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My third year selling wood turnings at the Vermont Quilt Festival finished with a twist. Heading home in record time (under an hour to pack out the booth and start driving), my setup is the envy of many vendors, as everything stacks neatly into one load; a tall and efficient system that took years to perfect. It makes me chuckle.

Of course, I’m not pitching 350-lb. long-arm quilting machines to the attendees, nor bolts or yards of fabric, or racks and stacks of notions and sundries. Instead, every item I sell, I make by hand. Which means usually fewer than 80 thumb-sized turnings over a four-day show, from a snug selection in a 5’x8’ display. It’s no surprise I’m a sprinter out the gate and gone!

This show is one of a handful that reaches my standard of “good to excellent” for sales. Which justifies the move to a motel a state away from home and a stone’s throw from Canada for the better part of a week. With humble gratitude and a little pride I can say I’ve aroused some very steadfast fans of my hand-crafted woodwork, and delight in the times when a new design debuts to an appreciative audience, or someone proclaims “This year I’ll treat myself to one of Cynthia’s tools!”

So after gassing up in Burlington I began what was normally a four-hour journey, in the summer sun of 2014, expecting to reach my southern New Hampshire driveway well before the start of “60 Minutes.”

Forty miles later the van was churning up a long, steep grade, overtaking a slower car, and pressing on toward the crest. A quick check in the rear view mirror, I spotted a cloud. When a little station wagon passed with a girl in the window pointing, eyes wide, mouthing the word “Smoke!” realization struck. That cloud belonged to me alone!

It’s been many moons since my vehicle’s trusty performance took such a daunting detour, and I’ve always feared breaking down on a road trip to a distant show. Although four hours is still close to home in the larger scheme of quilt shows. In January, the flight to a big one in California was followed by a grueling ten-hour drive! But that’s another chapter.

I pulled off the highway to investigate. Got faulty reassurance from some guys at a gas station and headed back out, but only briefly, before smoke poured forth again with a vengeance. Clearly, serious help was needed…

My summoned AAA-rescuer arrived within an hour, aptly nicknaming that highway grade “the three mile killer.” Pretty much every drop of my transmission fluid had soaked into the gravel at the corner of Highway 64 and Route I-89.

Instead of simply towing me to Montpellier, Guy of AAA suggested we top it off with the bit of MercronV left in my stashed bottle, and drive down the hill to the Mobile station for more. The transmission did still engage, and the engine wasn’t overheated, so I folded a funnel from my cardboard booth sign, poured in the half-cup of fluid, and we started down.

That “hill” was a four-mile long, 10% grade descending into the Mad River Valley. White-knuckled and barely breathing, I anxiously checked for my AAA Guy, who followed at a fair distance in his huge, monster tow-truck.

As it happened, the Mobile station did not carry the right stuff. (Aaargh!) Still, he advised me to drive a few more miles and wait at Napa Auto Parts, across from the Northfield Police station.

“Just go slow,” he said, “you’ll prob’ly make it fine.” By now it was after 7 PM on a Sunday and the place was closed, but Guy could get its keys, and they carried my brand. He took off while I rolled slowly into the tiny town.

* * * * *

Waiting in the still-sunny parking lot, my mood was calm. Remarkably so, considering this complication, but also in light of a nagging, upsetting memory from the show that afternoon.

I had been done wrong, I believed, by a fellow vendor – another woodworker from another state, whose business was the production of Shaker-style baskets. He had added (this year) a line of turned wood sewing tools – quite a few “kit” items, but also a seam ripper whose style was a dead-on mimic of my own signature ripper!

What got me riled was this vendor had visited my display at about mid-day, when he picked up piece after piece of my work to scrutinize details of their design! Having seen his flagrant imitation of my ripper, I assumed he was scouting his next “new” product, and if there hadn’t been customers present I’d have told him to scram. The nerve of that guy!!

Later, after anguished debate conferring with friends, and with the blessing of the show’s Vendor Chair, I confronted the so-and-so.

* * * * *

Hold on. A bit of history…

I first developed my seam ripper back in 2007, in California, when faulty wiring caused a shop fire that shook up my world. Personally, there were huge repercussions. But for my business, it might have been a blessing in disguise.

Relocating temporarily from the charred garage, I set up a fresh lathe under my craft fair awning in the back yard. Perhaps the new tools prompted a creative spurt, for a seam ripper began taking shape using parts harvested from one bought at WalMart. Being already engaged producing “laying tools” for a Bay Area needlepoint shop, my subconscious was primed to focus on fiber arts, and my rippers evolved out of that chaos.

In April 2009 (after moving back East) I introduced them to huge crowds at the Machine Quilters Expo (MQX) in Manchester, NH, where they made a pretty big splash, especially with students taking Mark Lipinski’s Mystery Quilts class, making Drunkard’s Path blocks without pinning. This show featured over 250 competitive quilts by artists vying for thousands in prize money, 73 vendors, hundreds of students taking dozens of classes, and thousands of other gate-paying attendees (shoppers). It was an event of major magnitude for me!

At show’s end the teacher himself came over and bought one. A few months later, the photo was published. Prominently featured with a very flattering paragraph written in the “Mark’s Favorites” column of his national magazine, Quilter’s Home. (Oct/Nov 2009, p. 79, “Un-sewing in style”)

What a thrill to see my work praised in such a popular publication by such a charismatic man of the cloth (the quilting cloth), and even more delightful the resultant flurry of sales!

That initial experience – presenting my work specifically to quilters – introduced a dedicated audience to me (and me to them), which I could sense had a limited lifespan. Other woodturners certainly would find this market; so how long could I ride the crest alone?

Indeed, the nail was nearing the coffin when a new “kit” appeared in the fall of 2012 – as the centerpiece of Penn State’s woodworking catalog. Not at all like my own design (except in the broadest sense), but it would impact business, eventually. Soon after came comments at shows of how “Uncle Bill (or Bob, or Joe) makes these.” Referring, of course, not to my work but to rippers in general.

It’s a fact of life (and art) that what is new becomes old, and what was original gets imitated. So, while I might rail against my loss of status, it was certainly unavoidable. Change was coming. I was, in fact, at peace with it.

And while it’s always been disheartening to hear new customers comment, “Oh, your husband does such a nice job on these,” at the same time (and with no husband anymore) it’s quite satisfying to respond, “No, this is all my own work. Original designs, turned freehand on my lathe so each piece is slightly different. Heirloom quality tools, guaranteed to last and please.”

* * * * *

…back to my encounter in Vermont with the Shaker-basket man.

I approached the interloper who’d been scoping out my work with some trepidation. Respectful, I thought, but forthright in my request to know whether his reconnaissance was intent on further imitation. (That is, was he planning to steal my designs, or what?!)

He didn’t respond immediately, but took up his smart phone and proceeded to search for “You know that website called Etsy?” explaining how “hundreds” of woodworkers were there who make seam rippers with similar shapes, and how did he know that my designs didn’t come from them?

I agreed that wooden seam rippers were becoming ubiquitous (noting my original design had been published years ago, and was reprinted on my widely-distributed business card), and acknowledged his use of the “kit” ripper offered by Penn State in addition to one styled and shaped identically to my own!

And privately, felt sympathy for the throngs of newly-retired guys who take up woodturning to pass the time, many needing pre-fabricated ideas to jumpstart their production efforts. I know first-hand how challenging (yet invigorating) it is to pull a new idea out of your, um, hat.

What got me fuming was the potential of this one ripping off my very original and very popular magnetic scissor pendant design, and I asked if he was planning just that.

His humorless expression sunk into white Van Dyke and hid behind wire frames. He’d risen from the chair where he was playing games on a tablet computer, and we stood rigidly, eye-to-six-foot-eye. The back of his hand kept approaching my shoulder as he intoned the words “public domain.” He said I wasn’t listening; I said he was deflecting. Near the end of my proverbial rope, he finally answered, “No.”

“Thanks. That’s all I wanted to hear,” and I left for my booth, anxiously relieved.

Later the show’s chairperson stopped by again to check on my state of mind. “You know,” she encouraged, “when you have a child who misbehaves, you need to talk with them about it. Well done.”

So while there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t poach my designs, at least he heard my concerns. And, understanding that a free-market economy provides ample opportunity for creative tweaking of intellectual property, I had seen it coming.

* * * * *

As timing would have it, by the end of June 2014 “my niche” had been invaded. That day, I learned I had to share, and my car caught me up short to punctuate the lesson. Two choices were possible: fight it (and lose) or embrace it. While awaiting my Guy in the hills of Vermont, I decided to play nice with the opportunity.

And later, driving home in the slow lane (“Don’t go over 50 mph and if the smoke returns, call back.”) ever more golden possibilities appeared.

Miles passed in meditation, with me concentrating in the growing darkness on the sound of my motor, the vibration of the road, and my grip on the wheel, encumbered as it was by my hands encased in plastic.

As an outcome of more than 36 years earning a living with my hands, damage had been done. My newly-acquired medical coverage (thanks, Mr. President) permitted me a doctor’s visit that revealed the source of my constant thumb pain and brought into focus the fix – surgery was needed, on both hands.  

Having been fitted two weeks earlier with custom-made pre-operative splints (“orthotic devices” to the insurance people), I wore them in Vermont, and let my customers know there would be a dry spell coming.

Surprisingly, several of them intimately familiar with the procedure (CMC basal joint arthroplasty) shared encouraging histories. It would take at least eight months living one-handed (first left, then right), during which time woodworking would be unwise if not impossible, but I could expect a full recovery and return to my profession. My hopeful determination soared.

Focused on this happy eventuality, familiar landmarks heralded my return home.

By the time the garage door closed near midnight, my mood almost euphoric, a new plan was in place. To spend my “handicapped” months at the keyboard, not the lathe, keeping pace with my business by writing about it. And including, in a pre-emptive strike against frustrating poachers, both my observations and instructions on creating the very items I make and sell for a living. Then sell the book as well. Booyah!

(Adding, perhaps, a note of thanks to Shaker-man for the push.)

So, here follows my craft artist memoir! The story of my “Turnings” since the summer of 1975 when I left college and my office job in New England and took a casual, solo drive out West to San Francisco on a lark, to meet a friend for lunch.

I wasn’t intending to stay, but did so – for 33 years – before taking another turn…

Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Ellis. All rights reserved.



A Craft Artist’s Memoir

(with woodturning projects)

by Cynthia Ellis


Sunday, June 29 – 5:15 PM  

Transmission fluid pouring onto pavement

signals yet another sea change in my life.

Turns out, writing is much harder than woodworking ever was!

This is the Introduction. If it piques your interest, check back now and then for news of more…

Want to help support this effort? You can refill my coffee cup for a dollar…                       Thanks!!