Behind the Scenes

As I prepare for the opening of the One of a Kind Show & Sale*, which begins next week in Toronto, I’m looking forward to seeing the work of hundreds of other craftspeople, or more broadly, makers; artists, designers, cooks, small-scale entrepreneurs.  It’s energizing being in a room with so many people who have similar aspirations and challenges.  Some people work alone and others have partners or staff who contribute to certain aspects. Some approach this work as art, and others as business, but even though our products and goals vary we have a lot in common.

Potter Sandra Silberman (right) and jeweler Danielle O'Connor enjoyinga  light moment with Sandra's porcelain necklaces at the One of a Kind Show

Potter Sandra Silberman (right) and jeweler Danielle O’Connor enjoying a light moment with Sandra’s porcelain necklaces at the One of a Kind Show

Many people who appreciate handmade goods wonder about the lives of the people who make them.  For those wonderful people who support us and are genuinely curious about this unusual way of making a living, here are my completely subjective top ten facts about career craftspeople:

1. It’s a tough way to make a living.

Sometimes the price tags on handmade goods seem high, but when you factor in the labour and skill, and the material and overhead costs involved in producing things this way, profits tend to be slim. While we are occasionally blown away by stories of artists or designers striking it rich, the vast majority make do with incomes that are modest – and that is putting it politely. Some of us supplement our incomes through teaching, adding a wholesale element to our businesses, or doing other work part-time. Some of us draw upon an entrepreneurial passion to squeeze the maximum possible benefit from our creative efforts. Any way you approach this work, it’s a challenging ride.

2. Most of the time, we love what we do.

Most people know the joy of creating something with their own hands, or conceiving of something and then watching it come to fruition. For many of us it feels like a privilege to be able to live a creative life, and despite the challenges, we don’t take that feeling for granted. It’s a thrill to create something and then see others enjoying it.

Ross Stuart makes tin can banjos and ukuleles that sound fantastic. You won't find anything this original at the mall.

Ross Stuart makes tin can banjos and ukuleles that sound fantastic. You won’t find anything like this at the mall.

3. We have a high tolerance for risk and ambiguity.

People who prefer to walk down a clear, linear path in their lives do not often choose to be artists or craftspeople. It’s a topsy-turvy world, and you never know what will happen next. We need to be brave enough to take risks with our work and to make mistakes, and smart enough to learn from them. Last year Forbes Magazine named “a tolerance for ambiguity” as “the one key trait for successful entrepreneurs” and I think that easily applies to artists and makers as well.

4. We’re jealous of your paycheque, but not enough to quit.

Once in a while, when our customers spend large amounts of money with ease, we feel a tiny bit envious of their financial security.  Ironically, some of us could not afford to buy our own products if they were made by others (a reality that we sometimes overcome by trading goods with one another).  But most of us feel that the freedom to direct the course of our work lives creatively and with an entrepreneurial spirit wins out over the security of a steady paycheque.

5. We have a strong sense of community.

The camaraderie that develops at craft shows is unbeatable. For most artists and craftspeople, work is quiet, focused, and solitary or in small groups. Bring hundreds of us together, and we’re an instant community. Give us a crisis and we will work together to overcome it.  I have witnessed collections taken up by strangers for fellow show exhibitors who have suffered a great personal or financial loss, people rushing to help rescue artwork from a collapsing booth, and generous sharing of tools, supplies, and labour.  When the show is done, we celebrate our successes and count our losses together.

6. We’re vulnerable to theft.

As the audience for handmade goods has grown, so has the frequency of knockoffs. On sites like Etsy, for example, where many craftspeople sell their work, there have been several documented cases of goods being rampantly copied and sold as original handmade pieces. This image from the Etsy website shows twelve sellers of a virtually identical necklace, with eleven of the sellers shipping from China and all claiming that the necklace is handmade. I wonder who designed the first one. There are many cases of larger companies copying the work of small-scale artists without any acknowledgment or compensation, and it’s a tough battle to fight.

etsy copying

Etsy sellers who are upset with the growing number of knockoffs on the site have been creating product ‘treasuries’ like this one to illustrate their concern.

7. We’re sensitive.

If you declare to your best friend that you think our work is ugly or overpriced and we are standing right next to you, we can hear you and our feelings will be hurt. And if you try to haggle with us over price, we will be offended. Would you ask your dentist or accountant for a discount? For many of us, this is the way we earn money to support our families. And like everyone, we want our work to be valued.

8. We’re tough.

If a storm damages our display, we’ll fix it on the spot with whatever materials we can find. A challenging year for sales? We’ll design something new, or reach out to our customers in different ways. Tenacity is the norm in the world of handmade, and I’m constantly impressed by the grit and determination of my fellow makers.

9. We like media attention.

Even those of us who are shy appreciate having our work featured in the media. For a large company, being featured in a magazine’s list of “fabulous finds” is likely one of countless PR activities, but for a small-scale maker it can have tremendous impact. If you work for a media outlet that promotes products, consider promoting handmade to your audience. The spin-off benefits of promoting small can be big, benefiting both makers and consumers.

10. We appreciate our customers deeply.

Even though we chose to do this for a living, we couldn’t do it without our customers. When you support a maker by buying their work, you are helping to create the right conditions for more good work to be created. How do we show our appreciation for this support?  We endeavour to make art or to design products that will give you enjoyment, value and pleasure.  We listen to you and try to create pieces that you will love. And in a world where so much is cheaply manufactured and disposable, we work to create things of real quality. We appreciate you deeply for making this possible.

Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design
Red Thread Design will be at the One of a Kind Show in booth R-30

*The One of a Kind Show and Sale takes place from November 28-December 8, 2013 in Toronto. More information is available on the show website

You can see Ross’s tin can instruments at or visit him at the One of a Kind Show in booth X-24

Sandra’s beautiful “Dotti Potts” porcelain can be found at or at the show in booth R-32

You can’t see any of Danielle O’Connor’s gorgeous jewelery in this post, but you can check it out at or in booth T-33

Thankfully, there are no actual tornadoes in this story.

Thankfully, there are no actual tornadoes in this story.

Have you heard the one about the torrential downpour that crushed people’s tents overnight as they slept?  Or the passerby who stood and watched calmly as her dog peed on a stunning handmade women’s dress on display, and then just shrugged and walked away? How about the sudden wind that took out so much hand blown glass, dozens of people nearby froze in horror?

It’s not all fun and games at a summer craft show. In those pretty rows of tents, populated by smiling artists, there are a lot of stories to be told.

My first summer at the Muskoka Arts and Crafts Show (coming up this year from July 19-21), I drove right up to my allotted space and excitedly began unpacking my tent. First I slowly expanded its metal frame, a process that takes less than a minute with two people but eons with only one, preparing to spread the nylon roof fabric on top so that the tent could be raised to its full height. I was thrilled to be there and happy to work at my own pace, as usual.

Then the sun disappeared and the skies opened up. A sudden slamming of rain fell upon us, the kind of rain that slaps against your forced-closed eyelids and makes them burn. The few people who were around quickly scurried into their cars to take cover until it passed. But I could not, for I was holding on to the corner of a 10’x10’ tent frame that was not yet secured to the ground, and that would surely be carried away to god-knows-where if I let go of my grip for a moment. I stood immobile, with closed eyes, feet planted wide for stability, as the rain soaked through to my bones. I held on with all my might as the wind lifted the other legs of the tent frame off the ground, and I waited.

How did this story end? Successfully, of course, as do most small calamities. The downpour soon stopped and the work of setting up was finished for the day. I secured my tent to the ground as though my life depended on it, and went to a friend’s house to enjoy the evening, trying to ignore the rainy night. I arrived the next morning at the park to find a still-standing tent, and enjoyed three beautiful days of meeting new customers, selling summer dresses, chatting with other exhibitors, and drinking lemonade.

And as for those other exhibitors I told you about, for whom things did not go so well? They were fine too. At the Cabbagetown Show last year when the rain destroyed numerous tents overnight, people rallied to help those who’d lost their tents to “rebuild,” many in impressively creative ways, and the show went on. The glassblower recovered quickly too, as all glass artists do.  And as for the dog pee? Well, life isn’t perfect. But it’s pretty damn close, when you’re strolling around at a summer craft show, enjoying beautiful things and of course, drinking lemonade.

I hope you’re soaking up all that summer has to offer.

All the best,

Red Thread Design

p.s. Have you ever experienced a craft show calamity? Please share your story with us!

A few weeks ago I did another photo shoot, this time for my Spring/Summer 2012 line. Once again my amazing photographer Lise Varrette worked her magic, this time in her new studio space over a five-hour period with a total of nine children! The children were amazing and the photos are beautiful.

As I reflect on these twice-yearly photo shoots I can’t help but feel that in addition to tracking my development as a designer, they’re also tracking the growth of my three daughters, my nieces and nephews, and our beloved friends who have generously acted as my models, some for years.

My Caterpillar Dress is a particularly difficult one to photograph well. Because one size fits from about 1-4 years, I like to show it on different ages in the same photo to illustrate its flexibility. But it can be challenging to photograph a 12-month-old, and I don’t know very many right now (all the children in my life are growing too quickly!). Visiting friends with tiny toddler twins fit the bill perfectly. Their older “helper” was the lovely Anika, turning 4 next month, the daughter of other beloved friends. Acting as the senior model with two rowdy toddlers was certainly not the easiest task Anika has undertaken, but she handled her role with aplomb.  Here’s one of the photos I love, showing Anika with little Alia:

The thing that I love most about these shots is that Anika was once the baby in these photos. Here she is at the age of 11 months, not quite walking on her own, modeling the Caterpillar Dress with my daughter Georgia, then 3 and a half. Little Anika held on to the brick wall and shuffled along, turning every so often to check out the camera, while Georgia, amused, shuffled along with her to stay in the frame. Sometime Georgia would take Anika’s hands to steady her and there were quite a few amusing moments.

Fourteen months later, just after turning two, Anika modeled the same dress, and to say that she was delicious would be a huge understatement. Anika is quite tall for her age, so it was already getting a little too short to wear as a dress.

Next month will be Anika’s fourth birthday and the start of kindergarten, and the dress still looks great on her as a top. As with all children we love, watching her grow has been a delight, and documenting our growth together through these fabrics and dresses and images feels much more like a wonderful journey together than just a photo shoot.

When I was a child, my mother had a thriving small business designing hand-painted silk scarves. When she was preparing for the One of a Kind Show, my sisters and I were all called into service. My favourite job was ironing the finished scarves, for which she paid me ten cents apiece (according to memory, the work was all voluntary). Being flat, the scarves were easy to iron and it was very satisfying seeing them transform from a wrinkled mess to shiny, smooth silk. It was pretty good work for a ten year old.

When I started Red Thread my children were too young to help, and as they’ve grown I’ve been reluctant to exploit their childlike industriousness. But they’re proud of this business that occupies their home: they and their friends are, after all, my target demographic, and many of their classmates profess to dreaming about becoming fashion designers.

With the Spring One of a Kind Show just one week away, I have many racks of bright new dresses in my house. This past weekend was set aside for tagging, and my youngest daughter Georgia, just turned 6, was raring to go. A good friend came over to help, and Georgia voluntarily worked alongside her for hours, absorbed in the task of putting the little stickers on the back of each hangtag. I was moved by her focus and patience, and am starting to reconsider the value of satisfying work for children who enjoy it. She was an enormous help, and she knew it. I wonder how long it will be until she demands a living wage for her efforts…

I sewed up a storm last week putting the finishing touches on my Fall 2011 Collection, which is now being shown at various wholesale markets. The most fun part of this whole process, of course, is the photo shoot! I work with a great photographer, Lise Varrette (, and every shoot we do together is better than the last, more creative and satisfying.

Red Thread has been photographed in a variety of locations, including a formal photo studio, on the beach, in the park, even the alley behind my house, next to my neighbour’s 100-year-old garage. Last year we photographed my fall collection in my living room, in a makeshift studio. But this time around was a first for me, a testament to the ability of a great photographer to find beauty anywhere.

Spring 2010, at the beach

Spring 2009, in the alley next to my neighbour’s garage

As you can see, I love to shoot outdoors. But this is not an option in February, at least not in Toronto. Lise and I talked about what we wanted to achieve for this shoot, and decided to do it at my house. But when she showed up with less equipment than usual, I was horrified to learn that rather than setting up a little studio in my living room, she planned to achieve the effect we’d discussed by shooting around my house, in nooks and crannies, doors and windows. She’s great at this, transforming ordinary spaces using light. But my house in February, when I’m engrossed in both Spring production and Fall design, is not a pretty sight, the ordinary mess of five busy people compounded by dozens of bolts of fabric, bags of buttons and trim, not to mention the teetering piles of paperwork.

Lise transformed my kitchen into a location in a matter of minutes. At first I watched in horror as she did several shots in my large window seat, once a lovely feature but now badly in need of repair, its wooden frames weakening and window glass streaked with moisture, its seal lost long ago. She then started moving around my house, using the windows as backdrops and as sources of glowing natural light.

Lise shooting in the window seat

Seeing the photos for the first time, especially those that were shot in the window seat, I was dumbfounded. The glass, cloudy and streaked, is stunning and luminous. I feel gratitude for this gifted photographer who took the pieces I’d worked so hard to create, and presented them in such a beautiful way, while also sharing a part of my home. Thanks Lise!

Nikola in the window, Fall 2011

When I first made the transition from sewing for the love of it to starting a business, I had a lot to learn about production sewing: planning for the best use of precious fabric with minimal wastage, ideal pattern layout, and sewing as efficiently as possible without losing any attention to detail. Because I love to use beautiful, high quality (therefore expensive) fabrics, pattern layout is of special interest to me. Ideally, to maximize yield, fabric should be non-directional so the pattern pieces can lie both up and down, and the print should be consistent throughout.

Breaking all of these rules in the name of beauty over function, I recently fell in love with this fabric from Japan. This fabric would certainly make beautiful curtains, but how could I use it for clothing? The answer was instantly clear to me, and it determined the design of two of my new pieces for Fall:

As you can see, the skirt is cut from the upper section of the fabric with its soaring birds in a woodblock-print style, simple and elegant. The dress is cut from the lower section, centering the birds on the chest regardless of pattern size. The lowest section of the fabric, the rich green leaves, and the areas in between each dress, were used to cut the smallest pattern pieces – the front and back facings. And thus a piece of fabric that at first glance seemed so wasteful turned out to be both efficient and beautiful, after all.

You drive toward a big park on a hot summer day, anticipating a great afternoon. The first thing you spot is a sea of white tents, the identical peaked roofs betraying none of the treasures this makeshift community is housing. As you approach on foot, the cluttered bursts of colour reveal themselves. Whatever you’re seeking, whether it be small treasures like locally made treats and jewelry, beautiful things for your home made from glass or wood, a piece of art, or an unplanned discovery and an enjoyable walk, you’re likely to find something you love and meet some engaging people.

When I was setting up my tent at my very first outdoor craft show (the Cabbagetown Festival in Toronto, still one of my favourites) my first thought was “who are these people?”  Some seasoned exhibitors came from far and wide with large trailers, traveling to a different community every weekend like creative nomads. Others seemed less sure of themselves, some showing their work to the public for the first time. I had rented my tent rather than buying one, not convinced this was the best place for me to be showing Red Thread, but willing to give it a try.

Me in the Red Thread tent at the Muskoka Show, July 2010

Five years later, I’m still doing outdoor shows (and my tent is nearing the end of its useful life). I love seeing the cast of amazing characters I’ve met over the years and seeing how their work is changing. Katie McLellan is a gorgeous textile and glass artist with a fantastic sense of colour, who makes whimsical wall collages from recycled fabrics. Rudy Kehkla creates stunning kinesthetic sculptures from wire, steel and rock, and has an infectious spirit and a smile to match. Robert from Henderson Farms has bright red hair and a great laugh, and makes the best jam ever (I lived my whole life hating jam until we met and I discovered his organic fig rhubarb marmalade) and also bakes delicious squares, which he generously shares with me when I need sustenance. Sandra Silberman, a great friend ever since we met at that first outdoor show five years back, makes stunning porcelain tableware that I use every day and covet at every show (and so does everyone else, judging by how busy her booth is!). I know it sounds like a cliché, but there really is something special about knowing the people who make the things you use and enjoy every day. If you take the time to chat with them about what they make and why, you’re sure to come away with some great stories, and a greater appreciation for the dedication that this kind of life requires.

The sense of community is quite strong at the craft shows I’ve attended over the years. There’s always someone willing to lend a hand if you’re in a pinch. And like sailors on a great ship together, our collective attention is focused on the skies. Rain is less than welcome, but the most destructive force at an outdoor show is wind. I’ve witnessed artwork damaged and tents crushed, and been amazed at how quickly people pull together to help. Putting yourself and your work at the mercy of nature may not seem like the wisest decision, but it’s worth it. At a time when we’re so disconnected from the makers of almost everything we own, it’s a great opportunity both for the customer and the artist to forge connections that benefit both of us, and make us all better appreciate the value of handmade.

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