Armed with a crochet hook — one more tool than the standard-issue weapons cache of her fellow soldiers — Daya Johnson was in a battle against time.
Typically less than nine months.
“In the middle of Kuwait, I had a huge tough box that was full of yarn that I had my sister send me from the States,” Johnson said. “The entire time I was deployed, I was making baby blankets. I think I made 10 or 11.”
On active duty with the U.S. Army in 2016, an early iteration of her Daya & Me line of crocheted gifts was being tested like never before. In addition to Johnson’s military duties as a small arms and artillery repairer, she needled her entrepreneurial spirit to fill orders from other servicemembers.
“In the Army, there are pre-deployment babies and post-deployment babies — and in the middle people would find out that their wives or girlfriends were pregnant, which had them asking me to make baby things for them,” she said.
Four years later, Johnson — an Army sergeant, wife and mother of two, now stationed out of Fort Riley and active in Kansas City’s maker community — continues to grow Daya & Me as a tumultuous spring and summer 2020 turn into a profitable tour for the business.
“I wasn’t sure how my business would work in Kansas,” Johnson said, noting she’d fully transitioned the venture from interpersonal deals to an online etsy store before making the move. “But all I knew was that the need would still be there — as there are pregnant people in Kansas too!”
Click here to explore Daya & Me’s handmade gifts.
She has a gift
Developing her craft was a decades-long process for Johnson, she said.
“My twin sister started crocheting while we were in college and she was like, ‘Hey you should try this!’” Johnson said, detailing her first poke at the speciality stitch in 2003.
From there, her gift grew. When she was pregnant with her first daughter in 2009, her aunt showed her how to make granny squares — a classic motif that led Johnson to her first baby blanket designs.
“When I later joined the Army, I was pregnant again and I was looking at all these baby things that I couldn’t afford — so I just started sewing baby blankets, onesies, and nursing pillows, and all of my friends in the Army started asking me to make things for them,” she said, explaining how personal need birthed a word-of-mouth fledgling business.
“Slowly it started taking over my living room and my husband was like ‘Hey you have to start charging people because you are spending your own money to give things to people as a gift,’” Johnson added.
Mission on the homefront
When she returned stateside in March 2017 — swapping Kuwait for Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia — Johnson began dabbling with baby expos and expanded Daya & Me offerings.
“I made these tiny stuffed animals and baby blankets and that is when I realized I could do this as a real business. It just kind of took off from there,” she said. “I gained a lot of momentum just being in Georgia because I had done a lot of baby expos across the state.”
Now in the Midwest, that kind of exposure can be found at local craft and maker fairs like Strawberry Swing’s upcoming Summer Swing — where Johnson expects to showcase her products Aug. 1 alongside fellow Kansas City creatives.
In the run-up to the event, her crochet work — and sales — have actually benefited from social distancing restrictions that kept her largely housebound like many workers across the city.
“Right now, during COVID-19, I am able to stay home,” Johnson explained, noting she is homeschooling her children because schools and daycares shut down. “The Army was really cool about it because they knew I didn’t have child care available since my husband works for the hospitals in the Army — meaning he is mission essential.”
A canceled baby expo in April left her with an unexpected number of items in her etsy shop, but “When Black Lives Matter happened, I literally sold out of everything,” she said.
Exposure as a Black-owned business — as well as a maker that features products like dolls that reflect diverse ethnicities — proved she had her own critical mission at home.
“I think I have maybe four things that didn’t sell yet,” Johnson said.
Preparing to transition out of the Army soon, she sees continued opportunity in the maker space.
“I am really excited to use the rest of this year to see if it is sustainable to do my business full time,” Johnson said, eager to take the next step with Daya & Me.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.