her in Irvine.
“Delilah was like, ‘Come live with me in Orange County,'” Stevenson says. “‘I know you think it sucks, but we’ll have so much fun!'”
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After that dismal craft fair in Dana Point, Stevenson and Snell planned their own fest. Stevenson invited fellow makers she knew to display their wares on tables in the parking lot of Road Less Traveled, while Snell got her restaurateur friends from Gypsy Den and Memphis to help promote the event. It was planned for a Sunday in November, a day when the car-stripping business next door would be closed. They designed a small postcard with hands and an orange, calling Patchwork “a unique shopping event.”
“The night before was one of the most stressful nights ever because we had no idea if anyone was going to show up, and I had really sold this to the people who were driving from LA to do this show in Orange County,” Stevenson says.
The day of, Snell and Stevenson had to decide on the spot how to configure the tables to fit in the parking lot. They covered a stripped-out car on cinder blocks with a sheet “because we couldn’t do anything else—it wasn’t my lot,” Snell says with a laugh.
More than 500 people showed up, including a reporter from NPR’s Marketplace who interviewed Snell and Stevenson and asked when the next event would be. “We kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘It’s gonna be next spring! We do it every spring and holiday!'” Stevenson says. “That’s how we’ve done everything; we just kind of figure it out and say yes, and then we work our butts off to actually make it happen.”
The next Patchwork did happen the following spring, on Memorial Day weekend, with the next one the following Thanksgiving weekend. As word spread, so did attention from Santa Ana officials, who contacted Snell to start pulling permits for the event. When that happened, she says, “We realized this is a real thing.”
It became such a Santa Ana mainstay that Snell won a Community Building Award in 2011, with the city calling her “an active force . . . to improve Santa Ana.”
“Patchwork is more than a festival; it’s about place-making, embracing local creative arts and local commerce,” says City Councilwoman Michele Martinez.
Snell moved the Road Less Traveled to downtown Santa Ana in 2012, and Patchwork set up on the promenade in front of Gypsy Den. Offers and attempts to expand to other markets followed, with successful versions in Long Beach in 2009 and in Jack London Square in Oakland in 2012. Stevenson moved to Northern California in 2010; despite the distance, the women continue to work together as easily as if they were in the same room.
“Nicole is an excellent planner; she handles all the paperwork, permits,” Snell says. “All hands on, logistical stuff is me.”
“We kind of know what our jobs are,” Stevenson says. “After this many years, we trust that the other person will do what they need to do, and if they can’t, they’ll ask the other person for help.”
Throughout Patchwork’s evolution, its commitment to curating a list of out-of-the-box, distinctive vendors has stayed strong. Brown Bag Books, which sells used books and journals made from repurposed tomes, wasn’t always accepted into indie markets when it started in 2006, “whereas Delilah and Nicole were like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool; we’ll do it,'” Knopfler says, “and we have been a hit since.”
Alyssandra Nighswonger, a Long Beach-based musician, came on board in the summer of 2016 to assist Snell in planning the Long Beach Patchwork. “I had been to small craft shows but nothing like [Patchwork],” she says. “And I really liked that they invited Open Books and Fingerprints to do pop-ups there because I’m a musician and already liked the things they did.”
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In 2011, Snell and Stevenson hit the road for Ventura to meet Wallner. He had gone to Patchwork Long Beach some months before, then emailed, called and visited Santa Ana to discuss bringing Patchwork to Ventura. Although they didn’t have their sights set on a new location, the women figured they might as well entertain the idea since Wallner was so persistent.
The two went on a Monday, the day after Carmageddon. What should’ve been a two-and-a-half-hour drive turned into a five-hour slog. But it was a blessing in disguise, as they started to toss around ideas about a potential new event. Snell jotted down in her notepad a list of things they wished they knew when they started their business. “Because I had opened Road Less Traveled two years before the recession hit, I learned everything the hard way,” Snell says.
By the time they reached Ventura, they had a one-page proposal for Craftcation ready.
Inspired by the city’s cool, artsy vibe and what Snell described as “beach without the bullshit,” they told Wallner that Craftcation would be a destination conference that combines crafting with the relaxing energy of a vacation. Craftcation offered classes on skills they had never tried before such as leather-making, knitting, hand lettering, watercolor painting, Adobe Photoshop, screenprinting, selling stuff online and the like. Speakers and workshops would provide wisdom on basic business 101 for those wondering how to file an LLC or in need of tips about taxes, website creation, marketing and more. At night, parties and opportunities to mingle and decompress with other crafters would take place.
“I thought it was fantastic,” says Wallner. “One of the things we were trying to accomplish in Ventura was supporting the creative economy, and that would include artists of all varieties, as well as crafters and independent makers and artisans of all stripes. [Snell and Stevenson] really understood why that is important.”
Wallner presented their proposal to his bosses; it was approved within a couple of months.
Snell and Stevenson started meeting with hotels and Ventura officials to move plans forward, but as with Patchwork, it was a learning experience. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Snell says. “We had never really negotiated with a hotel before. Nicole hadn’t even been to a conference.”
“Again, we were risking everything and not really knowing what we were doing,” Stevenson adds. “But we planned the whole thing as it was happening, and it was awesome.”
Echoing their sentiments about the first Patchwork, both Snell and Stevenson were worried no one would sign up. More than 200 attendees came to the first Craftcation in 2012; their sixth event this past April sold out in minutes. Past speakers include business experts Evan Kleiman and Mallory Whitfield, DIY icon Amy Tangerine, and Weebly’s Event and Community Lead Dana Walsh.
“It’s really refreshing to meet others who have the same passion as you do about creating and crafting,” says Cindy Su, a Craftcation attendee. “I was amazed to see people of all ages and backgrounds come together to hang out and enjoy four full days of hands-on activities.”
“I think that first Craftcation, I got that thing I was missing,” says Stevenson. “That thing was helping other people in a way that felt natural to my own values. I love making things, and I relate to other people through making things.”
With Patchwork and Craftcation attracting the same community of DIY makers, Stevenson and Snell decided to bridge the two ventures together under a single brand to avoid confusion and continue to help indie creators learn the dynamics of starting and maintaining a business. Dear Handmade Life was born in 2013; through it, the two have parlayed their collective commerce experiences into digestible workshops, podcasts, blog posts and newsletters to share business-savvy tips, as well as fun project ideas, recipes and activities to try at home. Stevenson writes content for the site, while she and Snell record their conversations on creative-living topics.
“We don’t get to hang out at Craftcation or Patchwork,” Snell says. “The podcast is where we have our conversations. Imagine we’re at a bar and we just happen to talk about this one topic; it’s authentic and fun, it’s creative, and people really like it.” They’ve recorded 60 podcast episodes, each of which averages about 2,000 downloads; they are uploaded every other week.
In the midst of podcasting, running her Santa Ana market and deli Alta Baja Market, outlining the next Craftcation, and teaching classes at Orange County School of the Arts, Snell decided to move the Santa Ana Patchwork from the promenade to the east end corner of downtown Santa Ana for its 10th anniversary. “We needed the change,” Snell says. “We’ve been at [our previous] location for four years and needed to freshen it up a bit.”
There’ll be even more vendors and new participating venues such as M. Lovewell, the Frida Cinema and Fourth Street Market.
“I’ve always admired the truly bohemian spirit one feels while attending Patchwork,” says the Frida’s executive director, Logan Crow. “I’m so excited that Delilah has invited the Frida Cinema, and we’ll be putting our thinking caps on to ensure that we’re not just a destination for drinks, but that we do our part to complement her festival by offering eclectic, quality products crafted with passion by artisans.”
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It’s 10:45 a.m., and Patchwork Long Beach hasn’t officially started yet. But droves of people are already arriving, just as vendors and volunteers are putting together final touches. Soon, the event is swamped with foot traffic, as vendors tend to the more than 7,000 people who eventually visit.
Snell is visible among the crowds in her neon-pink vest and wide-brimmed hat. Whatever moments she has free from handling an incident, she devotes to checking out other vendors or posting on Instagram; she has already charged her iPhone twice.
Stevenson keeps up with Patchwork from afar, answering emails from vendors, responding to social-media comments, engaging with people using the #Patchwork hashtag on Instagram, and doing all the behind-the-scenes work from her home in Northern California.
Despite the internet, Stevenson thinks the craft scene remains strong “because people like to make that personal connection, which is what the craft scene is all about,” she says. “It’s great to buy online, too, but I think there’s something to be said about meeting a maker in person and being able to touch something or smell something and talk to them and ask them questions.”
“This one woman came up to me and told me she’s going to Craftcation for the first time and she’s so excited and she wants to start to do something,” Snell says. “I love seeing people have a good time; I think Nicole and I are just trying to create something that we’ve always wanted to have ourselves, but I’m realizing other people really like it, too. It feels really validating.”
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.