From science-inspired jewelry to D&D pillows, meet Washtenaw County's female makers

Washtenaw County's many women makers are defying maker culture norms and creating everything from functional art furniture to hybrid cat/octopus plushies.
National analyses have found that maker culture tends to be disproportionately focused on men, but Washtenaw County's many women makers are defying those norms by creating everything from functional art furniture to hybrid cat/octopus plushies.

"Making the leap into a side business was a good outlet for the fun science ideas that I had," says scientist-by-day Betsy Salzman, whose Ann Arbor-based Science Bee company offers handmade, human-body-inspired items like teeth earrings and uterus brooches (with glow-in-the-dark ovaries).

"One of my favorite things that I make is what I call an original data necklace, which are medical slides that I turn into necklaces or earrings," Salzman says.
Betty Salzman.
The seed for Lana Krolikowski's Ann Arbor-based business, Saving Throw Pillows, was planted in early 2017, following what she called a "nerdcation, where you ditch the kids and the dogs and just play D&D all weekend."

After using her quilting skills to make pillows modeled on D&D's many-sided dice as "thank you" gifts, "I posted some pictures, and all these people started saying, 'I want one,'" Krolikowski says.

To sustain and evolve her crafting business, Krolikowski relies heavily on the classes and equipment available at Maker Works, a nonprofit workshop in Ann Arbor that provides an array of tools and high-tech, specialized machines.
Lana Krolikowski with one of her canvas pillows.
"I wouldn't have a business without them," says Krolikowski, who has also learned about woodworking in order to make uniquely designed dice boxes. "The access to and quality of the tools there allow me to work at a speed I otherwise couldn't. And there are always people I can talk to and show my idea to, so they can critique it and make it better. Some of them have done woodworking longer than I've been alive."

Ann Arbor furniture designer/builder Erika Cross hasn't been plying her trade quite that long. But while earning degrees in art and interior design, she couldn't resist the pull to create her own decor.

"I like the construction aspect of it," says Cross. "I build my pieces, … so I really like that hands-on approach. … Furniture seemed like the right vehicle for me to express my creative vision."

Cross already knew her way around a workshop, thanks to her studies and experience. But because she builds a lot of her pieces with a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine – which has the flexibility to function as a lathe, welder, laser cutter, etc. – Maker Works serves a crucial function for her business.
Erika Cross.
"Obviously I'm not going to put a CNC in my basement," Cross jokes. "And the staff there is amazing. Everyone has such a wonderfully diverse skill set. When you can't figure something out, there's somebody in the building who can help you."

But there's also a contingency of local makers doing work solely within the parameters of their home studios. Sophia Adalaine Zhou, founder of Ann Arbor-based Taneko Says Hello, is a graphic/web designer by day who likes to balance out her screen time with handmade projects.

"I was inspired by my cat, whose name is Tako," says Zhou. "I thought, 'Oh, he's a cat named after an octopus,' because that's what Tako means in Japanese. And I was just really tickled by the sudden realization that my cat was an octo-puss."

Initially armed with nothing more than some rudimentary sewing skills – acquired in a middle school home economics class – Zhou decided she wanted to make an octo-puss plushie. 
Sophia Adalaine Zhou at her Taneko Says Hello booth at DIYpsi.
"Before I knew it, I had a rather sizable pile of little Taneko plushies," says Zhou.

A jewelry-making friend suggested that Zhou try selling her work at a craft show in 2016, and she's been building Taneko Says Hello ever since. 

"People really liked what I was making," Zhou says. "They were really tickled by the happy little faces on these Taneko plushies, and I just kept making more of them, and doing more shows."

Salzman also primarily works on her own. She's had the impulse to celebrate science in quirky, inventive ways since at least college, when she made pop-up and choose-your-own-adventure books in lieu of writing essays.
Betty Salzman.
"I hope I can make people appreciate their own bodies and like themselves a little more," says Salzman, who jokes with customers that her pieces' glow-in-the-dark ovaries are "just like real life." " … A big part of crafting and craft shows for me is the interaction with buyers. … That's why I'm doing this."

Salzman's advice to other makers is to attend shows to "get inspiration about how you're going to sell your things, as far as display and price points."

And Zhou, after a handful of years spent working as a maker, has learned how to overcome her shyness with customers and be gentler with herself. Before a recent show she vended at, she came to terms with the fact that she wasn't going to be able to sew as many items as she'd put on her to-do list.
Sophia Adalaine Zhou at her Taneko Says Hello booth at DIYpsi.
"I got through a good portion of it, but I couldn't get it all, and I know that in the past, I would have been like, 'Oh, I'm really disappointed,' and I would have focused on those 10 or 20 things I didn't get to," she says. "And now I'm like, 'You know what? I sold a hundred, and that's really good!'"

In addition to these kinds of practical and personal challenges, Cross and Krolikowski have had to elbow their way into the often male-dominated maker community.

Though Cross stresses that she never faces sexism at Maker Works, she says, "in my career, it's often a challenge, reaching out to factories and trying to scale my pieces into batch production." 

"Using other makers outside of the Maker Works network has been difficult, because people treat me like I don't know what I'm talking about," she says.
Erika Cross' Anvil console table.
Krolikowski – who studied physics in college and is the daughter of a female engineer – has likewise confronted sexism throughout her entire career.

"It's so tiring to deal with that stuff," Krolikowski says. " … One of the things that's great about Maker Works is the women there are so supportive of each other. Once, when I was working there, I looked around and realized it was all women around me, and I was like, 'There are no dudes in here! This is crazy-amazing!'"

But all the makers agree that creating something original that brings someone joy is the biggest thrill.
Lana Krolikowski with one of her cat dice trays.
"It makes my heart so happy to make people feel seen," says Krolikowski. " … It's the smile that comes from that little touch, like opening a dice box and finding little cat heads carved into it. … It's always the little thing that makes it 'extra' in a good way."

And while each of these makers keeps acquiring new skills, and hatching new ideas, they never forget their initial point of inspiration. Zhou, for instance, has held on to her first attempt at making an octo-puss plushie. 

"It was really wonky-looking," says Zhou. "But I saved that little wonky guy, just as a reminder that everyone starts somewhere, and to not give up."

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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