Monday, June 8, 2009

Habu Textiles

What a great weekend! My husband and I traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to attend the wedding of two dear friends from Brooklyn (the groom’s father was hosting). The wedding, which was beautiful, was held on a horse farm--need I say more?

It turned out to be quite a knitting trip as well. I was surprised to find out that it is actually o.k. again to knit on an airplane (at least on domestic flights). Our plane took off two hours late on wet ground. This was our first trip without the kids EVER (they were at home with a babysitter), and we were flying together, so I was panicked that something could happen to us. First I thought We are not going to lift off and we’ll land in the river. Once we did lift off, I thought Now birds are going to hit the engines. When I saw the fog outside our window I thought And we won’t see them coming. When I finally had the presence of mind to pull out my knitting, I calmed down considerably. We landed in Lexington, safely, welcomed by incredibly loud birds which turned out to be a tape of bird predators, so the birds get scared away from the planes. Someone told me once that the company that makes these super-loud tapes sold them to China, but when they tried them out, the birds were still flocking around the planes--until somebody did some thinking and figured out that the natural predators in China are not the same as in the USA (duh). So they had to change the tapes to scare the Chinese birds in Chinese. …Anyway, let me get back to knitting.

I had gone to visit Habu Textiles (135 West 29th Street, Suite 804, New York, NY 10001, 212.239.3546 telephone, 212.239.4173 fax,, before we left, knowing that I wanted to blog about them today. I have been to Habu before, and it is one of my favorite stores. I had tried to get a hold of Takako, the owner, but she travels a lot. Since I am nearly finished with Manhattan, I decided to chance it and walk in between last-minute trip preparations on Wednesday. I missed Takako, but a very friendly staff member showed me around and asked me to e-mail my questions to Takako, who responded within hours :-).

Walking into Habu feels like entering a Japanese temple of yarn. Everything in the front room is displayed low on the floor in baskets of various sizes. The yarns displayed here look like little flowers growing out of the ground. Bundles of mohair, linen, cotton, paper, and many other fibers (Habu was one of the first stores to carry stainless steel yarn) mingle, most of them adorned with Habu’s own brown-paper wrappers (I found one basket of Fiber Company yarn as well).

But the pretty looking baskets are just the beginning. When you go to Habu for the first time, a person emerges from the side room, which is sectioned off by a curtain that hides some very busy people who seem to be handling some kind of yarn related machinery. The person comes in and tells you to go to the hallway in the back and look at the samples. The hallway is one long wall behind the basket room, where skeins of different sizes hang from little hooks. Each skein is different from the next, and each has a label, identifying the fiber, the yardage, and the price.

You spend as much time as you like (it can take a while) looking at and touching all the interesting textures in front of you. You can find anything here, from linen that feels like paper to actual paper that feels like yarn, to stainless steel wool, or even more exotic things. Once you have figured out what you want, you go back to the curtain and wave at the friendly person you talked to earlier. You tell them what you like, or ask questions if you need to. Since the store can be busy with wholesale orders (many designers order yarn and have it shipped directly to the factory), it can sometimes take a while to get someone’s attention, but don’t despair: you are surrounded by beautiful things, such as these antique hand spindles.

Even though the store is not large, I had a hard time putting down my camera. At some point I simply had to tell myself to put it down and leave to get the rest of the stuff we needed for the wedding. I could easily have spent another hour here (and lots and lots of money, which I don’t have right now). I am trying to save up for my website, so I could not go crazy…
I sent Takako my e-mail from the airport. When we got to our hotel in Lexington (2 hours later), I had received her answer.

Me: When did you open your store?

Takako: In 1999

Me: How did you choose your store's location?

Takako: I had a friend, who had an art gallery. She left years ago, but I stayed. It is very close to subways and is a part of garment district, which seems to attract the kind of customers we need.

Me: What got you into yarns?

Takako: I am a weaver. Materials has been always my passion.

Me: When you purchase yarns, what do you look for?

Takako: That is hard to say, but there is always that "extra" charm. I do like subtle beautiful yarns, but do think that "something" must show... This is very intuitive thing...

Me: What kinds of yarns do you carry?

Takako: Many... over 300 kinds. including paper, ramie, stainless steel, silver, etc. etc.

Me: Who is your staff?

Takako: I have 8 part and full time staff.

Me: Who makes your store samples?

Takako: A couple of my staff at home.

Me: Do you feel that people knit more or less since the recession?

Takako: I think people are knitting more!

Me: One other thing I was wondering is about the yarns with your labels on them. Are they Habu yarns? Do they all come from the same mill? Are they all Japanese?

Takako: The label is our design. We deal with 7-8 different mills, and we wind them here in the back room!

The wedding was fantastic, filled with music and musicians (one of them my husband) who played up a storm. I also met a sheep breeder/dyer/spinner, Janice Hemsley, who breeds Leicester Longwool sheep, which were first brought to this country by George Washington. We chatted at the rehearsal dinner about Leicester sheep and Moreno sheep, and how the king of Portugal actually had jurisdiction over who was to receive his prized merinos. Janice told me that there was a heard of merinos that had been handed from Portugal to Spain, then to Germany, and finally to historic Williamstown, in Virginia. The next day, she brought me a bag full or beautiful hand-sheared/hand-dyed/handspun yarn. I came home a happy person, and was greeted by two children, overwhelmed with emotions, who were very relieved that we were back.

But the highlight was getting the bride ready on her wedding day, and seeing her wear the sweater/shawl/vest I made for her...

It's knitted as a square that functions as a shawl, with buttoned armholes so it can be transformed into a vest, and with button-in sleeves that turn it into a jacket... The jacket closes with a shawl pin.


Carol in NJ said...

I enjoyed reading your review of Habu. I've been to the store/showroom once and I love it! Looking forward to going back when I have more $$$.

I love the shawl you made. Is this your own pattern? I also looked at something of the other items you designed and they are FAB! Do you sell a pattern for the red coat?

Sinje Ollen said...

Hi Carol!

Thank you so much for coming to visit my blog. Yes, the design for the sweater/shawl/vest is my own. I really loved making it, especially since I knitted the tree next to which my friends got married into the shawl... I will publish this pattern in a little while (with a slightly altered tree)...

I am feeverishly working on my knitwear website, where I plan to publish patterns for some of my designs. The red coat is one of them. I will probably have that one ready in the fall (others are complete now and will go up when the site goes live).