Originally published in Business Digest, December 1998

By the Chimney With Care

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Growing up, one of the last things Marge Dethloff thought she'd do was live in a tiny Vermont town and make Christmas stockings. But a flip remark from her mother, coupled with a genuine desire to find a place where she could put down roots, paved a path that Dethloff walks with joy every day -- mostly in her bare feet.

Don't get the wrong idea. Dethloff is no country bumpkin. Her company, Specialties in Wool, located in Putnamville, just outside of Montpelier, engages the labor of 13 people -- knitters and stitchers who work in their homes from her designs. She travels to trade shows all over the Eastern seaboard and has customers all over the country. She has created a niche for her product line, which, over the years, has expanded to include other holiday-related things like tree skirts, ornaments and occasional costumes "for a guy who makes Santas."

Marge Dethloff Marge Dethloff runs Specialties in Wool from her Putnamville home. The company employs home knitters to create holiday products, including Christmas stockings with lifetime guarantees. "If the dog chews a hole in it, we repair it," she says. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

While her customer base remains largely in New England, a growing percentage is in New York and places beyond. Corporations buy her products as gifts for employees or customers. Her line was featured a few years ago in a show of American crafts at Harrod's Department Store in London, and, she says, "a store like Harrod's in Paris picked up my product the next year." In 1997, she sold stockings to customers in Taiwan, Germany and France. This year, Dethloff is most proud of the fact that one of her ornaments will grace a Christmas tree in the White House. "I think it's for the Blue Room," she says.

This Philadelphia native claims she's not the classic craftsperson- artist. "My mother knit all the Christmas stockings for our family," she says, "and when she finished with our family, she knit them for my cousins. When she finished with those, she said, 'That's it.' " By then, though, Dethloff's cousins had started to get married and wanted stockings. "I heard my mother say one day, 'Well, I'm retired, but my daughter will do this now.' " With a chortle, Dethloff exclaims, "The daughter -- and she has only one -- didn't knit by any stretch of the imagination!"

While intriguing, her mother's comment did not inspire Dethloff to run right out and buy knitting needles. In college and looking to the future, she didn't even take it seriously. She loved active sports and, following graduation, set out on a bicycle trip across the country. She participated in Outward Bound types of programs and, generally, "was a ski bum and bicycle person," stopping for a while in states along the way -- Wisconsin, Oregon, California, Colorado -- making mental notes on each place she visited.

She found things to love about all the states she visited, but Dethloff had a yen to visit the Northeast before making any lifelong decisions. "Mainly, I had missed seeing Vermont," she confesses, "but I had seen a Vermont Life magazine, which is all it takes for a Midwesterner." In 1975, she took a job leading bicycle tours around the state and decided to stay for a while.

One day in 1980, remembering her mother's remark, Dethloff decided to give knitting a try. A friend who owned a knitting machine told her where she might find one to buy. "The best thing is, it was portable and would fit in my car," she recalls, "because I still wasn't sure that I was going to live in Vermont the rest of my life."

Dethloff's friend helped her learn the machine's operating basics, and when she felt able to make it run, Dethloff approached a Jeffersonville company that was hiring home knitters to make sweaters. "They gave me yarn, showed me what the finished product should look like and said, 'Give it a try.'" Although, she says, her first attempt at a sweater was "completely unacceptable," she gained confidence with the machine and was hired by the company. "When my next cousin got married, what do you think I wanted to give them for a wedding present?" she quips.

By the time the sweater company closed a couple of years later, she had become quite proficient at knitting and design and decided to try going it alone as a craftsperson. She applied for a booth at the Wendy Rosen Show, a huge wholesale show in the Philadelphia area featuring production crafts. "She was just opening this particular venue, so she was willing to take a risk on me in order to fill it with people." To the show, Dethloff took ladies' and children's sweaters, children's hats and scarves and Christmas stockings. By far, the Christmas stockings were the big sellers, probably, she says, because gift shops don't often have dressing rooms. "And because I'm so limited in my abilities," she adds with typical self- deprecating humor, "I thought: only three colors, three sizes, one season. That was something I could handle." So Christmas stockings constituted the entire product line her first full season in 1985.

For a few years, Dethloff followed the fall craft show circuit, mostly in New England, where her Christmas stockings were hugely popular. And, while she says she never got farther south than Connecticut, "with such a transitional population, people would move out of the area, have another baby and need another stocking. They started asking for catalogs." Wisely, she had saved every customer's name and address and used those as a base for her mailing list.

As her business has grown, Dethloff has been careful to maintain her lifestyle. Her knitting machine is in her second-floor bedroom, and she does hand-finishing and packaging in her workshop, in a former livestock barn in the basement of her garage. In the summertime, she takes her ornaments out to the front porch, where she sits in an old rocker, hidden by flower boxes, and watches traffic while she sews.

At home, she goes shoeless summer and winter as she makes the trip between levels many times a day, accompanied by her constant companion, a 15-year-old, mostly-German shepherd dog named Tripod, whom she adopted a few years ago. Each Halloween, she dresses Tripod in costume to greet the town trick-or-treaters, who make it a point to stop by and check out what Tripod's wearing. "This year," she says, "he didn't want too many clothes on him, so I dressed him in the same thing he wore last year, a fairy costume with wings and a halo. I guess that makes him an angel," she adds parenthetically. "But we got caught," she continues. "The kids remembered!"

This quirky sense of humor shows up in Dethloff's designs, which illustrate just about any work or hobby situation imaginable, from music notes or golf bags to home improvement tools, watering cans and a variety of team sports. She's added Hannukah stockings, small cat and dog stockings and will personalize any product she sells. The ornaments include not only the expected Christmas shapes like candy canes, snowmen and miniature stockings, but also feature tiny knit ice skates, sweaters, mittens, sox and ear-flap hats. New this year is a stocking in a chimney-brick pattern, featuring reindeer flying past the moon.

-Christmas stockings are, by far, Specialties in Wool's most important product. They're made of carpet yarn, because it's stiff and keeps its shape, and they're lined to avoid having Santa's gifts getting stuck on the way out. "I believe you should have the same Christmas stocking for your whole life," says Dethloff. "So I make an heirloom-quality product that is guaranteed for life. If the dog chews a hole in it, we repair it."

This guarantee, coupled with the inventiveness of the designs, attracts repeat customers like Claire Maguire of Essex, who first encountered Dethloff at one of the early Essex Craft Shows, when they were still held in the school gym, before moving to the fairgrounds. "I figured out," Maguire says, "I've got 21 stockings. The family keeps growing. I have two on order this year, and we're expecting two more next year." One of this year's stockings will go to a new grandson, Mark Maguire Hoeppner, who was born Sept. 8, the day Mark McGwire broke the home run record. "They did have a stocking with a baseball theme, but I decided I'd better not saddle him with a baseball stocking, so I got him something with choo-choos on it."

The full range of Dethloff's designs can be seen in her folksy, four- color catalog or on her website, specialtiesinwool.com. Unlike most producers of crafts, Dethloff doesn't really enjoy the artistic aspect of her work. She loves taking care of the business end of things -- those record-keeping details so necessary for success. She considers herself lucky in that category. "It's what I'm better at. In fact, my house gets really, really clean when it's time to design, because I look for anything to do other than design."

Dethloff calls Evelyn Gant, one of the first stitchers she hired, her "creative conscience." Gant, who moved to Putnamville about the time Dethloff did, is a clothing designer with a background in bobbin lace and counted cross-stitch, which she teaches around the state. Gant, who does design for several companies, is the person Dethloff calls when she needs input on design elements. "I don't actually do her product design," says Gant, "but when she has an idea, whether it's a moose or bear or whatever, she shows it to me, and I go, 'Naah, needs a longer nose,' or 'Bring in more sky.' We collaborate."

When she's not embroiled in business activities, Dethloff gives time in the community. She's involved in the Washington County Job Start program, an entrepreneurial loan fund that helps people who can't obtain loans from banks find alternative funding sources, and she sits on the boards of the Vermont Handcrafters and the Vermont Crafts Council, acting as liaison between them.

If she had it to do over again, Dethloff might choose a different craft. "I wouldn't go with a product that has only a six-week selling season," she says with a grimace. "And I'd make sure it's consumable. I have a product that is guaranteed for life. That means I have to find new customers every single year."