Yarn & Inspiration

make for cute, clever and very popular tree ornaments crocheted by Sandy Bates of Port

The Christmas tree at Sandy Bates’ Port Washington home is filled with her own crocheted creations. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Sandy Bates of Port Washington likes to look ahead but for now she is still on her sloth high.

Such is the life of a dedicated Christmas ornament maker.

Bates usually creates her own designs but got some help from her husband Joe for ornaments featuring the slow-moving arboreal mammal. He requested the sloth hang from a branch with another arm sticking out.

Sloth ornaments have been among her hottest sellers this season.

“Sloths are kind of in now,” Sandy said.

She has been working on her craft for decades, after becoming enamored with crocheting when she saw her typing teacher walking around class crocheting as students practiced.

“It’s intriguing,” she said. “This is just a little piece of yarn and you make wonderful things out of it.”

With a ball of yarn as her canvas, the animal kingdom is usually her inspiration, which strikes before her raw materials get put into her cart.

“When I go shopping for yarn, I can see an animal in the yarn,” she said.

She goes for quality yarn — wool and alpaca are favorites — over polyester, which has too much static electricity.

“I don’t shortchange on yarn,” she said.

Once she has a creature matched to a color, she determines what it will look like in the same way a musician can play by ear.

“Now I can look at a photograph. That’s how I did it with the sloth,” she said.

“We’re cartooning an animal. That’s what we’re doing as far as I’m concerned.”

Sandy writes instructions using paper and pencil as she moves along on a new creation, then types them up and marks them up.

“I improve on it and I improve on it,” she said. “It’s practical perfection.”

It usually takes Sandy two tries to get a new endeavor right.

“If I’m not happy with what I’ve made, I will tuck it away,” she said.

It takes her four to six hours to knit her masterpieces, which she does while listening to TV, occasionally raising her head to watch. The giraffe ornament is the biggest and has the most parts, including a pipe cleaner for its long neck.

“I do have a lot of patience,” she said.

She always keeps one of each kind ornamengt as a prototype. But no two are alike because they’re all handmade. The ornaments’ faces have a range of expressions. Some are grumpy and others are happy.

“The sloths look like they have little smiles,” Joe said.

Smiles, Sandy said, are the most difficult feature to add. A grin fills her own face after completing each ornament.

“I get an elation, you know, like after a good meal,” she said. “And then it goes away. Then you have to do it again.”

Sandy limits her sales to two craft shows, one at the American Club in Kohler and the other at Brookfield East High School, because they do the most business.

She sold 556 ornaments this year, with prices ranging up to $20 each. A couple of ladies at the American Club spent $200 each.

Sandy likes watching people’s eyes light up when they walk over to her table and see her ornaments.

“It’s a labor of love but it’s a thrill,” she said.

At shows, she hangs her ornaments on trees that sit on lazy Susans so they spin. “People love it and get all giggly,” she said.

The sloth was Sandy’s second-largest seller this season at 30. Forty badgers were sold, complete with red UW-type sweaters.

Sandy said she likes to hear the stories of why people buy her ornaments. While they’re mostly unbreakable, one woman had to buy a second beaver because her dog chewed up her first one.

Sandy makes a dog as well, modeled after her late mutt Ralphy, who she said was a good boy and did not destroy any of her product line.

Her reindeer and bears have received state awards, and she has added ugly sweaters, angels, Santa, soldiers, gnomes and eight baby animals to her repertoire.

Her work is scattered across the country. She is a Chicago native and met Joe, who is from Michigan, when they both worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Windy City. Sandy said her boss John Waner ran against Richard Daly for mayor.

Joe was later transferred to Washington, D.C. where they lived for 20 years and Sandy worked as an event coordinator. At one craft show, Ethel Kennedy came through but didn’t visit Sandy’s booth.

The couple spent 11 years in Santa Anna, Calif. — “not my kind of people,” Sandy said. Upon Joe’s retirement, they looked for a place to live.

They gave Port Washington a trial run in 2007 and returned in 2010, which Sandy said was “a dream come true.”

She began selling her ornaments at the now-defunct Cedarburg show called Christmas in the Country and other events before narrowing her field to two shows.

Her son Max, an information science and technology major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, created a website for her work but she isn’t sure if she will use it.

“I don’t want to be a slave to my hobby,” she said. “I just want to enjoy it.”

She enjoys her hobby year-round, using December and January to plan the next Christmastime’s new additions. Next year, Sandy plans to sell a llama, a wolf and gingerbread man with one leg and a joke book about his travels.

“You’ve got to kind of keep it fresh, you know. They’re hot items.”

Joe said his wife doesn’t even make $4 per hour for her ornament creating work, and that doesn’t count material cost.

But to Sandy, it’s all worth it.

“I’m giving people smiles at a good price,” she said.




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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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