Lending a Hand

In Portland's Deering Center, an old landmark gets a new look and purpose.

The interior of Handiwork, a store filled with products by a variety of makers and supplies for those who make.
An assortment of gifts and crafts.
Mugs by Rachel Herzer are made just across town, in Bayside.
Monster mugs by Tim McMahon.
Owner Jessica Thomas stitches a paper heart garland on one of the shop's sewing machines.
The shop has a wide selection of stickers from Gray Day Studio and Evol-Eye.
View of the storefront of the old Jet Video, now Handiwork. Thomas, like many families in Deering Center, frequented Jet Video for movies and ice cream; now it's a cozy space where everyone can learn to make things while also supporting local makers.

It was a quilt, or the desire for one, that started it all. “It was February of 2019,” recalls Jessica Thomas, founder and owner of Handiwork in Portland. “It was a sunny Sunday morning, and I was drinking my coffee and looking through a catalog that had come in the mail.” Featured prominently in its pages was a quilt dotted with cheerful circles in small prints and bright colors, a quilt that Thomas had coveted for years but had never purchased. “But this morning I was looking at it and thinking, this isn’t that complicated a design. I found myself wishing I had a place that I could go where I could ask someone how to make this pattern, how do I improvise this, how do I even get started.”

But she couldn’t seem to find the magical local place that would offer classes, and expert advice, and crafting supplies, not just for quilting but for other kinds of crafts. So Thomas began, tentatively, to plan to open such a place herself. “This neighborhood and this city and this state are so full of creative and talented people who would love to share their knowledge and expertise: the resources are out there,” she recalls thinking. A librarian by training, she was used to pulling resources together; this, she reasoned, would just be assembling people rather than books. “I was coming up with a reader’s guide to crafting!” she laughs. “I was making people aware of what’s out there and helping them connect with the right support at the right time, making a place for beginners to try a new craft and start to get comfortable with it.” Meanwhile, the old Jet Video space came on the market, right down the street from her house. It was like a quilt top being pieced together: everything was fitting into place.

Thomas signed her lease in January 2020 and, after extensively renovating the space, launched her website in early March, planning to start offering workshops and classes in May. Then came the pandemic, the shutdown, and several months of uncertainty. “I thought maybe this situation would last a couple of weeks,” she recalls ruefully. But she found herself having to pivot to a more straightforward retail business, at least while gathering indoors for classes remained off-limits. Fortunately, she’d already lined up some good possibilities: “There are a lot of super creative people in Maine who don’t want to have their own retail space, or even their own Etsy shop. It was a big part of my vision for this place.”

Her librarian’s advisory instincts have served her well. Handiwork carries a curated selection of tools and supplies for crafters; if you need an embroidery needle to replace the one that got lost under the sofa, or an extra skein of yarn to finish knitting your scarf, Thomas has them on hand. She offers plenty of kits to stimulate creative energy (see sidebar), and she has pulled together a thoughtful selection of work from local artists and artisans: Tim McMahon’s monsters grin from mugs assembled on the top of an antique dresser. Jess Teesdale’s delicate ceramic charm pendants dangle and move in the breeze like wind chimes. T-shirts by Original Portland that cheekily proclaim their love for hyperlocal landmarks (Baxter Woods, the old Jet Video, the Quality Shop) hang beside silk-screened totes by Spruce Moose.

And, of course, quilts. Handmade quilts adorn many of the walls of Handiwork, courtesy of a quilter who recently gave up running her own quilt shop in Auburn. She’s turned her hand to making intricately pieced and sewn quilts in jewel tones and vibrant patterns. There’s another quilt that is still in development, though. Thomas hasn’t had a moment between pivots to make the circle quilt of her dreams. “I’ve developed such a love and appreciation for quilting as an art form,” she says, laughing, “but I’ve still never attempted that thing!” But when the time comes, she can look forward to having that expert advice right at hand, right in her own neighborhood: “I’m looking forward to this being a place where people can really spend some time. I can’t wait for stuff to start being made in here, for connections to be made here.”


-Thomas hopes that she’ll be able to offer in-person instruction by early summer, but she also knows that people could use the comfort of craft before then. Thankfully the shop carries many kits to help jump-start creativity at home.

-Like direction? Thomas carries contemporary paint-by-numbers kits from Cate Paper Company that are light-years away from the sad clowns of yesterday. “Paint-by-numbers is making a comeback—the kits have been really popular,” says Thomas. Choose from flowers, succulents, or ocean waves to create art you’ll be proud to display.

-For those who want to try needlework, Thomas offers nature-themed embroidery kits by Brunswick-based Heidi Boyd. Or stitch up a mini-map of Portland courtesy of the Mod Stitcher. “The directions are really clear, the colors are all picked out for you, and they range in difficulty, so you can start with an easy one,” Thomas advises.

-You can always start even more simply, by creating a garland out of felted wool beads. Thomas sources the beads from a human rights–certified group in Nepal and assembles kits in a rainbow of colors. Says Thomas, “This is a craft that I didn’t realize I was going to love. It’s super kid-friendly, super beginner-friendly; anyone can do it.”

-If stringing beads doesn’t appeal to kids, there are other options. Thomas carries Conn Art Studio kits for young kids to make simple cats or owls and Heidi Boyd kits for older kids to make cuddly otters or dragons. “I can barely keep the unicorn kit in stock, it’s so popular!” she says.

-Needle felting, which creates small sculptures out of unspun wool by repeatedly poking it with a special barbed needle, can be enjoyed by crafters young and old, and by crafting veterans and newbies alike. “For so many of our customers, this had been a great discovery—it turns out that stabbing something repeatedly with a needle can be really cathartic,” laughs Thomas. “And then when you’re done, you have a beautiful object!”