Monday, November 30, 2009

Wool And The Gang

Yet another new knitting store in Manhattan! It seems like we've lost so many, but here they are, sprouting out of the ground again...

Wool and the Gang (96 Thompson Street, New York, NY 10012, phone (212) 966 266, e-mail:, is not your everyday knitting store: it carries only three different kinds of yarns--100% Peruvian wool, 100% Peruvian alpaca, and 100% Peruvian cotton--each in up to 20 different colors. The concept of the store is very simple: attract a clientele that is young and hip, and would not get into knitting unless it was easy, fun, and accessible. The patterns are made accordingly. Most kits are stockinette stitch, some with embellishments.

You can either buy the finished garment, or the kit to make it yourself. The store opened with a buzz. One week after its U.S. debut, The New York Times included it in their Fashion Pulse slideshow.

I went to visit Wool and the Gang last week, and found two very nice women in their twenties sitting at a large white table, which filled almost the entire room. They turned out to be the designers for the store. On the table, to my great delight, were two large jars full of brightly colored European candy, the kind that sticks to your teeth when you chew it. I grabbed a handful (they said it was o.k.) and sat down to digest the candy (and the store). A wall drew me in with cartoon-like drawings of a girl knitting.

She is sitting on the floor, trying to wrap her mind around what her fingers are supposed to do. When the girl gets stuck, she grabs her computer and watches an instructional video. A lightbulb appears over her head, and then she continues happily.
"This explains our concept," Aurelie, one of the two designers, told me. "We want people to lose the fear of trying something new. When they come into our store and look at the wall, they see that knitting is done in four easy steps. If you get stuck, you go on the Internet and watch one of the videos we provide … The generation we are trying to attract is one of pure consumers who have lost touch with what it means to make something with their own hands."

We discussed the location, Peru, where the yarn and the store samples come from. All the store samples are made by hand by women in a village named Puno. Aurelie and Jade (the other designer in the store) design the samples and create the patterns. The patterns are then given to the women in the village. "We only have around six samples of our designs in the store at a time," Aurelie explained. I asked her if this was their first store, and she told me that they also sold at Barneys, The Smile, and Net A Porter, but this was the only actual store (aside from one in Japan that also opened recently). The company was started by two women, one Swiss (Lisa Sabrier) and one British (Caroline Main). They first started a website and sold kits in Paris. In order to find out how to reach the young consumer generation they want to convert to knitting, they hired a consulting firm to research what puts people at ease with trying something unknown and potentially difficult. They came up with their concept of easy pieces, poppy colors, and well-documented instructions.

After I got home, I did some of my own research on the store. I came across a whole thread on Ravelry dedicated to Wool and the Gang. Many people have taken exception to the prices of the kits and the garments, especially because the pieces are pretty easy to knit. I usually don't get into discussions like these on my blog, but in this case I'll make an exception because the topic of pricing knitting is very close to my heart. Up front I want to say that as a designer who wants to be paid adequately for my time, facing what regular clothing stores are charging for cheap knockoffs of originally hand-knitted items, I find it very hard to imagine making a living in this field. Given the amount charged by these stores that mass produce in countries where people are not adequately compensated for their work and then sell these samples for “dumping” prices, a person thinking about charging even minimum wage to make a hand-knitted piece (plus materials costs and design) doesn't really stand a chance. In my opinion, knitwear is hugely underpriced on the market right now. Adding to this that Wool And The Gang follow Fair Trade practices, which they attest to on their site, I am not so sure the argument that their prices are too expensive holds.

One of their kits is sold for 75 Euros. It contains 2 balls of Peruvian wool, one set of knitting needles, one pattern, and one set of threading needles. Let's say (and I am approximating here) the two balls of yarn were sold at 10 Euros each, the pattern at 5, the needles 15, the packaging 5 Euros. So far we are talking "normal" prices. The company hired a firm to do research to explore their target group. A graphics artist developed drawings, designers were hired to design the pieces (they are actually paid employees and not the owners of the store--at "regular" yarn stores, the designs are often created by the owners for little or no compensation to themselves), the store has to pay rent in Soho... It’s easy to figure out where the “missing” 30 Euros go!

I have recently come across a number of posts on Ravelry in which prices are discussed in relation to knitting. One blog by the designer Annie Modesitt talks about her frustration at how little knitwear designers are compensated by some of the established knitting magazines (often signing away all of their rights upon publication).

So after this long diatribe, I do want to make a plea here: please let us all take in how much work knitting is and not allow prices to be dictated by the people who run large chains of stores that dump knitting on the market at cheap prices.

Do I sound like I’m on a soap box? I guess I am.

On that note, I wish Wool and the Gang lots of luck. May they produce a whole new generation of knitters, accustomed to Fair Trade pricing, who will then become clients of us hand-knit designers and pay fair prices for our work!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

So... I was hoping to post tonight, but life--once again--is not on my side. What was I thinking, assuming that I was going to have time to blog on Thanksgiving? Somehow it completely escaped me that I am cooking!

...And there was this:

Anna and I went to see the balloons being blown up on 81st street. It's a time honored tradition, but it has gotten so huge that there is hardly any space to walk and people get herded by a massive police force (which my daughter flirted with extensively). We had fun for the first half and both hated the second half where the mass of people just pushed us by balloons and out of their sight. We barely made it to the grocery store to get dinner together for tomorrow.

I actually did sit down to blog tonight (as you can see), but I got into this huge rant in my head about something knitting related. I got all worked up over some "principle" stuff (more about that next week) and just could not let it go...

...before I knew it, it was 9 p.m. and spinach/cashew/bacon stuffing was calling and potatoes want to be cooked.

Long post, short message: I'll see you all on Monday.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gotham Fine Yarn

Rebecca, the owner of the newly opened Gotham Fine Yarns (148 Orchard Street, betw. Rivington & Stanton, New York, NY 10002, phone: 646.863.3504,, is by far the youngest owner of any New York yarn store. She opened in the middle of October in a district that used to be a garment center. Today this part of the Lower East Side is a very trendy hangout, still home to Katz’s Deli (where Sally had her fake orgasm). The Tenement Museum lets us know how people used to live when this neighborhood was in its heyday. Arthur Miller grew up here (his father was in the fur business).

Stanton street between Clinton and Attorney has a soft spot in my heart because it houses the first apartment I lived in after moving here from Germany. I moved in during the night of the Tompkins Square riots and saw the helicopters fly over my rooftop.

Last Friday, I walked through a neighborhood much more peaceful than it was back in the eighties. American Apparel has taken over the corner where I used to buy my bagels with melted cheese. Giant snowflakes hung between the street lamps. Since Gotham is open until 8 p.m, I was out in the dark during one of those nice fall drizzles that make you think of upcoming cozy winter nights. I found Gotham easily. It is so new that the awning isn’t up yet, but the handknit sweaters in the window gave it away…

Inside, I found a young woman teaching another young woman how to knit at a cozy, large wooden table in the back of the store. I recognized Rebecca as the owner because of the way she said hello. While they were talking, I looked around the store and found a lot of very nice yarn. Having followed some of her comments on Ravelry, where Rebecca is known as “yarndarling”, I knew that she originally wanted to carry only environmentally conscious yarns. I found many of those, and lots of other very nice yarns as well. When I asked her, she explained to me that she had thoroughly looked into carrying only organic yarns, but found that they were often a little more rough than chemically dyed and treated yarns, and so she decided to carry a bigger variety. We got into a long conversation, so I decided it was time to whip out my book and start to write things down.

Me: How long have you been open?

Rebecca: This is my fourth week.

Me: Why did you choose this location?

Rebecca: I love to hang out in this neighborhood at night, and I thought if I worked here, I’d be down here a lot. Then I found out that this neighborhood had a lot of yarn stores 20-30 years ago (Lionbrand used to have its offices around the corner). A lot of people have come in and said that it’s great to see a yarn store here again. They used to come to this neighborhood for yarn with their mothers when they were little.

Me: How do you choose your yarns?

(Ella Rae sockyarn)
Rebecca: Yardage, price, colors—basically value. Mostly everything I carry is under $10 a skein. It invites people to explore more. I carry about 20 different companies. Malabrigo, Ella Rae, Debbie Bliss, Araucania, Louet… the details are listed on my website (

(Louet alpaca)
Me: Who makes your samples?
Rebecca: Mostly me, but sometimes I get samples from the company. I only put out the ones I like, though.

Me: What made you want to open a yarn store?

(Debbie Bliss camel)
Rebecca: I’ve always wanted to have my own store. With the economy being what it is right now, I was able to negotiate a number of costs down, but yarn is generally a business you can start with very low capital. I planned it for 6-8 months. Then I had dinner with a couple of friends in the neighborhood and saw the empty store, and I kind of had the feeling that this was it. I called the landlady the next day and signed the lease soon after.

Me: What kinds of classes do you teach here?

Rebecca: I offer four classes at the moment. There is a sock class (taught by one of the Ravelry moderators); by the end of the class you can make five different kinds of socks. The others are basic beginners classes that I will teach. I will cover knit, purl, casting on and binding off. I teach a number of basic scarves (some with pockets) and how to finish a piece (sewing).

(Louet Kidlin mohair)
Me: This is an extra question. Since I saw you on the Ravelry forums, I am curious how much Ravelry helped you with figuring out your business.

Rebecca: Ravelry is great! The support, the idea that people out there cared enough to get back to me to answer questions I put into the forums, really helped me. A lot of people have been very supportive. I use it now to look up a pattern when I have a Raveler in the store. They can get the wool here, I give them the links, and they can download the pattern themselves. Many people have come in and introduced themselves by their Ravelry names. There’s also a Whole Foods knitting group that meets at the one on Houston street. They love that they can come in here and buy yarn and then go grocery shopping around the corner.

(Ella Rae)
Me: And my last question, although maybe this is not something you can answer. How do you think the economy has affected the knitting world?

Rebecca: I can answer that. It has made my having a business possible.

It was now 8 p.m. Time for Rebecca to be released into the wild, and time for me to turn in at home…

Good luck to you!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Lana Fabrics--Knitting Supplies

Lana Fabrics (909 Kings Highway, Brooklyn, NY, (718) 339 8940, F to King’s Highway; B, Q to King’s Highway) is all the way out in Coney Island, near the last stop for the F, B, or Q train. I took B train out, reading a book and drinking coffee. After a few very hectic weeks, the quiet hour was very welcome. It was a beautiful fall day with a light breeze coming in from the water, smelling ever so slightly like sea salt. I walked on King’s highway for about 4 minutes past stores filled with Russian delicatessen, lots of high heels, and fur collars on anything from sweatshirt hoodies to jean jackets.

Lana’s Fabrics is a medium size shop filled floor to ceiling with fabrics, ribbons, buttons, zippers, and one hallway full of yarn. It feels a bit like a balloon that is blown up so much it might pop at any minute—but instead of helium, it’s bursting with very useful stuff. Narrow aisles lead through the different sections of the store. One entire aisle is full of yarns of various discount brands (Bernat, Ordell, Patens). Although the store does not sell many brands, it has a wide selection of different fibers and colors.

A number of patrons were looking for last minute costume items for Halloween. The store seemed quite busy. I found Lana, who has been running Lana Fabrics for nearly forty years, and her grandson Joe, who has been helping her lately. Both of them were very friendly and helpful. Joe was interested in exploring other yarn companies, which the store might carry in the future. I was intrigued by this grandmother and grandson team. They were very in tune with each other, and Joe was involved in every aspect of his grandmother’s business. Both of them live in the building, which belongs to his grandmother. Lana, Joe told me, is from a tiny village outside Honkong, called Canton. We talked a little about the economy and how most of the small businesses that are surviving do so because they own the buildings they are in and are not dependent on outside leases. After chatting for a while, I asked them both my seven questions.

Me: How long has your store been here?

Lana: 38 years, since 1972.

Joe: My grandmother used to be a seamstress, but then she started selling notions, then notions and yarn. At some point she decided just to do the store.

Me: What do you look for when you are buying yarn?

Joe: We sell Bernat, Ordell and Patents. We have been working with all three companies for years. We have people who ask for angora and more expensive fabrics, but they don't want to pay the prices.

Me: Who is your staff?

Lana: Me and my grandson.

Me: Do you teach classes?

Joe: No, not at this time. We don’t have the space.

Me: Who makes your store samples?

Joe: We don't have store samples.

Me: Do you think the recession has made people knit more or less?

Joe: It's come back. Knitting has become bigger lately.

We chatted a little more. After I took my pictures, I walked back to the subway, stopping only for moments in a number of very tempting stores... If I hadn't been expected elsewhere, I might have swung over to the amusement park and taken a couple of rides on the roller coaster, or taken a stroll on the boardwalk...

(picture from
But life being what it is, I did not have the time :-(.