COOK- Susan Thomas, of Cook, says she’s never considered herself an artist, and when friends have tried to cajole her into group crafting projects she’s claimed a very specific …
COOK- Susan Thomas, of Cook, says she’s never considered herself an artist, and when friends have tried to cajole her into group crafting projects she’s claimed a very specific role.
“I am not crafty,” Thomas declared. “When my girlfriends would get together and have craft days around this time of year, I always claimed my craft was mixology. So, I would just be the bartender because I did not craft.”
But there are around 200 cute, fuzzy reasons to be skeptical of Thomas’s claim of not being crafty, as she’s been swamped for the past couple of months turning out fanciful gnome figurines that folks have been snapping up almost faster than she can make them.
Thomas had collected a few gnomes over the years, so she was a little more amenable to a friend’s suggestion in the fall of 2019 that she give gnome-making a try. Rather than work from a standard pattern, Thomas turned to YouTube looking for ideas. But the common techniques and styles she discovered weren’t quite what she had in mind.
“I did a little bit of research on them, and I kind of modeled mine more after those Norwegian gnomes -- they’re more of like a nature spirit,” Thomas said. “They’re guardians and protectors of lake farms in Norway. So, I wanted them to be more nature-themed and that’s why they kind of changed.”
With that particular focus, working on her unique gnomes also provides moments for Thomas to feel close to her husband, Scott, again. The pair reconnected at their 10-year high school reunion and married in 1993. A lover of the outdoors, Scott passed away unexpectedly five years ago as the result of a logging accident, so working with nature always in mind gives rise to many fond memories of their years together, Thomas said.
She made about 40 what she termed as “simple” gnomes in 2019 and put all of her crafting materials away after the holidays. But between the enjoyment she found and ideas she wanted to try, like adding arms to her creations, it was virtually a given that she would be gnoming again this year.
A paraprofessional at North Woods School for many years, Thomas got a little extra incentive and time to pursue her hobby when the school cut down the work hours for paraprofessionals at the start of the school year. That freed up Wednesdays and provided a reason to use gnomes to supplement her income.
“I was going to try making gnomes and selling them for some Christmas gift money, and it’s just gotten out of hand,” she laughed.
She headed off to craft stores in Virginia and Duluth, stocking up on “more expensive” furs and fabrics because that’s what she would want, she said, and collected all sorts of items for decorative accessories. Rice and silica stuffed into cloth tubes form the basic structure around which Thomas creates gnomes with unique styles and personalities. Most average around a foot in height, but she’s made some as tall as 20 inches.
She started in on her first batch of new gnomes this year on Oct. 1, with a plan to end production on Dec. 18.
“The Halloween ones were kind of like a refresher course for me to get my feet wet again, because I hadn’t touched it all year,” Thomas said. “People were interested so I made a few and sold them. But my goal from the very beginning was to do crafts shows at Christmas time.”
COVID-19 made that plan challenging, as long-standing shows were being canceled right and left. But Thomas helped organize one held at the Cook VFW, and participated in the one at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and found one more to attend.
Toward the end of November, she added another marketing channel, a page on Facebook titled “Northern Gnomology,” and began receiving requests from customers as far away as Minneapolis as well as from locals. Thomas was able to handle the unexpected demand, but admitted that there was a short time when she was doing multiple special orders that it became less fun and more of a chore.
But she kept churning away, creating gnomes at a pace of about one every two hours, and the need to quarantine for two weeks due to being exposed to COVID-19 set the stage for her to spend up to 60 hours per week making gnomes.
Given that Thomas uses more expensive materials, her gnomes are a little more pricey than others, costing around $35 for a standard size up to $55 for large ones. Since that’s the case, the holiday touch on many of her gnomes is subtle, or even nonexistent, with the idea that buyers would be able to display them during other times of the year.
Last Friday, Dec. 18, was the day Thomas intended to pack up all of her supplies and stop making gnomes for this year, but the overwhelming response has her considering the possibility of keeping it up on a limited basis, particularly given the response she’s received.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “People have just fallen in love with them and it tickles me because, you know, I like them, but I can be a little eccentric at times. I’ve been thrilled that I’ve been able to make them the way I like them and that people are really accepting and really loving my version of what I want them to be. It’s been a big boost to my ego to have so much positive feedback. I just can’t believe how supportive everyone has been.”