Purl has MOVED to a new, HUGE Space!
459 Broome Street, New York, NY 10013
Purl (137 Sullivan Street, New York, NY 10012, phone: (212)420-8796, http://www.purlsoho.com/), and its sister (fabric) store Patchwork (please see above for new address--phone: (212) 420-8798) are located on a small cozy block between Houston and Prince. Their store fronts are easily identifiable as belonging together since they are both painted the same baby blue. Both stores have exquisitely beautiful handmade items in the windows.
Since I had picked up Sabrina Gschwandtner’s book “Knit Knit” at Knitty City, I did not come unprepared. Knit Knit has three pages dedicated to Purl’s owner, Joelle.
(original photo from Knit Knit)
Joelle, I had read, studied painting before she became a yarn store owner. Fresh out of college she financed her painting studio by working at Martha Stewart, and later as a freelance stylist. While at Martha Stewart, Joelle became impressed with handmade things, and also learned how to knit, eventually writing her own knitting book, “Last Minute Gifts.” Knitting increasingly took over Joelle’s life until she sat in her painting studio thinking about her knitting. When her passion for knitting took over her painting life, she decided it was time to make a change. She invested the money saved from her freelance gigs and put it into what has become Purl. “When I first took my father to see it,” she told me, “he looked around and said, ‘Please tell me you’re kidding!’. The ceiling was caving in and the floor was covered with dirt and debris. I got on my hands and knees and scrubbed away to show my father the beautiful floor under all the dirt. He could not believe I wanted to put money into such a dump.” Three contractors later, Joelle finally found someone who was willing to preserve the beauty of the original floor. “For some reason no one thought it was possible.” Her tenacity paid off. Purl’s beautiful mosaic floor gives it charm and draws you in. In a city where things constantly get replaced, an old stone floor can feel very comforting.
Another thing that is special about Purl is Joelle’s way of displaying yarn. All of her yarns are grouped by color. “We have an elaborate manual on how to put them together,” she laughed. I could believe it: the result is stunningly beautiful. Purls (and Patchwork's)walls, covered with shelves custom designed by a carpenter friend, are an artwork in their own right.
Joelle runs both Purl and Patchwork with two partners, her sister Jennifer (who maintains the web page and writes the blog), and Page, a ceramicist and former stylist friend at Martha Stewart who became a partner a few months ago.
When Page and I sat down in their “office”, a coffee place across the street that was as small as it was cozy, we immediately started talking about a very emotional subject. I had come from dropping off my daughter at pre-k. She had refused to get dressed in the morning and I had told her that if we did not get to school on time, she could not go to the art show at her school that afternoon (the show had some of her artwork in it). We did get there late. I got to Purl two hours after I dropped her off, carrying two heavy bags full of “compensation”, so my daughter (or perhaps I) wouldn’t feel so terrible about her punishment.
Page has a three-year-old daughter herself. “I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have threatened her with something I have regretted instantly,” she said. “It’s the problem with toddlers: they usually take you up on it!” It’s true, I thought. Young children have the power to grab the pit of your stomach and turn it into knots in seconds!
Joelle joined us, and we moved on to the actual topic of the day: Purl.
I told Page and Joelle that I have been amazed how emotional people seem to be about yarn stores. I shared with them some of the responses I have gotten on my blog and some comments I’ve read on the internet. People get really invested in their yarn relationships! “Oh, please tell me what you have found about us,” Joelle said quickly. I assured her that I had not seen anything negative about Purl . “Thank God,” she sighed. “It’s my biggest priority to make my clients happy.” She told me how hard it is to establish a good store/client relationship.
It is hard, I thought, but why? Why do we get so stirred up when we enter a yarn store? Perhaps it has to do with how vulnerable and insecure we feel when we bring our fragile creative selves into an unfamiliar environment. Many of us who express ourselves creatively with yarn, especially those who are just beginning to learn the craft, feel exposed and in great need of reassurance. Yarn shop owners (and their staff) can really become substitute parents.
Page and Joelle seem to be very gentle parents with beautiful taste. After we had finished our coffees, Joelle took me back to the store and showed me some of her yarns. She pulled them out of the shelves carefully as if she were holding precious pieces of china. Purl carries only natural fibers. Bamboo blends are stacked next to silk and mohair blends; cashmere, merino, and alpaca cuddle up next to each other. One entire box was filled with the most beautifully colored organic cotton. “Did you know that cotton comes in six different natural colors?” Joelle asked. I had no idea!
I picked up a luscious turquoise ball of Road to China, and lingered near the window, where I found a yarn from a company called Andy’s Merino, which produces the brightest canary yellow I have ever seen. “Isn’t this beautiful?” Joelle said. “I am making a blanket out of it for my next book.”
It was time for me to go, so I grabbed three skeins (Koigu, Road to China, and Andy’s Merino--I had to restrict myself) and headed back up to Harlem. On the way out I ran into Page one more time. “Be easy on your daughter,” she said. “I think sometimes we have to give in.” I left the store feeling comforted and warm.
In the subway I read through our interview:
Me: When did you open your store?
Joelle: I opened Purl in 2002. The website went up in 2003, and Patchwork opened in 2006.
Me: What made you chose this location?
Joelle: I always loved this neighborhood. Soho used to be amazing, filled with independent little design stores with somebody sewing in the back room. This part of Soho still feels that way to me. The building Purl is in was a disaster, so it was affordable.
Me: Who is your staff?
Joelle and Page: We have a pretty large staff. Jennifer runs the web page and writes the blog. There is Faye, who has worked here since high school. Lea has been with us for several years--she is a dancer. Finlay (who worked on the Obama campaign) and Gretta (an amazing knitter) joined us recently. Calia has started teaching classes. She has a very bubbly energy. There was George, who worked for us forever, but he recently moved to Hawaii. At Patchwork there is Nikki, a bassoonist, who was at Purl for a long time until she began to manage Patchwork. Eva has been here for 1 ½ years. She studies painting restoration. Karle is a costume designer. She knows tons about fabric. Sophie works 2 days a week (she also works at Ohm—the yoga studio). They are all lovely people!
Me: When you buy yarn, what is important to you?
Joelle: The way it feels, the color, and the texture. I want it to be as natural as it can be (not overly manufactured)--something that is really good quality. I don’t carry a lot of discount yarns. I look for classic, timeless yarns. Color is a big thing for me.
Me: What kinds of classes do you teach at Purl and Patchwork?
Joelle and Page: Mostly beginning, occasionally crochet, some pattern help and finishing. You can bring your pattern and we will help you. We do it when the store is closed. Next door we have quilting classes and beginners sewing. All our classes are listed on the website, but we also have a list of them in the store.
Me: Who makes your store samples?
Joelle: We used to have store samples, but they were stolen too often. Now we just have swatches. It works a lot better.
Me: They got stolen? That’s shocking! Something that takes so much work and someone just takes it…
Me: What got you into yarns?
Joelle: It was a more portable form of creativity than painting. When I worked at Martha Stewart, they did a story about knitting. There was all this yarn out on the table--beautiful fibers—I’m very into materials, but I didn’t even know yarns could be that beautiful. My grandmother knitted mostly with acrylic, so I wasn’t used to associating beauty with yarns.
Page: I used to collect yarn before I could knit. For me it was also the portability. I was a ceramicist and that is not very portable (she laughed).
Me: Do you think the economy has been good for knitting?
Page: I don’t think it has been either good or bad. People who used to knit might get back into it now, but we don’t see much of a difference yet.