Made in New England Series: Clay Twombly’s Handmade Malas
When life gave Clay Twombly lemons and he lost two very important people in his life the same year, rather than making lemonade he decided to make malas. What started as a hobby has transformed into his livelihood. In fact, Clay now even has his own little mala shop on Nantucket, where he has lived and built a community for the past 14 years. We met up with Clay to chat about searching for the perfect beads and materials, his love for shopping local and why you can never take life too seriously (even during a yoga class).
R.K: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
C.T: I was in retail for many years, and ran a boutique out here in Nantucket right on Main Street. I then shifted gears and did a yoga teacher training, and started teaching yoga. A couple years later, I quit my job, started teaching full time and did some coaching in order to help other creative people put some of the business pieces together.
In 2012, my boyfriend committed suicide and my mother died from pancreatic cancer. I’ve always been a creative person but hadn’t really found my niche. During this time, some of my very good friends from Nantucket sent me over to London to be with a good friend. She started showing me how to bead, so I went to a little bead shop and found a few things. Once I started, I loved making things with my hands and it was so nurturing. As my mom was passing, I started making the prayer beads. I had a few of my own, and a few had been given to me so it all sort of clicked.
It brought back memories of a college trip to Barcelona where I bought a little pocket rosary to carry with me as a good luck charm so the bead thing goes way back!
R.K: What did you do next? How did you officially turn this into a business?
C.T: It took me a couple years, but I started working with gemstones and found a rhythm in terms of materials and how to do proper knotting. I also learned where to find interesting objects, vintage things, and cool markets in NYC and Boston. In 2012, I found some cool beads in places like China and California. It’s been a really interesting process and now I’ve expanded and started working with metals. I opened my little shop in 2014 here in Nantucket, a little office space in the mid-island and people found me there. A year later, I moved into a great little shop space in town.
In addition to running my business, I also teach yoga five to six days a week, and come to the shop six full days but it’s a really good balance.
R.K? How do you source your materials and design your malas? Take us through the creative process.
C.T: For a long time, I was trying to figure out what the best material is to string things on. I loved the idea of a natural material but they all started breaking because it was stones rubbing against linen. I found another material that works and it’s super durable but the bead holes have to be a certain size to make it work.
I have some things I always keep in stock like amazonite, sandalwood, blue chalcedony, rose quartz, and amethyst because they’re everyone’s favorite. I keep my favorites stocked and make a lot of one-of-a-kinds as well. I have a woman who used to work with me at the shop, but she moved off island and I’ll send her work so she strings and knots and sends the unfinished pieces to me and I’ll finish it with tassel or one of my metal pieces. It’s been my goal to grow it and have it be something that helps support other people too, and that lets me stay on the front end of being creative. It’s not all about me; I also want to provide other people work.
R.K: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
C.T: Early on, it was challenging learning different kinds of beads and all the different sized holes there are and finding the right material to fit with those beads because I wanted something that was durable. I ended up finding a material that is very durable and comes in tons of colors and I love color. But I’m always looking at new things, like this year I started working with little faceted gemstones; now I knot them and I had to figure out which materials work with which. It’s more trial and error there but that’s kind of the fun part! How does it work? How can I make it into something? I love the creative part and I’m always trying to make new one-of-a-kind pieces. I also love seeing what people respond to! I never thought I’d be the Bead Guy.
As much as I love it, it’s also work sometimes; it’s my livelihood and not just a hobby. And it’s expensive! There’s a lot of overhead, but I trust that it’s meant to be. Sometimes in the winter I’ll hang out with my dogs and watch a Netflix series. In the beginning it was so therapeutic, but now it’s also a business. Sometimes I’ll grab a mala and start knotting it so it can bring me calm and stay grounded, and I’ll walk around and make one in my shop. It’s like grandma knitting; I can knock them out.
RK: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
C.T: Yes, definitely! For me, it’s being very involved in this community both through businesses and nonprofits, along with the yoga community; I know a lot of people. At the beginning, there were a lot of people showing up to support me, and saying this is a really interesting thing. The community really shows up for that! It may have been harder in a community I was less involved in, but it’s been a huge part of my success being part of a small community that’s also connected to the bigger world. People come from all over the world to purchase my malas! I have wholesale accounts, a friend from Switzerland who buys for friends all over the world, or people who buy for their yoga teachers.
R.K: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
C.T: There are so many good organizations out there and good things happening! I guess it’s just in general people having more access to it. For instance, with social media it’s great but is there more of an opportunity to bring people together with what they need? It’s connecting those dots, and sometimes it may be just one click away from what you need.
R.K: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
C.T: Living in a small town on an island where it’s easy to go off island and do all your shopping, I instead try to do as much of my shopping locally. Whatever it is I need, I try to get here whether it’s a notebook or paying a little bit more at a local clothing store. But don’t get me wrong, I use Amazon all the time!
Obviously I buy everything I need for work from off island, but there are a lot of great jewelry brands and yoga studios here. I teach at a place called the Yoga Room on Nantucket and that’s a great studio with lots of great collaborations happening over there. My vision for my shop is to have a place for other artisans and designers to show their work. But at the moment, because the store is my name, people are coming here for my work. I do carry the jewelry for some other friends like Keely Smith Designs, Lost Apostle Jewelry and more. It’s a great place for people to show up and support each other!
R.K: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
C.T: I honestly don’t know if there’s been one biggest influencer because there have been so many people who I’ve been through it with. My friends all pull together to help me emotionally; I don’t think I could pick just one.
My husband has definitely been a positive influence. I got married last year and he’s a huge supporter. He sometimes is like “I don’t know what you’re doing down there, but more power to you!”
R.K: What’s your favorite quote or business mantra?
C.T: “Be kind and don’t take it all so seriously.” We can take everything so seriously, even our yoga poses, that we lose site of the bigger picture. That’s why when we get those interruptions in the yoga class, don’t take it so seriously. We can laugh. We can giggle. Our whole practice is learning how to roll with that and not getting bent out of shape. I wear my sandalwood mala that I’ve re-made many times on my wrist every day as my visual cue. For instance, if someone cuts me off, I think, “Just relax we‘re all going to get there.”
R.K: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
C.T: I would like it to be out there more – in more shops and studios! I’d like to see some growth because it’s a handmade product from the United States, and you can get a lot of what I make for less money but it all comes from overseas. Granted all the beads come from overseas (from China and India), but it’s knowing this is made by a real person with the intention that it goes to support real people.
R.K: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness brand?
C.T: Follow your heart, and start small. If you love it, go for it! But test the waters, do your research, and do your homework. Know what else is out there in terms of what you’re doing and what sets you apart. Is there room for what you’re doing out there? Is it better to go it alone or what about a collaboration?
R.K: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
C.T: Open, kind of silly, sometimes stubborn. I guess I’m pretty mellow most of the time but there are also times when I’m really excitable especially when I’m with my people because we definitely laugh a lot. I try to just be real and if I catch myself not being real I can feel it. I’m authentic.