There was a time when Chantel (Pilon) Conlon’s schedule revolved around five events: 60-metre hurdles, high jump, shotput, long jump, and 800-metre sprint.
Most days, the Honours Recreation and Business student (BA’14, MA’16) would carve out several hours of training sessions in between classes and assignments. She graduated with a cabinet full of trophies to show for her efforts, including Waterloo’s first gold medal from the Ontario University Athletics Championship since 2003.
After graduating with a Master’s degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies, Conlon was working in a management role at a recreation facility when her career took an unexpected turn. She was scrolling through craft ideas online when she discovered macramé, a resurgent form of textile art that uses knotting techniques to create wall hangings, plant holders and other decorative objects.
Over the next year, she experimented with techniques developed from sailing camp, the friendships bracelets of her childhood and simple trial and error to fill her apartment with contemporary handmade creations. Now she spends the better part of her days knotting cords of cotton, velvet and silk into intricate designs.
Leveraging the marketing and sales skills that she honed in her co-op terms at Waterloo, Conlon established an online presence to sell her art. Lots of Knots Canada took flight when she sold her first few pieces at the end of 2018. The next year, she launched a YouTube channel to share video tutorials with fellow macramé enthusiasts.
Conlon grew her social media following so impressively that a U.S. publisher invited her to publish Mixed Fibre Macrame, a book of macrame projects, in 2020. “I feel quite fortunate in that the pandemic has actually helped my business," she acknowledges. “People are spending their time at home and looking for ways to stay busy and engaged.”
At the end of her Master’s program, Conlon authored a thesis on the factors that drive people to pursue extreme leisure activities, from competing in Iron Man competitions to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trial. She concluded that having a tight-knit community was a significant factor in motivation.
As she builds ties with fibre artists and hobbyists around the world, she can testify to the power of community firsthand. “I can’t tell you how many people message me and tell me that my tutorials have helped them through the pandemic,” she shares. “That’s why I do what I do. Whether someone is having fun learning a new craft or using it as a meditative way to get through something difficult, it’s rewarding to feel like I’m making a positive impact.”
With a newborn baby and several daily orders to fulfill, Chantel is making plans to expand her business by hiring several employees and renting a production space. To keep up with her workload in the meantime, she channels the same tenacity that she brought to the track years ago.
“It does take mental toughness to invest so many hours into something with no promise of success, but I was well-prepared by my years at Waterloo,” she says. Her advice to future graduates of the Faculty of Health, particularly those who share her entrepreneurial spirit, is to find a way to make small, steady progress toward an end goal, even if it takes years of building a business on a part-time basis.
“The fear of failure is real, but if you know what you want to accomplish, there is nothing else to do but take the first step.”