Making It

PRETTY POOCH: Shannon Thomas traded lab work for handiwork to follow her passion for pets.
PRETTY POOCH: Shannon Thomas traded lab work for handiwork to follow her passion for pets. (Copyright Keith Barraclough)

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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, May 4, 2008

BIOLOGIST SHANNON THOMAS found working in a lab with cells a little lonely. "It isn't like they talk to you or anything," she says. "You get plenty of time to daydream." And, though she was good at her biotech job, what Shannon daydreamed about was doing something else. Perhaps not surprisingly for someone who grew up on a Culpeper dairy farm, owns a horse and loves dogs, she wound up focusing on animals -- and being inspired by one.

In 1996, Shannon's parents gave her a Siberian husky puppy named Hanna. "She was my girl, and she went everywhere with me," even to an off-campus apartment at college, recalls Shannon, 29. When Hanna got sick, Shannon and her newlywed husband, Craig, spent $10,000 trying to treat her lung cancer. But Hanna died in 2004.

In the months that followed, Shannon and Craig, a chemist at the National Institutes of Health, added stray hound mix Indi and husky puppy Gracie to their household. It was while shopping for a collar for Gracie that Shannon, who had always been somewhat crafty, thought, "It looks really easy to make, and I think I can make one cuter." She ordered materials off the Web and found the process fun and simple -- basically stitching a ribbon on nylon webbing and attaching hardware.

"All you have to do is be able to sew in a straight line." She started off using preppy ribbons with whales and alligators and expanded her offerings to include neckware studded with satin peonies. One of her hottest collars boasts a huge ribbon rosette.

Shannon took her snazzily adorned pets to her local Gaithersburg dog park, where other owners oohed and aahed over the collars, and soon she was making money.

Making dog finery helped keep Shannon's mind off the loss of Hanna and became a fitting tribute. In 2005, Shannon dubbed the venture Hanna Banana, got a business license and began peddling her collars and leashes, which cost from $8.50 to $48, at craft shows and to local pet stores. She later added fanciful jackets and clothing.

Once Shannon's products were available in about 20 stores, including several locally, she cut back at her biotech job; last October, she quit altogether. In 2007, Hanna Banana grossed just under $35,000. Any profit went back into the business until Shannon left her job, at which point she started paying herself about $2,000 a month. That's significantly less than her lab salary, but Shannon, who also teaches horseback riding, says: "I am so happy, just mentally in such a better situation. Every day I'm proud of what I've done."

There are other benefits for Shannon, who supports many animal causes and donates part of her profits to canine cancer research. "Being at home makes it a lot easier" to foster homeless animals, she says. "Though having three little puppies running around while you're trying to do work does not make work easier."

Shannon says she's happy for Hanna Banana -- with products now available in about 30 stores nationwide and on her Web site -- to grow slowly and steadily. "I really like to be into the quality control, and I like to be creative about it," she says. But she is branching out -- into ribbon-trimmed saddle pads, halters and leads.

Shannon finds herself a little surprised, and tickled, by the trend toward dolling up animals. Sometimes after finishing a creation she thinks, "Whoa, would I put that on my dog?" she says. "It still kind of makes me laugh when this stuff succeeds."

Are you succeeding with a new and unusual endeavor? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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