Sweetgum Handbags is Kim, a twenty-something grad student who works on her PhD in ecology by day, and runs her sewing machine at all hours of the night. She learned to sew from her talented mother Chris, and from the tried and true method of trial and error.
Favorite materials include denim, corduroy, canvas, woven suede, and repurposed upholstery samples. Custom orders are more than welcome. The business is based in the lovely town of Durham in the fabulous state of North Carolina, USA. All Sweetgum bags are designed to be functional, pleasant to look at, and to last you a very long time.
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.
This week’s Shop Local post stops in Omaha, Nebraska. Below you’ll find my favorite picks from the Omaha craft scene. If you don’t find something that fits your fancy, check out the Omaha Craft Mafia website for more fabulous Omaha artisans. When you’re in town, you’ll want to visit the Hot Shops Art Center where you’ll find “over 80 studio artists, as well as four gallery spaces, in [the] building complex located in downtown Omaha.”
The crafter behind Stash comes to Omaha from Finland by way of Great Britain. She’s been sewing since she was tiny, making her own clothes in elementary school, as her mother was a textile designer. Now she makes chic bags out of vintage fabrics! The wristlet above is constructed from a chocolate & red vintage fabric, red canvas, and leatherette trim. Don’t you love the strong shape juxtaposed with the floral pattern & feminine pleats? Fabulous!
Continuing with the strong shapes, Bren Duvall, of BrenDesign, created these sterling silver “Building Earrings” in the image of a city skyline. She says has an “obsessive quest of building an eco-conscious small business from nothing more than a pile of recycled metal bits.”
Shifting gears a bit, when my baby girl gets a bit bigger, she must have one of these skirts! Many children’s boutiques do pillowcase dresses, cute hats, or leg warmers, but Bustle has crafted this flamenco skirt for your tiny dancer. Ellene Mcclay, the proprietress of Bustle, is inspired by vintage fabric and historical fashions. She also creates jewelry, accessories, and clothing for ladies of a more mature age at her other shop, Deciduous Soul.
Last but not least, this clever little idea caught my eye and couldn’t be passed by! September House creates embroidered flower pot wraps that are sure to add a nice touch to even the prettiest plant.
If it’s Monday, it must be time to introduce you to another great new Try Handmade columnist. Today’s wonderful addition is Tara Gentile of Handmade In PA.net fame. Every week she’ll be bringing you Shop Local — the best in handmade from local scenes all around the world.
Do you know of a location ripe for the picking? Does a particular city or district spring to mind when you think ‘handmade?’ If so, leave a tip for Tara in the comments and maybe your town will be next!
Before I go exploring the globe for unique handmade finds where you live, I thought I’d share some finds from my own backyard.
Kutztown, Pennsylvania, USA – about 90 minutes northeast of Philadelphia – is the home of Kutztown University, a vibrant Pennsylvania Dutch community, and now the Z-town Made indie craft collective. The ladies of Z-town Made all went to Kutztown University to pursue various endeavors and then spread out into “the big city.” But Kutztown called them back, allowing them to focus on their craft without the distraction of city life, mainstream design, or intense competition.
In addition to the beautiful work below, Z-town Made includes two other crafters: Mary Oswald of Collier Leeds and Jen Lindsay of Clothesline Designs. Mary creates high-end, hand-crafted leather & brass collars for (wo)man’s best friend. Jen focuses on designing for babies & toddlers with tummy-time mats, appliqued onesies, and giraffe softees in beautiful fabrics.
Z-town Made meets weekly to support each others’ businesses, learn new skills, and plan events.
Kutztown is sure to keep cranking out great crafters – the university has a BFA degree with an emphasis in crafts.
Clockwise – starting in upper left:
Peacock Feature Necklace – handcut sterling silver – by Karen Stanford of Skylark Studio
Stoplight Placemat Set in Curry, Charcoal, and Cloud – hand-screened on linen – by Sara Smedley
L. O. V. E. Letters – pink embroidery on gold metallic fabric – by Kimberly Scola of chezsucrechez
Hawk Mother Wooden Postcard – original illustration printed on maple veneer – by Melanie Linder of Spread the Love
This week’s Shop Local post comes at you from the Twist Fair in Northampton, Massachusetts. It’s happening Friday, May 1 – Saturday, May 2 and while not all of the crafters are from Massachusetts, they’ll all be selling their wares at this show!
Meghan Burch creates beautiful, functional home decor, women’s, and children’s clothing. She says, “My work is about playing with simple, two dimensional materials, images, shapes and patterns and transforming them into objects that are comfortable, useful and beautiful.” Her inspiration comes from “nature, the intersections of natural and man-made materials, creative non-artists, patterns of light, sound, food and architecture.”
I’ve been seeing some really great sleek, colorful felt headbands from a few crafters. The Candy Thief is one of them! With short hair like mine, a great headband like this is a must.
Tracy & Justin from Happy Owl Glassworks created “fused glass with a naturalist curiosity.” Their pieces are bright [pun intended!], especially these nightlights. Happy Owl Glassworks works in numerous glass techniques including fusing powdered glass, silkscreening on glass, and using recycled glass.
Last but certainly not least, this Sweet & Salty Pretzel necklace from Twigs & Heather caught my eye. Maybe I was hungry or maybe it was because I live in the pretzel capital of the USA. Twigs & Heather is a twin-sister silversmith duo! Heather creates nature-inspired pieces featuring twigs, birch bark, and those little maple seed helicopters. Kerry Alice, on the other hand, creates funky pieces with skulls & sacred hearts – and the Sweet & Salty Pretzel necklace above.