Susan Arnold displays and sells floor cloths from her Folk Floors booth at the Norwich Farmer's Market.

If You Make It, Will They Come?


Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
karen kaliski

People become artists because they want to make art, not because they want to sell art. I say that like I know it’s true. I’m pretty sure it is because it feels true and because I just talked to an artist about selling her art.

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Susan Arnold paints floor cloths. How to describe a floor cloth… It’s a unique work of art that’s so durable you can stand on it. Available in several standard and almost any custom size, the colors and patterns of Susan’s cloths don’t just perk up a floor, they perk up a room. They perk up the people standing on them.

The floor cloth market segment - people who have a floor – is gigantic. Selling them must be a breeze. According to Susan, who began painting floor cloths because she loves doing it, selling them takes a bit of effort.

Why isn’t selling floor cloths a breeze?

It’s probably true of all art but most people have to see floor cloths before they buy one. If you don’t know what a floor cloth is and see a picture, it looks like wallpaper. And they’re very unique. People don’t know about them. When I’m in my Norwich Farmer’s Market booth I hear people say things like “Oh these are cool” or “I have never seen these before.”

I had never seen floor cloths before until I saw yours. Did you invent them?

No, they date back to the Pilgrims. When they came to America they didn’t bring rugs. Their floors had holes and gaps that let in cold air so they used the ship’s canvas sales as floor coverings. They might have protected them with wax.

Did Pilgrims paint the canvas?

I don’t think so. They wouldn’t have had colors, maybe berry juice but not paint. And Pilgrims were busy. They had a lot going on.

How did you get your start with floor cloths?

I started in 1997, almost 20 years ago. One of my mother’s close friends created historic stencils and was using them to paint floors and floor cloths. She was teaching a class and needed someone to prepare white canvases for her. I wasn’t doing much, just raising four kids, and I helped her out. Painting canvases white was pretty boring so I made a few colorful floor cloths for myself and that was it.

So you had a product but needed to sell it. How did you find your first buyers?

I started selling at craft shows in Manchester and Stowe, Vermont, Saratoga, New York and a few places in Massachusetts. I still go to shows, they’re probably my most effective selling venue. Customers can see a wide variety of cloths and ask questions. We can talk about custom orders.

But shows cost money, you have to rent booth space and you have to travel. It’s hard to be away from your family.

It’s been great to have my floor cloths in several local stores too. The first to carry them was New Hampshire League of Craftsmen in Hanover and I’ve added Long River Studios in Lyme, Main Street Kitchens in Hanover, Main Street Pains in West Lebanon, and Chapman’s in Fairlee, Vermont.

My website brings in customers too. Last year I got a custom order from a Hollywood, California address. The customer must have found me online. I recently painted two runners for a customer who has a Cape Cod house. Her husband went to Dartmouth so there might have been some local connection but I think she found me online too.

How did you get store owners to sell your art?

All of the stores are local and I have personal connections with the owners. I didn’t have to hard sell.

I also make it really easy to carry my floor cloths. All sales are on commission so the store has nothing to lose. If they sell a cloth, they get their percentage. They don’t have to carry inventory. I keep track of what they have sold and replenish the stock. And, if they give out my card to someone who places a custom order, they get 10%.

You mentioned your booth at the Norwich Farmer’s Market…

Yes, I’m there every Saturday until October. The booth is my way to advertise floor cloths and educate people about how they’re made and cared for. There are lots of floor cloths on display and I can show people how they are edged and explain that the paint won’t wear off. I apply six coats of polyurethane so the cloths are very sturdy and easy to clean.

Besides selling “off the shelf” patterns and sizes you also make custom floor cloths. Which accounts for most of your business?

About 2/3 of my business is off the shelf. The other third is custom work that I do for clients who want to specify colors and patterns that work with their interiors. Some custom orders can be quite large. Other smaller cloths might fill a non-standard space. I get a lot of ideas from custom work. Clients ask for color combinations I might never think of on my own and I see patterns in their wall paper or upholstery.

I love custom orders because when I’m painting the cloth I know it’s sold. Then again, it feels really good to go into the basement and crank out canvases with my own patterns and colors.

Wouldn’t it be easier to sell wholesale? Just make floor cloths and leave the selling to someone else?

I already have to keep track of billing and payments and I really don’t like managing inventory. I’d want to hire someone to help me do that and I wouldn’t want to hire someone until I knew there would continue to be enough business to support that person.

Where do you see your business going?

I didn’t start with a business plan and still don’t have one. Of course, the idea is to always sell more and take more orders.

In addition to floor cloths I make note cards, jewelry, plaster paintings and magnets. It’s a bit of a mish mash. I love creating those other things but I see myself as a floor cloth artist. That’s my best work and the most unique.

Visit Susan and her floor cloths at the Norwich Farmer’s Market or online at folkfloors.com.

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