Spokane Journal of Business

Ree Creations: Repurposing with purpose

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-— LeAnn Bjerken
Ree Creations owner Debra Nielson makes a number of the items she carries at the Cheney retail store.
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-—LeAnn Bjerken
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We all know someone who has a crafting hobby, whether it’s sewing, knitting, painting, woodworking, or scrapbooking.

And while most people see craft projects as something fun to do in our free time, 57-year-old Debra Nielson has turned her passion for crafting into a career.

“I’m the type of person who just can’t sit still,” she says. “You won’t find me just waiting around for something to happen.”

Nielson is the owner of Ree Creations, a vintage shop in Cheney that also sells handcrafted and repurposed items, many of which she creates herself.

Ree Creations occupies a 2,000-square-foot space at 409 First that formerly was occupied by Against The Grain, a vintage and antiques shop owned and operated by Deb and Brian Anderson.

The shop’s main-floor retail space includes displays of various handcrafted items, a fabric room, and a cozy seating area across from the checkout counter. A staircase leads up to the shop’s loft area, which includes vintage furniture and a mix of interior décor.

Nielson says she had been working for the Cheney School District’s food service department prior to taking over the shop in November 2017.

“I used to do a lot of craft fairs, but I’d never had my own store before,” she says. “It has certainly been a learning process.”

Nielson is still good friends with the shop’s former owners, who, she says, encouraged her to choose a new name for the business to help make it her own and still offer occasional advice.

“My middle name is Ree, after my grandmother,” she says. “They suggested we put that in front of  ‘creations’ in memory of her. It also has a fun double meaning, because recreating things is what I do best.”

While she’s talented in many different areas of crafting, Nielson says she’s probably best known for turning older items into unique and memorable gifts or keepsakes.

“I started doing repurposed projects partly because I just don’t like the throw-away aspect of today’s society,” she says. “My specialties are turning old sweaters into mittens and old silverware into jewelry.”

In taking over the shop, Nielson says she kept some of the former store’s inventory but has added more items from local artists, as well as a yarn selection from her sister who lives in Colorado.

“My sister, Kathy, has a llama farm and makes yarn from their wool,” she says. “My other sister Pam is a quilter and lives nearby so she stops in to help out with the fabric and quilting displays.”

Nielson says most of her customers stop to look for an unusual gift, while others are on a mission to find something in particular.

Although Nielson is the shop’s only employee, she does occasionally ask her daughter or a friend to watch things while she’s at craft fairs or hunting for items to sell.

“I get a lot of help from my friends and family,” she says. “They stop in to help me re-arrange displays and decorate.”

She adds, “My friends also know the kinds of stuff I’m looking for, so they drop things off occasionally. I also get people who just pull up on the street with vintage items, and if I like it, I’ll take it.”

The shop is closed Sundays and Mondays, but during business hours, Nielson can usually be found behind the counter, busily knitting or sewing mittens and other items with a machine she keeps at the shop.

“People just love the mittens, they’re a year-round project,” she says. “I have so many requests that I need to make at least 30 pairs every month in order to keep up.”

During her first year owning the business, she made 379 pairs of the sweater mittens, and last year she made about 300.

“I sell the sweater mittens in six other stores throughout the Inland Northwest and probably sold about 140 from the just the Cheney store alone last year,” she says. “People buy multiple pairs to give as gifts or use to help pad other gifts they plan to mail.”

Nielson says the mittens are so popular she sometimes catches herself admiring a friend’s sweater and thinking what a good pair of mittens it’d make.

“They have to remind me that not every pretty sweater is ready to be made into mittens yet,” she says laughing.

At the home she shares with her partner, Vic Anderson, just outside of Cheney, Nielson says she has an indoor space for sewing, beadwork, and yarn projects, well as an outdoor shop where she works on metal and glass projects.

“I’ve basically taken over everything, but he’s ok with that,” she says. “Once I’ve completed something at home, I bring it straight down to the shop for sale.”

In addition to sweater mittens and silverware jewelry, Nielson knits scarves, headbands, and fingerless gloves. She also uses her sewing skills to turn old coffee sacks into handbags, jean jackets into jean-sweater hybrids, discarded neckties into skirts, and quilts into pillows. All of the items she makes are things she sells in the shop.

“I get lots of requests for old silverware sets to be made into jewelry, or old quilts into pillows,” she says. “Repurposing these items means a lot to people who want to keep those memories they evoke close.”

While the shop isn’t a vendor market, Nielson does offer handcrafted items from a handful of local vendors and also works with 13 consignors, who supply her with refurbished furniture and antique items to sell in the shop.

“We’re one of the only stores in the area with a good fabric selection, so our fabrics are pretty popular,” she says. “I also sell a lot of custom signs from ManMade Designs, out of Davenport.”

Nielson also continues to sell her own items at summer craft fairs in the Spokane area, including those in the Garland and Perry districts and Cheney’s May fest.

Although she declines to disclose the shop’s annual revenue, Nielson says she’s happy to have made it through her first year without major hiccups.

“It’s been busier than I originally thought it would be, but that’s part of the fun,” she says. “I’m still learning some things, but my biggest goal is to make sure my items are good quality and reasonably priced.”

Looking ahead, Nielson says she wants to expand the shop’s fabric selection and is considering offering classes in knitting or plaster painting. 

“I’d tried adding knitting classes in the past, unfortunately, there wasn’t enough interest,” she says. “I’m considering adding a selection of plaster paint and lessons on projects you can use it for, but again there would have to be enough demand to support that.”

Nielson says what she most enjoys about owning her own shop is the time spent creating and interacting with customers.

“The best part is sharing stories with customers and building those relationships in the community,” she says. “A lot of people I’ve worked with before will stop in just to visit or say hi, which I really appreciate. ”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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