Ruth Ver Meer Stravers ex’50 goes to bed every night and gets up every morning with one sparkling question: “The little wheels are a-twirling, I’m thinking, ‘Oooh, what can I make next?’”
She made her first dress at the age of 10 and hasn’t stopped sewing since. She learned to quilt as an adult, and when she retired after 32 years teaching elementary school, she turned to braiding wool rugs. Eventually, sitting on the floor and working with the heavy braid became too cumbersome, but, Stravers said, “I had all this wool, and I wasn’t going to let one piece of it go to waste!”
The twirling wheels in her head gave her a solution: penny rugs.
Around the time of the Civil War, women began to make decorative rugs and mats out of old wool clothing and blankets using the era’s pennies (three times the size of our own) as templates for circular designs that were then blanket stitched to a wool background. Some women sewed pennies into their rugs to make them lie flat.
After a friend showed Stravers a contemporary penny rug, she knew immediately what to do with her bins and bins of wool. She made small penny rugs to cover the toilet tank. She made large ones for wall hangings and medium-sized ones for table runners—each with a penny hidden somewhere in the design. She made so many that even after giving dozens away, her closets and cupboards were bulging.
Enter daughter Joy Stravers Tigchelaar ’80, also an elementary school teacher and crafter, on a visit from Vancouver.
“We were looking at all the things she’d made,” Tigchelaar remembered, “and Mom said, ‘Maybe I should start a business, but I’m 82, so I better get going.’”
Tigchelaar had been toying with the idea of selling her own crafts on Etsy, an e-commerce website, but hadn’t yet learned how to set up an e-store.
“Mom’s desire gave me the motivation,” she said. “I was determined to have our first item online before she turned 83.”
They made that goal. Days before Stravers’ birthday last April, mother in Holland and daughter in Vancouver together opened an Etsy store called “The Old Coat Studios,” named for the hand-me-down and thrift-store wool coats Stravers cuts up to make her penny rugs. By fall they had dozens of items listed and sales to six countries outside North America.
“Her color choices set her work apart,” Tigchelaar said of her mother, “and her style. It’s hardy and colorful and bright and whimsical and happy in an ‘I love life’ kind of way. People seem drawn to that.”
“Well, Joy is the really creative one,” Stravers insisted. “The website is so professional. And the way she wraps each item in old pattern tissue and ties it with raffia and attaches a personal note with an old coat button—beautiful.”
Each claims to be having as much fun as the other.
And each says that being business partners has only enhanced their always close relationship.
“It creates this ongoing conversation with my mom about something that’s precious and meaningful to both of us,” Tigchelaar said.
In fact, soon they hope to include some of Tigchelaar’s handwork on their Etsy site, not to mention more of Stravers’, since, Tigchelaar said, “Mom’s got one idea churning before the last is finished.”