Running a Small Business

The heading for a Toronto Star article about my "creative family" - I was very excited to miss school for a whole day of school to meet with the reporter.

The heading for a Toronto Star article about my mother. I still remember how excited I was to miss school for a whole day to meet with the reporter.

When I was a child, my mother made hand-painted silk scarves for a living. She made them in our house, spreading them out to paint them and then sprinkling them with salt, which shifted as the brightly-coloured dyes dried, creating mesmerizing patterns. She worked late into the night, especially before Christmastime. The production process from start to finish was visible to me and my two sisters, and we often helped out with simple tasks like ironing and packaging. She sold the scarves at craft shows that were full of eager buyers, and I spent a lot of time exploring those shows, meeting other craftspeople and admiring their work.

Now I am older than she was then, I have three children, and I’m a designer/maker too. Sometimes when I’m exhibiting my work at craft shows, as I often do, I meet people who have been doing this since I was a child, and I wonder how they’ve managed to turn handmade production into their life’s work. Is it still possible to support a family in this unusual way today?

I asked Rosemary Thorpe, who with her husband Jerry was at those craft shows of my childhood and is still doing them today, their wooden toy business thriving after more than thirty years. They are living proof that bigger is not always better. They both work on Thorpe Toys full time, making everything in their home-based workshop, using wood cut-offs from local businesses (recycling what would otherwise end up as waste), and have no employees, making only what they can produce themselves. This keeps costs low, so they can keep their toys affordable. The wood is left unfinished, creating a natural look that appeals to environmentalists, do-it-yourselfers, and toxic-toy avoiders (i.e. most parents and grandparents). What a great example of a smart, sustainable handmade business.

Jerry and Rosemary Thorpe in their booth at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto

Jerry and Rosemary Thorpe in their booth at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto

But even if a few smart makers have figured out a formula for their own success, what about the field in general? The world is less conducive to this kind of work today than it once was; many of the goods in our homes and on our bodies are cheaper and more disposable than ever. Not long ago it wasn’t uncommon to knit or sew to save money; now the materials alone are often more expensive than buying a manufactured product. The people who make most of our stuff do so under less-than-ideal conditions, but most of the time we don’t mind. Many people throw things away and replace them without a second thought.

Under these conditions, is handmade doomed? Will people willingly seek out and pay more for something when a cheaper option is so readily available? And even if a customer recognizes the value and greater longevity of a handmade product, in this world of fast and disposable do they even care?

This is an important question for professional artisans. Without customers, there would be no handmade industry. Without handmade and locally-made products, we’d be left with only mass-produced stuff, often homogeneous and on a race to the bottom of the price spectrum, even if people and natural resources are abused along the way.

Am I worried? Not at all. In fact, I expect that demand for handmade and locally-made products will grow, not shrink. Am I a chronic optimist? Absolutely. But here’s why I’m so convinced that handmade has a healthy future:

1)    Buying something made fairly or locally just feels better. Awareness of the benefits of eating locally-produced food has skyrocketed in recent years. Our understanding about the real costs of industrial far-away farming has grown so much, and so too will our awareness of the real costs of dirt cheap far-away production of goods. The more the media reports about the crises arising from environmental and human neglect by some of the worst factories overseas, the harder it becomes for us to turn our backs on this reality.

2)    A desire for unique objects is even stronger in an environment of increasingly mass-produced sameness. Our common desire to wear clothing that expresses who we are and to surround ourselves with special objects that define us (think of the perfect scarf keeping us warm, art on the walls that stirs us, or morning coffee drunk from a special mug) will continue to drive many people to search out handmade work.

3)    Do-it-yourself hobbies are thriving. Knitting, quilting, sewing, woodworking — you name it, it’s growing. Not because it’s cheaper than buying things (it’s not), but because it’s so rewarding. Lots of people are spending their leisure time learning traditional skills and enjoying the feeling of creativity and self-sufficiency that brings. Whether it remains a hobby or grows into a business, the impulse to create is strong. Along with that impulse lives a natural appreciation for the creations of talented others.

4)    We’re hardwired for social connection. When you know something about the maker of your favourite dress, or mug, or belt, that connection adds an extra dimension to your enjoyment of that object. My handmade maple salad bowl bought from the craftsman who made it (Don Stinson, shown below) cost much more than a wooden bowl from Ikea, but my enjoyment of it over the years has vastly overshadowed that of any mass-produced bowl I have ever owned. We can’t easily surround ourselves with only handmade or locally-made objects, but even a few can enhance our sense of connection every day.

Don Stinson makes incredibly beautiful wooden bowls. His son Jesse works with him. Like the Thorpes, they run a thriving family business.

Don Stinson (left) makes incredibly beautiful wooden bowls. His son Jesse works with him. Like the Thorpes, they run a thriving family business centred on handmade production.

Most people love a bargain, and many don’t care how or where things are made. But for those of us who do, I think we’re on the cusp of a burgeoning interest in handmade, with growing numbers of people finding satisfaction in creative enterprise, and growing numbers of customers looking for unique sustainably and ethically-made products.

If you care about handmade, please pass it on!

Happy New Year,
Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design

p.s. You can check out Thorpe Toys at and Stinson Studios at


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!

On April 24, we all heard about a factory building collapsing in Bangladesh. Dozens of people were declared dead, and it was horrifying to hear about this tragedy unfolding from afar. Photos of the scene showed a garment labelled Joe Fresh, and Canadian consumers suddenly felt they had played a part in this tragic event.

Now twelve days later, the death toll tops 600. Terrible grief has come to countless people in Bangladesh, and journalists around the world have grappled with the questions raised – some searching for solutions, others laying blame. Many shoppers have been questioning their role. Major retail players whose clothing was known to have been made in the building, namely Joe Fresh in Canada and Primark in the U.K. (with overlapping corporate ownership), have announced plans to compensate the victims and to change the way they work in Bangladesh. In this they were recently joined by a few other clothing retailers whose garments were also found in the rubble. Would they be doing so if their connection to the building had not been exposed? We have no way of knowing.

What next? The scale of this tragedy is enormous – I hope it will turn out to be a defining moment that changes the way we all think about where our clothing is made, and under what conditions. The Facebook page for Joe Fresh is packed with comments expressing outrage at the company’s abuses, and vowing to shop elsewhere. But where?

I am a huge advocate for buying local, but I know that Canadians cannot live on Canadian-made products alone. Our manufacturing sector is simply too small. Trade barriers are one challenge: Canadian manufacturers pay high duties on raw materials (such as cotton, which needs to be imported), while clothing made in Bangladesh arrives in Canada duty-free. And as we all know, vast wage differences have changed the geography of manufacturing, with clothing production often relegated to the poorest countries. We don’t want people to be harmed making products for us, but we don’t want to pay dramatically higher prices.

What is a conscientious consumer to do?

If you are concerned about the people making products for you being treated with respect and human dignity, you may wish to support an organization that’s committed to improving labour conditions overseas, or petition for stronger regulation of imports to Canada. You may choose to pay closer attention to where the products you buy come from. Many companies describe their policies on their websites, and some only use certified factories. But be aware that unless there is direct oversight in the producing country (not just occasional inspection visits), there is a great deal of subcontracting — and standards are difficult to control. Boycotting a company that has not adhered to decent labour standards will send a message, but be aware that others may be worse offenders. And if a garment is dirt cheap, you can be reasonably certain that that the person who made it is dirt poor. If this matters to you, pay closer attention to your buying habits. The cheapest, most exploited labour is often used for the cheapest garments. A higher quality garment will last longer and may save you money and effort in the long run, regardless of where it is made.

If you want to buy Canadian, there are a lot of excellent Canadian-made products available if you know where to look. Websites such as,, and  list thousands of products that are made in Canada. Retail craft shows such as the One of a Kind Show and smaller shows across Canada showcase Canadian-made products (both functional and decorative) and list them on their websites. And some independently-owned stores across Canada search for Canadian-made goods for their customers. If you want more local products, let your local retail businesses know, so that you can influence their buying decisions.

Have the garment factory tragedies in Bangladesh, and the recent discussions about worker safety and exploitation encouraged you to change your shopping habits? Do you feel empowered to influence the way our clothing is made, or overwhelmed? I’d love to know how this rising awareness has affected your decision-making, as well as the strategies you employ to shop with a clear conscience.

Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design

As a student of arts administration several years ago, I learned about a survey in which the vast majority of urban residents said they were very happy to have a ballet company located in their city, but only a small percentage actually attended ballet performances.  As we have all learned from Facebook, it’s far easier to like something than to do something.

A few years ago I received an order from an independent children’s boutique in a small Ontario city. This beautiful shop had existed for many years, and featured many Canadian-made products. When I visited to meet the owner, I noticed a large Loblaws store just a few steps away, with enormous Joe Fresh banners featuring children’s clothing.

“What’s that like, being virtually next door?” I asked the owner. “The price competition must be a challenge.” Indeed it was.  A few months later, she decided to close up shop.

I don’t know precisely what went into making that decision, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that the choices of local shoppers had something to do with it. It’s hard to resist a great bargain – why buy adorable locally-made clothing when you can buy adorable cheap clothing?

I’ll tell you why. And I’m telling you this not just as a person who runs a small business with local production (honest!) but also as a mother on a tight budget. Today we heard of a catastrophic building collapse in Bangladesh, a factory that was allegedly making clothing for Joe Fresh and The Children’s Place, for Canadian consumers. Those tragedies happen because demand for low prices pushes down wages and safety standards. That’s the price paid for our fantastic bargains.

iStock_000023879590Small_Window Shopping

Thinking appreciative thoughts as you pass those cute independently-owned shops on your way to a big chain store doesn’t help to keep those businesses alive. But patronizing them does! The way I see it, buying local creates three big impacts:

  • It connects us to the people who make and sell the things we eat, use and wear every day. I don’t know about you, but I think that makes everyday life sweeter.
  • It keeps our local communities vibrant, busy, and interesting. Vive la différence! And perhaps most of all…
  • It ensures that we always have lots of choices about where to spend our money, and what products are available to us to bring into our homes and our lives. Local industry requires local participation, and it’s worth the effort.

Have you found ways to buy local more often, or more meaningfully? Is it a challenge? I would love to know your thoughts about this subject that’s literally close to home for so many of us.


I have to be honest – I hate the word mompreneur. It takes my identity as a designer and small business owner, which in my mind is separate from my identity as an exhausted mother of three, and squishes them together. I’d rather be known as a good designer/entrepreneur without the need for additional qualifiers. But.

The truth is, mothers running businesses do have an awful lot in common. We’re all tired, for starters. We share many of the same conflicts and challenges. And we’re very, very good at learning from each other.

A new book was released this week that I can’t wait to read. It’s called Mom Inc. and it was written by two very savvy mompreneurs, Amy Ballon and Danielle Botterell, partners in a successful business. Amy and Danielle have helped mentor me since the birth of Red Thread, and both are very smart and pragmatic. I’m glad they’re finally sharing their wisdom more widely, and I know they’ll help a lot of people get started on this crazy path armed with solid advice and a wealth of knowledge.

So what does it take to be a successful mompreneur? I am fortunate to know several, and I think the unifying factor is a combination of intense creativity and tenacity. It helps to be a great problem-solver, resourceful, and calm under pressure, the same skills that make great parents. For me, one of the things that has contributed the most to the growth of Red Thread has been the support of my family, friends, and customers. The funny thing about doing it on your own, is that you rarely are truly on your own. In this proud mompreneur’s humble opinion, surrounding yourself with a circle of support, and paying all that good karma forward, may be the smartest thing a budding mompreneur can do.

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

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