Challenges, Creativity, & Community: An Interview with Thread & Maple

This month we are kicking off our year-long make-along with our sponsors, Thread & Maple. Olga and Sam are a fibre friend duo that brought their late-night idea to life through determination and their shared passion for yarn. Despite their distance between Toronto and Montreal, they have successfully created a charming line of leather goods for makers to enjoy that are beautiful, functional and made with so much love.  

How did you start knitting, and who taught you?

We both started knitting when we were kids, Sam at the age of 5 and Olga at the age of 7. For Sam, it was her mom, Stephanie, who taught her how to knit. Sam has been an avid knitter for her entire life, working in her LYS Espace Tricot, teaching workshops, and creating her own self-striping yarn brand Scrumptiouspurl. For me, Olga, it was my grandmother who taught me to knit, as well as to crochet, sew and cross-stitch. Growing up in Ukraine, we didn't have much, and I didn't have many store-bought clothes and accessories for my dolls so I crafted my own. During my teen years, I lost touch with needlecrafts and thankfully it was Sam who encouraged me to pick up my needles and knit a shawl for my mom as a birthday present!

How did Thread & Maple get started?

We started Thread & Maple in early 2020, during a late-night phone call between Sam and I. I had been looking for a new career path after finishing maternity leave at my corporate job. Being a die-hard knitter for most of her life, Sam wished she could get her hands on elegant knitting organisers, and they just didn't seem to be out there. I prompted her to elaborate on her ideas, which then produced a series of scrappy doodles of what is now the Notions Clutch, On the Go and other favourites from our collection. We combined our love of fibre and all things Canadian to land on the name Thread & Maple.

Can you tell us more about how you construct your products, and how you consciously choose the materials you use?

We try to create things that we would love and use ourselves. We also keep an ideas list suggested by our customers, via product reviews, e-mails, surveys, Instagram comments, or in-person chats during fibre shows we've attended.

We're very conscious of the materials we use for our designs. We try to create and curate tools and accessories that are not only practical, but durable, beautiful, elegant, and enhance the tactile art of knitting and crochet. We stay away from plastics and synthetics, gravitating instead to natural materials such as leather, cork, wood, steel, and cotton. We prefer to work with other small businesses and makers, creating products in small batches from high quality, responsibly sourced materials. Our leather pieces are handcrafted by a small leather studio in Ukraine, from both Italian and locally sourced Ukrainian crazy horse leather. Our cork accessories are made by artisans in Portugal from the highest quality responsibly harvested cork and our wood products are handmade by a husband and wife duo from Canadian maple wood in Ontario.

We rely heavily on our manufacturing partners, both in helping us land on the perfect design and maintain the highest level of quality possible. We've often had to make the difficult choice of finding alternative providers when we felt quality slipping, because we pride ourselves in creating true heirloom pieces for makers.

What does a typical day look like for Thread & Maple?

We run our little business from an office space above a women's clothing shop in the heart of St-Lambert, a small town on the south shore of Montreal, Quebec. We don't have a storefront open to customers as our space is quite small and chaotic! We have a team of two lovely fulfilment associates, managed by Stephanie - Sam's mom, our yarn dyer extraordinaire and the current owner of our sister company Scrumptiouspurl. Sam has her hands full with two kids under two years old, and I manage the business remotely, which is a big challenge!

Our typical day in the office consists of packing and shipping customer orders, receiving, meticulously reviewing and preparing every piece of inventory, e-mailing back and forth with customers and wholesale clients... and a whole lot of coffee! Meanwhile, we're always in talks with fellow makers in the community about future collaborations and fundraising campaigns, have at least two new designs on the go and managing our production flow with our suppliers.

Our leather studio is located in Ukraine, which has posed a unique challenge for us. We work with a group of incredibly talented young leather workers there to bring our creations to life. They are currently huddled in one small room, heated by a wood-burning stove and powered by a triumphantly sourced generator, hand-sewing needle binders and notions clutches to the sounds of holiday music playing from a little speaker. Closed shipping routes, daily missile attacks, power outages, supply chain blocks and a whole slew of other problems have befallen us in 2022. We are constantly inspired by our team's bravery and resilience, always showing strength, hope, and courage in the face of such a terrifying situation.

Can you tell us a little about your product design process?

Our ethos is creating products that we would love and use ourselves. We tend to start with something like, "I wish I had a ____ that could ____ and ____ and looked _____ and fit into my ____ for when I need to _____".

Once we land on the raisons d'être of whatever we're envisaging, we ideate a dozen different designs as simple doodles, which we send to each other as pictures over the phone.

Since we don't live in the same city, we've developed creative ways of describing what we mean to each other. We create prototypes of our designs using paper cutouts, scraps of cardboard, and household objects taped together (true masterpieces as you can imagine) and have video calls hoping the Frankenstein will hold while we explain to each other how it would work in theory.

Once we land on the design, Olga creates a more formal file to send across to our lovely production partners, be it our leather studio in Ukraine, our woodworking husband/wife duo in Ontario, or our cork artisans in Portugal.

There are always tweaks and adjustments that come back to us, as these talented folks often come up with brilliant ideas to improve the design. One or two prototype rounds and we're off to the races!

What projects are you most proud of?

We are most proud of the Needle Binder, as it's something we've been envisaging for T&M's entire first year of existence.

It's so complex to solve the problem of a needle organizer that can work for all the different combinations of needle sets knitters may have.

After many months of research, sketches, trials and errors, we are really pleased with the final product and it brings us great joy to see fellow makers using it.

The On the Go is probably our second pick, as it's not only useful but also so darn cute!

As a fabulous two-woman team (just like Pom Pom when we started!), what have you learned from working together?

One of the most valuable lessons we've learned from working together is that friendship is most important of all! We've been through a lot in our first two years as Thread & Maple; two babies, a cross-continental move, family health crisis, pandemic, war... not to mention the normal ups and downs of running a small business all the while living in different parts of the world! We've always treasured our friendship and put each other's well-being first and foremost. Creating Thread & Maple has brought us closer together and weathering a lot of challenges has helped us to become more resilient and confident that together, we can overcome most anything.

What’s next for Thread & Maple?

2023 is looking mighty busy for us!

Firstly, we're looking forward to releasing a lot of new leather designs! We had a lot of setbacks this past year and couldn't bring most of our new creations to life, due to the impacts of the war in Ukraine on our leather workshop. Now that we've secured shipping lines through neighbouring Poland and our leather tanneries have a steady supply again, we're back in business! We're also very excited to collaborate with more amazing designers, including Vincent Williams of Visuvios Crafts, in expanding our Needle Binder to include crochet hooks pages.

We're also planning to host our 3rd annual breast cancer awareness campaign in October, together with the lovely Tracie and Jodi of the Grocery Girls and Karina Moore, indie dyer behind Louie & Lola Yarns. In 2022, we jointly raised over $40,000 for breast cancer research and we've got big plans to up the ante once more!

After a very tough year, we're hopeful that 2023 will be a year of good things for us and our talented fellow artisans in Ukraine :)

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