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Sifu Design Studio Closing But Will Maintain Their Knitting Community

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Photo: Sifu’s Octopus on Facebook

The kids notice the octopus in the Edgewater storefront window. They ask, now that Sifu Design Studio & Fine Yarns is closing, “what’s going to happen to him?” And if he isn’t sold by Christmas, at least, Diego the Octopus will be heading to owner Lisa Whiting’s nephew’s house — all more-than-100-balls-of-yarn and three-months-work of him.

But the adults who’ve made Sifu Design Studio a part of their lives for the past five years have different concerns. After all, this 6054 N. Broadway St. shop that strives to be a full-service fiber arts studio, deeply rooted in the DIY/Green movement, hosts science fiction movie/knitting Sci-Fiber events on Fridays, and potlucks, knitting help and other options for socializing at “Stitch ’N’ Brunch” on Sundays. It also offers a variety of different types of knitting classes. And then there are the longtime customers who come in with their baby, ask Whiting to briefly babysit while stepping out for a quick errand, and then return to the store to do some shopping.

It’s just that kind of place. When you’ve been open since 2011 with a loyal community of knitters, that just makes sense. Sifu Design Studio’s official closure on Jan. 31, 2016, — in other words — won’t go unnoticed.

Still, it’s hard to do what you love while making money doing it. Whiting’s decision to close her store is financial and bittersweet. But, “breaking even doesn’t pay the bills at home,” she said on Sunday.

Yet ask Whiting to describe the community of knitters that makes her love what she’s put her heart into since opening at the height of the 2011 economic crash, and she’ll tell you to just come on over to her shop. There’s really no describing it, or the experience, she says, until you get there.

She’s right. Head to the long rectangular table in the back of the store with various chairs, near the spools of yarn in cabinets and the paintings hanging up above, and that’s where you’ll start to get a sense of what knitting is, what it means, and how it’s impacted Whiting, her best friend and fellow knitting instructor, Lucia Blanchet, and a host of others.

You get the idea that people who knit in Sifu Design Studio talk a lot about what it means to knit while they are in the process of knitting. And, as Blanchet explained, some knit to complete one or a series of specific projects, while others knit to complete projects while also searching for something deeper.

It’s fair to say that Whiting, in closing her shop but deciding to open up another, has continued in her efforts to find that something deeper.

Lisa Lucia, a partnership with Blanchet, will be a new line of knitwear, where the best friends will be working out of their separate homes. But in a year or so, they hope, they will be able to establish a new, smaller studio, where they will be able to offer classes and work on their designs.

“We are both excited about that, because we are both designers and creative people, and we will be able to do more creating and teaching,” Whiting said.

Both women wore sweaters they had knit themselves on Sunday. Whiting’s red lace cardigan took about a 1 1/2 months to knit and is made out of acrylic and wool. Blanchet’s red, finely knit silk and wool pullover took a couple of weeks to complete. Lisa Lucia aims to offer its customers a full range of sizes that they will be able to make themselves or purchase fully made.

Neither woman dislikes retailing. But they both acknowledge that it’s hard to compete with online yarn sales. Lisa Lucia will be able to cater to that market of people who may be able to purchase the tools and products they need to knit and crochet elsewhere, but who need in-person knitting and/or crocheting guidance and support.

In the meantime, however, any private classes after Sifu Design Studio closes will continue to be taught at Ellipsis Coffeehouse, 1259 W. Devon Ave.

Whiting named her store for a Chinese Kung Fu term that means master or teacher. “The tagline is, ‘You, too, can be a master of your craft,’” she said.

Whiting has a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture and textiles from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. She has been knitting for 28 years and has been a knitting instructor for the past 12 to 13 years.

She and Blanchet met because of a mutual interest in knitting. Blanchet has a bachelor’s degree in film studies and feminist studies from the University of Caifornia, Santa Cruz and a master’s degree in media studies from Northwestern University. She has studied how knitting has changed over the centuries and has herself been knitting for the past eight years.

“As a partnership, we work really well together,” Whiting said. “We kind of have a hive mind. Lucia doesn’t draw, but I do. but Lucia is a way better writer than I am.

“I feel uniquely qualified to edit Lisa’s patterns because I speak English, knitting and Lisa,” Blanchet joked.

It’s an apt comment, and not just because these two women like to have fun. Blanchet said many people who knit have problems reading and understanding the patterns they are basing their knitting project on because not all designers are able to communicate well with their audience. Other people come to Sifu Design Studio to help them fix knitting mistakes.

Lisa Lucia, their new business, plans to offer at least three types of products: Finished pieces; kits that include raw yarn, needles and other items to complete the pieces; and the individual patterns to create the pieces.

“We are trying to reach a market who are not just knitters but who want to wear knitwear,” Whiting said, adding that for the products that are fully made, they would prefer they be produced locally and using the fair trade system.

Blanchet does production knitting for a local fashion designer. She said it was good practice to learn how to do one-of-a-kind pieces for someone else, adding that general guidelines are good. Lisa Lucia is looking to sell its products online and in higher-end boutiques.

Almost all the items in Sifu Design Studio right now, including the handmade crocheted lamps hanging from the ceiling, and the $3,500 Diego the Octopus, are for sale. Those items that are not sold will be put into storage and/or sold on craigslist or eBay. Whiting and Blanchet will use other items for their new shop.

The website and the store’s Facebook page will continue to provide information about Whiting’s and Blanchet’s future plans. The website’s mailing list will also continue to accept subscribers.


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