Woolly & Co. is warm, welcoming and lovely, just like its owner, Aviva Susser.
Walking into the downtown Birmingham knit shop and studio is truly like falling into a gorgeous and inviting embrace, carefully curated to make each visitor feel at home.
Just opened in December, the shop is washed in white paint and natural lighting, a chic and tranquil backdrop that lets the yarn pop as the star: Luscious reach-out-and-touch-them textures cross the spectrum from fine to super-chunky, with colors both vibrant and soothing. A textural exposed-brick wall, a fireplace and comfortable sitting areas — layered with cozy handknit throws, of course — are meant to encourage shoppers to relax and lounge, read, chat and knit.
Susser’s goal was to emphasize the importance of all customers — from absolute beginners to seasoned pros — feeling a part of a community, under her nurturing and creative tutelage. Even the studio’s name implies a tactile experience. “To call something ‘woolly’ seems very soft,” Susser says. “It’s your woolly blanket. Woolly can be the sweater, the fiber, the sheep. We added the ‘Co.’ for the company you keep when you’re sitting around the table, talking and enjoying each other’s company.”
Born in Riga, Latvia, where her parents experienced anti-Semitism, Susser emigrated with her family first to Israel, then Germany and finally settled in Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y., where she entered preschool speaking Russian, Hebrew and German, but no English.
She attended Hebrew day school in Queens while helping her parents at the children’s clothing store they owned, before studying advertising and communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
One summer, she took on a retail job at Saks Fifth Avenue, when Steven Susser, a young law student, walked in to shop and landed a girl. The couple soon married and moved around a few years while Steven practiced law before the Michigan native brought his bride home to Birmingham, where they’ve raised their sons Ethan and Isaac.
Susser, 45, learned to knit as a child. “My mother would knit while I napped,” she says. “When I awoke, I would recreate the scene with my doll, using two crayons as knitting needles.”
As she grew older, she asked her mom to teach her, and made her first garment, “a cute little tunic dress,” she says, when she was 14.
“I wanted to be different and have something different from other people,” says Susser, who designed clothes in high school and sold Keds she’d colored to classmates. “I always wanted to wear things you couldn’t get anywhere else. Even now, when I make something from a pattern, I like to change it up a bit, add my Aviva touch.”
Last year, with her kids in high school and college, the stay-at-home mom decided to put her creative juices to professional work. “I felt like it was time to do something for myself,” Susser says. “I’ve always felt very gratified when creating or teaching, and I’ve been selling since I was 16. I’m a people person. I wanted to combine all my skills and create a community where others can come do what we love together.
“I know how it feels to walk into a store and feel intimidated or overwhelmed, or that they just want to sell you something,” she says. “I don’t like to sell anyone anything they won’t be able to knit or enjoy. I offer a cup of coffee or tea, let them look around, get to know the store. That’s how I want to be treated so that’s my philosophy.
”Woolly & Co. offers products as well as classes, from private study and weekly group classes with like-minded friends to workshops (including extreme arm knitting, which teaches to knit an architectural throw on your arm instead of needles, finishing and creating a long and loopy scarf) and special events (plan a Sip and Stitch bridal shower).
“I love making garments — sweaters, tank tops, hats — and I love working with very chunky yarns,” Susser says. “They are great for learning because they are instantly gratifying. You can do it quickly, and it looks like it was harder than it is. It’s a great confidence builder. They get you hooked so you can move on to something more complicated or intricate.”
Susser wants to help people fall in love with knitting. “To me, knitting is such a great art form. You’re creating with your hands, but it’s also functional. You can wear it or gift it or pass it on from generation to generation,” Susser says.
“But it starts with walking in the door. It’s music to my ears when people walk in and say, ‘It’s so beautiful, it feels so good, the lighting is great,’” she says. “It’s such a great compliment because it feels good to people, and they leave feeling good. That’s the best to me.”
Visit Woolly & Co. at 147 Pierce Street, Birmingam; call (248) 480- 4354 or check out woollyandco.com.
— Lynne Konstantin, Arts & Life Editor
— Amy Kimball, Photographer