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How Green Can Ribbon Be?

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence met a local entrepreneur adding color and a sustainable flair to the art of ribbon making.

Eric Crawford has reinvented himself several times over his 53 years. The Milwaukee native has done everything from working as a cruise director in Florida to earning a master’s in human resources.

The green thread wove its way into his psyche during boyhood summers spent at wilderness camp.
“I was president of my high school ecology in the late 70s,” Crawford says.

Marriage wrapped all the pieces together. Crawford returned to Milwaukee to raise his family and launched a career, finding executives for green businesses.

During that era, he jumped into his current incarnation as owner of a ribbon-making business. He learned the shop’s history winds its way back to the General String Company formed in the 1920s. Its core customers were local tanneries.

“Because you can’t wrap leather hides in metal because it would tear the hides; so they imported these machines from Europe,” Crawford says.

A local entrepreneur had brought the mothballed machinery back to life in the 1980s and eventually moved the shop from the Third Ward to its current home – a small bygone brewery at 5th and Vliet.

Crawford purchased Cream City Ribbon last year. While he has updated the company’s digital underpinnings – such as its web site - he won’t tamper with the product.

“It’s U.S.-sourced cotton; it’s unwoven. So if you can look at it closely what you’ll see is there is no cross stitch. What’s so vibrant about this ribbon is that it’s not died; we actually put 50 strands of cotton yarn that are glued together. Also with the adhesive, it has this incredible curly; it curls and holds its shape,” Crawford says.

Nor does Crawford intend to monkey with the 1920s ribbon-making machinery.

“It’s not a complicated business; but it’s a real artisan craft, I mean as you’ll see what Mary is doing; this is what I’d love to show you,” Crawford says.

Mary Hart came with the company – its previous owner taught her the art of ribbon making. Hart is feeding strands of a new organic cream cotton yarn into the “creel”. Small vintage motors rotate the steel frame slowly. The pace allows the strands to be dipped into glue and then fuse them to perfection. Yet there are tricks to the trade. Hart constantly checks the consistency of the glue.

“Every order is different; every day is different; humidity in the air affects what’s going on with the ribbon. The yarn itself has different qualities and you have to learn to deal with each color,” Hart says.

She slips off her multi-colored spectacles to peer up at the moving strand.

“I can see if it’s shiny, evenly throughout the width of the ribbon,” Hart says. She’s not satisfied. “What I’m feeling is there’s a little splitty thing there that is not ideal; so I’m going to go fix that.,” Hart says.

Hart deftly turns knobs to fine tune the pressure and amount of glue released. Then she shifts gears to signal which design or decorative crimp to add to this batch of dried ribbon. The petite ribbon maker hauls the heavy barrell full of finished product over to antique spooling machines.

Owner Eric Crawford looks on admiringly, knowing there are piles of orders to fill.

“The florist, the wedding planner, the little chocolate store. That’s the leaf chambray which is just really beautiful. Somebody will buy one or we’ll have a customer that buys hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these in the cases,” Crawford says.

Over the next five years, Crawford wants to have all five antique ribbon-making machines rolling two shifts a day.

“I’m working on a sales presentation right now to open markets in Europe and Japan, where I think they appreciate the beauty of fine ribbon,” Crawford says.

He seems to hold Mary Hart’s ribbon-making artistry in equal value and hopes she will apprentice fledglings, while he explores ways to cut energy consumption and seeks more locally sourced ingredients.

“I’m constantly trying to move everything closer, so our spools for example...I just found another local supplier for our spools,” Crawford says.

Another thread in Crawford’s story exists a short distance from here – the grocery store his grandpa owned.

“My grandfather started a an immigrant here – on 7th and Vliet and here I am two blocks away. And just the idea that you can make a living on almost anything – just trying to make it better, making it local, making it healthier,” Crawford says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.