On the CreativeGround with Mystic Knotwork

Woman in glasses and a yellow cardigan smiles.
Former CreativeGround Website Administrator

CreativeGround talked with Matt Beaudoin, nautical knotwork artisan and owner of Mystic Knotwork in Mystic, Connecticut. A sea-side storefront and workshop, Mystic Knotwork honors the legacy of Matt's grandfather - a master artisan in the area of knotwork - and continues this long-held family tradition. Matt took time to answer some questions about what it's like owning a creative business in New England and how his community has shaped his personal artistry and the business over the years.

CG: So to get people acquainted with what you do, could you tell us what a typical day at Mystic Knotwork looks like? 
MATT: I don’t believe there is anything else like our business in the country, an opinion shared by my friends in the International Guild of Knot Tyers.

Our storefront and workshop is settled 9 steps above the Mystic River. Opening the door, you first experience the scent of our manila mats and rope. As I was thinking about this question, I realized that our space really does connect to all the senses. The shop is a mixture of the work we do today as well as our family’s work that’s been featured in museums in three of our New England states. It was never our goal, but 4 different people told us it felt like walking back in time. A shop originally designed to repair sails and rigging, it is still being used as a living workshop, working in fibers well known in the 1800’s when the building was made.

Our typical day is never typical. Our knots vary from pieces the size of your thumbnail to up to 4-foot mats made from almost 200 feet of rope. Some days I get to pull a hundred pounds of rope into woven patterns that will last for generations. Other days, we get to tie delicate pieces from satins and cottons that serve to define a nautical wedding. Every day, we get to talk to people about knots, the region, and our history. It is fully immersive; every aspect of our lives are somehow connected to ropes and the river.

CG: Your business has such a great history, starting with your grandfather over 50 years ago. Could you tell us a bit about how your business has evolved over time?
MATT: Our business started with my grandfather making fancy rope bellropes, picture frames, and other extremely high complexity knots. He did this from the end of World War II until the early sixties. During the 60’s, he and my grandmother started making turkshead bracelets (sailor bracelets) and other knots to sell through the Essex Train Museum and other shops around the region. By the early 1980’s, our entire family contributed by supplying his work to museums, allowing my grandfather to return his focus back to the fancy knotwork that was his passion. During the 80’s, we fell into the neon and nylon craze and turned our traditional white sailor bracelet into a nylon and brightly colored version. Thankfully by the early 1990’s, we had returned to our roots.

In 1996, the business was handed off to me, my grandfather closed his retail shop by the Mystic Seaport, and we moved the business into my house. From there, we continued to tie knots and support clients we’ve had for more than 15 years. Since then, we’ve moved from a home workshop to the Stonington Velvet Mill and now back to our retail shop at 25 Cottrell Street in Mystic.

One of the goals of Mystic Knotwork is to keep our family’s knotwork tradition alive. Grandpa’s focus was a laser-like need to advance the art and motivate visitors to see the value in keeping the skill alive. Our business now consists of a combination of activities to do this, including talks on nautical decorative knots and their practical use through the age of sail, as well as a workshop that caters to decorators and wedding planners throughout the country.

CG: You’re clearly such an important part of the Mystic community. How do you think having a store in Mystic has shaped the business? Do you think Mystic Knotwork could thrive in another part of New England or the country?
MATT: The original store in Mystic was made almost by mistake. My grandfather was presenting his work at shows and contests around the region and converted his downstairs into a place to receive guests who wanted another look at his work. Over the decades the front half of the first floor became a retail space. It felt normal to me and part of my past. As we moved back to the public sphere in 2012, I quickly learned that my grandfather was a very respected member of the town and hundreds of people in the community welcomed us back when we moved into the Stonington Velvet Mill. Now that, after 19 years, we returned to Mystic itself, the number of people that come in to reminisce about my family is overwhelming.

His former customers, neighbors, and friends inspire me every time they come in. One of my driving goals is to keep my grandfather’s legacy alive, and the community is really supporting that effort.

Honestly, I’ve thought about moving to New Hampshire but the energy of this town is amazing. I can’t imagine our business thriving without the deep connection to the sea and our region.

CG: You are surrounded by such a rich cultural community. Name three New England artists, creative businesses, or cultural nonprofits we should all know about.

  • Brian Kirkoff of Scrimshanders in Newport. He is a man "lost in time," upcycling old piano key ivory and other extant material into scrimshaw using technology from the 1800’s.
  • The Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, CT. This museum is almost the opposite of what you expect from a museum. This is a museum dedicated to creativity. They create an opportunity to invent, explore, and problem solve. Using Eli Whitney’s inventions as a backdrop, this "maker space" is a great place for creatives to get lost in their imagination. This is not a museum based on looking at other people’s creativity, but a place to create for yourself.
  • The Stonington Velvet Mill in Stonington, CT. This is just an old factory building, but what is hidden inside is amazing. There are over 70 artists with disciplines ranging from sculpture to painting, glass blowing, cheese making, and even a brewery. Because each space is run as an individual company, what you can see at any given time varies greatly, but the open studio events are a can’t-miss opportunity for inspiration. I credit the artisans at the Velvet Mill for helping drive my family’s business to the next level. 

CG: If you could collaborate with any New England creative business, cultural nonprofit, or artist, which/whom would it be and why?
MATT: I really want to work with the Mystic Aquarium. They do a seaside cleanup that results in a lot of waste that could be repurposed and then sold to raise funds for their program. I’d like to work with some of these found-objects in the cleanup and turn them into crafts. I really want to preserve the shoreline that was my playground as a child.

CG: What do you think businesses like Mystic Knotwork look for when determining where to settle?
MATT: Most important is an environment that inspires and a culture that encourages you to thrive. We were lucky during our "stretch period" to work in the Stonington Velvet Mill where the artists there encouraged each other forward. In 2015, Mystic Knotwork was approached by the town’s Fire District to use their space by the Mystic Drawbridge. What we lost in close contact and collaboration with the other artisans we made up for by the inspiration we draw from being this close to the river and boating community. We still have great friendships and contacts at the Mill, so we still gain from those collaborations and environments.

CG: How does CreativeGround serve you as a business?
MATT: CreativeGround gives us a site to see what other artisans are doing and what venues are in the area. Connecticut has a good website for activities, but that information ends at the state line, 10 minutes east of us. CreativeGround gives us access to the people and goings on in Rhode Island, local artisans, and where they perform and show work.

CG: Why should New England artists, creative businesses, and cultural nonprofits be listed on CreativeGround?
MATT: First of all, it’s free. For the classic artists and especially performers, there is no better way to get your name out to the cultural outlets in every New England state. Our states all have programs that support the arts, but our states are small. CreativeGround lets all New England entities work in the arts as though we exist in one big state and helps us take advantage of opportunities to share with the greater community.

CG: Are there any events coming up in Mystic this summer that you think we should know about?
MATT: My favorite event of the summer is the Wooden Boat Show in the Mystic Seaport, June 26-28, 2015. The event is a combination of swap meet and a gathering for metal workers, and wood workers. They are all focused on keeping wooden boats on our waterways. I love the old nautical technology and there are so many traditional artisans there that just blow my mind.

Of course, the 58th Mystic Art Festival on August 8-9, 2015. This is the biggest event of our summer and 9 steps down from our own workshop. My grandfather actually won the first and second shows, so the event holds a special place for us.

The other exhibit worth seeing is at the Mystic Aquarium called "Washed Ashore." It is a sculpture exhibit displayed throughout the aquarium. The pieces are made from material found on our local coastline and represent great creativity while serving as a reminder about our shoreline habitat.

Thank you to Matt for taking the time to answer some questions about his day-to-day experience as a creative business-owner and artisan in New England. Stay tuned for our next "On the CreativeGround" blog and take a look at our previous blogs here: 

Anne Alexander

Czésare Santana

Easthampton City Arts+

AVA Gallery and Art Center

All photos courtesy of Jill and Matt Beaudoin
Top to bottom:
Woven wreath; Matt weaving a traditional mat at the Stonington Velvet Mill; 5-ply prolonged mat