Jeanine Camaren has been ensnared by Tangled Web, the knit shop at 177 S. Oak Park Ave. She regularly makes the trek to Oak Park, past other stores closer to her Western Springs home, to find buttons, yarn and kindred spirits.
Camaren's drawn to Tangled Web, she says, because "there are true artists here. I love that it's so eclectic, so trendy. I know all the knit stores, and none are as artsy as this. And so friendlyâ€"they know who I am when I walk in the door."
If Camaren's not careful, owner Elin Thorgren may put her to work. That's what happened to Cheryll Capps, an Oak Park knitter and frequent customer who stopped in one day to celebrate sending her youngest off to college. Thorgren offered her a part-time job on the spot.
"Everyone here is so creative, so different," says Capps. "It makes it really fun."
Camaren and Capps are just who Thorgren had in mind when she opened the store five years ago. Home in Oak Park with two small children, she'd gotten back into knitting (a skill she learned in Girl Scouts) because "I was tired of having only laundry to show at the end of the day," she recalls. Frustrated by knitting stores too far away for a quick visit while the kids were in school, and with a small nest egg to invest, Thorgren began considering opening a shop. After running her ideas by a few focus groups, she decided there was enough local interest to give it a go.
Five years later, Tangled Web has expanded into the space it once shared with Magpie Studies and is, if a late September afternoon is any evidence, bursting at the seams with customers. And with so much yarn that it feels, in Thorgren's words, "like being inside a sweater."
She's celebrating the store's fifth anniversary with a trunk show by another longtime customer and employee, Parvaneh Mollakarimi, who makes "wearable art" and teaches some of the classes offered at Tangled Web.
Mollakarimi, a native of Iran who lives a few blocks from the store, actually began haunting Tangled Web even before it opened. "I was so excited when I saw the sign. I kept stopping by, kept asking," she recalls, until she found Thorgren in residence.
"I told her I have a little trouble speaking [English] but I know a lot about knitting," Mollakarimi says. Thorgren, of course, signed her up to teach a few classes. She works in the store almost full time now.
"Parv is now the number-one designer in the Chicago area," brags Thorgren.
Mollakarimi favors a vintage, 1920s-style, combined with a modern look, she says. Her hats, purses, dresses, sweaters and shawls also reflect her love of "tribal textures" from Africa and Asia. Along with selling her work at Tangled Web, she's been accepted by the prestigious One-of-a-Kind Show and Sale Chicago at the Merchandise Mart next December.
The business of knitting
Thorgren came to business ownership with a master's in public affairs, not exactly training for running a knitting store. But starting Tangled Web answered the question she'd been asking herself: "What do I do with the rest of my life?"
It seemed pretty low risk at first. A local Realtor (female) agreed to rent her some fairly inexpensive space. "But then I began to buy yarn, and it got really expensive," says Thorgren, who confesses to being a bit of a "compulsive buyer."
The resultsâ€"visible in an extravaganza of multicolored skeins stacked floor to ceiling in cubbyholes throughout the store's two roomsâ€"are the business' main assets, along with an extensive inventory of books, magazines, patterns and needles. Each skein is labeled with fiber content, country of origin, suggested needle size and number of yards. A staffer knits a swatch to go with each type, so customers can see how it will look.
Thorgren explains that her stock is so large because she aims to hit all price points. Yarns range from a $6.50 skein of 190 yards of Lambs Pride wool to a $40 skein of 100 yards of hand-dyed ribbon. (It would take about six skeins of the Lambs Pride to make a sweater, for example.) Almost everything is a natural fiber, because "it's green to do that" and you can't make an heirloom out of plastic, she says.
Thorgren's other major asset is the crew that staffs the store and teaches the myriad classes offered. "We have a real diverse, interesting group hereâ€"by gender, ethnicity, age. The discussions are always fascinating. And they've got about 200 years of cumulative [knitting] experience," she says.
Many of the women and men who work at Tangled Web design their own patterns. Although until now they've been giving them away, Thorgren has put "recognizing their artistry and selling those patterns" into her next five-year plan.
The booming popularity of knitting has caused other changes. Company reps now tout their fall linesâ€"knitting has a busy season, starting in September and running through Februaryâ€"as early as the previous April. To make the right decisions on what will sell almost a year later "makes you have to be much more clairvoyant now," says Thorgren.
There's also a lot more local competition. Thorgren believes stores within a mile of each other can co-exist "as long as there is a difference between them. If they carry the same goods, it's unhealthy for both," she suggests. She's downright disdainful of businesses that "emphasize the interior decor of the space they're in instead of what they carry" and of so-called knitting cafes.
"If you want a cup of coffee, we'll give you one," she says. "But coffee is not part of the trade. You might as well sell paper clips."
Parvaneh Mollakarimi's trunk show runs from Sept. 19 to 25 at Tangled Web, 177 S. Oak Park Ave. For store hours and a list of classes, see the website at www.tangled-web-fibers.com or call 445-8335.