August 19, 2010

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Personalized blankets launch business for Wyndmoor mom

From Norway to Newtown, personalized blankets, pillows and towels created by Wyndmoor’s Betsy Claghorn proudly hang in baby rooms, bedrooms and dorm rooms. Recently featured on NBC10’s “The 10! Show,” Claghorn was invited as an “Entrepreneur Mom” to tell the story of her business success.

Claghorn started her aBCdesigns as so many other cottage industries begin – with the idea that she could produce something better. When she gave birth to her third child, Liza, she received what she called “the absolute cutest blanket.” Claghorn loved the gift but didn’t like that she could see the stitching on the reverse side.

A lifelong sewer, she thought to herself, “Wouldn’t it be fun to make a baby’s blanket … I know I could do this.” So she did.

She soon began making the blankets as gifts for her friends’ newest additions. With the baby’s name on the front and patterned flannel on the reverse side, her blankets are two layers (so you don’t see the stitching!) Beyond the personalization and high quality, her friends love the look of the blankets – patterned letters on the front coordinate with the blanket’s flannel side and there is a thick border of satin binding.

Her first blanket was made 21 years ago.

Those same friends who received those blankets as gifts from Claghorn are now buying them for their grandchildren.

Her business grew mostly by word of mouth, but Claghorn felt that she had “made it” when her work was featured in Robertson’s Seedlings when it first opened in 1991.

“I think knowing that my blankets, towels and pillows were included along with the products in such a beautiful store really helped to validate for me that I had a real business,” she said.

Her products remained at Seedlings until it closed, but they are still available at Haverford Square’s Patricia Adams Gifts, where Claghorn receives orders even when her samples were not on display.

For the first 15 years, her orders were taken over the phone or through specialty shops. Chatting with customers on the phone was one of her favorite job benefits.

“I loved the relationships that I developed over the phone,” she said. “I learned about these families and let me tell you, every blanket has a story.”

Whether made for the long-awaited adoptive child from China or the nanny who was now living in Oslo, every item touched a new life and many, Claghorn said, become that special blanket a child keeps for decades.

Since she created her website, three years ago, the phone calls have slowed, and her business is shifting primarily to email and website orders. The Facebook account she set up this month has filled the void of the personal relationships she had on the phone.

She loves that she can see what her customers (and gift recipients) look like. Claghorn admits that although she misses phone chats where she learned the histories of gift recipients, the Internet is the best thing that has happened to her business.

Now working full-time in her very organized large basement work room, Claghorn’s product lines have grown along with her three children (now 21, 24, & 25). When her daughter needed gifts for “Sweet 16” birthday parties, Claghorn started making large beach towels. Personalized with letters in Lily Pulitzer fabric, she calls them “practical and pretty.”

When they went off the college, her children’s friends received large personalized bath towels to take to the dorm. As with the baby products, friends loved these gifts and began ordering them as fast as Claghorn could produce them.

High school graduation gifts for the boys were sometimes a little trickier, as not everyone wanted to a towel. Always with an eye on new ideas, Claghorn created blankets with the name and logo of the graduate’s newest alma mater or their destination college sewn in school colors on 54 by 60-inch blankets.

Quickly these soft blankets made from Malden Mills polar fleece were ordered with high school, college, fraternity, and sorority names upon them. They are given as graduation, birthday and Christmas gifts and hang on dorm room walls or are brought to cold football games.

Creating unique designs on fleece blankets has opened up a whole new level of creativity for Claghorn.

“It is so much fun to capture a moment or tell someone how you feel with a specialty blanket,” she said.

Families order them with their family monogram in the center and a special quotation written around it. “Grandmother” blankets include the names of the grandchildren and “Wedding” blankets have included the couple’s monogram, quotes from their vows and the wedding date.

A friend of Claghorn’s received a “Breast Cancer” blanket with large pink ribbons in a floral pattern around an inspirational phrase. Since Claghorn’s friend often gets chilly during her chemo treatments, she can snuggle with a warm fleece that has special meaning.

Claghorn really enjoys collaborating with her customers to create a personalized specialty blanket that best reflects the gift recipient.

“It is so much fun to create something that is so personalized and will mean so much,” she added.

With both the specialty and baby items, her clients all have different design approaches. Some prefer that Claghorn picks the fabric, colors and design, while others are much more involved in the design process. She is happy to do whatever works best for her customer. Mostly though, she is thrilled to be doing something so loves so much.

Despite decades of sitting across from her sewing machine (still from Byrne Sewing), working right up to her 5 p.m. deadline on Christmas Eve, and getting as little as four hours of sleep in the busy times, she remains excited about her creations.

“I am so happy to play a small part in the lives of those who receive my blankets, towels and pillows,” she said


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