Slow, hand-made fashions weave small textile district in East Lansing

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Kayla Nelsen

Seams Fabric and Mercantile in East Lansing.

Since 2019, Woven Art Yarn Shop and Seams Sewing and Mercantile in East Lansing have been entwined in a partnership that celebrates slow fashion by encouraging customers to make clothing by hand with sustainably sourced materials.

An established textile and fiber arts community in East Lansing is relatively new. In 2003, artist Nancy McRay founded Woven Art, inspired by her passion for weaving and yarn hand-dyeing, said the shop’s current owner, Meg Croft. When McRay decided to return to full-time artistry in 2013, she sold the business to Croft, who was a Woven Art employee at the time. 

“After Meg bought the store, we stayed close. I would always bring lunches down to the store and we would fantasize about how we could bring more of an art community to mid-Michigan,” said Croft’s longtime Woven Art co-worker, Jessy Gregg. Six years later, when the art gallery that shared the building with Woven Art closed, Gregg took that opportunity to open Seams Sewing and Mercantile in the space – just as the two had fantasized. “We jokingly refer to ourselves as the ‘East Lansing Textile District.’”

Kayla Nelsen

Woven Art Yarn Shop in East Lansing.

 “When I bought the shop in 2013, it really became part of our mission to be as sustainable as possible,” Croft said. She tries to limit the amount of acrylic-based yarns she sources to the minimum. “I’m concerned about our water quality. I’m concerned about microplastics.” While they are cheap and highly durable, synthetic fibers are not biodegradable and often contain harmful plastic contaminants. The affordability of synthetic fibers and labor exportation have caused handmade clothing to become comparatively more expensive, said Croft.

“Now, you can buy a sweater for so much less than you can knit it. But when you’re not willing to pay a lot of money for a sweater, it’s on the backs of other people.” Croft is aware that the affordability of ethically made clothing is an issue. “The big thing is not to buy more, but to buy less of better quality.” 

Woven Art sources most of its fibers from small Michigan businesses, such as Supernova Dyeworks in East Lansing. Owner Danna Brunger said she began hand-dyeing yarn because she had been knitting and crocheting for some time and figured she should try the yarn-dyeing process for herself. “I started out using Kool-Aid.” Eventually transitioning to a more professional process, Brunger now sells batches of her yarn to Croft to sell at Woven Art, with 2% of her sales going to local charities and foundations. 

The process of hand-making clothing is just as much about sustaining spiritual, social and emotional well-being as it is about environmental sustainability – and that’s what makes the investment worth it, said Croft. “It’s the mental health aspect of making your clothing by hand that is really important to me and my customers.” To Croft, the fiber arts community is a built-in social network. “If you find your fiber people, you can find that social group that you desperately need, and maybe don’t realize it yet.”

Kayla Nelsen

The space shared in East Lansing by Woven Art and Seams.

That community is what has kept Croft and Gregg in a close partnership for so long. “We still rely on each other a lot for emotional support, really. We promote each other’s stuff and share customers,” Gregg said. Cross-over among Woven Art and Seams customers occurs often. Gregg said that her sewers often go next door to Woven Art to try fiber arts and Croft’s fiber artists travel to Seams to try sewing.

Gregg keeps Seams as environmentally sustainable as possible. “Textiles in general are pretty terrible for the environment,” Gregg said. Like conventional fibers, mainstream textiles are often non-biodegradable synthetics. “We believe in natural textiles in our store. But mostly we advocate sewing clothing that fits your body, that fits your style, that you will wear and love for a long time, and that when you’re done with will biodegrade quietly.”

Ultimately, the hope of Croft and Gregg’s businesses is to maintain the slow-fashion fiber arts and textile community in East Lansing, said Gregg. “We want to continue this idea of educating people about all the phases of fashion.” 

Woven Art Yarn Shop and Seams Sewing and Mercantile will host a joint event at 325A Grove St., just off of Grand River Avenue on Saturday, Oct. 16. The Fashion Fiber Festival will bring together artists across mid-Michigan in celebration of natural-sourced fibers and slow fashion. The event, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., will include a fashion show of handmade clothing, live demonstrations and small local vendors.

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