Please help me welcome the latest Try Handmade columnist, Angela Walters! You may already know her from Posy Moe or Pocketfulla Posy, but now you get to learn about handmade shops in and around her town through her very ambitious new column In My Town: Chicagoland, IL, USA. I’m really excited to learn more about this part of the country, so let’s get on with it!
Elegant, cozy Victorian? Check. Comprehensive class schedule? Check. Enough gorgeous yarn and fiber to send an otherwise sane woman into a feeding frenzy? Double check.
Ok, I admit it. It was love at first sight. Esther’s Place is a vibrant, grass-roots fiber arts studio in Big Rock, Illinois. Walk in on a typical Saturday afternoon, as I did, and you’ll find that the joint is jumping. The walls are lined with baskets, boxes and heaping piles of yarn, roving, soaps, and textiles. People mill about, touching, smelling, and admiring.
The owners, Natasha and Donna Lehrer, are a mother-daughter team. Daughter Natasha runs most of the classes and Mom Donna helps customers and keeps the business side of things in tip-top shape. I asked Natasha to tell me a little about the shop, but first: Who is Esther?
“There are three Esther’s,” Natasha laughs. “One is a sheep, and sort of a metaphor for what we want to accomplish here. To keep lambs and sheep in the forefront as a reminder to people of the source of our crafts and to not take that for granted. The second Esther was a neighbor of ours who was ninety-six when she passed. Right before she died she told me she’d never seen spinning. I marveled that in ninety-six years of life, you’d think spinning fibers would have been a big part of living in a rural community. So I asked myself if in 100 years these arts and skills would still be around. We saw the importance of keeping these traditions alive. And the third Esther comes from the Bible. Esther 4:14: ‘And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ That verse makes me think of the things we wait our whole lives for. What dreams are we waiting to fulfill? In 2005 I’d just graduated from high school and was asking myself what I want to do with my life. I decided it was to teach and keep our community and our fiber artists connected to the farms and the sheep.”
The Lehrers also own Lamb of God Farm, but most of the wool in the shop is produced by members of the Illinois Green Pastures Fiber Co-op. Esther’s Place does not take a consignment fee from its producers, though a small portion of the sales goes toward maintaining the co-op. “We want most of the money to go back to the producers. Where it belongs,” Natasha explains. “We carry all American products and try to foster community, sustainability, lifestyle and tradition.”
Two classes are going at once. In one, a family is needle-felting baby chicks, and in another, women are learning to weave on the loom. Natasha makes it look effortless as she moves from one student to another, offering encouragement and instruction. In the parlor a couple of ladies are taking tea. They aren’t enrolled in a scheduled class, they’ve just dropped in for some knitting help and a little chitchat. Natasha and Donna are happy to oblige.
“We offer three class schedules a year. Our website has our email address, and you can email us to get on our mailing list. We have classes in knitting, weaving, spinning, dyeing, wet felting, needle-felting, shibori, nuno felting, and then there’s mixed media: jewelry, doll-making. There isn’t much in the fiber arts world that we don’t offer. We’ll even do custom classes for one or for a group of friends. And for kids we offer a one day kids’ camp with all kinds of projects. It’s just a whole day of fun. This is definitely a place for families.”
Esther’s Place also plays host to birthday parties and overnight retreats. “We’ve been a bed and breakfast from the start, but the purpose for the B&B is really to accommodate overnight guests who are here for classes and events. Groups often come and take an evening class, spend the night upstairs, and then take another morning class. We like to offer that option for our customers; a place to come and just refresh and renew, and learn something new. We’ve had guests from as far away as Norway and Israel.”
The shop is busy when other retailers are suffering empty sales floors. “I think with the economic downturn, people are holding on to hand crafts. It’s something they can control and enjoy without breaking the bank. A customer once told me, ‘I got my statement from my stocks yesterday. But I didn’t freak out. I felted.’ “
I asked if people come for a class and then just stay to feed their fiber addictions. Natasha’s response was a simple smile and a wink and then she was off to help a little girl shape her felt elephant.
Esther’s Place, 201 W. Galena Street (Route 30), Big Rock, IL, 60511, USA
Hours of Operation: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.