A close-knit business
Woven Art born from passion for fiber arts to teach knitting to community
Nancy McRay tried to ignore it — the nagging little voice in her head that whispered “Weave!” She took the practical approach: advertising degree from MSU in 1977, job in the advertising department of the Lansing State Journal, marriage, children and a position as a local arts coordinator. But the voice wouldn’t go away. “While I was at MSU as an undergraduate, I would just kind of lurk around what was then the (Department of Human Environment and Design), where they have looms and they had a weaving class and I would try to get into it and I couldn’t,” said McRay, owner of Woven Art, 325B Grove St.
“I would just stand at the doorway and gaze in. I knew. I always knew.”
Her love affair with all things woven started at age 10 with knitting and crocheting, something her mother and sisters did. In high school, she started to sell a few things that she had made but didn’t have her hopes set on making woven art her life.
“You couldn’t take that seriously. (It was) like ‘OK, that’s nice, that’s not a career. Go to school and get a career and then you can do that as just a hobby,’” said McRay, who also got her master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Michigan in 1994. “I really wish I’d listened to my inner instincts.”
After receiving her degree from U-M, she started teaching weaving in East Lansing — something that led to a position as a local arts coordinator. But she still didn’t have the time to focus on her own art. That’s when she finally gave in.
In 2002, she started trying to make a career out of her fiber art. She sold skeins of yarn at Trillium Gallery, 107 Division St., for a while, although she eventually took up a substantial portion of the gallery with her own dyed yarn. Then came a small room above P.T. O’Malley’s, 210 Abbot Road, but that only offered enough room to teach one other person how to weave at a time.
Since moving to the Grove Street location about four years ago, Woven Art has seven floor looms available and space for knitting and crocheting workshops and classes.
Woven Art features hand-dyed and hand-painted yarns as well as hand-spun yarns and yarns from small mills. Customers can request custom dyed yarns to be used on the project of their choice. They also hold a variety of classes, including introduction to lace knitting, rigid heddle weaving and loom weaving. McRay even keeps a blog on Woven Art’s Web site, yarnandfiberart.com, where she writes about some of the things she has encountered in the store as well as personal projects.
On a more daily basis, McRay does general upkeep with the store, answers customers’ questions and also helps anyone who might come into the store. She loves the problem solving and teaching that goes along with the job.
“Someone could walk in, just terrified that she’s wrecked her project, and she had maybe 25 hours into the project and $150 and it doesn’t look right and she’s really upset,” McRay said.
“I can look at (the project) and think about it and pick up that dropped stitch or tell her what the pattern really means and I can see her shoulders go down and she starts to breath again,” McRay said. “Then she’s smiling and she’s leaving happy. That’s a huge impact for not that much effort. It’s very rewarding.”
Barbara Hawkins, an Okemos resident who has been weaving for more than a year, said she first stopped into Woven Art to pick up some yarn. She saw the looms in the back, and decided to give weaving a try.
“I always thought I’d like to learn,” she said. “I like the math involved with it — picking a design, a color, the whole process.”
Hawkins said some of her favorite things she has made include a silk shawl for her new daughter-in-law, which took about a month to make, and scarves for her sister, who often receives compliments on them.
“You start doing it and after a while you don’t need anything for yourself,” she said.
The business side
McRay said the money risks associated with opening Woven Art were scary, but necessary for business growth. Woven Art is having a good year business-wise because of a couple factors. Although there was a knitting boom a couple years ago that encouraged yarn stores to open, one long-term store in the area just recently closed. The owner, McRay said, encouraged her customers to go to Woven Art — something she appreciated greatly.
“Michigan’s been sort of hit bad for a long time. The recession is bad and people are losing their jobs, but it’s not news to us, not so much,” she said.
“People are still kind of coping the way they’ve always coped. Working with fiber is very soothing, and if you think of it as part of your entertainment budget, you might go to the movies less and eat out less and you can take that $30 and buy yourself a project that’s going to entertain you for weeks. I really think that people are increasingly careful about how they spend their money, but they certainly haven’t stopped being creative.”
Brenda Sanborn, an East Lansing resident and MSU employee, said she got sucked into weaving after bringing her 15-year-old daughter to beginner knitting classes at Woven Art about a year ago. Now, she’s into her second weaving project — a process she said she finds relaxing. As a graphic designer for University Relations, Sanborn said she’s used to being on the computer all day.
“Weaving is a way for me to do that designing with my hands,” she said.
Once she gets going on a design, Sanborn said she gets anxious for it to be complete, since it’s hard to tell what the project will actually look like when it’s stuck on the loom.
“Even now sometimes it happens, but not as much as in the beginning, I would have a lot of trouble going to sleep at night. I would think, ‘what have I committed to?’ and for a while I really tried to keep it so I could exit easily,” McRay said. “Now obviously I wouldn’t be able to walk out the door tomorrow, just leave this. It’s become something very difficult to just leave and escape.”
She said she’s just learned not to think about the business at night when she’s tired, because when she’s feeling refreshed she thinks it’s the greatest decision she ever made.
“When I get home I’m crazy to sit down with my knitting. I don’t get to knit or crochet or anything very much because I’m mostly helping other people,” McRay said. “If I had a stressful day, if I’ve had a day where a million people need something from me, by the time I get home all I want to do is knit.”
When her 25-year-old daughter announced she wanted to travel through Guatemala and Central America by herself last year, McRay turned to knitting for solace.
She started making a shawl for her daughter, a process that kept her thoughts attuned to her daughter but enabled her to keep her worry at bay. By the time her daughter’s trip was over, McRay had finished the shawl and was able to give it to her when the family reunited in Costa Rica.
Another part of the allure and stress relief comes with socializing. It’s not only having a love of the woven arts in common, but it’s also seeing her customers and friends on a regular basis.
She said she knows she will see all of them in the next 10 days and they’ll have their project and they’ll likely make a 7-Eleven run — she knows their habits.
“I absolutely feel really, really enriched with a wonderful network of friends that I’ve acquired through the shop, but also some friends that were friends before, the relationships have deepened,” she said.