As reported by Amy Kaspar in the Chicago Knitting Examiner on January 28, 2014, “Women Taking Action, an organization founded by Kamilah Paden and Angela Underwood to further the education and empowerment of women in both their personal and corporate worlds, held their day-long workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago.”
The keynote speaker was Shirley a New York-based designer, who had previously worked in corporate America before making the daring decision to become a knitwear designer. Paden's keynote address, “Finding the Courage to Follow Your Bliss” was focused on her personal journey and how her story can be an inspiration to others to follow their own path they carve for themselves. Shirley’s closing remarks resonated with everyone when she told them what her husband had once said to her, "If someone made you work this hard, you would quit immediately."
Once a year, the fantastic designer craft exhibit, One-of-a-Kind, comes to the Chicago Merchandise Mart. Made famous by the Kennedy family, the enormity of the Mart tells you what a large and important show this is. I look forward to going each year, more for inspiration than for buying; but I always manage to purchase at least one “must-have’ while I’m there. The variety of jewelry, especially earrings, usually gets my attention!
Always noteworthy is the variety of high quality handcrafts presented by dedicated makers. This year was no exception, and there was an unusually vivid presence of crochet throughout the show. I met 3 women who are working hard to maintain the artful and positive image of crochet through their handmade products. Any time I see upscale, quality crochet, I am proud and excited, and I have to know more about the designers. My guess is that they would whole-heartedly agree with Shirley Paden's husband!
I would like to introduce you to Michele, Megan and Lisa because I know you’ll enjoy knowing more about them and their passion for crochet!
After twenty years of working in television and event production with a move to Chicago from New York City included, Michele has parlayed her love of crochet into a business called Midwest Crochet. I particularly like her business name since I am Midwest born and bred. She explained that since her initials, “MC.” and Midwest Crochet are the same and since she lives in the Midwest, it would be a clever name. I agree!
A crocheter for thirty years, Michele has run her crochet business for 4 years. Her business started to blossom when she was working the night shift in a practical job at a call center. Between calls, Michele found herself crocheting to pass the time. (An ideal job, I’d say, in any crocheter’s eyes!) Co-workers bought a few hats and the word began to spread about Michele’s crocheting talents. She now has a successful Etsy store and was honored to be featured on the Etsy blog.
Providing instructions for others to make her designs was always a goal, but at first Michele didn’t have the know-how to write patterns. “I wanted to reach out to beginners, and because I always had trouble following other peoples’ crochet instructions, I decided to write patterns more like tutorials than step-by-step instructions.” Michele finds that this appeals to others like her. Later, her second Etsy store was opened to feature her patterns.
Describing her love of crocheting full time professionally as her “happy place,” Michele exclaims, “I love it so much! I am still blown away after 4 years when someone buys one of my creations or a pattern! It’s like the feeling I had with my very first sale; I get that giddy 'school-girl' feeling!” Michele is also very clear on which yarns work best for her designs and sales. “I am madly in love with Serenity by Premier Yarns,” she says. It is acrylic, soft and no one is allergic to it. I also love the Super Traveler Collection by Dragonfly Fibers. The yarns are hand-dyed chunky weigh,t and that weight is very unique for a hand-dye company.”
Her degree in Theatre Arts and Costume Craft feeds perfectly into Megan’s small business, This One Chicago, where she sells crocheted hats. A full-time staff person in the costume department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Michele performed in regional theater after graduation from Illinois Wesleyan University. She told me that she taught herself to crochet and knit while in college and at that time, she made lots of blankets. When she switched to making hats, other students wanted to buy them. “Frankly,” says Megan, “I was surprised that people wanted to give me money for the hats!” Starting out slowly, Megan sold 5 hats in an “artsy” vintage store and that encouraged her to innovate and experiment with the idea of a small business.
The name of Megan’s business, This One Chicago, is unique also. “I was born in Chicago,” she explains. “I still have strong connections here and my designs are practical for the people of Chicago. When my customers are shopping and deciding on a specific hat, usually “one” jumps out at them and they say, ‘This is the one.’"
“I have to have the courage of my design convictions,” explains Megan. “My aesthetic comes from more of a theatrical perspective due to the skills I’ve learned and the oddities I’ve seen in the theater business. I do classic millinery and once made traditional bonnets for a production of Pride & Prejudice. From the beautiful fabrics I’m exposed to and the patterning and shapes that allow for a good silhouette, I’ve learned how to really shape a crocheted hat. There may be a scrap of fabulous silk left over which I then turn into a rosette embellishment to create a one-of-a-kind hat."
"You’d be surprised at how much crochet is found in theatrical productions! Once I crocheted an apron for a 'poor peasant' woman. It was several hours of work for a brief time on stage! I have also crocheted to simulate chain mail. With the use of metallic paint on top of the crochet, no one is the wiser from the audience’s perspective!”
|Megan at One-of-a-Kind|
Michele explains that from her point of view, theater and crocheted hats influence each other. “Each one’s unique creative angle feeds on the other.” Michele recalls that in the early days of her business, she worked with yarns that were donated to the costume shop. “We had no room to stock the left-overs; so if it felt good or was pretty, I made use of it in my hats. Many of the yarns I used had labels and many of the hats were also made from ‘mystery’ yarns!”
Today, Megan tracks the fiber content in her hats so that she can inform her customers when they ask. Her business has grown so that this year she plans to begin to buy her yarn wholesale and she favors Lion Brand Thick ‘n Quick because crocheted with a small hook, she achieves a sturdiness to the body of the hat that holds its shape.”
Today, Megan keeps very busy selling her hats at shows like One-of-a-Kind and also has a shop on Etsy.
|Lisa Toland at One-of-a-Kind|
Born in New Zealand of Lebanese decent, Lisa came to the United States with her parents and siblings when she was 12 years old. She explained to me the evolution of her gorgeous wire crochet jewelry. “My parents opened a store on Union Street in San Francisco, and I would go with them to the Wholesale Mart in the city. There I saw so many things that inspired me, but I wanted to make my own collections of things!”
Lisa told me that she comes from a long line of needle artists and designers. “My grandmother was a Manageress of a suit factory in New Zealand, and my mother has designed jewelry for over thirty years,” she explained. “I always wanted to design and I followed my mom around, learning from her. At first, I played around with crochet and then I got more serious and taught myself from a book.”
It has now been sixteen years since Lisa began to crochet with wire. She explained that her love of old things and the romance of times past inspire her work. “I find the work women did three to five generations back to be wonderful. They achieved amazing skills in the needle arts that were sophisticated. There is preciousness about what they created that I try to emulate. Today there are still artisans working in villages in China, Vietnam and Northern India that do beautiful work. I’m inspired by that way of life.”
|Lisa's jewelry at One-of-a-Kind|
At times, Lisa feels that women’s work is not taken seriously. She says, “I’m not sure the artistry and skill that goes into fiber work is always appreciated. It takes so much time and skill to run a business featuring handmade art. Today it is very difficult.” Since this is the third successful One-of-a-Kind show for Lisa, I would say she is proving that having a unique and well-made product defies the odds. She quips, “I meet many ‘textile freaks’ during my shows and my booth is the official meeting place for the club! I appreciate the people who buy my work and it is difficult to identify what it is that makes them willing to make the investment.”
“My crochet work is adornment and it is ornamental. It has a vintage feel. I use fabric, embroidery threads and beads along with the wire crochet.” Today, crocheting with wire is much more popular due to some books and patterns that have been published. Lisa believes that this has contributed to more appreciation and more sales for her. “It is not always about the money from sales,” she explains. "I get good feedback and that keeps me going. I also do lots of educating at these shows. I’m constantly asked, ‘What is it?’; ‘How do you do it?’ or I hear comments like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ Or ‘This is not my mother’s crochet!’”