Building a community out of fiber, needles and spinning wheels…

Fresh from celebrating their store’s one-year anniversary, Erin Strehlo and Melinda Breede are looking forward to good things to come. Not only have they watched The Fiber Universe flourish since its opening last November, they’ve created an ideal niche on the riverfront where people can knit, crochet and spin in good company.

After meeting through a local knitting group, the two women became fast friends. Breede had been crocheting with her mother since childhood, while Strehlo learned to knit in college, seeking a distraction from her homework. Upon discovering that Peoria was in need of a specialty yarn store, they decided to combine their talents as business partners.

“Almost from the beginning, we talked about how neat it would be to open up a yarn store and be able to teach other people,” Strehlo recalls. “Being passionate about something—and being able to share it with others—just made me want to give it a try.”

And their venture has proven quite successful. Offering a more unique, specialized inventory than the large chains, The Fiber Universe carries hundreds of lines of yarn and other fibers and provides all the tools necessary to get started. It also stocks a variety of local animal fibers and blends—from rabbit and goat to llama and alpaca—for a more personal touch.

“It’s nice to know exactly where things are coming from,” says Strehlo. “We go meet the sheep and the alpacas and the llamas… Spinners love the idea of being able to make yarns [and say], ‘Hey! I knew this sheep. His name was Nigel. And now, I’ve got this beautiful yarn from Nigel.”

After hand-selecting the animals from farms around the Peoria area, Strehlo and Breede often take time to treat the wool themselves, spinning it into their own one-of-a-kind fibers—a process that can be quite time-consuming. After washing the wool of dirt and oil, it must be dried out, carded or combed, dyed, and prepared to be twisted into yarn on a spinning wheel. At that point, the two women can spin about an ounce of yarn per hour. “It gives you great appreciation for how much effort went into making a ball of yarn,” Breede notes.

Many others seem to appreciate their efforts as well. While day-to-day traffic is a bit sporadic, the duo has garnered a sizeable following—ranging from teenagers to young professionals to retirees—and about 500 subscribers to their monthly newsletter. In addition to providing a place where customers can see and touch the fibers before purchasing them, they also sell hand-knitted and crocheted items, take special orders, and offer opportunities for customers to create their own projects and take lessons to refine their skills.

More and more, Strehlo and Breede are seeing younger women who want to get involved, which they suspect is in part due to the pervasive influence of the media. “I think there’s a huge push in both fashion and in media,” Strehlo explains. “Almost every [television] show I watch, the lead characters have a knitted hat or a scarf… There’s a push out there for the trend of cute knitted items.” They also point to social media sites like Etsy and Pinterest, as the widespread availability of free patterns and project ideas on the Internet has inspired a host of would-be fiber artists to connect with others attempting similar things.

And not only have Strehlo and Breede embraced technology, they are using it to their advantage. They recently set up a Ravelry kiosk in the store and created a group page on ravelry.com, the Facebook-like site for knitters and crocheters that allows users to digitally record their “stash” of yarn, search projects by fiber type, seek help from pattern authors, and get inspired by crafters from around the world. And for further proof that everything comes full circle, ravelry.com is where Strehlo discovered the weekly Peoria knitting group where she met Breede in the first place, kicking off the whole serendipitous chain of events.

As they enter their second year of business, both owners are hoping for continued growth. With an expansion possible in the not-so-distant future, the women plan to stay close to the riverfront, continuing to expand their inventory and motivate more knitters, crocheters and spinners. Whether people come to shop, knit with friends or visit the store’s antique mascot—“Trudy,” the 1921 Gearheart sock knitting machine—Breede wants them to feel inspired.

“I want people to leave feeling creative [and] maybe empowered, feeling that they can do something new,” she says. “There’s such a sense of pride whenever I get done teaching a class… People say, ‘Look what I just made! An hour ago there was a ball of yarn, and now there’s a sock.’ There’s just that real sense of pride and accomplishment that ‘I did this.’ And people can’t take that away from you.” a&s

The Fiber Universe is open Tuesday and Friday, 10am to 6pm; Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 8pm; and Saturday, 10am to 4pm. Open knitting takes place on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 6pm, and beginner classes are offered every Saturday at 9am. Sign up at thefiberuniverse.com, or find them on Facebook or Ravelry to connect with other fiber artists and gather inspiration for your own projects!