When Jennifer St. Jean's college roommate got married about a year ago, St. Jean wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. Instead of buying a toaster or embroidered towels, St. Jean created small clutch bags for each member of her friend's bridal party.
A year later, what started as a gift to a friend has grown into a successful Internet business for the Darien mother of two. Her business is called Itty Bitty Bag, and in the last year she has sold more than 100 purses.
"I started blogging about it and writing on my Facebook page and friends of mine asked me to make bags for them," she said. "It really started by word of mouth and friends."
In April, St. Jean opened an account with Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods. She's used the Web as her storefront, advertising through Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Etsy and other Web sites.
That's how she met Nicole Lyons, owner of AllAboutDarien.com.
"She actually called me about advertising on my Web site, and it turns out that we both have toddlers the same age " and started our own businesses on the side," Lyons said.
The two women have since become friends, and Lyons has purchased a bag and a business-card holder from St. Jean.
It's the unique style, size -- the bags are truly itty bitty, starting at 5 inches across by 4.5 inches high by 3 inches deep -- and personal touches that set Itty Bitty Bag apart, Lyons said.
"I love the packaging and the way they're sent. They have pretty pink tissue, and a sticker that says Itty Bitty Bag. It's personal," she said. "And she has such fun names that she gives to the prints. The whole approach is the perfect combo of fun and stylish. She just sort of has it."
While St. Jean has received plenty of positive feedback from customers as far away as Spain, and offers to sell her bags at craft fairs and stores, she is determined to keep the business small at the moment.
"I've chosen just to stay by myself, grow this very slowly and take my time," she said.
"I don't want to go into a store and not be able to continue at my pace, and I don't want to be stressed," she said. "I want to find my niche and stick with that."
She's enjoying a more relaxed pace of life since leaving her job at Morgan Stanley last year.
"I went from a year-and-a-half ago, working 50 to 60 hours a week, to working at my own pace," she said.
She currently works from a studio on the second floor of her Mansfield Avenue home. She gets the most sewing done when her 2-year-old daughter Emma is napping and 5-year-old Abby is at school.
That's not to say that the girls don't get involved in the process.
"I'm teaching my girls how to sew," she said.
Sewing is something she grew up with, and she wants her girls to have the same appreciation for the craft as she does.
"My mom was very into sewing," she said. "She made my prom dress. I wanted a Jessica McClintock dress, and she said, `I can make that.' We went to the store and got the satin, and she made me almost an exact replica."
Her daughter Abby recently made a ballet bag with her mother's help.
"Abby and I went out and she picked out the fabric that she wanted to use and brought it home," St. Jean's husband, Shawn, said. "Jen sat down with her and they created the bag together. She's even made some little bags out of paper using construction paper. She really enjoys watching Jen do it, and helping out wherever she can. She does drawings all the time; she's coming up with bag ideas all the time."
The whole business is a family affair. Shawn St. Jean is in charge of photographing the products so they can be posted online.
"It's not like a job that you sort of go to and work 9 to 5 and sort of leave your work at the office," Shawn St. Jean said. "It's much more a part of Jen as a person, and it's really becoming a part of the family -- not just by geography because the studio is in the house, but because everybody's been able to take a real interest in it and play a real role in it."
Shawn St. Jean said he is impressed with what his wife has accomplished in the last year.
"The bag business really started off as a one-time gift. Then she said, `This is something I'm pretty good at and enjoy doing it,'" he said. "I look at what she's built, and it's really pretty impressive having just started it this year. It's been a very, very impressive how she's built this up in such a short period of time. I'm definitely proud of her."
And while she has no plans to expand in the near future, Jennifer St. Jean isn't going to slow down, either.
"I love sewing. I find it very relaxing. It's my therapy," she said.
She also finds happiness in making sales.
"It's the reaction I get from fans and customers once I get feedback. I get goose bumps," she said. "It's nice to bring a smile to someone else's face. It's very rewarding."