Tammy Thompson learned the craft of knitting from her mother when she was a small child growing up in Montana.
It was an enjoyable and practical skill that she used through the years, but when her husband came down with cancer years later it became both a means and way of life.
“My husband had colon cancer that metastasized to his liver and he was really sick and eventually died,” Thompson explained. “I had to find something to do that I could do at home, because I had two children.”
She began knitting again full time and discovered the complex process was the perfect antidote to depression, stimulating her mind and keeping her focus off things she couldn’t control and on the process in front of her.
Soon she took lessons in weaving, and expanded her product line to include sets of dishtowels.
Today, Thompson is the proud owner of Woolen Collectibles, a business that began with her selling handmade products and has continued to expand in ways few could have predicted. Now she also teaches knitting lessons, sells wool and other raw knitting materials to area knitters and even leads knitting-inspired trips to Scotland, a venture she guides herself and plans on doing more of it in the future. She also submits patterns she has created to knitting trade magazines, a pursuit she said she enjoys and also provides a boon to sales.
This year, Thompson earned a place in Herberger’s for her dishtowels as part of the department store’s “Close to Home” series focused on locally made products. Her dishtowels can be found in the store’s locations in Kalispell, Missoula, Great Falls, Helena and Billings.
She said she’s happy with the chance at expansion and ultimately wants to get her work in more retail stores locally, but said it isn’t easy to scale such a high-end handmade product. When she got the deal with Herberger’s, she said the first order was a challenge to fill.
“When they made their first order, I don’t think they realized that everything is done by hand,” Thompson said. “They said they wanted 103 towels by the beginning of the month.”
That was only four weeks away, and Thompson kicked it into high gear. She worked many 10-hour days sitting at her loom on a piano-style bench to hit the quota, and said they have since been selling quite well.
Each towel is a labor of love, and the process can only be rushed so much. The loom takes two to three days to warp, which is basically preparing the loom and getting the string in place. After that, she still has to make the towel out of all the prepped material.
Thompson is clearly proud of her business, but said it is oftentimes difficult in this era to convince people of the merit of handmade goods. All of the raw materials that go into her dishtowels are sourced from America, but creating goods with such high standards comes at a cost.
“I think we need to educate the public on natural fibers and handmade things and buying local, and that is a hard thing to do,” she said.
She said people often come into her store and are enthusiastic about her products until they learn the price.
“Especially when you have a higher-end item, people can’t understand why you are paying $25 for a dish towel as opposed to buying one from China for $2,” Thompson said. “They don’t see the handmade as being important, and they don’t see the supporting small businesses as being important.”
She hopes to use the guided trips to Shetland Isle in Scotland to help change that.
She takes her patrons to old mills and communities where textiles are still produced in a traditional manner at a high quality. Those who come along with her are able to pick up traditional skills and bring them back home with them.
Next year, she is planning to expand the guiding portion of her business. She is taking two trips to Scotland, one with a focus on knitting and the other on weaving. In the future, she would like to expand her list of destinations to get a wider sample of traditional techniques in different parts of the world.
She said those traditional methods form the foundation of her artistic philosophy. She sells as much merchandise to buyers in Europe as she does to ones in the United States, and she attributes that overseas success to her diligent traditionalism. Soon, she hopes, more and more locals will see the same value in her product.
“There is nothing mechanical about this, I am doing it all by hand. Some looms are electrically operated, I’m just sitting here and weaving.”
Details about Thompson’s products and trips can be found on her website at www.woolencollectibles.com. Her dishtowels can be found at the Herberger’s in Kalispell and other locations throughout Montana, and she has a retail space in an outbuilding on her property at 904 Seventh Ave. E. in Kalispell, open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Monday through Saturday.
Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.