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Mama Makers

Meet the Sea to Sky moms with young children who turned to making—and found a side hustle

In 2018, I had a brilliant idea. A bear had just wandered into our yard, and while I was consoling my terrified, sobbing toddler, I thought I should work out her fear through play. I looked at a few of her stuffed toy bears and our one over-smiling, plastic bath teddy, and realized not a single one of them looked like the bear in our yard.

I drew the profile of a black bear on paper and asked my husband, a carpenter, to cut it out of wood. He did, and then, because the bear that came into our yard was a yearling, I asked him to cut out a family of bears. That night, a few friends came by, and the five little bears were lying on our coffee table. While I was putting the baby and toddler to bed, one of our friends picked up the bears. I came back downstairs to find them stacked in various positions, and my teacher brain saw more than wooden bears trying to be a cheerleader pyramid; I saw a dozen learning opportunities.

Most importantly, though, I saw an opportunity for us. We live in bear country, and what could be cuter than a handcrafted wooden bear game? Little kids could stack the bears on their sides, try to pile them high in a tower, pivot them in different directions for spatial practice, and challenge each other to copy their stacks.

“Open-ended learning” and “play to learn” were the buzz phrases in early childhood education back then, and these bears definitely fit that category. I quickly did some calculations, and thought how much fun it would be to make bear sets and sell them at local markets. I’d heard of mothers who had made more as makers than they had in their professional jobs, and at the very least, it could be a side hustle.

And because my creative brain can’t ever stop at one idea, I thought, “Hey, why not add more?” I mean, why stop at bears? Why not create wooden triangles, painted in mountain colours, that offer the chance for young children to learn the different types of triangles?

Before I knew it, ideas were tumbling out of my brain, my garage was constantly buzzing to the sound of saws, and my house smelled of paint and wax. I started thinking about early development, ages and stages, and I created more toys offering growth and development through play. In between nursing a baby, playing with a toddler, taking the dogs for a walk, cooking, cleaning, and freelance writing, I was sanding, waxing, and researching the difference between cardboard box sizes and logo design prices.

We took our wooden toys to local markets—and they were a hit. By then, I’d created a line of toys that all secretly developed skills for kids—whether it was strengthening their pinch abilities for holding a pencil by using our bow and arrow, or furthering their coordination and vestibular systems by using our wooden climber, or learning their colours through a matching ball and bowl set. Every item enticed children to do what they do best: play.

And then the pandemic hit. Freelance writing came to a grinding halt, and my husband was laid off from work. Our sales went from side-hustle-so-we-can-buy-the-expensive-cheese- this-week to a non-stop battery of pings on my phone from every order. Families all over the continent stuck at home in lockdown were beside themselves trying to figure out how to entertain their kids, poring through the internet in search of ideas.

For three glorious weeks, we were it. We were the one-stop shop for all your wooden home- learning needs, and the sales kept coming and coming. Free from his job, my husband had time, so he spent his entire day in the garage cutting out wood. In between scrambling eggs in the morning and printing shipping labels, I was handing wooden bears and balls to my toddler to wax, while my preschooler was assembling boxes and wrestling with bubble wrapping the wooden climbers. I went from little sleep to no sleep, and one or two trips to the post office each week to daily trips with dozens of boxes.

But all good things must come to an end, and even though we hired extra help, the success of our hustle-turned-business came to a crashing halt the day I received a text from a friend telling me that a popular store in Ontario had copied my designs. On my behalf, she’d messaged the maker (also a mother) and told them their designs were copied, but the response she received was a curt message along the lines of, “We all have to survive right now.”

I’d been so busy making that I hadn’t even noticed what anyone else was doing, and a quick search online led me to several other brand-new makers who had taken “inspiration” from my designs. It seemed everyone with a table saw and some sandpaper had decided to jump into making wooden toys, and overnight my sales dropped by 30 per cent. It didn’t matter their products were smaller or made from lower-quality wood, because they sold their items for cheaper prices, and with large numbers of people suddenly out of work, cheap was what everyone needed.

The final nail in my mama-making business came a year later when I received an email from a popular online marketplace informing me they were removing some of my listings because another person had filed patent rights to my design. It didn’t matter I had already been selling the item for two full years before the patent was filed. It didn’t matter the seller wasn’t even in the same country, nay, continent. It didn’t matter what I said to fight; my listing was removed, and with it, most of my income disappeared overnight.

The Maker-Turned-Worker

When Zoe Linford had her first child in 2016, she was working as an early childhood educator in Vancouver, and as a part of her class’ circle time, she made felt stories, essentially, cut-and-sewn pieces of fabric put on a felted board to accompany a song, story or nursery rhyme as a visual representation. After Linford’s child was born, she found herself at the Vancouver children’s store, Chorus and Clouds, for the shop’s weekly music and story times.

One day, Linford asked the store’s owner why she wasn’t selling the felt stories she sang and shared in her weekly classes.

“She said, ‘I don’t like making them’, and I said, ‘Well, I would do that’—and I did,” recalls Linford.

From there, she created Northwest Felts, and chose to use real wool felt instead of the cheaper plastic felt often sold in craft or dollar stores. Linford’s husband, an animator, drew the designs and then she hand-cut and sewed each animal individually. After moving to Squamish, she continued making felt stories that were a popular sell at Chorus and Clouds. In between raising a toddler and working at a local daycare, Linford cut and sewed, often at night after the kids were in bed.

But she struggled with the challenge many makers encounter: the grinding, repetitive nature of producing large amounts of items by hand.

“I have ADHD so making the same things over and over is really challenging for me,” says Linford. “Making the same five felt stories was really tedious work. I would really have to force myself to do it.”

When Linford was on maternity leave with her second child, she expanded to make birthday crowns, hair clips and themed playsets that weren’t connected to a particular story. In 2022, she began making felted flowers and sold many of her creations to Little Bookshop in Squamish.

For a while, Linford enjoyed making as a business, but, in the end, it wasn’t financially sustainable.

“I don’t really have that pocket of savings that you would need to start taking it to the next level,” she says. “I have what I have. I don’t have that pocket of money where I could put my child in daycare, so I can actually get work done, or hire an employee to do this piece of work.”

Last fall, Linford accepted a position with the Early Childhood Pedagogy Network as a community pedagogist for the Sea to Sky.

Linford still makes her felted creations, and has plans to offer her felt stories at Little Bookshop, but making takes time, and with a full-time job, two young children, volunteer community work, and a personal life, time is a highly sought-after commodity.

The Unexpected Market Maker

The phrase “go big or go home” is one that Carly Fox has embraced for years. A knitter by night, she is an event organizer for Crankworx, an education assistant at Spring Creek Community School, a supervisor for the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, and a mother of two young children. Clearly, Fox is no stranger to wearing multiple hats. She started her maker business, Fox and Ivy Creations, in honour of her first daughter, Violet, who passed away in December 2013 at just one month old. (Her second daughter is named Ivy, and a third, Indigo, was named in honour of Violet.) Though she had been knitting and crocheting for many years, it wasn’t until Violet passed that Fox decided to launch the company. As an Australian who moved to Whistler in 2005 to chase the skiing and fresh powder days, Fox quickly learned the value of a well-made toque. Since Violet was born a week before Christmas, a toque-making business seemed fitting.

“I’m always looking for ways to honour my firstborn,” she says, adding that she sews a violet into the inside of each toque. “Keeping my hands moving really helped after she passed, and it helped when I was pregnant [later on].”

Fox had been juggling all her jobs, raising her second child, and making toques when the pandemic hit, shutting down most in-person markets. Sales were going well before then, and Fox had been selling her toques to a shop in Vancouver.

“The biggest kicker for me in 2020 was the lack of the Arts Whistler Holiday Market,” she says. “The lack of that market for so many people was just soul-crushing.”

The decades-old market always brought in thousands of dollars in sales for local makers. “It’s also a huge draw for the community and the entire Sea to Sky corridor,” Fox says.

When Arts Whistler announced in early 2022 that it could not find an affordable venue for the market, Fox decided to “go shopping” for a venue on her own.

“I made some phone calls, asked for quotes, and kept getting shut down. I’m a go-big-or-go- home person, so I asked the Fairmont for a screaming deal, and they said sure,” she says. While Fox was working out the details, she accepted the job at Whistler Adaptive, working at Whistler Blackcomb’s Snow School, which happened to open on the same dates as her planned winter market.

“So, I was supposed to be running a ski-school program while running a market, so that was fun,” she says.

Once Fox had the venue secured, she started promoting the market and accepting applications. While Arts Whistler had a team of employees to help manage the market, Fox just had herself. But because she has lived in Whistler for so long, and doing it on her own, organizations gave her deals.

“I’m basically running this market so I can sell toques,” she says. “Me and 50 of my closest friends [want to sell what we have made].”

Fox ran the applications and payment through her Fox and Ivy Creations website, which she accessed at the library while taking care of her toddler, and hoped their payments would come quickly so she could pay off the venue deposit she had put on her credit card.

“I had to borrow on my credit card and hope for the best,” she says. Among the many challenges facing Fox was the logistics of managing a market of creatives, while finding time to create herself—not to mention finding the time to advertise, create a floor plan, and be a mother to two children.

But Fox pulled it off, and 49 makers joined her for the Artisan Holiday Market on Nov. 26 and 27, 2022, at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. The market was a success, and even though Fox’s children were exhausted after their 13-hour days, Fox knew she’d done the right thing by making it all happen.

“I’m really glad I did it,” she says, “and I don’t want to do it again.”

At least, not by herself.

That seems to be the crux of being a maker and a mother of young children: While we thrive on creativity and use making as a way to find time to be present, or still, after a busy day of working a full-time job, or running our kids to activities, or stopping the fits and tears, we struggle to find the balance of all that comes after that first piece is made.

One thing is for certain, though: if making comes from an authentic place of love, it will grow.

How it grows—as with our children—is up to us.