FARGO — When Erin Kitzman, an early childhood consultant, lost her job after Lutheran Social Services in North Dakota shut down last January, she didn’t mind.
Instead, the Fargo woman turned her love for toddlers and infant development into a creative bustle. Kitzman stuck to crocheting, a skill she had learned 10 years earlier, and began making and selling carefully constructed and lovingly detailed baby items through
and the Pride of Dakota shopping site,
Marketed under her “Heartmade by Erin” label, the range of Kitzman booties, sherbet-colored hats with pom poms, animal-themed teethers and super-soft sensory blankets have sold well so far. But more importantly to Kitzman, they’ve helped little ones stay warm and comfortable while accomplishing something close to his early childhood heart: encouraging healthy development.
“My two loves in life are babies — I love babies, I love working with babies — and crocheting, so it’s a great way to combine the two,” says Kitzman, wearing jeans , slippers and a celery green sweater. itself crocheted. She is sitting in the basement family room of the South Fargo home where she lives with her husband, Jon.
Although the Kitzmans have no children, the room is filled with toys. Kitzman explains that they are there for their 6-year-old niece, Sydney, who spends every Friday night with the couple.
“I told my husband that there will come a day when Sydney won’t want to hang out with us anymore, so we have to enjoy it while we can,” she said with a broad smile.
Her affection for children is also evident when she talks about her niece, Emily, the daughter of Kitzman’s identical twin sister, Elisa. Kitzman taught Emily how to crochet when she was 7 and, during the pandemic, gave her crochet lessons via Zoom. “Even from a distance, she got it,” Kitzman says, proudly showing a photo of the 10-year-old girl showing a squeaky octopus with a teether she crocheted for her baby sister. “It was a super proud aunt moment.”
Kitzman understands firsthand how difficult it can be to master crochet, an age-old process of creating textiles by using a crochet hook to interlock loops of yarn, thread, or strands of other materials.
She took her first lessons ten years ago, when she was working as an educator with
. One of his colleagues, a student, knew how to crochet. So she suggested that Kitzman and other daycare staff should have a crochet night.
Kitzman hosted the gathering at her home, where the young woman taught everyone the basics.
Kitzman took that first lesson to heart and kept training, even though it wasn’t easy. “Your freshman year or so, you’re not very good,” she recalled with a laugh. “I made a baby blanket that was completely trapezoidal, because I was dropping a stitch every row and I didn’t know until it was done. I had to rip it all out.”
Even so, Kitzman loved the craft enough to stick with it. “You have to start somewhere,” she says. “It just takes practice and being willing to learn from your mistakes.”
Kitzman liked the way the hook occupied her hands and also helped her feel more productive and purposeful. “I stuck with it and it gave me something to do, especially with our North Dakota winters,” she says. “You can sit there and watch TV and watch Netflix and crochet and at the end you have this beautiful blanket.”
The hobby also has a relaxing quality. “The last few years with COVID and losing a job, it’s just been a stress reliever for me,” she says.
In fact, after LSSND closed, a small teddy bear crocheted by Kitzman became the unofficial “support animal” for her and her displaced teammates.
The bear, named Chester, was sent house to house by every former teammate across the state. It came with a notebook so band members could jot down notes of what Chester did that day.
The members also posted photos and videos of their kids playing with Chester, which made Kitzman the happiest of them all. A former colleague of Minot has ordered two more teddy bears for her daughters, after seeing how much they will miss Chester.
Today, Chester has returned home and is permanently ensconced in Kitzman’s basement workstation, where his slightly shabby exterior proves that oft-repeated “The Velveteen Rabbit” philosophy: when a stuffed creature is worn, it shows that it has been loved.
For years, people had told Kitzman that she should consider selling her crochet items. After LSS was shut down, the time seemed right to do so.
Kitzman took her baby items to Ashley Morken, who owns
. Morken already knew Kitzman as a longtime patron of the popular handmade gift shop. “So when she approached us to sell her stuff, it was easy,” Morken says. “She knows our store, she knows what people who shop here like, so it was definitely a perfect time for her to start selling stuff here as well.”
Then Morken asked him the name of his company.
Kitzman realized she hadn’t even thought of a name. However, her twin sister had designed little labels for her – featuring a crochet hook, a ball of yarn and the phrase “Heartmade by Erin” – to sew onto her baby items as a decorative touch. It was, she realized, a very good name.
sold well, even though his business is less than a year old.
Also popular are his sensory blankets, which Kitzman designed with added extra features to stimulate exploration and early learning in babies.
The little blankets contain hidden surprises like a squeaker toy sewn into one pocket, a bell attached to one corner, a wooden teether in another corner and a nubby silicone teether in another.
“It’s actually my favorite item I make,” she says. “With my love from early childhood too, I know that babies put everything in their mouths, and they love to touch, smell, taste and hear, so I took an existing blanket pattern and scaled it down so that ‘they can throw it in a bag or in the stroller.”
The blanket can be used even in a newborn’s crib, although it takes 3 or 4 months before a child really starts to notice it, she says. Once that happens, it’s the perfect learning tool to stimulate the brain during “tummy time” or while in the car seat.
The Bismarck native designs each piece with Midwestern economy and practicality in mind. She chooses neutral colors so the blankets can be passed down from one family member to another. Most items are crocheted from soft polyester yarn, which can be tossed in the washer and dryer. Her booties are a warmer wool blend, but are also washable and dryable.
Always safety conscious, she double and triple sewed all the sensory features on her blankets to ensure a baby couldn’t pull added accessories out of their pockets or corners. (However, you’ll want to keep the blanket away from the pup of the family, since “squeakers” are actually replacement squeaky toys for dogs.)
Heartmade products range from $20 for hats and booties to $34 for sensory blankets.
Kitzman also knits tiny “succulents” for people who, like Kitzman herself, can’t keep a real plant alive. “My little advantage is that they won’t die. I killed all the plants I had,” she says with a broad smile. “I even kill bamboo.
Morken says the crocheted succulents have been a big hit both as gifts and even as a way for shoppers to treat themselves. She says the “pandemic” of the past two years has pushed people into gardening and plants. “It’s fine if someone wants a plant, but you won’t feel like a failure if it doesn’t work out,” she says.
Although he now works with child care centers as a temporary state employee, Kitzman welcomed the extra dollars that came through Heartmade.
But the biggest benefit has been the psychic rewards. It makes her happy when a friend, family member or client sends in a photo of her little one, looking cozy like a bug in a warm Heartmade hat, or happily exploring the bells and squeaks of a Heartmade sensory blanket.
“I can make a little money on the side, and if I make people happy by giving them crochet gifts, that’s even better,” she says.
Kitzman’s articles can be found at
She also has a Heartmade site on Facebook, which links to h
1/3: Teethers, decorated with sweet and cute animal faces, are another popular item created by Kitzman. By Tammy Swift / The Forum
2/3: The famous image of Bernie Sanders’ “mittens,” which quickly inspired tens of thousands of memes, videos and imitators, was also captured by Kitzman’s deft hook. Figures like this are so time consuming that Kitzman rarely sells them because it’s hard to get the materials and time to make them. Contributed / Erin Kitzman
3/3: Kitzman created this little “support bear” after learning that his workplace, North Dakota Lutheran Social Services, was closing. Over the next few months, she sent the little bear to her colleagues to cheer her up. By Tammy Swift / The Forum