GENOA – According to Chuck Alessi, every person with developmental disabilities has at least one thing they’re very good at.
For his daughter, Marie Alessi, that thing is knitting – with a little bit of crocheting thrown in. Marie, of Genoa, learned to knit when she was 12. Chuck Alessi says his daughter graduated from high school through special education and attends social functions through Opportunity House.
“With her developmental disability, it’s amazing she can do this,” Chuck Alessi said. “This would be hard for somebody who is really smart in an educated way. Her younger sister has a master’s degree and she couldn’t do it. But Marie has the patience to do it.”
“These things are complicated and beautiful,” Genoa Main Street Executive Director Mim Evans said of Marie’s work. “Her work stands up against anybody’s. ...She has a natural talent.”
Marie is one of about 50 artists who will display more than 100 quilts and other fiber arts in downtown stores during Genoa Main Street’s Fourth Annual Quilt & Fiber Arts Walk, Jan. 19-27. Evans said the works are mainly for display, but visitors will be able to purchase some from the artists.
Although it’s mainly her hobby, Marie Alessi will make items on request. Anyone interested can leave a message for her at the Genoa Main Street office, 815-784-6961.
Resplendent in a sequined black outfit she made herself, Marie sat down with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson last week to discuss knitting and the upcoming walk.
MidWeek: How did you start knitting?
Marie Alessi: My grandmother’s best friend was sitting on the couch and she was knitting. Me and my sister were curious and we came up to her and asked what she was doing. She said she was knitting, and she said if we wanted to learn to knit we could come down to her house – she lived just down the street – and she would teach us. So me and my sister went down there, I was 12 and she was 11. She started to show us and my sister started to make a cable sweater. It was almost done and she said, “I don’t like knitting.” And I said, “Just finish it and you can quit.”
I kept knitting and knitting and knitting. I just loved it. I would go down there and she had books and stuff and she would teach me. She only had one kid, a boy. He was all grown up, like in his 50s or 60s. She was in her 90s. She would have her neighbors come over and show them what I was knitting. She kind of adopted me as a grandchild. She died at age 98. They were from England. When I would knit, someone would ask why I would hold my needle that way and I would say because I was taught by someone who was British. They hold their needles differently.
MW: What’s the difference?
MA: I really don’t know. I was only taught the British way.
MW: Please go on.
MA: Her husband was a wood carver and he made this beautiful box to put the needles in and the crochet hooks. Then she ended up getting cataracts and she went to the doctor and they operated and they told her, “Make sure you don’t fall because you’ll go blind.” Well, she slipped on the ice coming in to get checked out and she went blind. Then she said, “I can’t knit anymore so you can have all my knitting books, all my crocheting hooks, all my yarn, my needles, you can have the box my husband made and the sewing machine.” A lot of the needles when you looked at them, the numbers didn’t coordinate with the ones here. I just found in the bottom of the box, there’s a thing that’s got holes in it that tells you the British to the (American).
MW: What kind of things do you knit?
MA: I do hats and mittens and pillows. ...And dogs. Now, people are asking for hats and mittens in school colors. ...I also make dolls. People love the dolls because they are machine washable and they don’t have any moveable eyes or anything. The kids aren’t going to choke on anything. It’s all embroidered. I used to make granny circle sweaters that were really nice. They were warm.
MW: So you do things for other people?
MA: Yeah. My dad stuck them on that Craigslist to see if they would sell.
MW: Do you make them just for local people or anyone?
MA: For anyone who calls. If people see something they want in the window (during the crafts walk), I’ll always put in my phone number.
MW: That’s a nice dress you have on. Do you make all your own clothes?
MA: No. I just wanted something fancy for Christmas. I was going to a Christmas party and I didn’t have anything fancy and I thought I’d been knitting since I was 12, I should make something for myself.
MW: Depending on what it is, does it take long to make something?
MA: This one I had to figure out the proportion. I had to rip it out three times.
MW: I understand it’s hard to make much of a profit with knitted crafts.
MA: Yarn has gone way up. ...Red Heart yarn has really good colors, but it’s stiff and rough so I buy really, really soft and fuzzy stuff. When you do that, it’s going to cost more. I like the better-quality yarn.
I used to make a baby bunting with a 22-inch zipper for infants in the front. It looked like a sleeping bag with these little squares that kind of alternated, kind of like the way bricks are. Around the hood, it called for angora. There used to be a store that had bags with a fourth of an ounce of angora ... but it was $50. It was real angora imported from Paris, France, and I used to put just an inch of it around the hood and it was really pretty.
MW: Do you enjoy this, or is this just something you’re good at?
MA: I enjoy it.
MW: Do you get creative and make up things?
MA: Sometimes I do.
MW: When people call up, do they want something specific?
MA: Yes. Like when Mim called, she wanted a dog that looks like her dog, so we made it white with red spots on it.
MW: Does having a disability make it more difficult to do this?
MA: Only when you’re reading the patterns. My comprehension is bad so someone has to tell me what it means. ...What’s difficult is when you need to get the yarn. When you don’t drive and you’re out of yarn, you have to wait for someone to take you. Of course, we like to go to the super store because there’s more selection. That’s what makes it really hard, you want to get started on something. If somebody orders something and they want it for a Christmas present, you could get started and get it done by Christmas but the problem is you have to wait until someone can take you and you can get the yarn. Then you might not get started as soon as possible and that’s kind of bad.
One time we bought yarn that said it was all the same dye lot and I get halfway done with the scarf and it had like burgundy and dark green and blue in it.
They say that a handicapped person always has one thing that they are very, very good at. It’s kind of like “Rain Man,” when he could do all those numbers. We had a guy at Genesis House that could tell you what day you were born, what time you were born. He knew his numbers, like the Rain Man.
We went to Chicago one time with Opportunity House and they showed us pictures this guy did. I don’t know what his handicap was, but he could draw really, really good, good enough to sell them and have them in someone’s house. He could draw, but he couldn’t read or write.
My boyfriend in Lombard, he was great at sports. No matter what sport he did, he would get a gold medal in Special Olympics. But he couldn’t read or write either.
Quilt and Fiber Arts Walk
Jan. 19 – 27
There will be displays and activities in downtown businesses all week. Events include talks, crafts and demonstrations. For more information, call 815-784-6961 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.