Stitching together a career
Torrington’s Ginger Balch has made yarn her life
BY CARRIE MACMILLAN | REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
You know you have a fabric addiction when you spend your vacations at sheep and wool festivals.
If your fingers constantly itch to click knitting needles together and any clothing photo in a magazine inspires an idea, there’s little hope of fighting off the power of yarn.
All of that applies to Ginger Balch, owner of In Sheep’s Clothing Yarn Shop in Torrington. Balch has been under the spell of needle, thread, loom and spinning wheel for the better part of her 55 years of life. But it wasn’t until she opened her shop seven years ago that she had the opportunity to truly flex her creative muscles and encourage others to do the same.
Balch launched her business just months before the 2008 recession started — and she hung out her shingle in a practically hidden location above Ida’s Bridal Shop on Main Street. Customers had to walk through the bridal shop and climb a set of stairs to reach In Sheep’s Clothing.
But skeins of yarn flew off the shelves and her classes, which span felting, bracelet-making, recycled knitting, weaving and spinning, proved popular. Last September, Balch moved to a new spot on Water Street.
No project is too small or too large for Balch to lend a helping hand or spot of advice.
“I get a lot of people who say, ‘I’ve tried it and I can’t do it,'” said Balch of knitting and other fiber arts. “But then I ask, ‘Have you tried it with me?'”
Virginia Mongeon of Torrington can attest to Balch’s talent as a teacher.
“She’s been a real blessing in life and she has the patience of a saint,” said Mongeon, 72. “I am by no great shakes a wonderful knitter. She has brought me so far up the ladder with knitting, it’s unbelievable. I went from scarves to hats to fingerless gloves to baby sweaters. I made a sweater for my adult daughter this past Christmas.”
Mongeon said she has taken classes with Balch and has worked with her one-on-one.
“If you buy her yarn and the pattern, she is there for you 100 percent,” Mongeon said. “What some people don’t understand is that if you go to Wal-Mart or Jo-Ann’s or Michael’s, you aren’t going to get the help you need. People are always bringing her things to repair. I’ll look at some of these wrecked sweaters and say, ‘You’re gonna fix that? Forget it.’ But Ginger can.”
Balch was born in Virginia — which is also her full name. Her family, of which Balch is the oldest of six siblings, moved to Litchfield when she was a baby. She grew up on a farm, where her mother and grandmother were very handy.
“If my mother wanted something, she had to make it herself,” she said, which included not just clothes, but cheese, butter and growing vegetables.
Balch learned to sew and knit when she was 7. She married her husband, Art, in 1978. They moved to Torrington about 10 years later. The couple has two grown daughters and two grandchildren.
While her girls were growing up, Balch worked as a waitress and in what little free time she had, continued to knit, cross-stitch and do other crafts. As her children got older, she ventured into spinning, and later, weaving. In 1996, she took a job at the Wool Connection in Avon.
“That’s where everything came together,” said Balch, whose retail experience included managing a handbag store. “My role was mostly sales, as well as teaching, creating displays and everything in between. I grew to love sales because it was a challenge for me. When you have a business and you want it to be a success, you make yourself go out of your comfort zone. I do a lot of things that are scary to me because I know I won’t get anywhere otherwise.”
She worked at the Wool Connection for 11 years. When she found out the owners were closing, her husband encouraged her to continue doing what she was doing, as her own boss. In April 2008, Balch opened In Sheep’s Clothing Yarn Shop above Ida’s Bridal.
“If it hadn’t been for Ida (Dean), I would never have gotten off the ground in the low-budget way I did,” Balch said. “Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have lasted six months.”
In 2013, she began to think about finding a new space with better street visibility and moved into her 800-square-foot storefront on Water Street.
“I’ve been busier since I moved, but it’s quieter now as summer starts because people are out in their gardens more,” she said.
Originally, Balch had envisioned her business to be a weaving studio, but realized it didn’t have wide enough appeal and now knitting is her bread and butter. Still, she hopes to get a weaving workshop for youths going this summer, and looms and spinning wheels are sold in her shop, as are many of her sample pieces, including baby dresses, women’s shawls, sweaters and cloche hats — those are the only kind Balch, a fan of “Downton Abbey,” says she can wear.
Near a sign that reads, “Your husband called and said buy anything you want,” is a rack of scarves Balch wove using old silk saris from Indian women. She also carries Sam’s Wool from Icelandic sheep raised by actor Sam Waterston on his Litchfield County farm.
All of the samples in Balch’s shop feature a twist of her own.
“This is my art,” she said. “I will have a pattern to make something, but if there isn’t a thing about it I can’t change, I won’t make it. I have to put my personal stamp on it. So when shoppers come in, I tell them, ‘Here’s the pattern, but this is what I did with it.'”
Most skeins of yarn in her shop cost $8, but can range from $4.25 to $40. A group meets to knit at the shop on Wednesday mornings and throughout the year, Balch offers classes. Her customers span all ages, but the majority are in their 50s.
“Young moms don’t have time,” Balch said. “But as their kids get older, they can carve a little more time for themselves and they’ll come in. A lot of the people have retired and they discover weaving because it was always something they wanted to learn. And it’s not just women. I had a guy come in who learned to crochet.”
Balch has also made it part of her mission to give back to the community. In 2013, she hosted a fashion show with proceeds benefiting organizations dedicated to women and heart disease — an important issue to Balch as her mother died from heart failure. Actress Susan Saint James, a Litchfield resident and a customer of Balch, served as the emcee that year. Balch recently hosted the show again, this time with proceeds benefiting the Charlotte Hungerford Hospital Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.
Plus, Balch has lent support to other local businesses as she got her shop off the ground, said Sharon Waagner, executive director of Main Street Torrington.
“When I asked her to help organize local businesses for advertising purposes, without hesitation, she jumped in,” Waagner said. “It is amazing to see her calm, cool approach.”
At the end of the day, Balch’s biggest motivation is guiding her customers.
“What makes me go to the shop everyday is that I want to inspire others to do something creative,” she said. “I like to be the encouragement that they might continue with it. Everyone has a creative side to them and we all need to explore it. I want to help them on that journey.”
Contact Carrie MacMillan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
In Sheep’s Clothing Yarn Shop is at 10 Water St., Torrington. For information, visit in-sheeps-clothing.com or call 860-482-3979. The shop will be featured in the Northwest Connecticut Arts Council’s Open Your Eyes Studio Tour June 28 and 29. For details, visit openyoureyestour.org.