Former federal worker crafts second career

At first, retirement wasn’t easy for Darla Schaefer.

Darla Schaefer

Her job as a federal environment program manager kept her so busy with traveling that she didn’t have time for crafts outside of the holidays. After she left her job in 1999, she went from one art class to another, trying to find something that intrigued her.

But that changed when a friend gave her a painted flower that had been made from a plastic bottle.

Schaefer was intrigued with how it was made, wondered if she could make her own and how she could do it differently. So she began experimenting with plastic bottles and different types of fabric until she managed to create flowers with colorful designs.

Soon, friends started putting in requests and Bloom’n Bottles was launched two years ago.

“I was hooked,” said Schaefer, a 64-year-old Glen Burnie resident. Her signature product is the flower decoration that can be used as a bottle stopper.

“I wanted a design on mine, especially leopard,” she said. “That ended up being my most popular flower.”

At least 56 percent of U.S. households have someone who crafted once during 2010, contributing to the country’s $29.2 billion craft and hobby industry. The Craft & Hobby Association conducted an attitude and usage study where it tracked the sales and participation levels of different crafting categories.

Floral decorating was a $1.3 billion industry, with 13.6 million households participating.

Woodworking and woodcrafts made the most money, with $3.3 billion in sales.

Drawing was the most popular, with 21.1 households.

Schaefer’s work ethic is one shared by millions of baby boomers, many of whom plan to keep working after retirement. The AARP estimated that 80 percent of them will work past the traditional retirement ages of 62 to 65 and reshape their professional lives as small business owners, consultants or part-time workers.

Schaefer promotes her business mainly through word of mouth and various craft shows. Most recently, she went to the Timonium Home and Garden Show and picked up a few new orders. Now she’s working on four flower bottle stoppers, two bouquet arrangements. Her products start at $35. She also makes magnets and doorsages that can drape over doors instead of wreaths.

Baltimore County resident Zivah Ring first spotted Schaefer at a craft fair. She inquired about the flowers she was carrying, and Schaefer offered to make her an arrangement. Since then, Ring has purchased flower bottle stoppers and pins. When she’s buying gifts for friends, she tells Schaefer the color palette of their home so the flowers will match.

“It’s just a piece of art that so different and so unique that you don’t go anywhere else to see it,” Ring said. “That’s why I love it. I always look for something unique so that when I have it in my home, I won’t see it in someone else’s home.”

Artistic family

Schaefer’s first work area was on her long sofa that sat away from the wall. But as her business expanded, so did her merchandise. Her husband, Ron, built a shelf in the basement for her. Now she has it set up with the tools of the trade — four airbrushes, glue, wire, a mini saw and a Dremel drill. Then there are her nonconventional products, such as paper towels, napkins and thousands of soda and water bottles.

To start, Schaefer cuts out the bottom of a bottle into a shape of flower. She covers it with fabric and goes over it with a heat gun to make the petals bloom. The process requires her to make layers of these formations, some parts from 12-ounce Coke bottles and some from miniature Aquapods. She has found that her collection of 2-liter bottles works best with the doorsages, whereas the Aquapods and soda bottles are best for the bottle stoppers.

Schaefer does her work by request, and her favorite way to do it is by visiting a customer’s home first. That way she can take pictures of the designs in the carpet or the color of other furnishings so she can know how to approach the project. When her doctor moved to a new office, Schaefer made her an arrangement that fit in with the waiting room carpet. She finds the corresponding fabric in a variety of ways, using anything from lace to party napkins for the designs.

The Schaefer home is an artistic one. Her great uncle was Walter Lenox, a ceramicist who founded the Ceramic Art Company. President Woodrow Wilson was the first of six presidents to use the Lenox china, and the Obamas used it for their first state dinner in 2009.

Ron Schaefer is also an artist. He carves ducks, but hasn’t reached the point where he’s ready to sell them because the process takes so long. A carving of a mallard drake took him three months to produce, and another took two months.

“If I had a show now, I’d show three pieces,” said Ron Schaefer, chief compliance officer for the state’s emergency medical services. “The more I do it, the faster I get.”

Darla Schaefer has already seen her holiday orders come in. This year, she said she’s hoping people do something different for their Christmas decorations.

“I tell everyone that my goal in life is to switch everyone from a wreath to a doorsage,” Schaefer said. “How many hundreds of years have we been using wreaths? It’s time to switch to something else.”

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