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Messy Success & Straight-Up Failure

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I had to laugh it off when a well-meant friend referred to my adventure with ilex.every.day as my “sort of” business. The fact is, it’s true: I’ve “sort of” seen some successes. I’ve also seen a lot of failures. I’ve had a steep learning curve, and until lately, I’ve hesitated to call what I do a real business venture, comparing myself to others I perceive as more successful.

But here’s the thing: sometimes, the hard work comes long before the payoff. I’ve spent night after night coming up with patterns, dyeing wool, and comparing suppliers for quality, reliability, and price. I’ve lost sleep working night shifts to earn the capital to invest in a new spinning wheel, photography and inventory. I’ve had to put a brave face on when I’ve received rejection letter after rejection letter for handmade craft shows.

But I’m also more excited than ever about turning my unexpected passion into a tool for supporting my family while raising my children, and meeting the ever-present need in the world for beauty.

I’ve recently added a collection of yarns I’ve dyed over the past few months. Each hank represents a mile marker in my journey through the experience of motherhood coupled with small business ownership. Into Deep Water reminds me of the time in March of this year, when walked from the white sands into the deeper waters of the Caribbean, and attempted to body surf with a long-time friend. Pink & Blue Boo reminds me of celebrating Easter despite weeping for the loss of baby dreams all during the Easter church service, and then choosing to dye a pretty yarn to remind myself that baby dreams can still come true.

There’s a huge mile marker coming up: a photoshoot with a real professional photographer! Just the thought gives me butterflies. I swing from excitement that I’ll finally have the beginnings of a beautiful portfolio, to anxiety that my pieces won’t stand up to the scrutinizing eye of the camera. So far, the best cure for the roller coaster is consistent work: dyeing, spinning and finishing pieces.

And really, that’s the cure for all my doubts and butterflies. It has been all along: just work. Make dream yarns a reality, and make dream garments a reality. Somewhere, someone else is dreaming of the same thing, wishing someone would make it for them. That’s the person I want to meet in the marketplace. And every time I meet a fellow dreamer who recognizes my dream, my heart leaps, and it’s not about the exchange of money for product; it’s because of that recognition between souls.

All my success to date may be messy, and the straight-up failures may totally outweigh the successes, but until I’m done spinning dreams into beautiful reality, I’ll keep working.

Kindness Always Comes Back

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There’s a whole lot of potential in a ball of yarn. It can inspire, or bring simple joy, or become something meaningful and transcendent in the right hands.

Summer is barely upon us, but for once, it feels like spring melted into summer in Edmonton back in early May. Personally, I have loved every bit of the unseasonably warm weather, but our province has suffered tremendous loss as a result of the hot, dry weather spring brought. Fort McMurray, a city north of us, was evacuated and devastated by wildfire, and lives have been completely and often permanently changed due to the tragedy.

While at first, I heard daily reports of the heroism and bravery of the firefighters, I soon had to turn off the radio and limit my exposure to the news, because the thought that my own family could have been in the same circumstances, had the fire been here, haunted me. I kept making mental lists of what I would grab on my way out the door, if we were suddenly told to leave.

I wanted to help in some way, to make a small contribution to the massive effort across the nation to support the brave people of Fort McMurray.

One afternoon, while at a get-together of local fibre artists, I overheard a spinner talking about all the yarn she is likely never going to use, and I thought of all the yarn in my own stash that, let’s be honest, I’ll never actually use, although it is great yarn. Most of it was purchased before I learned to spin, and before I learned the advantages of natural fibres over synthetic. I figured if I personally was stuck in a situation where I didn’t have the comfort of my own home, I would be going crazy without something to keep my hands busy, and likely others would be feeling the same way.

Six of us pooled our yarn, patterns, knitting needles and crochet hooks together, and we put out the call to anyone from Fort McMurray who wanted to come and take yarn and tools.

Now, I’ve spent my career in a helping profession, and I spend many hours volunteering in my community every year, but I have to say, I haven’t been so personally touched by a small act of kindness toward my community in a very long time. I had the privilege of being the connection point for the ladies who came to get yarn. I got to meet them, hear their stories, see pictures of the devastation of their homes, have coffee with them while their children watched cartoons with mine. Our contact was brief, but it was sweet. There was a shared understanding that we are people who create with our hands, and no amount of external devastation can take that from us.

I came away with new friends: quality people with resilience, courage and the readiness to be “Alberta Strong,” because that’s who they were long before they had to be.

After each person left with their bag(s) of yarn, a quote from a childhood story resounded in my spirit: “kindness always comes back.” It didn’t take much effort for each of us to share our extra yarn. In fact, our craft spaces were probably overdue for a good spring cleaning. And sure, it was kind of us to share. But I was so blessed by the return of kindness. I got to see, up close and personal, the generosity of the community of crafters I’m privileged to be a part of. Each girl showed up at my door with a box of yarny goodness, and an eagerness and excitement to know that their gift was making a difference for a fellow crafter. And personally, I came away with new friends: quality people with resilience, courage and the readiness to be “Alberta Strong,” because that’s who they were long before they had to be.

Now that all the yarn has been given, I like to think on the beautiful things that’ll be made as a result of these brief connections: baby things, children’s accessories, maybe even little gifts to themselves. The only limit is really the imagination of these strong, capable, creative people. Because, really, there’s a whole lot of potential in a ball of yarn.

Slaying (and Making) Dragons

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I only had a few days of unfettered jubilation over the home pregnancy test that showed positive, before worry beset me. Call it intuition, but I just felt something wasn’t right. And as much as I wanted this baby, whom we had been trying to conceive for nearly two years, I couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of doom. I went for test after test, all of which showed up just hanging on the low edge of normal. At eight weeks, we had an ultrasound and saw our little butterfly baby’s heartbeat. I thought surely my doubts would be assuaged by this very hopefully sign. But when my symptoms changed a few days later, I scheduled another ultrasound, this time to discover that the baby’s heart had stopped, and the fear that had haunted me for 5 weeks was true: I had miscarried yet again.

That evening, as I sat in a state of mingled numbness and tears, I got a message on Facebook asking me to make an adorable little amigurumi dragon for my cousin’s new baby. Thinking life must go on, I accepted the order, and the next day, began pulling the yarn together for the project.

Now, the pattern for this dragon isn’t particularly difficult, and I thought it might be a good project to carry with me through the experience at the hospital and subsequent recovery rest time. How little I knew of the depths of grief this miscarriage would pull me to!

I made–and remade–the head for the dragon twice before I set it aside in total frustration. I could not keep track of my stitch count to save my life, and therefore could not get the shape correct! When I was gifted a ticket to Florida for some rest in the sunshine to recuperate, I found some lovely soft cotton yarn there, and decided maybe a new start with new, shiny and delicious yarn would be just the ticket for making this dragon. It *sort of* worked.

When I got home, I found I could actually count again, so I finished up the head in a few hours. But I just had no heart to make him. He was a reminder of the empty feeling, of the quiet slipping away that was too profound for words. And yet, he was also a reminder that miracles do happen. He was a gift for a baby boy whose mama and daddy had wished for and waited for, and I wanted to infuse him with love and hope, because I know from experience what that wishing and waiting is like. Here he is, eyeless and seemingly begging to be finished.

Just as I have had to make it a discipline to get through each day without falling into self-pity while still honouring my journey of grief, I used this little dragon as a tangible piece of that discipline. I worked on him every day–just a little bit. One round, one piece, or simply just adding some stuffing; slowly but surely, his parts were filling my project bag.

Today, he got assembled. He’s a little rag-tag. Turns out, my stitch counting was still a little off on some things. But that’s what this journey has been about for me. I’ve thought some days I was feeling at peace, hopeful for the future, when something simple and mundane would pick the scab on my heart and drench my face with tears. So, in all his adorable imperfection, I’m happy to be sending this dragon to a sweet little boy with all the promise and potential in the world. I hope he feels the love and hope that his gift brought to me.

Synthetic Fibres: Are They Worth It?

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The very first time I went on a mission to buy yarn, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was working on building a successful career in the healthcare field, and I simply wanted to make something for my daughter for Christmas. My assistant crocheted, so I figured I could get her to help me. Little did I know crocheting would change my life.

I headed to my local Walmart, picked out some purple yarn and a set of hooks, and came home, proud of my initiative to actually make something. Well, we all know it became an obsession after that. I bought more and more colours, and learned about different sizes and styles of yarn…and then I met a girl who wouldn’t be bothered with acrylic yarn. She laughed and called herself a yarn snob, saying she felt that she put enough work into her handmade items that she wanted to them to last, and synthetic fibres just didn’t stand the test of wear and wash over time.

She got me thinking, and a few months later, I found myself at the church charity sale buying ugly wool yarn, just simply because I wanted to see if she was right. Turns out, she was. Wool, when well-prepared and well-constructed into a finished product, doesn’t pill or lose lustre like synthetic fibres do. In some cases, it gets softer and more comfortable with repeated wear and good, gentle care. For those reasons alone, I thought it would be worthwhile to build a business whose identifying characteristic was natural fibres.

But then I read some things that really got my heart beating, and made me look at those cute little trendy baby blankets and accessories in a whole new light. It turns out, synthetic fibres have a major impact on the environment–every time you wash them! For instance, in an article on sciencenews.org, scientific research has found that our marine environments are being impacted. Here’s an excerpt from their article:

Every time a garment made from polyester or other synthetic fabric goes through the wash, it sheds tiny plastic fibers. Thousands of them. It turns out that these fibers end up fouling coastal environments throughout the globe, a global research team finds.”

Since most synthetic yarn available to crafters is made of acrylic, I want to focus on acrylic for now. Acrylic yarn is made mainly of a chemical called polycrylonitrile, or polyacrylonitrile. Check out the MSDS for this chemical. Now, when it has been spun into a fibre, and it’s not in a liquid state, the processes described in the MSDS are slowed, and you certainly won’t die of cyanide poisoning the first–or even the 10th–time you cozy up with your acrylic couch throw, or you wrap your toddler up in their adorable handmade mermaid tail or animal-shaped beanie. But cyanide builds in the system over time, and is carcinogenic. And again, every time you wash that item, small fibres are being released which look like food to microorganisms in our waterways. Cyanide for dinner is never a good idea. Our wetland and marine creatures have enough strikes against them: I’d rather not have my fashion choices be one of them.

Acrylic being a plastic, it is esentially indestructible. Burning it results in hard plastic beads, and a “burned plastic” smell. On a side note, having acrylic baby accessories in the event of a fire will result in baby being exposed to these fumes, and potentially having the acrylic melt to their clothing or skin. Wool, on the other hand, will smoulder without igniting, buying time for baby to be removed from danger. Obviously, Canadian children’s pajama manufacturers are required to treat their fabrics with fire retardant, but handmade acrylic blankets or accessories are not required to meet the same standards.

Maybe I sound alarmist or “crunchy.” I’m naturally a pragmatist, and like to examine issues from all sides before I make a decision–and even then, I give grace to people who don’t agree, because I’ve seen their side of the equation. But in this case, I feel strongly enough about leaving the world a better place for my girls that I have to speak up. I have to let my choices as a craftsman be my protest.

I’ve heard it said that, if North Americans simply gave up ice cream, the amount of food resources saved could feed the entire starving population of our planet. Small decisions, added up over a large population, can effect drastic change. So, my hope is that you’ll make even one decision to buy natural over synthetic. One accessory, one sweater, one pair of slippers. It may not seem like a lot, but as each of us shifts our weight just a tiny bit on the grand scale of environmental impact, we will find ourselves nearing the tipping point, where change for the better will become the norm.

Let’s make it happen.

What’s in a Name?

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I thought maybe it was time to explain the name of my brand. It’s pretty simple, actually, and totally reflective of my personal weirdness. Are you ready for this?

“Ilex” is the Latin scientific name for the holly plant. I thought it fitting to name my company after myself, as so many people do, but disguising it in Latin sounded a little better to the shy side of me.

I call my clothing and household products “everyday couture,” because I aim to produce things that you can wear on an everyday basis, infused with the magic of custom design and craftsmanship–that’s all “couture” means, so really, any time you support a local crafter or designer, you’re buying couture.

“Studio yarns” just refers to the fact that the yarns I offer are made in my studio. They’re either millspun and dyed by me, or they’re washed, carded and spun by hand and dyed in my cozy kitchen and hung to dry on my back porch. It’s rather idyllic, especially given that I live just across the river from Alberta’s government centre, in the heart of one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

So, there you have it: my business name, explained. It’s simple, really.

I’m so Glad You’re Here

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I was raised to shop for clothes twice a year. We shopped sales, and my Gramma trained me to always find the best price; to seek out quality, but at the lowest cost possible. Fast fashion crept up on me before I knew it was a thing. As a parent, I found myself obliging my daughter’s constant requests to take her shopping with her friends, where they found the latest thing at a low price, and must “have it now,” because it would be sold out by next week. It turned out, usually that “must-have” item was ready for the garbage heap by the following week. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the country, the oldest of four children on a single income, that I can’t stand to waste anything.

In 2011, I was tired of the constant push to buy things, so I learned how to crochet, so my daughter would have something handmade under the tree at Christmas. I made her a scarf, and was captivated by the slow, beautiful process of making fabric by hand.

Never once have I considered myself crafty. I hate the idea of anything cutesy or overdone. I have no eye for scrapbooking, and no creativity in coming up with children’s craft projects. But I could not stop crocheting. I loved going to my local Walmart and combining yarns to create colour and texture palettes in the blankets I was obsessed with making.

That experience changed my perspective completely the next time I took my daughter shopping. I found myself wondering how the shops could sell a knit hat for $5, when I’d be hard-pressed to buy the yarn for that price, and I wondered how they paid all the people who handled that hat from fibre prep to final sale.

Four years later, I’m still figuring out the best ways to make my family a slow-fashion family. It’s difficult for my teenaged daughter to understand, and it’s difficult for me to remain true to my new-found (yet rooted in my upbringing) ideals of less waste and more quality, when there’s only so much money to invest in clothes for the family.

But it’s important to honour my core values, so I must learn new ways of doing things. I want to know the story of my clothes, and those I choose for my children. I want to learn new skills in sewing, mending, cloth making, so that I can create beautiful things of my own.

It’s a bit daunting to call myself a “slow fashion blogger.” I don’t especially like being in front of the camera, and I don’t know if what I’ll have to say will be useful in a world already full of loud and powerful voices. Yet I know I have something to say, however tentatively. I want to bring you along on my journey to true slow fashion, however messy it may be, because I want you to know that if I can do it, you certainly can.

Welcome to my journey.



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