Julie Benoit and Stephanie Sterling, owners of the Longmont craft store Maker General, have weaved social justice action into their business framework. From hand-picking items from diverse business owners to the items offered, the store supports inclusivity in the crafting world.
Before opening the Maker General nearly three years ago on Main Street, Benoit and Sterling lived on the same street in Baltimore, Maryland, with one house separating theirs. Benoit said Sterling taught her about textile crafting, and they would quilt together. The two neighbors threw out ideas about founding an arts center or opening a creative space, but nothing came out of it.
Both women relocated to Longmont with their families after their husbands were offered jobs in the city — Sterling seven years ago, and Benoit joining two years after.
In 2018, their dreams suddenly became tangible. One of the first locals they befriended, Ryan and Savannah Johnson who owned the home goods store Yore, decided to move away, Benoit said. With little notice, Benoit and Sterling took the plunge, taking over the Yore storefront at 381 Main Street, pooling together what they had from personal savings.
“On two weeks notice and really no money we made it happen,” Benoit said.
After several iterations of the business name, they settled on Maker General. Sterling said the store is a general place for makers and it doesn’t limit what they can sell. The store has an emphasis on fiber crafts, with several cross-stitching, embroidery, weaving, DIY kits and sewing supplies offered. But books, house plants, cards, candles and other gifts also can be found on Maker General’s shelves.
The mission at Maker General is to help anyone realize their creative potential. Maker General, which used to offer in-person workshops for various skill levels, moved all of its events online. However, this summer, Benoit said they hope to host pop up shops for artists and makers outside of the storefront.
Benoit described the store, which sits on the cross streets of Main Street and 4th Avenue, as a “community hub at the intersection of craft and social justice.”
Maker General sells items with progressive messages including a cross-stitch DIY kit that says “Smash the Patriarchy,” from an independent company Junebug and Darlin. The store offers clothing patterns with an inclusive sizing range, XS to 4X, from the small business 100 Acts of Sewing.
Maker General offers its own DIY embroidery and cross stitch kits. Benoit said people of color aren’t represented in patterns so they made their own. They sell kits with portraits of Black leaders and figures, including Prince, Harriet Tubman and Stacy Abrams with the cross-stitch text “Shero.” Maker General donates 5% from their DIY kits to the Colorado Freedom Fund.
The majority of items offered are hand-picked from small independent makers. Sterling said they are mindful of who they purchase from and are always looking to support diversity amongst the merchant pool, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists. Though purchasing wholesale items is a more cost-effective way to stock a craft store, buying from small businesses enables Maker General to represent diverse makers.
“There are distributors out there that wholesale everything, but you're not gonna get a lot of our representation among those companies that can afford to have their items distributed widely like that,” Sterling said.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges — such as a loss of foot traffic — Benoit said they have connected more with the crafting community online. They are meeting more creatives to work with that they wouldn’t have met in person. 100 Acts of Sewing creator Sonya Philip, based in San Francisco, is holding a virtual launch of her new book “The Act of Sewing: How to Make and Modify Clothes to Wear Every Day” with Maker General on Apr. 29.
Sterling said the crafting community still has a way to go when it comes to inclusivity, but dialogues on diversity are becoming more frequent. Consumers are being mindful of who they support with their dollars, and Maker General carries items from BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creators.
“What's happening is people are being more deliberate about where they're spending their money. Where they're giving their likes, and who they're sharing and who they're engaging with online,” Sterling said. “I don't think that we're like justice warriors. But we try to be thoughtful about where we're spending what we're putting out in the world.”