Thursday, February 3, 2011

We are in the Eagle!!

Navasota Business Woven into Community
Published Thursday, February 03, 2011 12:04 AM
Eagle photos by Dave McDermand

NAVASOTA -- A small shop on Washington Avenue here seems to be a paradise for knitters and spinners as visitors can see and touch the several colors of Alpaca fiber, wool, cotton and mohair that are tucked on shelves along the walls.

WC Mercantile sells a variety of yarns and fibers, as well as related supplies, including needles and spinning wheels.

Stephanie Cunningham said she and her mother, Petra Wright, opened the store in 2002 because of their passion for natural fibers. The initials in the store's name come from the pair's last names. She said her mother started knitting as a child while in Germany and passed the passion onto her.

"We love to make things with our hands, and we love texture and color," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said she carefully chose the location for the store along a street lined with other quaint businesses in Navasota.

"With its bustling art community, historic charm and central location, Navasota is the perfect place for our business," she said. "It's also the 'Alpaca Capital of Texas.'"

She said her store offers an extensive selection of fibers for hand spinning, felting and other related hobbies and also carries locally produced fibers, hand-spun yarns and hand-painted rovings, which are bundles of fiber usually spun into yarn. She said there aren't any similar stores in the area.

Weaving idea to reality

Cunningham said their biggest achievement has been "growing the business from an idea to a wonderful shop." While larger retail stores often carry mostly acrylics, her store carries natural fibers with a "natural feel," she said.

"It just ends up being something real," she said of products made from natural fibers. "It used to be this was how everything was done."

"This came from a sheep," she said, holding an orange shawl she made over two months.

Also, wool, which often has to be hand-washed and laid flat to dry, has barbs and therefore holds its shape better than acrylic fibers, she said.

"There's a passion around textile arts," Cunningham said. "I think it's making a big comeback."

She said much of her fiber is commercial, but the store works with alpaca and goat farmers to offer local products, too.

Cunningham said much of the shop's mohair came from England. However, a lot of mohair is produced in West Texas. It's shipped to England because it has several large mills; then the U.S. buys it back, she said.

She buys wool -- mostly that from Merino sheep -- from Great Britain. Often the wool from Great Britain is from sheep raised in Australia, she said. Most of her store's silk comes from India and China.

Some of the alpaca fiber comes from Peru, she said, but the nicest and finest alpaca fiber is grown locally.

Cunningham said some of her alpaca fiber comes from Bluebonnet Hills Alpaca Ranch on Courtney Road in Navasota, owned by Laurence and Donna Binder. Some of her mohair came from Wright's ranch, but Wright recently stopped raising Angora goats -- where mohair comes from -- because of health reasons, Cunningham said.

Laurence Binder said he and his wife have raised alpacas at their ranch for 13 years. They have their 80 alpacas sheared once a year, typically at the end of March or early April, before the Texas heat hits. He said he approached WC Mercantile in January 2010 about selling the ranch's alpaca fiber and yarn at the store. The store's owners welcomed the chance to sell his local products, he said, and have had them on consignment at the business since.

"The end product of raising alpacas is soft, luxurious fiber so being able to sell our fiber at WC Mercantile has really been a blessing for us," he said. "I am not aware of other stores in the area that sell local fiber products along with the wonderfully commercially produced products that are available."

Binder said he and his wife have been in the store while people from Fort Worth, Houston and East Texas have been there shopping. He said even he visited Cunningham during the holidays at the store, when she had made arrangements to be open for a customer from Florida.

Binder said a customer recently drove from Fort Worth specifically to buy Texas yarn.

"We are members of the Go Texan program, and folks really enjoy purchasing products from the great state of Texas," Binder said.

Learning a new old trade

Binder said area residents are fortunate to have a shop like WC Mercantile.

"Stephanie and Petra, as well as some of the regulars to the shop, are always willing to help with any project that a fiber artist is having difficulty with. The atmosphere in the shop is always welcoming to those who want to ask questions or just sit and spin and knit," he said.

He said his wife learned to knit at WC Mercantile over the past three months, and just finished making a shawl as part of the store's annual "Knit-Along" that starts in January.

He also recommended the store's "Spring Spin-In" scheduled for April 30.

"It is amazing to see so many folks spinning all kinds of fiber," he said. "They come from everywhere to sit and spin for several hours. It is great fun for them."

Cunningham said her customers are a mix of hobbyists and those who buy raw products to make things to sell. She said they can spin raw products into yarn and sell that or even make the yarn into clothing or other items.

Cunningham said one of the advantages of the store is the knowledge and inspiration from the owners as well as customers.

"I think a big part of knitting is getting inspired by what others do," she said.

The store's "Sit and Knit" every Sunday is free, and anyone can come to crochet or knit from noon to 5 p.m.

The business holds its "Spin-Ins" twice a year, during which it puts out different colors of fibers for spinners to try out. The customers pay $10 for Wright to make the fiber into a batt for them, which can be used to spin into yarn or for the inside of quilts. The products are donated to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Besides being fun, those who participate learn from others in the group. For instance, one person might know a particular type of stitch; another might know another way of doing that type of stitch, she said.

The store also holds spinning, knitting and other crafting classes that range from $20 to $30.

Besides natural fibers, the store also sells spinning wheels, which can range from $330 to thousands for a new one, Cunningham said. She said customers can save money by buying a used wheel, but they sell fast.

Cunningham said she often uses a method of kettle dying to color her natural fibers while she works in the store. She puts it in a crockpot, sets the heat, and it's done when the water turns clear, usually after half a day. It can also be rolled in plastic with dye and microwaved or put inside a black plastic bag and set in the sun during hot weather.

WC Mercantile has customers of all ages, Cunningham said.

On Thursday, Navasota resident Robyn Caberera came in with her three girls: Twins Kendall and Jordan, 12, and Isabel, 9, and her son, Devin, 11.

Jordan said the family comes into the store almost every day of the week, and she and her twin started knitting when they were 8.

"It's really fun coming here," she said. "We meet lots of people and learn things."

Kendall said she likes to come into the store because she always discovers something new.

"I learned how to weave, dye a little and spin," she said, adding that she came in that day to learn how to lace a pattern for a scarf.

She proudly held up a pink hat and put it on her head, the first one she recently knitted. She said she's making another one for a baby as a gift.

Their younger sister quietly worked on a project in a corner, while their brother listened to music.

Their mother said, "It's a good learning experience for kids and adults."

Besides crafting supplies, the store, next to The 4 Queens Antiques & Unique Gifts, carries other items, including a few stuffed animals, eye-glass cases, pins, knick-knacks, paintings and wine glasses.

For more information on the store and a list of classes, go to or call 936-825-3378.