Friday, October 17, 2014

"Five for Friday" Series: The Scarlet Threads Story

As we were working and preparing for the upcoming busy season here at Scarlet Threads, we began to discuss the purpose of the work…reasons why Scarlet Threads exists as well as the reasons it should continue to. We narrowed our conversation down to five purposes…five succinct statements that embody who we are and why we do what we do. We wanted to share the heart behind Scarlet Threads with you all, so we have put together a "Five for Friday" series, which will continue each Friday over the next several weeks. Our first installment is from Carrie, taking you back to the beginning of Scarlet Threads! Check back next Friday for our second "Five for Friday" post!

Purpose #1: Empowering Artisans Through Employment

I have to admit that way back when we started Scarlet Threads, it was purely a lark. A whim.  Something to DO with all that beautiful fabric at the Beijing Fabric Market.  It was mostly a way for me to have a crafty side in China when I didn’t have a Hobby Lobby or a Michael’s down the street.  I wanted to connect it to my heart for justice, and as the full idea for Scarlet Threads formed, I was more and more convinced that this was a way to tie my heart for people to my creative side.  And in true Carrie-fashion, that seemed like enough of a reason and I decided it was perfectly sensible to start a business.
I had no idea what I was doing.  I had no idea what the name Scarlet Threads would come to mean as the business unfolded.
We named it Scarlet Threads because of an old Chinese proverb… you’ve heard it, maybe? That two people destined to meet will be tied together with a red thread regardless of time or space or circumstances, and though the cord may be twisted or tangled it will never be broken?  It’s a romantic sentiment, and at the time we chose the name, we mostly selected it because it seemed clever, had something to do with fabric, and we thought it might be familiar to families who had adopted little ones from China and knew all about “red thread connections.”

What I didn’t anticipate was that I really would become tied to people on the other end of the thread.  And if I had known, would I have ever started this little venture?  To be honest, I don’t know.  I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I’m only just now starting to understand the responsibility.  The other night while talking with my husband, he said something – not meanly – but in that gentle, truthful way only a spouse or extremely close friend can do… He said that I’m very good at mobilizing people; at getting them excited about a cause… but that sometimes, I lose interest in whatever it is that I’ve mobilized them for and then I leave them hanging because I’m moving onto something different.  It’s painfully true – perhaps one of my greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses all rolled up into one.
In the last 6 months, I’ve been seriously thinking it was time to “move on to something different.”  And so I’ve been pondering  ways that I could graciously close-down Scarlet Threads….to liquidate our remaining products and say zaijian to this season of trying to be a stay-at-home-mom/social-entrepreneur (and feeling like I was doing both poorly).  I have lots of good reasons, and a few bad ones, for wanting to go in that direction… and really we can never know where we will ultimately end up.  But one factor recently came up that overshadowed all the other ones for now.
It’s the red thread.
See, we asked our artisans in China how important the ongoing work of Scarlet Threads was to their families.  They are not our full-time employees.  We pay them when they make product for us, and I really wasn’t sure what percentage of their business came from us.  One of them said it was half of their annual income in a good year.  The other said it was almost a fourth.  (For the one that said it was half, it is not lost on me that a “good year” is entirely dependent on how much we sell on this end.  When we sell, she makes more.  When we don’t sell, she doesn’t make more.  So in a “bad year,” does her family just adjust their lifestyle to the lower income? Make it up somewhere else? I don’t yet know the answer to that…)

It was a lot to take in, but I realized I’m tied to them with a red thread. 
For two families in a small village outside of Beijing, China, Scarlet Threads isn’t just a hobby.  It is a substantial part of their families’ livelihoods.  And as the leader of this little enterprise, I’m here to confess I haven’t treated that with enough solemnity.  It has been a hobby for me.  I've toyed with the business when it was convenient and I needed a distraction.  I’ve shelved it when I was busy without figuring out a way to transfer my responsibilities to someone else so we could continue honoring our commitment to our partner artisans.  And now that I’m sort of losing interest in it – mostly due to my two little chickadees who take up so much of my time and energy – I’ve been quick to consider moving on. 
But just because I don’t rely on Scarlet Threads doesn’t mean no one else does. 
We have been actively trying to shift our focus this past year from “empowering through employment” to “connecting you with artisans.” We don’t want you to pity the people behind our products or feel like you’re making a charitable contribution to their families when you buy an apron or some ornaments.  And while that is still our heart – they are amazingly talented artisans running their own businesses, not the recipients of our charity – the fact of the matter is, they do need us to do our job.  They do need us to share their handicrafts with as wide of an audience as we can find.  They do need us to sell their products so they can make more.  It isn’t just what they need, it’s what they want.

And so we are taking that more seriously.  We are bringing on our first ACTUALLY PAID part-time stateside employee, Meredith.  (Who’ll you’ll meet soon… though a lot of you already know her.)  We are working on figuring out a plan for how we can sell (and therefore make!) more product given the life-constraints of those of us working behind the scenes.  (Namely – two small children in my house and one very large/60+ hour a week career in Eileen’s.)  We don’t know ultimately where all this will end up, but this is our public proclamation that we are going to give it our absolute best and see what happens.  (And that's a scary proclamation to make.)
I hope you can see you are part of this story, too.  When you buy our products, give them for gifts, tell a friend where to find a cute apron, post a link on your facebook page, or share a picture on Instagram of you doing your holiday baking in one of our aprons, you aren’t just building a brand.  You might as well be walking into Deng’s home and sitting down at her table on the little 3-legged stool to slurp up a big steaming bowl of noodles as you peruse the aprons she’s made and figure out a way to help make her business a success from your corner of the globe. 

You’re tied to her with a red thread, too.

And though I’m just starting to understand it, it’s always been about those scarlet threads. 


  1. I love your post! Thank you so much for sharing your beginnings and your heart with honesty and hope! I appreciate the renewal that you are bringing forward and intention to make a difference with that scarlet thread connection!
    ~Andrea ||

  2. Love this!! Thank you for connecting me to the artisans! I would live to share a bowl of noodles at Dengs place!! I will keep on promoting this business from my little piece of the planet. :)