This is the first in our NEW series of shop features, in which we highlight the backstory behind small businesses in Groningen and the people who make them so special.
When Elsa Nijhof first stumbled across Achterpand, a knitting shop in the heart of Groningen whose name is a clever play on words since "pand" can mean both "building" and "panel," as in the back piece of a sweater, an intricate and colorful shawl caught her eye.
She commented on the scarf to the then-owner of the shop. The owner simply replied, "If you can count to ten, then you can also knit that shawl." Elsa was taken aback. She had never knitted anything other than an extra-long scarf or two and couldn’t imagine taking on such a complex project. She thanked the owner and left the shop, but she couldn't get the shawl out of her head.
Within twenty minutes, Elsa was back at Achterpand, and the rest is history. In the photo above, she proudly sports the scarf that got everything started as she stands in the door of the shop that now belongs to her.
Elsa has worked at Achterpand for 8 years now. For the first four, she was an employee, until one day in 2016 when her boss said, “Neem het maar over” (“Why don’t you take it over?”) and generously passed on Achterpand to her.
From Small World to a Universe of Wool
A native of Assen, Elsa came to Groningen also quite by accident; she became pregnant with the baby of a Groninger and moved here shortly thereafter.
“When I first moved to Groningen, I was quite lonely and felt like my world was very small. I would pass people on the street and say, 'Hey, hoi!' but wouldn’t get much response and think, 'oh, toch niet' (oh, I guess not)," she recalls. Strikingly, this feeling of being shut out is often mentioned by internationals who have moved to Groningen- a feeling that we try to combat at City Central.
However, since working at Achterpand, Elsa has created a huge world of wool for herself, complete with a community of passionate knitters and crocheters. Achterpand even has a knitting group on Friday mornings where anyone is welcome to join and speak the language of patterns and materials.
Elsa’s background as a children’s craft and handiwork teacher (given the lengthy title “handvaardigheid juf” in Dutch) also prepared her for the job she has now.
“I really enjoyed guiding children through activities that they had chosen for themselves, which is a lot like helping customers work through difficulties with knitting projects,” she says.
Oohing and Aahing in Fairytale Land
Above all, Elsa identifies as a "material freak"- someone who can "stick her hand into a ball of yarn or wool and ooh and aah over the feel of it," as she describes.
As such, she has maintained a paradise for fellow color and material devotees- visually-appealing stacks of yarn overflow from every nook of the store. Elsa wishes to cultivate an environment where people are able to come and see the colors in person and feel the yarn for themselves.
"I had an online store for a while, but you aren't able to get a real impression of the shades on a screen. My favorite part of my job is being able to have one-on-one contact with my customers and help them select their perfect ball of yarn," Elsa says.
Visitors come from far and wide to scope out her haven. On two separate occasions, she has overheard new customers, tucked back behind the shelves of yarn, whispering on the phone. One hushedly exclaimed, "Yesss, I am here;” the other gave the succinct endorsement, "It's a f*cking fairytale land."
That pretty much sums up our impression of it, too. One more coincidental tidbit in keeping with the fairytale theme: Elsa has a sister named Anna, and her husband has illustrated stories with a main character named Olaf!
Dropping by the Palace
We were so pleased to be able to learn more about the magical Elsa, and we invite you to visit her palace even if you’re not (yet!) a knitter, if only to ooh and aah over the yarn and have a chat with her and her lovely employee, Johann. If you are already a “material freak” like Elsa, you can even see Janneke, the aptly-named “patronen dokter” (pattern doctor) for advice about the perfect colors and materials for your next project.