SUBSCRIBE NOW
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.
SUBSCRIBE NOW
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.

Sense of touch guides Detroit area fiber artist

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Like most crafters, Tonya Gore of Lincoln Park doesn’t limit her creativity.She’s an award-winning spinner, who also knits, weaves, crochets, felts hand-knitted items and dyes hand-spun yarn. But unlike most crafters — this 29-year-old does it all without the gift of sight.

While learning these skills can be challenging for sighted individuals, Gore never let what most would consider a major obstacle stand in her way. She says, “I guess for me, I didn’t find it to be such an issue because I was born blind.”

Her tenacious character has enabled her to not only be a creator in the world of fiber art, but a teacher and entrepreneur, as well. She teaches spinning, and sells her collection of handcrafted goods on Etsy.com (etsy.com/shop/roomforcrafts), to people she meets and at local events under the name Room For Crafts.

Gore’s unending love for creating with fiber began eight years ago when she learned to knit at the hands of a beginner. She, of course, had no idea how addictive the tactile art would become, and what wonderful fiber-related skills would follow.

“I had a friend who could knit a little bit. She just explained to me what she did, and showed me what the stitch was suppose to look like by handing her knitting over to me so that I could feel what the stitches felt like. Once she showed me, I just took off,” she explains.

Gore spent the next five years honing her craft, including learning to knit lace and felting her knitted items, before deciding she wanted to start spinning yarn. “I didn’t know anyone who did it. I just wanted to try it,” says the self-taught spinner, who now owns six antique spinning wheels, including two great wheels (very large spinning wheels — with a spindle instead of a bobbin — used around the turn of the 20th century), all of which she and her husband, Seth, have restored.

She now does spinning demonstrations for elementary school students, and after competing two years in the spinning category at the Michigan Fiber Festival in Allegan, she won two blue ribbons and four second-place awards. She also teaches spinning at a local coffee shop, and is currently enrolled in a six-year Master Spinner Program offered through Olds College in Olds Alberta, Canada. She also plans to teach spinning at Gibraltar Bay Alpacas in Grosse Ile Township.

Richard Steffke, who owns Gibraltar Bay Alpacas with his wife, Gail, says, “Upon meeting Tonya, I was taken aback by her ability to spin alpaca fiber into yarn, and knit beautiful garments. So awestruck by her ability to do so much with a compromised sense that so many of us take for granted — sight. She is just amazing. We are looking forward to having her instruct our spinning class.”

Jennifer Tsui, a former Detroiter now living near Southern California, says, “She was a great instructor. She was very patient, and she knew a lot about spinning, so she could give me alternate techniques, or kind of scale the lessons to my ability and interests.”

Like so many knitters, Gore also developed an interest in learning to crochet, so she eventually taught herself with “the help of Google and step-by-step instructions.”

She’s able to follow written patterns thanks to her keen sense of touch and Apple devices. “You can feel your stitches,” she says. “If I’m following a pattern, like a lace pattern, the chart is written in three different sections and I use stitch markers. That way, if I’m missing a stitch, I’m only going to go so far before I know something is wrong.” And about her electronic equipment, she adds, “Apple has like a screen-reading software built-in called Voiceover. It reads anything on the screen. Most of my patterns come from Ravelry. If a pattern has charts, my husband (who’s also her photographer) will read them to me, and he’ll write them out.”

Gore has also added weaving to her growing repertoire.

Gore can distinguish between yarn colors with the help of her husband, who assists with color selections during shopping trips, and whenever she gets them mixed up in her storage area. She’s also developed a system that helps while working on a particular project. “I will wind them differently, like maybe one in a ball and one in a yarn cake — just so that they’re different,” she explains.

Last year, with the help of books, Gore taught herself to dye yarn using all natural ingredients. She says, “My husband has done a lot of art, and he’s very familiar with color, so I’ll ask his advice, and then I make a decision. After I dye something, I’ll ask him if it came out the way I expected. Usually, I only do one pot (of dye) at a time, and I keep my dyes separate, and label them with a braille label on the container.”

Dearborn resident Laura Smith, owner of the Brownstown Bearclaw Coffee Shop, purchased six knitted cowls for her and five of her employees to wear while working the drive-thru window during the winter. “They’re perfect because they’re non-bulky,” says Smith. “I forget she has any kind of impairment when I watch her knit and spin, and see the results of her product because she does such a fascinating job.”

After seeing Gore’s husband wearing a hat she knitted for him, Chase Dowler of Newport didn’t hesitate to order a similar one. “It’s so durable and the wind doesn’t cut through it. I even wear it duck hunting and hot tubbing in the winter time,” he says.

Gore holds a degree in social work from Wayne State University. She was recently laid off from her job as a virtual assistant, which has allowed her more time to make “room for crafts.”

With a clear perspective on plans for her business, she says, “While I’m working on the Etsy shop and selling things at fairs and events, the end goal is to one day have a dedicated studio space, where I can have all of my equipment set up for my needs, and have it all available for teaching lessons, workshops, etc., and have people come and use the studio space for whatever they may need it for, as well. It would also be a place to have my finished products, or a means to spin or knit, based on people’s custom orders.”

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150 or jbrown@detroitnews.com.

Contact Room For Crafts at thegirlwhoplayedwithfiber@gmail.com, or etsy.com/shop/roomforcrafts