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Knitter plays out the string

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Elite Needlework owner Mary Ann Corning, at left, and employee Mayra Loera remove yarn from shelves and put them into bags. Corning will close the business in January.

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Elite Needlework

What: A four-room house packed high with knitting yarns, patterns and supplies that’s scheduled to close at the end of January.

Who: Owned and operated for 26 years by Mary Ann Corning.
When: Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: 205 N. Chelan Ave., Wenatchee
Info: Call the shop at 662-9773.
— Mike Irwin, World staff

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WENATCHEE — Knit shop owner Mary Ann Corning’s life tends to loop back on itself, like yarn in a well-made scarf.

One strand loops back from the college knitting courses she teaches today to the knit-and-purl lessons she learned 65 years ago from her Russian grandmother. Another loops back through her life of sock-making — booties for a new infant grandson, socks for her own sons, dozens and dozens of pairs for her husband, her parents, her friends and relatives.

And yet another loops back 26 years to learning the knit-shop business from a longtime mentor. It’s a strand Corning will snip and tie-off next month when she closes her popular Elite Needlework shop after more than two-and-a-half decades of selling supplies and giving advice.

Sure, we’ve sold knitting supplies through all those years,” said the 72-year-old Corning. “But we’ve also sold the knitting experience — the mental challenges, the creativity and the incredible sharing. I don’t know of another serious pastime where people so readily share their encouragement and expertise.”

Corning’s colorful four-room shop — actually a small house — stands packed to the ceilings with balls, skeins, patterns, kits and knitting tools. Everything’s on sale in an effort to shrink the substantial inventory before the Jan. 31 closing date.

I’ve reached a point in my life when it’s time to simplify,” said Corning. “I’m trying to pare everything down and get rid of stuff.” She laughed. “Oh, the stuff! The longer you live, the more stuff you have.”

Born in California, Corning learned to knit (at around age 8 or so) from her grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. with all her worldly goods in one big trunk. “That’s where she kept her knitting things, too,” said Corning. “I still have that trunk today.”

Corning and her family moved to the Pacific Northwest when she was in high school. She later earned degrees in bio-science and teaching from Washington State University, and taught for a few years in Ocean Shores before moving to Australia with her husband and three sons. They moved to Wenatchee in late 1974, where she continued to raise her family and knit in her spare minutes.

During that time, Corning befriended Helen Owens, who founded Elite Needlework in 1983, and in 1987 bought the shop from her. “She was a wonderful mentor in knitting and business,” said Corning. “I learned so much.”

Corning also enlisted the deep knitting knowledge of friend Cleo Fulwiler, a Leavenworth resident and eventual 24-year employee of Elite Needlework. “She’d help anyone with a knitting challenge, and she knitted items for everyone,” said Corning. “When she died in 2011, there were 48 people in attendance wearing sweaters made by Cleo.”

Having an experienced mentor and employees paid off toward delivering great customer service and knitting advice, said Corning. “This is a very ‘human’ business,” she said. “You get to know your customers well, the families they knit for, their lives and challenges. It’s an exchange between employees and customers of sharing and generosity.”

Elite Needlework was also lucky to ride a decade-long resurgence in knitting as millions in the U.S. turned to the hobby for relaxation and as a creative outlet for producing quality, handmade clothing, said Corning. “More and more people here discovered knitting as a valuable way to spend time.”

In response, Corning began seven years ago to teach continuing education classes in knitting at Wenatchee Valley College. The popular courses introduce novice knitters to the weft and warp of needlework while providing more advanced techniques for veteran yarn-handlers.

Digital technologies have also revolutionized the pastime, said Corning, by introducing new ways to design patterns, new uses of fabrics and new processes for dying yarns in complex, multi-colored ways. Knitting on the Internet and in social media has flourished, she added, and “expanded the connections and sharing.”

Corning said that closure of Elite Needlework doesn’t mean she’ll exit the knitting scene altogether. She’ll continue to teach her college courses, she said, and may — sometime in the future — open a studio as a place to help knitters gain experience and solve problems.

As our lives become busier and busier, I think knitting will continue to grow for relaxation and creativity,” said Corning.

I’m convinced that it’s soothing to let yarn run through your fingers,” she added. “It’s a mental and physical experience that goes beyond needles and fiber to something deeper that many people just love.”

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business or follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.

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