Mayor’s daughter: 9-year-old entrepreneur

aspen and purse Barbara Lawlor, Nederland.     Aspen Gierlach, 9, is the founder of a business that was launched in Nederland about a week ago. Not only is Aspen a poised, self-confident entrepreneur, she is also an inventor, a manufacturer, and a mathematic prodigy.

Joe Gierlach, the mayor of Nederland and Aspen’s father, brought his daughter to the Wild Bear Mountain Ecology Center on Sunday morning so she could introduce her newest knitting creation on display at the center.

She modeled a white, fluffy-looking purse that she wore like a side satchel, hanging off her shoulder by a long strap of the same material. A closer look revealed that the white is actually pocked with bits of random color, a look reminiscent of high-end scarves.

closeup of purseBut the texture is unlike any of the scarves we are used to seeing in a store. Aspen’s hand knit purse is made out of plastic bag yarn, extremely durable, surprisingly good looking, and definitely ecologically sound. No one who knows Aspen was surprised by the ingenuity and sensitivity of the project.

One look at Aspen’s PlanetAspen website and you see a two-year-old demonstrating Yoga positions. You see a five-year-old putting together her own Sushi recipe on Delectable Planet. Before she entered kindergarten, Aspen was reading Harry Potter.

A couple of years ago, Aspen decided to make her own solar panel by cutting the wires off a calculator and soldering them onto a mold. The panel was used to power a charger. She took the charger to the Deputy Governor and he told her she should work for the Department of Energy. Unfortunately, someone claimed the patent before she did.

During the school year, Aspen stays with her mother in Largo, Florida, spending her vacations and much of the summer in Nederland with her father. When they went to the Nederland Library to see Bag It!, she was shocked by the waste and impact on our environment.

“I learned how plastic particles get washed into the trash vortex,” she explains. “Sun and water break down the bags, but the particles outnumber the plankton 40-1. Plastic causes 100,000 deaths in birds and fish.”

aspen knitting

Aspen considered what she had learned and decided she wanted to do her part in mitigating the plastic bag impact by using them constructively rather than throwing them away.  She had learned how to knit from her grandmother when she was six years old and thought she could put that skill to good use.

“I have never been a girlie girl, am not into fashion, but I thought a purse might be something everyone could use.” Previously, Aspen had made sachets filled with wonderful spices, small baskets, anklets, bracelets and even bottle holders made from a pair of old pajamas. She tried brown plastic bags but decided that white had a cleaner look, was more presentable.

She begins by cutting single-use plastic grocery bags into 3/4 inch strips and tying them together. She cuts off the excess strip from the knot and rolls the plastic yarn into a ball. Then she knits the different pieces of the purse and stitches them together, adding a heavy shiny stone or bead to the flap so it stays down and keeps things from falling out. Each bag is unique in shape and color.

“They can’t hold a bowling ball,” says Aspen, “but they are not going to break easily and you can wash them.”

 She began making her bags, working wherever she had a moment’s free time: in the car with her mom or waiting for something to begin. She carried her plastic yarn and knitting needles in the first bag she made. She knit and stitched and made yarn to build up an inventory, figuring it took about a week to make a bag during the school year and two weeks when on vacation. Making the yarn is the most time-consuming part, she says, “It takes 23 bags to make one purse.”

Last week, Aspen hung a bunch of her bags at Wild Bear. It was time to get her product out in the marketplace. She said people always stopped her and asked where she got her purse and she proudly told them she made it. Her friend Shannon, who lives in Florida, will help her with production. Joe is afraid the girls won’t be able to keep up with the demand. The price per bag is $30, which is less than the other handmade bags in the shop.

aspen whole view

In spite of being the CEO of her own company, Aspen follows the rules of any regular student, knowing her homework comes first; that she can’t work on her purses until it is done. She says that no matter what she makes, she will always give at least half to the organization that makes it possible. Out of the $30 for a purse, $12 goes to Wild Bear.

When asked about her future, she says she isn’t sure, but making plastic bag purses will always be a sideline. After all, she will always need somewhere to keep her knitting needles.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.