Earlier this month Ability Weavers celebrated their first anniversary. In the past year they have provided part-time employment for some who otherwise may struggle to find a job. It was through Beryl Bartkus’ personal experience and vision Ability Weavers came to be. They offer a variety of handmade products to the Lowell community and beyond. Bartkus and her family have lived in the community for 20 years. Opening a store in Lowell was an easy choice with the small town atmosphere and community support.
“Weaving a Purpose”
The words “weaving a purpose” are on the window of their storefront. Inside employees can be found making rugs, table runners, and more. Looms number nine line the space. When multiple looms are being used it sounds like they’re keeping the beat for a musical number. And beating the loom is part of weaving lingo indicating pushing fabric together hard, or “beating” it, to ensure a tight fit with no gaps. The tighter the weaving the stronger the product.
Each Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday products are being made. Visitors can see how items are made and talk with the people behind the creations. In a time when most products are made in a factory, often by machines not people, it’s refreshing to experience handmade weaving.
Currently nine part-time employees work at Ability Weavers. They have some sort of disability. But thanks to Bartkus these individuals are being given the ability to earn money through employment and much more. “As the parent of a young woman with autism we realized the huge need for real employment for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.” she says. At the age of 26 school for those with special needs comes to an end. Bartkus goes on to say the unemployment rate for this group is 70%.
“Everyone needs purpose. Ability Weavers has developed out of our passion to provide purpose filled, enjoyable employment for those who could benefit from a supported work environment.” Bartkus continues. The business is her vision. But she’s not in it for herself. It’s about the people she employs. All profits from the sale of their products goes toward paying employees. Bartkus donates 100% of her time.
Working the Loom
Employees at Ability Weavers live in Lowell, Ada, Saranac, and other areas in the Grand Rapids area. It’s clear they are not just coworkers. There’s a family atmosphere. They talk, bond, joke, enjoy each other’s company, and are happy to have a job.
As with any job, training is involved before becoming proficient. There are certain techniques used when weaving. Employees must learn how to put fabric through the loom, use the pedals of the loom, and how to beat the fabric together. As with any business there are differing levels of experience. In the beginning a weaver will work with someone else. Those with the most experience can work on their own and even train fellow Weavers or members of the public during Weave Your Own events open to the public.
Bartkus also adds, “It (weaving) has been used by occupational therapists for years because it uses both sides of your brain and your entire body. It is also a very repetitive and predictable. Many of our Weavers are very detail oriented, so it is a very good fit.”
Rebecca Joseph has been working at Ability Weavers for just over a year. She doesn’t have a favorite product to make but she has favorite looms. And she’s quick to say she loves to beat them. Joseph is thankful for her employment. “I didn’t know if I could ever get a job, so it has helped me believe in myself. It helps me feel like an adult and like I can contribute to the community. The best thing about AW is the people I work with, that it’s a fun place to work, and that our products make people happy.” she says.
Allie Noonon is another expert weaver. Her smile is contagious and eagerness to share her knowledge of weaving with others is energetic. She also loves donuts. Her expertise has led to her helping members of the public make their own products. She also aids fellow employees when needed. The money she makes goes toward her being able to live on her own.
Nicole Wilterink made products donated to the Rotary Auction to benefit the Showboat. She was in attendance at the auction and stood on the stage next to her work as back and forth bidding took place. Her skills and the donation from Ability Weavers was sold for over $2,000.
Those with special needs are also special people. Through being gainfully employed they have a purpose. Bartkus says, “As our Weavers work, they gain a sense of accomplishment, especially when they complete each product. Once the product is completed and placed in our store they see the community step up to purchase their work. They love to see others appreciate the work they have done.” There is such pride in their work their name is put on a tag attached to each product.
Community Support and Looking to the Future
Custom order rugs are the most popular product sold. Rugs can be weaved to specific dimensions, choice of color(s) and material. Customers are also drawn to “Fuzzy Rugs” which have some texture to them. Regardless of your interest in products all sales go to support the employment of those with special needs.
It has been through the support of the community Ability Weavers has been successful. They look to continue adding employees as sales increase. In addition to visiting the store their products can be found at Mi Hometown Furniture. Money from sales at that location goes back to Ability Weavers.
Those interested in learning how to weave and take home a rug or table runner are encouraged to participate in Weave Your Own events. Every Thursday from 2-7 is open weaving. Come in to create and design a 22”x36” rug or table runner up to four feet in length. And take your piece home with you that day. Weavers will help guide participants through the weaving process. Registration is recommended but walk-ins are welcome as long as there is space. Grab a friend and enjoy some time learning about weaving, talking with some amazing people, and create your own product.
Online shopping is also offered at the Ability Weavers website and their Etsy Shop. New products are constantly in the mind of Bartkus and her Weavers. Handbags, totes, and purses were recently added. They’re looking into making dishtowels and even baby blankets in the future. You can also see recent projects and keep up to date on what’s happening at their Facebook page.
If you haven’t stopped by 215 W. Main Street put it on your list of things to do. And if you have been to Ability Weavers come back. Products are always changing. And the Weavers enjoy sharing what they do. Retail hours are Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday from 10am-5pm and Thursday 2pm-7pm. Purchase with purpose as those employed at Ability Weavers “weave a purpose”.