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!


Stacey said...

I couldn't agree more! It takes a lot of time and skill to make a hand-knit garment... not to mention the cost of quality materials!
I feel like most people aren't used to garments lasting a long time... but a quality sweater, cared for well, can last decades. My goal is to have a wardrobe full of well-made garments, instead of 'fashionable' clothes that get tossed out and replaced yearly.
It will take a lot of knitting time for me to get there, though :)

Anonymous said...

A video of Wool and The Gang in action can be found on youtube: