Dubuque woman brings love of sewing, teaching to business

Iris Encke still has the machine she learned to sew on, a foot-pedal, treadle sewing machine that first belonged to one of her great-great-grandmothers.

“I’ve always liked sewing, and I’ve always had a connection with kids,” said Encke, a retired Dubuque Community School District elementary/special education teacher.

She combined her passions into a small business called Bloomin’ Iris, which sells baby and clothing items she makes in her home. Encke began the business in 2009 after retiring.

Her sewing room has everything she needs for her creations, from a closet of colorful fabric to filing cabinets of patterns. She said she sews at least five days per week to make $500 to $800 worth of merchandise to sell during the weekend.

Her inventory includes a long list of products: Blankets, bibs, tooth fairy pillows, baby buntings, clothing and crayon caddies, to name a few.

However, she also takes custom orders — including pieces for adults — and requests for personalized items. Typically, she said she needs one to two weeks to complete a custom order.

“Some people see what I have and think that’s it, but that’s only the beginning,” she said.

In addition to taking orders, Encke has a table at the Dubuque and The Galena Territory (Ill.) farmers markets.

She noted that she lost out on 10 markets’ worth of business this year, as both events started later in the year due to COVID-19. She also wasn’t able to bring her products to area craft shows, many of which were canceled.

“It’s really made a difference in sales and being able to promote myself,” she said.

However, seeing people enjoy her products brings her joy. She likes to promote reading, and she offers a free book with the book pillows that she makes.

“Sometimes, people will come up and just start looking at the books, and I’ll sell them for a dollar or two,” Encke said. “It just warms my heart. Reading is what it’s all about.”

Encke continues to substitute teach in the Dubuque school system while running Bloomin’ Iris. When on a long-term subbing assignment, Encke said it feels like she’s working three jobs: teaching, sewing and selling products.

In addition to selling at markets, she rents space at Central Avenue Mercantile, a store for vendors who handcraft or grow their products.

“It’s special because sometimes things at farmers markets are bought and resold there, but that’s not true at our store,” Encke said.

Vickie Klinkhammer and her daughter, Alice, co-own Central Avenue Mercantile. They initially were vendors when the store opened in November but took it over in March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Central Avenue Mercantile officially opened under their management June 1, Klinkhammer said. Encke is one of the store’s 33 vendors, who sell everything from stained glass to furniture made out of recycled items.

“Iris has some of the more unique things for babies,” Klinkhammer said. “That was one area where we were lacking.”

The store focuses on local or Iowa-based products, she said, and she likes to have different vendors’ products intermixed on display.

“In a way, it’s like booths, but we try to give it a more homey feel,” she said.

Encke also plays live music with her husband, Bill, during the store’s First Friday events, where people can enjoy snacks and look at merchandise on the first Friday of each month.

The next step for Encke as a small-business owner is starting a website. She is considering Etsy or Shopify as options.

In the meantime, she will continue meeting all her customers’ needs.

“When I make things, like when a little girl puts on a skirt and twirls, that makes me smile because I’m invested in not only the product but the person, too,” Encke said.