The Sow’s Ear is named after the second half of a famous idiom, general manager Jen Davis said.
The expression is “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she said. Davis said the business’ founders Melissa Brown and Amy Armstrong gave the coffee and yarn shop that title in 2000 when they opened it.
The shop, located at 125 S. Main St., is celebrating two decades of being in Verona. Davis said The Sow’s Ear has grown to offer a variety of coffees and fibers after the founders combined concepts upon meeting at a café to knit. In 2020, the business has had to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally, the pair were set to renovate an “old, little, greasy, dirty” pizza restaurant around the corner on Verona Avenue, Davis said.
But before the duo had closed the deal on that location, the “beautiful old Main Street building with gorgeous woodwork and hardwood floors” became available, Davis said.
In 2007, the mother/daughter duo of Melissa Helgesen and Debra Errington bought the space. Davis became the manager in 2017.
Davis said when the business first opened in 2000, there were no food offerings and drip coffee from a Mr. Coffee machine was the only joe on the menu. Today, coffee selections from Ancora Coffee of Madison and Wonderstate Coffee of Viroqua being brewed.
Food options have evolved to include sandwiches, quiche, green salads and bakery items from Rolling Pin Bake Shop in Fitchburg and Madison Sourdough. The house-made chicken salad and the tuna melt are popular picks, Davis said, as are two of the vegetarian sandwiches – The Sow Caprese and The Savory Sow. She also said the quiches are “amazingly popular.”
The menu features locally-sourced ingredients. The Sow’s Ear serves only Wisconsin-made cheeses, the two area bakeries provide the breads and quiches, while deli meats such as prosciutto and honey glazed ham are purchased from Bavaria Sausage in Fitchburg. The employees also go shopping at Miller and Sons Supermarket every day for other goods.
The café is just one half of the business.
Yarns, threads, knitting needles and crochet hooks fill several rooms at the back end of the building. The spun strings and strands of silk, bamboo, alpaca fur and wool have been dyed into a rainbow of colors for fiber lovers to feast their eyes on.
Though Davis said it is a wool specialty shop, she said it offers something for everyone.
“Crocheters, knitters and weavers all deserve beautiful fiber and we try to provide that for all crafters,” Davis said. “From soft and delicious cashmere to rugged cotton, we have different fibers for all crafters.”
What sets them apart from a chain such as Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts, she said, is there’s not much synthetic yarn for sale like acrylic or polyamide.
Most of the yarn store’s offerings are either manufactured or dyed in the U.S. Sun Valley Fibers and Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill of Mt. Horeb are two regional suppliers to The Sow’s Ear.
Other yarn items are specially imported such as Babyull Lanett, a soft wool yarn from Norway ideal for making baby garments, as it’s designed to be washed frequently while maintaining its color.
Rowan provides “beautiful fibers from England, with a lot of good heart and soul,” and the Japanese brand Noro is “a delightful company whose artist has a really unique eye for colors, it’s really beautiful stuff,” Davis said.
Before the pandemic, The Sow’s Ear stayed open late twice a month for knitting socials. For now, events have moved online, such as knit alongs – free virtual hangouts to knit with other people knitting the same things, such as a sweater night.
The Sow’s Ear continues to look ahead, even with an uncertain health crisis.
Its spectrum of yarns and fibers are now all available online, thanks in large part to COVID-19.
The Sow’s Ear had long planned to take its vast selection of yarns onto the Web, but the shutdown of businesses this spring made the move crucial to keep it solvent.
The staff were furloughed at home while the business had to be closed this spring under Public Health Madison and Dane County restrictions. Davis was able to pay them to work from home, getting the website ready. It launched in April and has been a success.
Davis said staff are also working on getting café ordering online and it will be getting a new soda case in the shop, from which it will offer more grab and go items such as cheese plates and other snacks.
“That will be helpful for streamlining our kitchen and making us faster,” Davis said.
Heaters will be added to the deck to extend the outdoor seating time into colder months.
“Three big propane heaters will make it cozy in spring and fall,” Davis said.
When the founders sold it in 2007, they strove to keep community an essential aspect of the business.
“That’s why it has so much heart,” Davis said. “Community – the owners were dead right about that. Every day that I come in, there are always familiar faces. It’s really fun to be here because of the people.”