Yarn Over Ann Arbor
Two knitting shops open in one week.
by Sally Mitani
From the January, 2016 issue
On December 1, Carol and Peter Sickman-Garner opened Spun, in Kerrytown, across from Mudpuddles Toys, and the customers poured in. Overwhelmingly women--Carol says that male knitters and crocheters have visited the store, but there didn't seem to be any that day--they were otherwise a diverse bunch, ranging from pierced, tattooed teenagers with spray-painted purple and blue hair to elderly blue-haired grannies. In between were an encouraging number of soigne middle-aged bourgeoisie dropping the kind of big bucks that pay the rent in a premium location. .
A few older customers spoke fondly of the legendary Wild Weft, one of Kerrytown's early tenants, which supplied serious knitters and weavers until 1985. When WW closed, the less ambitious Yarn Expressions took over a fraction of its space until it closed in the mid-1990s, leaving Kerrytown without a yarn shop for a couple of decades.
Most visitors on Spun's opening day didn't know Wild Weft. They talked about driving to Plymouth for yarn or asked each other why and when Busy Hands or Knit A Round, the two most recent local yarn shops here, bit the dust. A tall redhead asked if Spun sold gift certificates. When answered in the affirmative, she said she would send her husband in to get her one: "He usually buys me jewelry for Christmas, but I'd rather have yarn." That raised a few eyebrows--even knitters know yarn isn't a very sexy present. "He has terrible taste in jewelry," the woman added, and several women laughed and nodded in recognition.
And why are we spending so much time describing the customers? Because although the Sickman-Garners had scheduled an interview, they were so overrun by opening day traffic they didn't have time to talk. It took two people--Carol Sickman-Garner and Kate Remen-Wait--to staff the cash register, while Peter wound yarn. (A lot of higher-end yarn comes in hanks that yarn shops will wind into more manageable balls, but the machinery is hand-cranked and labor-intensive.) Carol pointed out a
fourth employee: "Christine Craig--she's over there showing a customer how to darn." Darning? Seriously? In 2015? And though Carol was trying to help at the register, she was periodically pulled onto the floor by well-wishers and people with questions.
Carol did manage to field a few of our questions, like who knit all the sweaters on display. A lot of them are knit by Craig: "She test-knits and does pattern support on a national level. She knits like the wind, and beautifully." Others were knit by Carol, and a particularly beautiful sweater came from Sarah Freitas, a Detroit hand-dyer whose Fiberstory yarns are sold here. And those little project bags by the register are to hang over your wrist so you can knit while walking. Remen-Wait says, "I saw it for the first time in Europe. It's a trend there."
Spun, 407 N. Fifth Ave., 780-7867. Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Fri. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (hours will change slightly during Farmers Market season). spunannarbor.com
The connections that Kate Ernsting forges are random but robust. One of the things that crept into our 2013 interview when she opened Ophir Crafts in Westgate was a story of how she, a devout Catholic, met "Barbra the Buddhist," her yarn buyer and artist-in-residence (aka Barbra Stewart). They were introduced by their mutual hairdresser, Safa Hassan-Shahin (a Muslim, to complete the picture of diversity). "We always had good conversations there," says Ernsting. "There's something about taking time for yourself that leads to conversation. And we'd always look around and see girls getting ready for proms and weddings."
Now they're together all day long at her relocated and slightly refocused store Ophir Yarn, on the backside of Miller-Maple Plaza (behind Juicy Kitchen and El Harissa Market Cafe), where Ernsting talked Hassan-Shahin into splitting a space with her. Ophir and Safa's Salon & Day Spa opened side by side in the first week of December, their spaces flowing into each other, so you can buy a ball of yarn and some knitting needles and start a scarf while getting your hair done, or wander over to learn to crochet while your hair dries.
Not an experienced retailer in 2013, Ernsting says, "We opened too many things. We weren't focused enough." Her mission then and now is to get people sitting down together and away from the distractions of technology. Her original store offered a number of fair-trade goods as well as crafting supplies. After a few years at Westgate, she concluded that she was perhaps trying to sell an overly complicated idea.
This time around, "It's a neighborhood yarn shop. We're trying to reach all the people that could be in crafts and not just the high-end," she stresses, acknowledging that the trend toward artisanal, local, hand-dyed wool can be scary for the non-rich. "If a beginner comes, I'm not going to say, 'Here's a thirty-dollar skein of yarn.'" For a beginner project, she might suggest Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride. At $9 a skein, "there's definitely enough for a scarf." Though she modestly calls it a neighborhood yarn shop, she recently sold thirty skeins of Stonehedge Crazy to Deborah Asimov, wife of New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov. Stonehedge is made in East Jordan, Michigan, and "Crazy" is what it sounds like--made from mill ends, no two skeins are alike.
Though the shop is renamed for the yarn in it (the other name, Ophir, is a mythical pre-Christian trading post in the Middle East), Ernsting's conversation seems to always veer toward a larger mission. She sees Ophir as a place for crafters to gather informally, and more formally for classes and private coaching sessions in knit, crochet, and dry felting. "I want people to know themselves and love each other, and it's pretty hard to do in this culture. You see families in restaurants where everyone is playing with their own computer or device."
Ernsting's husband, Gary, is more of a presence than he was in the Westgate shop. He had a stroke in the summer of 2014, which affected his left side, and they learned that knitting is good therapy for recovering bilateral motor skills. "He does finger knitting," says Kate, who demonstrates by grabbing a ball of extra-bulky yarn and quickly starting a three-stitch-wide scarf using only her fingers. Their daughter Terry, now living in Washington state, is represented by the knit and crochet patterns that she designs for beginners.
Ernsting says by the time of her grand opening the third week of January she will have settled on permanent hours. At press time she had decided to try the schedule below, hoping the early morning opening might bring in early birds to knit over a cup of coffee, and leaving the early afternoon free for classes and private coaching.
Ophir Yarn, 1522 N. Maple (Miller-Maple Plaza), 794-7777. Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-noon and 3-7:30 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Sun. except by appointment. ophircrafts.com
[Originally published in January, 2016.]
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