Who knew finding all the materials to make one cross-stitch pattern for a kid’s room would be so hard? Lauren Venell, 41, learned it the hard way—she almost gave up on the project given how difficult her search was. And that’s a lot to say since Venell does not seem easily intimidated by a challenge.
A crafter since her early years, Venell tried all she could to stay in the field, including learning how to set up her own online shop pre-Etsy. Her tech proficiency landed her a lucrative job in Silicon Valley, but her heart wasn’t in it. With a deep-seated love for both business and craft, Venell would find herself dreaming about her very own company, to be managed in a very different way.
One of the many times she got laid off (a common occurrence in the volatile tech world), Venell decided that she’d had enough, and moved to Chicago to found Maydel (rhymes with “ladle”). Maydel is the only online needlework shop that offers every single shade of DMC floss (a premium thread) and fabric by the square inch. The shop also stands out due to its commitment to inclusion, accessibility, and sustainability. The Reader recently interviewed Venell about her business and inspiring trajectory.
Isa Giallorenzo: When and why did you start Maydel? Could you tell me about the whole process you went through while moving away from Silicon Valley? When was your “aha” moment?
Lauren Venell: Maydel has been open since April 13, 2021. In the mid 2000s, I was a professional crafter specializing in soft goods. My work sold well but I couldn’t find a way to scale my business to a sustainable level. I tried outsourcing my manufacturing, consulting for clients, making kits, and editorial production, but none of those options allowed me to create my own new work.
I spent all my time either selling existing designs or bringing someone else’s vision to life. I knew dozens of other crafters who quit after facing similar struggles. For several years my brain worked in the background trying to solve this problem while I went to work doing design at tech startups in San Francisco.
One day, wanting to get back to making something with my hands after spending all day at the computer, I purchased a cross-stitch pattern to make for my daughter’s room. The pattern called for 30 colors of embroidery floss, plus needles, fabric, and a hoop of a particular size. I found about half of what I needed at one big-box store, another 25 percent at a second big-box store, and all but one color of floss at a few different stores online. I finally found the last color (DMC 917—I will remember it forever) in a box of 12 that I had to order from the UK. All in all it took six entire weeks and way more than I’d budgeted to get the supplies for the project. I was so frustrated I almost didn’t want to do it anymore.
“Why wouldn’t the artist sell full kits for this project when the supplies are so hard to get ahold of?” I wondered. Then I thought back to my own craft business days and remembered how difficult and expensive it was to try to put kits together. The markup was almost never worth the labor, and the purchase minimums needed to take advantage of price breaks were way too steep for an independent artist to afford. That’s when it hit me—a company that made and sold supply kits on behalf of crafters would be a win-win-win: a win for artists and designers wanting to make more money without spending any additional time on operations, a win for customers who could finally get everything they needed in one place, and a win for the supply company, which could build an unlimited product catalog from a single, limited set of craft supplies.
For a while, I let the idea simmer in the back of my mind, but it just became louder and more solid the longer I kept it there. I would find myself sketching web designs and business plans during meetings and my daughter’s dance classes, but my job provided most of my family’s income (and all of our health insurance) so I was hesitant to leave that security behind.
Then the universe decided for me when I was laid off. Rather than strive for yet another demoralizing and insecure role at a tech company, I made the decision to take the leap and move to Chicago to start my own business. In the span of two months we sold our apartment, found a new home and a school for our daughter, and moved everything we owned across the country.
Why did you choose Chicago?
My husband is originally from Chicagoland, and we still have lots of family in and around the city. Over the many years that we visited I fell in love with Chicago and frequently looked for jobs or transfer opportunities so we could move here. As a born-and-bred Brooklynite, Chicago has always felt like the best of New York without the pretension.
When I decided to quit working in Silicon Valley and start my own company, choosing Chicago was a no-brainer—it’s the perfect place to build an e-commerce craft business. First, Chicago is located at the “crossroads of America,” with huge air, rail, and trucking hubs, so both incoming and outgoing orders ship as quickly as possible. Second, most of the vendors and manufacturers I work with are located in the midwest (where people still make things!), many within a half-day’s drive of the city. And all of the things you need to run a business are in plentiful supply here, from affordable commercial and retail space to reliable infrastructure. Also Chicago is routinely overlooked by the larger tech companies, which means I don’t have to compete for talent with giants like Google or Amazon.
On the personal side, Chicago is also where we wanted to raise our daughter. The schools here are much better than in San Francisco, the city is far more diverse and kid-friendly, and we’re closer to everyone in our family.
What neighborhood do you run your business from?
At the intersection of Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, and Albany Park. Right now I’m running everything out of a storage unit, but I’m working with my alderman and my local chamber of commerce to explore retail spaces.
You are a 20-year veteran crafter, teacher, and designer. I wanna know about your background—how you started, what drew your attention to this field, and what fascinates you about it.
I’ve been fascinated by both craft and business my whole life, from when I was a kid selling friendship bracelets and tiny clay animals on my front stoop, to my early 20s, when I had a side gig making bizarre plush objects like giant burritos and cuts of meat.
I’ve always found craft really powerful—the fact that you can take a length of string and weave it around itself to make a sweater, a basket, a lace doily, or a fishing net is pretty mind-blowing. Creating something out of nothing with your own two hands feels like a magical superpower. But so does business. If you think about it, the fact that I could turn something as crazy as a stuffed ham hock into rent and groceries is equally unbelievable.
This was before the days of Etsy, Shopify, YouTube, or smartphones, and there were no conferences or Facebook groups for craft businesses, so when my hobby accidentally turned into a job I had to figure out everything on my own. When my husband suggested I sell my plush foods online, I learned HTML so I could design and program my own website, researched shopping cart software and payment gateways so I could take credit cards, and swiped other companies’ press packs from a trade show to learn how to write a press release.
Along the way I shared everything I learned via blogs, local workshops, and even a craft business conference. Those resources connected me to others in the burgeoning indie craft movement and soon I was meeting folks regularly both in person and online. They were true kindred spirits and joining the indie craft movement felt like coming home. Everyone I met was warm, welcoming, and a little weird, just like me. No one took themselves too seriously and we were all generous with our help and humor. Some of my best friends to this day are people I met at craft shows or conferences nearly 20 years ago.
Though I’ve learned over the years that I’d rather craft for pleasure than profit, I’ve always wanted to come back to the craft community and do what I can to help it thrive. Having been a professional crafter, I have a unique perspective of some of the things still holding us back (mainly a lack of innovation, inclusion, and sustainability), and ideas for how to address them.
I want to hear a bit about your previous job at Silicon Valley and why you quit it.
In 2010, deep into the Great Recession, I started working part-time at a tech startup to provide some steadier income for our family. For a while I was able to keep running my own craft business on the side, but the pay rate was so much higher at the startup that I gradually started taking on more and more hours there. Then I got pregnant with my daughter and went full-time so we could have health insurance. After my daughter was born, insurance and a stable income became even more important, and I stayed in the tech industry despite feeling increasingly stressed and disillusioned.
Life at most Silicon Valley startups isn’t really compatible with motherhood, which is probably why (at two different companies) I was the only mother among 200 employees. The hours are grueling, the pace is blindingly fast, and the expectation is that the company’s success will be your number one priority, even in your off-hours. “Pivots” and “restructuring” also happen frequently and I was laid off approximately every 18 months.
There was laughably cliché misogyny (being told to smile more in performance reviews) and truly impossible work demands (creating a 9 AM conference presentation with materials delivered at 10 PM the night before), but more than that I was increasingly frustrated by the lip service paid to “changing the world” when the real goal was always to make the investors as rich as possible. At first I thought I just hadn’t found a company with the right “culture fit,” but after working at three startups with virtuous-sounding values on paper, I started researching venture capital and realized that the problems I was dealing with were both endemic to the whole tech industry and unlikely to change given the incentives and identities of the people in charge.
Around 2017 I noticed women starting to speak up about the damage caused by investor-driven, winner-take-all business models and imagining alternatives that were simultaneously visionary and practical, like the Zebra Manifesto, Proposals for the Feminine Economy, and Doughnut Economics. They inspired me to believe that it wasn’t just possible, but profitable to build a collaborative company that helps heal the planet and thrives alongside its customers, employees, and community, rather than exploiting them.
What has running Maydel been like for you? What are some of your successes and challenges?
Having been a professional crafter and then a visual designer at tech companies, it seems almost inevitable that I would eventually launch my own craft startup. Being a crafter is emotionally satisfying but financially unsustainable, and working in Silicon Valley is lucrative yet soul-crushing, but building a tech-driven craft company is fulfilling on all levels. For the first time in my life, I look forward to going to work every day, even though it’s daunting to remember that I’m solely responsible for Maydel’s success or failure.
I chose to go it alone and not seek investment because I didn’t want anything to compromise the values I’m building into my business. It’s a challenge to work within such tight financial constraints, but it’s also been a blessing because it forced me to make Maydel profitable from the get-go. Though it’ll probably be a while before I can pay myself a salary, Maydel is already financially sustainable after its first year, which is a great foundation to grow from.
Inventory has also been a challenge, particularly with supply chain and pandemic disruptions, but I’m proud to have kept my promise to keep every single color of DMC embroidery floss in stock at all times. As far as I know, Maydel is the only online shop in the world that does this—including DMC itself.
As for successes, I’m hugely grateful to have built fulfilling relationships with many wonderful artists, partners, and supporters, several of which will be expanding in 2022. I’m also thankful that I’ve been able to provide products and a level of service that people genuinely appreciate. I’ve received many heartfelt and encouraging messages from customers this year, and not a single product return. And, of course, speaking with the Reader is a huge dream come true!
Tell me more about sustainability being a core value of your business.
I wouldn’t say sustainability is a core value of my business. It’s more basic than that—it’s table stakes. If you take more from your business (or the planet you live on) than you give back, pretty soon you won’t have a business (or a planet) anymore. I’ve therefore tried to build sustainability into Maydel at the most fundamental level, both financially and environmentally.
But just because it’s a logical path doesn’t mean it’s an easy one. The craft industry is woefully behind the times when it comes to things like plastic packaging and extracting natural resources so I’ve had to work really hard to find companies and products that “do no harm,” though I’d like to go a step further. I’m a big believer in the concept of “tikkun olam” (the responsibility we all have to repair the world), so my ultimate goal is to grow Maydel from a sustainable business into a regenerative one.
In terms of accessibility, could you give me an idea of what you offer for people with physical impairments? Is it also a core value in your business?
Yes, inclusion is another Maydel foundation, and accessibility is a big part of that. Lots of studies have shown how craft improves people’s well-being, and I’ve always felt appreciated in craft spaces when I show up as my authentic self, but I know that for many people, craft can feel uninviting or hard to take part in. My goal with Maydel, therefore, is to make everyone feel like they can join in.
As I see it, my job is to find and remove as many barriers as I can. There are economic and emotional barriers, such as affordability or feeling unwelcome, which I also try to address, but some of the hardest barriers to overcome are physical ones. I started by tackling the difficulties that I and my family have personally experienced—metal allergies, tremors, arthritis, and vision limitations—by building Maydel’s product collection, patterns, and website to accommodate folks who face similar obstacles.
On the product side, Maydel carries hypoallergenic and metal-free needles in every type and size, including needles with ballpoint tips that automatically fall into place when stitching on canvas. We also carry nonslip embroidery hoops with large wing nuts that are easy to twist, squeezable snips, and flat-strip threaders that are more visible than fine wires. Every pattern and chart is audited for legibility and clarity, and several are available in large print, peel-and-stick, or color-separated formats, with more being added every month. In addition to using best practices for captions, color, and contrast, the website and search are navigable by both keyboard and mouse/trackpad, and can be read by a screen reader.
It takes time and effort to build things this way, and the work is never done, but I’ve been really pleased with the innovations we’ve developed already. The idea for color-separated patterns, for example, came about when the artist Yuka Hoshino and I were trying to devise a way for people to distinguish between similar colors in a paper embroidery design. What resulted was a new, technology-driven way to make all types of cross-stitch and needlepoint patterns more readable that I hope will be adopted throughout the industry.
You donate 1 percent of your revenue (not profit) to charitable organizations. What are some of those charities, and why did you choose them?
This year I donated 1 percent of my revenue (about 6 percent of my profit) each to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives Micro Finance Group (Greenwood Archer Capital), though I think of them more as investments that benefit the whole city. Economic and environmental justice are very important to me, as is supporting my local community, so I wanted to make sure that Maydel is contributing to a more equitable Chicago where everyone is able to thrive.
What’s your main goal with Maydel?
My main goal is to reset expectations for what a craft retailer can and should be. Given the latest digital and lean manufacturing technologies, there’s no reason we need to settle for massive, industrialized big-box stores with opaque supply chains, poor quality goods, and unhappy employees. People should be able to get high-quality craft supplies in the amounts they need, at prices they can afford, while feeling good about supporting their local community and the planet as a whole.
Where do you see Maydel going in the future?
As I mentioned earlier, expanding some of my partnerships and exploring retail spaces are on the roadmap for 2022, as are new products, patterns, and collaborations. I’m also hoping to release a couple of Maydel original products this year, expand into some new crafts beyond needlework, and perhaps run an online class or two. But the thing I’m most excited about in 2022 is opening up my partnership program to allow all needlework artists in the world to create kits for their patterns. It’s been technically challenging, but we’re pretty close!
After that, we’ll see. Though I have a grand 20-year vision, things change so fast at a startup that it’s impossible to plan more than a year or so ahead.
What else makes Maydel special and unique?
To me, what makes Maydel special and unique is that it shows you what craft stores will look like in the future, but you can visit it right now! You can get supplies in whatever size you need— like fabric by-the-inch or single needles—so you never waste money or materials; every single color of DMC embroidery floss is in stock at all times—even the specialty varieties, so you never have to shop at multiple stores to complete a project; all kits are 100 percent customizable, with every item sourced from a fully vetted list of ethical manufacturers, and most importantly, I try to make sure that everyone who wants to visit or try a project feels seen, welcome, and thoughtfully considered.
How many employees do you currently have at Maydel?
It’s just me right now, with some occasional programming help from my husband, but I partner with lots of wonderful artists and other small businesses, so I don’t feel like I’m building Maydel alone.
Could you tell me a bit about your collaborators? How do you choose them? Are some of them based in Chicago?
I work with two types of partners—businesses and artists. When it comes to business partners I try to keep things as local as possible, but ethics are paramount. I need to be able to trust that my partners will be transparent with me and always seek to do the right thing, even if it isn’t the most expedient or profitable. I also really appreciate partners who are willing to experiment or research with me. A special shout-out goes to Dennis Clegg at F.A. Edmunds in Clearing, who hunted down FSC certificates and hardware chemical tests so I could feel comfortable carrying their embroidery hoops. Thank you, Dennis!
The artists I collaborate with are located all over the world. Different needlework traditions and tools exist on every continent, and it’s important to me that techniques with deep cultural meaning, like Palestinian tatreez or Japanese sashiko are presented by artists who identify with and understand those cultures. That said, I’ve also had the privilege of partnering with several extremely talented Chicago artists on various projects this year, including Karen Barbé, Lauren Yeager, and Shannon Downey, and I hope to work with them more in 2022.
Could you give me an idea of the range of products you offer and their price points? Any products you’re particularly proud of and would like to highlight?
Right now Maydel offers mostly needlework supplies like embroidery threads, fabric, canvas, needles, and tools like scissors, hoops, and threaders, though as I mentioned I plan to start expanding into other crafts this year. Because we price things per piece, items start at just a few cents, with most products priced under $10, and most kits starting under $20.
I’m very proud of our needle selection, which is the category where I’ve done the most accessibility research so far. Our Pony Black needles, which are hypoallergenic, sustainably packaged, and made using the world’s highest labor standards, have been extremely popular and are difficult to find elsewhere in the U.S. I’m also of course very proud of the projects we carry by our partner artists. Patterns for gorgeous Palestinian tatreez by Elian Aboudi, ingenious paper embroidery by Yuka Hoshino, and bold text art by Ciara LeRoy are available exclusively at Maydel.
Where do you source your products?
For each type of supply in my inventory (e.g., needles, embroidery hoops), I assess every brand I can get my hands on, no matter where in the world they’re located. I research each company, sending them questions about sustainability, labor conditions, and animal welfare, while looking up any certifications they have, the regulations unique to the company’s location, and whether they’ve been cited for any violations.
At that stage I order samples from the brands that prioritize corporate ethics and responsibility (sadly, there are typically no more than two–three per category) to test their product quality for myself. The ones that pass muster I stock at Maydel, with special consideration given to products that make needlework more accessible to people who experience physical limitations or other barriers to crafting.
This kind of due diligence is a lot of work, but it’s 100 percent worth it. Through my research I’ve uncovered greenwashing and animal cruelty behind some popular “eco-friendly” supplies while discovering some truly remarkable products and brands not carried by any retailers or distributors in the U.S.
Who is your typical customer—if you feel like there’s one?
Since I started my business during a pandemic, I unfortunately haven’t met most of my customers, so I don’t know if there’s a type, but based on e-mails I’ve received, I can tell you that many Maydel customers are frequent crafters who are fed up with the status quo and ready for a change. We also, of course, have many customers with accessibility needs who have been ignored by mainstream retailers.
Where can your products be purchased?
At maydel.com and hopefully soon in the 40th Ward!