Mystic shop has strong ties to past
of growth spurt
Stonington - When the editor-in-chief at Martha Stewart Weddings sought a few distinctive nautical items for her brother's nuptials two years ago, she called on the grandson of a famed Mystic knot-tying expert to make it happen.
And later, when the 200,000-plus-circulation magazine's editor Elizabeth Graves needed extra monkey fist key chains because people accepted wedding invitations at the last minute, Matt Beaudoin of Mystic Knotwork came through yet again.
The result was a write-up in the publication that featured Beaudoin discussing his grandfather's inspiration in starting his nautical knot-tying and rope-weaving business.
"That was our breakout moment," Beaudoin said.
Since then, business has been booming. What essentially had been a home-based mom-and-pop enterprise has grown into a busy shop in The Velvet Mill that just doubled in size by adding a retail dimension to its largely Internet-based business. Mystic Knotwork now includes six employees, including Beaudoin, his wife, Jill, his daughter Christa and his nephew Morgan.
To give an idea of the business's new popularity, Beaudoin's most noteworthy job recently was 4,600 handmade pieces for the soon-to-open Boathouse restaurant at DisneyWorld in Florida. He estimates going through 2,500 pounds of cord and working on 700 weddings just last year, producing such items as boutonnieres and napkin rings for clients from coastal Florida to California and the Houston-Galveston area in Texas.
Beaudoin's love for knot-tying can be traced to his late grandfather, Alton Charles Beaudoin, who learned the craft in the 1930s while serving in the Merchant Marines and became so adept that he has a knot named after him - the Beaudoin Rose - and was recognized as a master of cord and rope tying by the Smithsonian Institution.
"He sold his first piece to pay a boardinghouse bill," Beaudoin said.
His grandfather went on to earn Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars during World War II, barely surviving a brush with death during an Army mission in the South Pacific.
"When he came out of the coma, the first thing he asked for was a piece of string to see if he could still tie knots," Beaudoin said. "He made macrame belts for the hospital staff."
The old seaman was only too happy to transfer his knot-tying skills to his grandson - skills that reached their height in the middle of the 19th century and traditionally were the job of a ship's boatswain.
Beaudoin's grandfather displayed his knot-tying skills at the annual Mystic Outdoor Art Festival and won the show's top prize three out of the first four years - until organizers excluded craft items back in the 1950s.
"I'm working hard at keeping my grandfather's memory alive," Beaudoin said.
He's also working at growing his business, but says he is at a bit of a crossroads. The company, which did about $200,000 in sales last year, is getting big enough to be a viable enterprise but not quite big enough to allow Beaudoin to step away from day-to-day work to develop the business and the craft itself.
All that may be about to change, however. Mystic Knotwork was just named a winner in The American Small Business Championship, which entitles the company to one year of mentoring by SCORE, the small-business advisory organization that has a local chapter based in Old Saybrook.
Beaudoin said he hoped SCORE volunteers, mostly retired executives, would help him chart a business plan to take Mystic Knotwork to a new level and help him convert from craftsman to businessman. Among the possibilities is the idea of automating for the first time the most tedious part of the craft - cutting string into precise lengths and gluing them for products that range from decorative necklaces to lanyards that help ensure the safety of solo sailors.
"We've reached a bridge," Beaudoin said. "We're no longer a family mom-and-pop business, but we still haven't broken out to be a medium-sized business."
Social media savvy
Besides weddings, much of Mystic Knotwork's sales are to nautical-themed gift shops, such as at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. Locally, the craft can be found at the Old Lighthouse Museum and the Palmer House as well as the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Hope & Stetson in Mystic and the Mystic Army-Navy Store, which has carried the family's products since 1985.
Some of Mystic Knotwork's simpler items, such as sailor bracelets, can be had for $5, while more complex designs, such as welcome mats made from 170 feet of roping material, can cost up to $200. While the designs are largely traditional, Beaudoin's wife and daughter have pushed the company in more colorful product directions, widening the appeal of pieces that in the past often lacked a female touch.
Beaudoin said social media has been particularly effective at spreading the word about Mystic Knotwork, and many new customers find the business through the company website, eager to support an American company that still makes products with traditional materials in a time-honored way.
"It's a very visual medium," he said. "I'm always posting what we are doing today."
Beaudoin also seems to be constantly working, and though business slows this time of the year he admits to some 16-hour days when major deadlines are on the horizon. He rests about 10 minutes every hour to give his hands a break, but even then he's often posting pictures on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram or running over to help with a product shoot.
Beaudoin said he took inspiration in restarting the knot-tying business from the Mystic Seaport's restoration of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan.
"If a 150-year-old sailing ship can be rebuilt, why not a 40-year-old knot business," he told Martha Stewart Weddings.
Beaudoin finds the business exciting and doesn't regret giving up a lucrative information technology job to spend more time close to home trying to pump new life into an ancient craft. He credited his wife, Jill, with providing the encouragement needed to make him take the leap into a business that in its first year generated only $7,000 in revenue.
"She's the push," Beaudoin said. "She pushes me off the cliff, and I have to design the parachute."
What: Mystic Knotwork
Where: The Velvet Mill, 22 Bayview Ave., Stonington
Who: Matt and Jill Beaudoin
Years in Business: 6 (58 under other names)
No. of Employees: 6
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