Two years ago, Kristina Henderson had a nascent home-poured candle business with a memorable name — Cultivating Luminescence — and a dedicated word-of-mouth fan base.
But a chance encounter with Ladyfingers Letterpress in October 2020 gained Henderson more than a consignment space and some printing services. Within weeks, Ladyfingers founder Morgan Calderini had stepped up with a multifaceted mentoring program that included basement studio space in the Ladyfingers building on Acacia Park. By late 2021, Henderson became convinced the candle business had staying power.
This holiday season could bring big changes to Cultivating Luminescence. The company has begun a wholesale distribution effort through Faire, and is working with Ladyfingers to develop a social media strategy to augment its web presence.
When the company was small, Henderson went through several instances of a “candle pour” being sold out within 24 hours. With a nationwide clientele and a wholesale operation, even an expanded studio operation could experience sellouts unless Henderson carefully considers when she has the overhead to hire more staff. In any event, she knows that Ladyfingers has her back.
Were creative arts and crafting a fundamental part of your youth?
Not at all. I’m from an urban area in the Northeast. There wasn’t much room for growth for people of color in those areas. For me, the notion that I could have a job I would, first, enjoy, and second, would mean something to me in helping others, wasn’t even on my list of considerations. I came to Colorado Springs four years ago as a military wife — I was a military wife for 16 years. I came to Colorado Springs after living all over the country, and I’m attempting to make this my home — a little bit. When you travel so much, you get that bug inside you, and you want to continue exploring.
Which came first, Ladyfingers or the candles?
Oh, the candles. I had been making them for quite a while. It was a total fluke that I entered their store. I was looking for somewhere to print dust covers for my candles. I brought a few in to size up the dust covers. Morgan was so sweet; she said, ‘We don’t do that here, but I know someone who can help you.’ I was such a bad salesperson when I was starting out, it didn’t occur to me to try to get them in the store on consignment. I messaged them on their website, asking the details of taking items on commission, and she immediately responded, ‘Come in. Come talk to me.’ I brought several candles in, and she loved them.
What got you into making candles? Did you have a mentor there?
I didn’t have a mentor getting started. I just knew what I liked, and I knew what I needed. The military lifestyle can put such pressure on spouses. Candles have always been the one thing for me that can help me relax. Some people take baths, some people drink tea, for me it was always candles. In my first few batches of candles, making a business out of this was the farthest thing from my mind, though I might have hoped for it once or twice. I began by making candles only for myself, and choosing the scents that brought me peace.
Prior to taking the candles around to retail outlets, did you ever try sales at festivals or craft shows?
Never. I enjoy artisans in their work, I enjoy grassroots types of festivals. When I’d stop and watch people create, I’d think that I would want to create something. But somehow I never thought of myself as being very talented. There was definitely a space for this, though. The first time they went up on the Ladyfingers site, they sold out within hours. I thought that was crazy, and then it happened again. Two sellouts became many. I would pour batches, put them online, go to sleep, and they’d be gone in the morning.
The discussion with Ladyfingers began as a pure commission conversation, and almost immediately, it becomes a limited-supply item?
I could not pour the candles fast enough. I don’t think Morgan expected it either, and it was probably a factor that led to the wider relationship. We started making these ‘candle drop’ announcements — ‘Hey people, the candles are hitting the web sites at 6 p.m.’ — and zoom, they’re gone before 7.
What do you attribute that to? There’s no shortage of people who love candles, but this is like a fan-club craze.
There was just a big hole in the market. You wouldn’t find these kind of candles in Bath & Body Works. These are for people from many different lifestyles who connect with certain kinds of scents. We want to make sure we meet the price points of people with different means, to give everyone a possibility to connect to certain scents.
When did Ladyfingers move to promote a donation button for you to grow, offer you studio space — all those things you needed?
They began to notice in early 2021 not only the sellouts, but repeat sales – the same people were buying candles over and over. I began my sales during the pandemic, which means a lot of people could not come into the store and smell for themselves. They were buying on blind faith.
"They can be as effective as a nonprofit because so many people love them.”
As we began to open up in 2021, the first thing Morgan asked is, ‘How can I help?’ The virtual tip jar was intended for a variety of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC businesses, but I was an early specific recipient. They raised more than $11,000. When I mentioned how difficult it was to pour candles in the kitchen with two kids during pandemic, she recognized I needed space, I needed better packaging.
Offering that kind of free leased space to some partners may not have worked, but you had the need for a pouring area of just the right size. Did the partnership grow incrementally, or did Ladyfingers approach you with a package of helping options?
The belief in community is so strong there, the offerings grew organically as we sat and talked about what the business would need. Morgan always had the faith that the community would rally behind the cause, and they did. It became clear to me about September or so of last year, preparing to move into the studio space, that this could be something really good. The help all was local. Houndstooth Design, who created the packaging, was local then — though she’s moved to Denver since then. The people who helped me paint the studio were all local. When it was finished, I was starstruck that this is what it could mean, coming in to work every day!
For package design, you’re lucky you work with people who have one of the few surviving letterpress machines in town.
The first thing Morgan said when she first saw my candles was, ‘Well what do you want to do about these labels?’ I took the hint. Some of the packages are printed offsite in a Weber Street shop now, but the quality of a letterpress design shows.
So you’re entering the holiday season with new labels, an improved inventory, but are you nervous as you add wholesale?
I’m extremely nervous! It’s still just me pouring right now — no employees to pour for me. My process involves taking my time and adding intention to my work. So this is all nerve-wracking, no doubt.
You’ve just started teaching classes at Ladyfingers. Are they well-attended? Could some students become a staff in the future?
The classes were full and the interest was genuine and very high. In the classes I try to put out as many oils as I can and have everyone smell them. Every oil I use is eco-friendly, but I try to show a sense of reason about essential oils. You have to use them carefully, as some can even be toxic! As for expanding, every decision I make can be mine alone, and I have to look at overhead very carefully. But now I know there are people who know the craft, and it is certainly my intention to one day have employees.
And Ladyfingers has been supportive in moving into wholesale?
Absolutely — Morgan even showed me how to set up the Faire account. But this leads to the issue of what a social media presence on a regional or national basis might look like. I don’t use social media very often, and the best mix to use could change all the time. Is a Faire account and a presence on many retail websites enough, or do I need a presence on Instagram or something? I really need some help defining that.
Many larger craft businesses have had such a tough time in 2022 with supply chains. You’re in fairly good shape with locally sourcing your raw materials, but did you find this year a challenge?
There have been times where I’ve been waiting for weeks wondering if I’m going to run out of something — but my problem is common with just about everybody.
Do you see it as a benefit that Ladyfingers is such a community locus, not just for LGBTQ+ and women’s communities, but for social and cultural communities at large?
I hope people recognize how Ladyfingers is quick to move on a whole variety of issues. The food pantry was going to close; Ladyfingers was there. More help was needed for Christmas toys in disadvantaged communities; Ladyfingers was there. They can be as effective as a nonprofit because so many people love them. And you can bet that means the world to me in growing a business. I feel not only accepted, but celebrated.