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An ex-Wall Streeter hooks kids and Simplicity on her needle-arts business

The Handiwork Studio, started at a Main Line kitchen table, has expanded to 10 states to give kids ages 5 to 15 an alternative to tech-based activities. Through pattern maker Simplicity, its reach soon will be national.

Teachers Stephanie Vance (rear, left) and Sharon Baranov (rear, right) work with girls and boys at The Handwork Studio in Narberth.
Teachers Stephanie Vance (rear, left) and Sharon Baranov (rear, right) work with girls and boys at The Handwork Studio in Narberth.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Think of a pond. Then think of ripples in that pond. Laura Kelly's business spread like that.

"It's just been a journey of drip, drip, drip," Kelly said. An idea that once fit around the kitchen table of her Main Line home has grown to 10 states and is poised for national exposure through a licensing deal with the sewing-pattern giant Simplicity.

"We've created a seven-figure business teaching kids knitting — kind of crazy," said the 55-year-old founder of the Handwork Studio, based in Narberth.

Now in their 20s, Kelly's children were just toddlers when they unwittingly helped inspire a needle-arts craft studio and camp program designed to give kids, primarily ages 5 to 15, a decidedly technology-free creative experience.

Back then, Kelly had a marketing job on Wall Street with a consulting firm that created back-office systems for banks and financial institutions. Daughter Devon was 1½ and son Ryan was 3 when Kelly was motivated to change things up in 1995.

"My nanny and my boss quit within four days of one another, and I took it as a sign," she said. Besides, that six-year corporate job had "reaffirmed the fact that I'm really an entrepreneur at heart."

With husband John a property director at Brandywine Realty Trust, Kelly opted to stay home with the kids. That quickly turned into a day-care gig for a neighbor's daughter, and then into an after-school program for more than a half-dozen children of working parents.

"And then 9/11 happened, and I found myself obsessively watching TV and knew that I needed to be more engaged," Kelly said. She opted for a job as an assistant in a real estate office.

While looking for a preschool for her children, she visited a program in a church basement where "the little ones were stitching woodland animals, and they were playing under hand-dyed silks, and they were grinding their millet for their muffins for their snack. And I said, 'If my kids can't be with me, this is love.' And that really is at the heart of what the Handwork Studio is all about," Kelly said.

Less than two years later, Kelly hired the school's handwork teacher and set out to build a business. It began in Bala Cynwyd at what was then her home, but the plan was always to take it national.

"The marketing person in me said, 'If I feel so strongly about this notion, I think that there's other parents that have to feel this way, too,' " Kelly said. "In the early 2000s, this is really when gaming is becoming popular, and I thought moms would be searching for that alternative to technology. And it's only gotten … even more pervasive."

In no time, 12 kids were taking classes at her kitchen table. So Kelly did some research.

"That's when I really found a hole in the marketplace for kids learning needle arts," she said, citing cuts to home-economics classes decades ago.

The Handwork Studio's North Narberth Avenue location was added in 2004, thanks to a buyer's market (the 800-square-foot storefront, with a two-bedroom apartment upstairs, sold for $165,000) and a $35,000 line of credit from the Small Business Administration.

By then, the Handwork Studio was offering 10 after-school classes a week to 50 to 60 kids. Children's birthday parties and weekend classes followed — the result of customer demand, Kelly said.

So was a summer-camp program, added in 2006 and now responsible for 90 percent of the Handwork Studio's revenue. Mostly offered in affluent markets from Florida to Maine, the camps run from $450 a week to $1,900 for a three-week program, attracting about 3,000 students last summer, Kelly said.

With just four full-time employees, the Handwork Studio hires 80 to 100 creative individuals each summer for its camp programs. The business model involves renting facilities or partnering with schools, recreation centers, and other camps.

Kelly would not disclose the financial specifics of the Simplicity deal, saying only that the Handwork Studio will write patterns exclusively for kids that Simplicity will distribute through its vast retail channels, including Joann Fabric, Walmart, and Hobby Lobby, beginning in April.

"We're ecstatic," she added.

Margaret Pepe, Simplicity's director of brand management, said: "Simplicity has always been committed to educating a new generation, and The Handwork Studio's audience of kids eager to express their creativity is ideal."

Among them is 13-year-old Anna Welsh, the Wynnewood founder of littlebags.BIGIMPACT, who in June started selling the purses she makes  — a skill she developed at Handwork Studio camps starting at age 6.

"I'm so happy … more people are becoming aware what great things arts can do for you," said Welsh, who plans to attend Handwork's fashion boot camp next summer.

Sharon Baranov, 17, also of Wynnewood, has taken doll-making and machine-sewing classes at Handwork and now teaches there. She applies her fashion-design skills to building catapults and bridges in physics class at Lower Merion High School, where she is a senior and an aspiring mechanical engineer.

Baranov wrote about those parallels in her college essays, evidently convincingly: Earlier this month, she was accepted into the engineering program at the University of Pennsylvania.