MEDIA STORY: tiny studio, gigantic results

Little Free Radical was featured in the local newspaper this week! Here is the article:
Tiny studio, gigantic results
North Revere resident finds success — and strength — in her home-based sewing business
Photo Credit: Ana Paula Massoni of Massoni Photography

By Seth Daniel
Revere Journal
September 28. 2011

When Crystal Evans surveyed the challenges facing her two years ago, she realized she had to turn somewhere.

She was battling a degenerative neuromuscular disease, Mitochondrial Myopathy, and had become confined to a wheelchair. Her disease prevented her from holding a regular job. She was struggling to keep her health insurance in effect. And she and her husband couldn’t get legally married because it would cancel her health insurance. Meanwhile, they were expecting a baby.

For that long and complicated list of problems, the last solution she would have thought to pursue was starting her own business, but that is what she did and it’s what ended up changing her life for the better.

In fact, sewing children’s toys for her one-woman company, Little Free Radical* – based out of the family’s North Revere apartment – has been just as therapeutic for her illness as it has been successful.

“Sewing is actually very therapeutic for me and I’ve gained a lot of my strength back since starting my business,” said Evans, whose pieces were recently featured at a Celebrity Gift Lounge event associated with the Primetime Emmy’s in Hollywood. “This business has helped me therapeutically and helped me get out of the situation with my health insurance, all at the same time. Running a business also helps emotionally when you’re dealing with chronic illness. A lot of my friends with this illness get down and it’s hard for them. They look at me like I’m insane because I’m happy. The business is my motivation.

As an aside, she said Mitochondrial Myopathy is a disease that’s in the same family as Muscular Dystrophy. Over time, the illness weakens the muscles and prevents the body’s cells from turning food into energy. It results in a debilitating condition where complete major organ failure is possible at almost any time – simply because the body does not have enough energy to keep them going.

Evans entered her entrepreneurial endeavor quite by accident. About two years ago, Evans and her husband moved to North Revere’s Overlook Ridge community from Somerville. After having their first baby, she began sewing some stuffed balls and other toys for her daughter to play with. Sewing was something she could do in her wheelchair and was also something she had learned how to do many years ago in high school.

One day, while hosting a friend, she was asked why she didn’t sell the toys she was making. That’s when the gears started turning. “I would sew little stuffed balls, and I made a tu-tu, some stuffed animals and some dresses,” said Evans. “My friend thought they were the best thing ever and the other people she showed it to saw them and started asking me to make the same things for their kids…The problem with a regular job was that I’m in the hospital, sometimes once a month. You can’t hold a job when you’re constantly sick or don’t feel well a lot. So, I decided to run with this and start something at home.” Getting the business off the ground, ironically, proved to kill three or four birds with one stone.

Evans said she and her husband had been prevented from officially marrying because it would have caused her to lose her state health insurance – which she desperately needed for her illness. One of the issues was that if she married, she had to work 40 hours per week. Obviously, she wasn’t able to do that at a traditional workplace, but working full-time from home could very well be done.

“I approached the people at MassHealth and they loved the idea,” she said. Once everything was set, she and her husband finally tied the official knot. Two birds down. Once she set up her business, displaying items in a boutique in Cambridge and setting up a high-visibility online store via the Internet, she began to get several orders. Pacing herself, she began working on the orders and it began to help improve her physical and mental condition. Her Internet store, which is on the well-known crafting site Etsy*, helped her find materials and get orders. “I have to pace myself because if I get too strained, I could have complete organ failure,” she said. “However, maintaining a certain energy level is good for the Mitochondria.” Third bird.

Finally, the icing on the cake was that Evans’s business really began to take off. After being invited to join The Artisan Group, Evans was asked to make items for a Celebrity Gift Lounge event at the W Hotel in Hollywood, an event that preceded the Primetime Emmy Awards earlier this month. Celebrities such as Cloris Leachman and others were seen playing and endorsing her toys. It was tremendous exposure and similar opportunities will be available to her in the future, she said. “It was  pretty cool because the event organizer’s daughter liked my toys and picked them up and started playing ball with a lot of the celebrities,” said Evans. “So, my products got a lot of exposure that was totally spontaneous and unexpected.” For now, Evans has stuffed balls available and cloth stacking toys. She said she has plans to add toy elephants and baby bibs.

The remarkable part is she’s still sewing circles around the competition. “I was in the ICU in 2009 and they told me they didn’t expect me to last another year,” said Evans. “Well, I had a baby, was finally able to get married and I have my own business. I’m still here. I am still in the hospital a lot of times, but I am still here.”

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*spelling of Etsy corrected from Etsi and business name corrected to Little Free Radical from “Tiny Free Radical”

The Story Behind the Little Free Radical

I remember sitting in 10th grade chemistry class, being introduced to the periodic table of elements, and staring at it thinking, “There’s NO way I’m going to remember all of this!”

As a 15 year old, spending an hour a day learning about atoms, molecules, and electrons was the last thing I wanted to be worrying about. All those carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules looked boring,carbohydrates were ‘bad’ anyways according to my mother’s newest diet book, Sugar Busters. And why should I care so much about free radicals roaming around? I was more interested in Life Sciences and Home Economics, and sat through the classes I deemed ‘boring’ scheming up things I would create back at home after school, and plotting out my next trip to the fabric store.

I finally loved to learn chemistry in college, when I found myself in a molecular biology class at Harvard. It was fascinating to sit through Professor Alain Viel’s classes, learning about life on a molecular level. Finally, the Periodic Table of Elements from high school started to make sense and I could better understand these mysterious structures mentioned in other classes like cell biology & genetics. He told me about a video he had helped to complete, Inner Life of the Cell,   where he described the molecular processes to a team of visual artists.

I’ve always had a NEED to know how everything works. So a 3D animation like this just makes me need to learn more and so the following semester I took Biochemistry. The professor would bring molecule sets to class so we could build basic molecular structures of things like Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and various amino acids. I loved the hands-on experience of learning to assemble them myself and trying to ‘see’ how it all worked.

Now that I have a better understanding of chemistry, I’m completely fascinated with it! I know now, that had I been paying attention better back in high school, I would have realized that hidden in between the covers of my basic chemistry were formula’s or instructions for how to build some of the coolest things in life. Who knew that that a repeating structure with 6-Carbons, 10-Hydrogens and 5-Oxygens (C6H10O5)n could build cellulose – which is what one of the things I love to play with the most is primarily composed of – COTTON Fabric!!! Really, how cool is the repeating fiber structure for cellulose?!? The design of the molecullar structure that compose  cellulose to make cotton is awesome enough, let alone what these molecules have potential make!

Just as molecules can be structured into amazing things, fabric can be re-structured into amazing things also!!! I remember trips with my mother to Joann Fabrics as a child, looking at the rows and rows of fabric. As a very young child, I’d be v-e-r-y b-o-r-e-d, wandering around looking at the various colors and patterns, and exploring the textures. As I would (impatiently) wait for her to make up her mind  – and it always seemed like forever – I’d start poking through pattern books. Every now and then, my mother would let me choose a new pattern and I’d watch back at home as she would cut the pieces and assemble  a new dress for me. I was fascinated at how clothes were made, as I opened up pattern envelopes to see all sorts of weird shapes that could be transformed into a dress, much the same way I would sit and look at the periodic table and molecules in my science books not understanding what they could create.

By the age of 10, I very much wanted to try out her sewing machine. After much begging, I chose a dress pattern and sent my mother all over town, trying to choose the perfect fabric and went home and made my very first dress which I proudly wore to school. From then on, I was full of ideas of everything I wanted to make!

In 9th grade I taught myself how to quilt and started competing in textile competitions and county fairs. I loved picking out various fabrics that coordinated with each other. I had also started sewing for others. I often had mothers buying fabric for me to make their daughters school clothes. And at the holidays I was busy sewing doll clothes for American Girl Dolls to sell at craft fairs, and making home-made presents for my family.

Now, a decade later, I’m a mother to a 4.5 month old girl. At some point in my pregnancy, my partner nicknamed me “the free radical” since I’d spend my days roaming around Boston “like a free radical” bouncing between doctors appointments (I had a high risk pregnancy) and wandering store to store planning for the baby’s arrival. Naturally, when Sophie was born, she became the Little Free Radical. :)

It wasn’t until after Sophie’s arrival that I finally got my very own sewing machine. For the past 10 years I’d been borrowing sewing machines from others when I had a project to do. After constantly looking at Etsy seeing things I knew I could easily make if I only had a sewing machine, my partner bought one so I could make Sophie things like my mom did for me.

Sophie is already very interested in sewing. I take her through the fabric store and we wander around looking at all the colors. She also loves to sit at the computer with me as I shop online for fabric. And she watches intently as I cut the fabric to make her dresses and toys (while being on the lookout for fabric scraps she can grab!), and smiles in delight as she watches while I assemble the various pieces into a structure just for her!

So for now, we work as a team: Sophie helps me choose fabrics that appeal to her interests, while I cut the pieces and assemble sheets of fabric into clothes, toys, and other fun things! Of course when my role as the assembler is done, it gets passed off to Sophie to test it out and approve:

Knotty tutu

Her latest favorite is tulle. If I make her a tutu, she’s sitting there grabbing at it before I’m done. She LOVES to wear ‘em and pouts when  it’s time to come off.

I keep ending up with scraps after cutting out small dresses and such, so I figured why NOT make an Etsy shop to use up my scraps, and bring delight to other small humans! Then I’ll have extra $$$ to keep buying new fabric and Sophie can watch as I put it together. :)

So, coming soon will be a variety of baby toys, baby & children’s clothes and of course Sophie’s favorite: Tutus!

note: this post was moved here from my original blog. :)