By Jessica Mozo
When most people get dressed, they don’t think about where their clothes came from or how they were made.
Natasha Lehrer, on the other hand, appreciates every thread and fiber running through them. And she should. After all, she’s one of few Americans today who regularly sits down at a spinning wheel.
Business of a Bygone Era
The 22-year-old from Big Rock in Kane County is the owner of Esther’s Place Fiber Arts Studio, a business she started in a restored Victorian home when she was 18.
“It’s nontraditional in today’s world,” admits Lehrer, who opted to start the business right after high school instead of going to college. “But fiber is a thread that runs through all cultures. Women used to take their baby on their back and their spinning wheel on a horse and go to their neighbor’s house to spin and enjoy the company. In South America, people even based a woman’s rank in society on her (fiber arts) skills.”
You might say Lehrer was destined to become a lover of fiber arts. When she moved to Big Rock from suburban Aurora in 2000 with her mom, dad and brother, a neighbor gave her a spinning wheel. Tucked away inside the family’s new home, she discovered a loom and several books about spinning left by the previous owner.
“Everything fell into place,” she says. “It was meant to be.”
Spinning Dreams Into Reality
Lehrer taught herself everything from spinning and weaving to knitting and dyeing wool sheared from her family’s small flock of sheep.
“There’s a huge amount of change from the animal to the finished product, and you can feel every step of the process,” she says. “It’s neat to see it pass right through your hands.”
Lehrer dreamed of pursuing a career in fiber arts, but she didn’t know how to make it a reality being from a small, rural farm.
“I prayed about it, and one day, I opened my Bible to Esther 4:14, which says ‘Who knows if you have been put in this position for such a time as this?’” she recalls. “I realized if God wants something to happen, He always makes a way for it.”
The same day, Lehrer found an application in her mailbox for a U.S. Department of Agriculture value-added grant.
“We hadn’t even requested it,” she says. “But our goal was to take raw fiber and add value to it by creating something artists can work with.”
Lehrer and her mother, Donna, applied for the grant, competing with giant companies such as Del Monte and Sunkist. Six months later, they got incredible news: they were awarded a grant in the amount of $24,000.
“It was pretty amazing,” Lehrer says. “It was a huge push forward.”
With the help of her parents, Lehrer opened a combination retail store, art studio and learning space with an upstairs bed-and-breakfast in a 19th-century Victorian home three miles from the family’s farm. The first-floor retail store sells raw fiber and fiber that has been spun into yarn, woven into cloth, organically dyed, knit into scarves and crocheted into sweaters. There are also classrooms where Lehrer teaches weaving, dyeing, knitting, spinning, felting and other techniques.
Upstairs, a quaint bed-and-breakfast is an inviting retreat where guests can spend a weekend eating local produce and working with local fiber.
“Overall, we’re a place to relax, de-stress and make memories,” Lehrer says. “We get a lot of mothers and daughters and multigenerational groups. One family came and wove a rug for one of the daughters who was getting married.”
Lehrer named her business after Esther in the Bible, who served as her inspiration, as well as for a sheep named Esther on the family’s farm.
“It has brought about a lot of great opportunities,” she says. “I was awarded a trip to a spinning conference in 2005, and I just got a piece juried into a show in Albuquerque. I’ve met two U.S. secretaries of agriculture. We were even invited to speak at a USDA conference in (Washington) D.C.”
Intertwined With Other Artists
Esther’s Place has been a blessing for other Illinois producers, too. In 2006, the Lehrers formed the Illinois Green Pastures Fiber Cooperative, which allows them to sell fibers from 30 other local producers in their store.
“We wanted more variety to offer our customers and to give other producers access to a great market,” Lehrer says.
One of the things Lehrer enjoys most about the business is seeing people realize how much time and effort goes into working with raw fibers.
“I’ll say, ‘That’s a sample – you can’t buy it off the shelf. But come sit down, and I’ll teach you,” she says. “We focus more on the process than the final product. It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But it’s definitely worth it.”
If You Go …
Esther’s Place is located at 201 W. Galena St. (Route 30) in Big Rock, Ill.; (630) 556-9665; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
To sign up for classes or special events, visit www.esthersplacefibers.com.