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 http://www.thorpetoys.com/ and Stinson Studios at http://stinsonstudios.ca/

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.

Sincerely,
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 http://www.thegreatmush-uke.com/ or visit him at the One of a Kind Show in booth X-24

Sandra’s beautiful “Dotti Potts” porcelain can be found at http://www.dottipotts.com/ 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 http://danielleoconnorjewellery.com/ or in booth T-33

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…

Ok, maybe that title is a bit lofty. But I thought I would give you a quick look into how each season’s designs come together, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.

First of all, you should know that if you plan to sell clothing through any stores, each season has to be designed pretty far in advance. It’s currently market season for the Fall/Winter season, which means that sales reps and designers are busy showing Fall samples for the lines they represent at wholesale shows around the world. Most stores do their Fall/Winter buying in the early Spring, so everything needs to be designed, sewn and photographed by February at the latest.  Fall clothing starts to ship to stores in August, which happens to be the same month that the Spring/Summer lines for next year are at market (they ship the following March, which is – you remembered! – Fall market time). Confused yet?

I used to sell all of my work myself, at great shows like the One of a Kind Show in Toronto, and my online store. Those were simpler days – I bought an assortment of fabric I loved in whatever quantity was available, then designed and sewed like crazy, creating a random variety of dresses. Now that I’m wholesaling, I need to buy fabric that’s currently being made, and create designs for an entire season at once. It’s much harder, but I love the way the creative juices flow when the pressure is on to create a whole collection of garments that work together. This Fall’s collection uses a wide variety of fabrics I love, including some gorgeous prints I imported from Japan, and I can’t wait to show them to you in August. Oh, forget it – I can’t wait that long. I promised a sneak peek so I’ll show you just one. I hope you like it! Stay tuned for the rest…