Businesswoman and author Felicia Lo Wong took an unusual path to launching a hand-dyed yarn business in Vancouver, Canada. Her journey began years earlier while a student at the University of British Columbia, when she was admitted to the competitive pharmaceutical science program.
“On day one… I sat in that class with 125 people and I knew I was in the wrong place,” Wong said. “I knew these were not my people, this is not my tribe, but I got in when a lot of people really wanted to get into the school…”
So she stuck with it.
About the same time she took up competitive ballroom dancing and started sewing her dance costumes, a throwback to one of her earliest craft obsessions that grew out of watching her mother make herself a hot pink dress.
“I just became very inspired seeing that it was possible to make things for yourself,” she said.
Wong was about 10 when she started experimenting with the sewing machine after watching her mom sew that dress. Wong ended up breaking her mom’s machine, but was allowed to continue to sew on the replacement. She also taught her herself to knit from a free booklet published by a yarn company while still in elementary school. Meanwhile, her dad was a painter and printmaker, so Wong grew up surrounded by color, design, and creativity. Although her parents modeled creative behavior, they didn’t want her to pursue the arts professionally.
“They really wanted for me to not have things so difficult (financially),” Wong recalled.
So Wong ended up studying to be a pharmacist. She made it all the way through the program and got her creative fix building websites on the side.
“By the time I graduated from university, I already had paying clients and started a graphic design firm,” she said.
After graduation, she spent four days a week working in a pharmacy and one day doing graphic design work for clients. She continued taking on design work and scaling back at the pharmacy until she was spending most of her time on her design business. After she made the transition to graphic design, and before she fell in love with making hand-dyed yarn, she started a blog called SweetGeorgia. The name was inspired by the body of water and downtown street that bore the Georgia name in downtown Vancouver
“I had wanted to write about baking and thought about starting a bakery called SweetGeorgia,” Wong said. But that all changed when she started working with yarn. “I switched from baking to yarn and just kept the name.”
SweetGeorgia, the blog, launched in 2004 as a knitting blog. And when her interest in spinning led her to research dyeing techniques to color the fibers she was working with, she starting blogging about her projects. These colorful experiments led her to start posting hand-dyed yarn for sale on Etsy in 2005. The first few skeins she posted sold within an hour and eventually Wong was listing yarn for sale in groups of 20 or 30 skeins. Soon, she started taking on wholesale orders and by the end of 2006 was feeling rather burned out dying 100 pounds of fiber every weekend.
“I found myself spending all my nights packing and shipping things,” she said, recalling the time she was juggling both graphic design and her yarn business. “It started to get a little bit crazy.”
So she took a year off in 2007. She stopped everything and went to London three times that year where she considered enrolling in a weaving program.
“I thought of completely throwing everything away and changing my life completely,” she said.
However, without the pressure to produce large batches of product to sell, Wong was able to rediscover her own creativity and the joy of working with color.
“I was able to do some dyeing just for myself… and that’s when I started to realize ‘this is what I want to do,’” she said. “The things that I was seeing and the things that I was discovering through the colors – that’s the kind of thing I wanted to share…
“I wanted other people to also experience what I was experiencing when I looked at color and when I was moved by color and when I saw color and when I was overwhelmed by the beauty of color.”
With a renewed passion for SweetGeorgia, Wong slowly relaunched her business and committed to slow and sustainable growth. She hired her first employee in 2009 to help with packaging and shipping.
“Hiring your first person is the scariest thing ever, but the best thing ever, too,” she said.
The business continued to grow slowly, but it wasn’t until 2011 when she got married and went on her honeymoon that Wong realized that she needed to empower her team to dye yarn without her.
“From 2005 to 2011…I was very fearful,” she said. “I was very much like, ‘If I teach other people my techniques they’re going to steal them…’ I had to learn how to find ways to teach other people how to dye. At that point in time, that’s when I felt like things became hugely different and amazing. I think it is absolutely my job to lead and empower and teach other people how to do this.”
Now the 41-year-old, married mother of a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter is running a successful yarn company with a production dye studio, retail space, and a dozen employees to manage production, dyeing, bookkeeping, online sales, and the creation of seasonal collections of knitwear designs.
“We have a team of people who are helping to do all the things that used to just be me,” Wong said.
Today Wong visits the dye studio once a week to check in with her team that is well equipped to run production without her there. This change has allowed Wong to embrace the challenge of running a business while raising kids. And, she says, motherhood has inspired her to be more efficient at work.
“It’s really difficult to get from the point where you’re working in your business to working on your business, where you’re able to come out and see it from a bird’s eye view,” she said. “I was never able to do that. I always had my head down, right in it. It was only…when I was forced to step back that I knew I needed to deal with some other things…On the days when I have childcare I have work planned for every minute of that day.”
Wong’s book, Dyeing to Spin & Knit: Techniques & Tips to Make Custom Hand-Dyed Yarns was published in 2017. Visit SweetGeorgia to check out her yarn collection, blog, video tutorials, and more.
Jennifer is a journalist, podcaster, printmaker, fiber artist, swimmer and community college media adviser. She is also the editor and publisher of CraftSanity Magazine and has produced a podcast about art and craft by the same name since 2006. She blogs at CraftSanity.com, sells her handprinted t-shirts and wooden CraftSanity weaving looms at craftsanity.etsy.com. Jennifer lives in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband and two daughters. Follow her fitness and creative adventures on Twitter and Instagram under the name @CraftSanity. Watch her craft tutorials on the CraftSanity YouTube Channel. Contact her by writing firstname.lastname@example.org.