Sunday, February 22, 2009

Knitty City

I have to thank Pearl and Phyllis from Knitty City for opening up a whole new world to me. Knitty City (208 West 79th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam, (212) 787-5896 sits near a very windy corner on the Upper West Side. The day I went there it was pouring like it hadn’t in years. I fled into the store, away from the weather. I felt like a mess: my coat was soaked, my hair stuck to my head, and I was totally rattled. Cold, windy weather is just not my thing… So I was thankful to be surrounded by warm, fuzzy yarns. I took a peek around the store while Pearl got something sorted out, and I saw many things I loved: silky Malabrigo, three-colored Misti Alpaca, cuddly soft kid-mohair by Rowan, and lots of Colinette. One table in the front had a bowl with jewelry-embellished Artyarn. If I only had the money…

When Pearl came over she introduced me to Phyllis, who writes the newsletter and maintains the store’s website.

We sat down at a small round table in the front of the store while some staff members gave knitting advice at another, larger table in the back.

Pearl had to leave shortly, so we were a bit rushed. She started by telling me that she had envisioned the store to feel as if you were in her studio or home: “inviting, with carefully chosen mismatched chairs, to work against a kind of school-room feel.” “I like artists,” Pearl continued. “My focus here is on books about knitting, and especially about knitters, but not just regular knitters.”

“We really love fiber artists,” Phyllis chimed in. “Do you know Xenobia Bailey?” I shook my head. I actually didn’t know that there even was such a thing as a knitting artist, someone who would actually be exhibited in a major museum (like Xenobia Bailey). I only knew Faith Ringgold, a quilting artist, but I had always thought she was unique. Knitty City was hosting a store party for Xenobia. “She makes tea, too!” The evening was going to be filled with tea. Everyone was to bring her favorite cup, and the store would serve up Xenobia’s wonderful African imported flavors while she talked about her work.

Phyllis continued. “There’s also Kathy Goldner(author of the Knitting Out Loud audio books), and Sabrina Gschwandtner, who wrote the book Knit Knit--do you know it?" I didn’t. "It’s right here. Sabrina will be here February 21st." I leafed through the book and saw knitted mushrooms, tiny knitted boots, and gigantic knitting needles held by two actual bulldozers. Given my frame of mind that day, this was about all the information I could handle, so I asked Pearl and Phyllis my seven questions (or rather six, because I forgot one) before Pearl ran out the door.

Me: When did you open your store?

Pearl: We opened in January, 3 years ago. We actually knitted a cake for our anniversary. Did you see it in the window?

Me: How did you choose this location?

Pearl: I knew people in the building who told me the space was available. I feel this is a great community for knitting. People in this neighborhood love books, and we carry a good selection (she even carries a Japanese book—written in Japanese—with thousands of graphed stitch patterns).

Me: Who are your staff?

Pearl: We have a large staff. (I can attest to that. When I was there, there were at least 5 people working in the store.) Some of them were with us from day one. Very few people have left. I think it’s about 10-11 people.

Phyllis: I write the newsletter and maintain the website, and Aryn [photo above] is in charge of the Ravelry group. We also have a Google group that has over 1400 members. We want the store to be an artistic resource. We book people who are fiber artists, writers of knitting books, and sometimes artists from other fields who knit.

Me: What kind of classes do you teach?

Pearl: We teach beginning knit workshops, beginning crochet, sock classes, lace classes, knitting for babies…there will also be a double knitting workshop with Alasdair Post-Quinn (where you learn to knit so that both sides of your knitting look great).

Phyllis: Our website has a detailed calendar.

Me: Who makes your store samples?

Pearl: Everyone contributes--mostly people who work here. They get the yarn for free and take home the sample after it has been displayed. Sometimes yarn companies send us samples as well.

Me: What got you into yarns?

Pearl: I had enough of a stash thirty years ago to open a store. I started with Barbara Walker’s book when I was pregnant, and made an afghan out of all these squares. I actually had just gone back to making those squares when I opened the store, except this time I didn’t make an afghan out of them. We’ve had great customers. Word of mouth has been great for us!

My phone rang. It was my husband: “Honey, are you coming to yoga class today? It’s already 12:15. Where are you?” WHAT? I dashed out the door into the pouring rain and grabbed a bus (that is, after I scooped up a bunch of yarn, needles and a bar of chocolate, which I was very thankful for).

When I got home that evening my head was still spinning from all the art talk. I started surfing on the net and discovered some truly mind-boggling work. Xenobia Bailey for one is an amazing artist, and so are her friends. Her blog led me to Nick Cave (not the musician, but the dancer/fiber artist), and my world is not the same anymore. Go visit Xenobia’s blog, or look at this youtube video, and you’ll know what I mean…

So thank you Pearl and Phyllis, for this wonderful new world I am entering.

p.s: I am sorry that I did not get to post this piece before some of the events mentioned here (blame it on my kids :-) ), but for those of you who would like to meet Xenobia Bailey, she will be celebrating her birthday at Knitty City in a few weeks…

There is also a reading coming up with Franklin Habit, author if "It Itches, a stash of knitting cartoons", which promises lots of laughter.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Yarn Company

I was apprehensive about visiting the Yarn Company on the Upper West Side (2274 Broadway @ 82nd St. 2nd floor New York, NY, 10024 212-787-7878 Researching on the internet I had come across a number of old posts that were not very flattering to the store. When I brought this up with someone who knew the store well, she said, "Yes, they had a reputation for being unfriendly, but that's no longer the case." I walked up the long staircase, not knowing what to expect.

What I found was a large table of women, laughing, chatting, and knitting; above them lots and lots of sweaters hanging from the ceiling. Two women sat in the back room talking to a yarn supplier. Color charts were strewn around the table. I introduced myself. Julie smiled and asked me to wait five minutes while she and her business partner, Jordana, finished their order. I took pictures of the store and looked at the yarns and the samples hanging from the ceiling.

There were so many sweaters: small ones, big ones, thin ones, thick ones...

The window sills were filled with yarn from a company called "Naturwolle" (German for 'natural yarn'). Shelves with various kinds of yarns lined the walls (except for one wall full of books). I was stopped by a basket of multicolored angora (I only know angora in solids). I took out one of the skeins and held it in my hands. It felt just as soft as it looked.

"Isn't that amazing?" Julie appeared behind me. "It's such good quality." It felt like I was petting a rabbit. Julie saw me look up at all the hangers. "We specialize in making patterns for our customers," she explained. "You can come in with an idea and we will help you realize it. We'll take your measurements, plan the yarn with you, and take you through the process of making whatever you like. You can knit your sweater here (she pointed at the table of women behind us) or come back any time you need help." I knew Julie and her partner Jordana had published a series of knitting books: The Yarn Girls' Guide to... I liked their books for the simplicity and the cheerful pictures. They are great for beginners. What impressed me was that the samples in their books (as well as the store samples) were not some outlandish display of the authors' knitting abilities, but rather inviting, "do-able" pieces. The knits in the books are very pretty and very well-executed, but not intimidating. Neither was Julia or Jordana.

Granted, the store has a fast pace, which can feel intimidating, but overall the atmosphere at The Yarn Company is very inviting. After I talked to Julie, Jordana spent some time with me. Jordana teaches knitting at PS 87, a nearby public school, to a class of 1st graders, every Friday. The kids learn how to knit with very large needles and make a simple project. Jordana sits with them, guiding each of them through their scarf or purse, and helps when stitches drop. "There are more and more kids coming into the store lately," she said. "It seems like knitting is catching on with a much younger generation." The store has even been rented out for birthday parties recently, where five or six kids sit around the table, and learn how to knit. "The boys really like it, too. We see a lot more parents buying supplies to teach their kids as well."

The yarn supplier had packed up to go, so the three of us sat down for my seven questions:

Me: When did you open the store?

Jordana: We opened in July '97.

Me: What made you chose this location?

Jordana: This store was a yarn store before. It has been a yarn store for 3 generations of owners. I used to work here right after college. I studied law and worked as a lawyer for one year, but then the store came up for sale and Julie and I decided to buy it.

Julie: We met in college, and when this opportunity came, we decided to take it.

Me: When you buy yarn, what is important to you?

Julie: We mostly carry natural fibers. We care about quality, what appeals to our sensibilities, and that we have a nice mix of solids and multi-colored yarn.

Me: What kinds of classes do you teach?

Jordana: We teach beginners and finishing classes. We don't really teach advanced classes. All you really need to know is the basics. After that you can just come in and we work with you individually.

Me: Who is your staff? How long have they been working here?

Julie: Petra has worked here since the previous owner. She teaches some of the classes and keeps the store organized. Then there is Jen, who writes knitting patterns, Leslie, Malow, and Mercedes, who knits many of our samples and helps people with finishing. She's almost always here at the table helping someone out.

Me: Who makes your store samples?

Jordana: Mostly Mercedes, but we all chip in.

Me: What got you into yarns?

Julie: We learned how to knit in college, and loved it.

Me: Do people knit more or less during a recession?

Jordana: There was a huge spike in knitting about four years ago. It has tapered off in the last year or so, but things are still going strong.

I asked Jordana if I could join her during one of her class lessons at PS 87; we made plans to meet the following week. I left, feeling relieved that they were both so nice, and happy to have found another great knitting resource.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Seaport Yarn

Andrea Waller founded Seaport Yarn
(181 Broadway Fifth Floor (use the elevator)
New York, NY 10007 phone:1-800-347-2662)
in 2002 inside an apartment building that housed her market research company. The building was residential, so she was not allowed to post any advertisement or even signs inside or outside of the building for people to find her. What a way to start a business! "In the beginning," Andrea said, "things were kind of crazy. We had all the yarn in the different offices where we were doing our market research." This reminds me of a remark by one of my husband’s friends, who said he worked for a "drinking firm with a consulting problem." Andrea had a market research company with a yarn problem :-) ; these days it’s more like a knitting store with a market research problem. Although Andrea maintains some high end market research clients like Mayor Bloomberg (“we did some work for the Bloomberg campaign”), she now houses her yarn shop in a properly zoned building, on the fifth floor, with lots of space and shelves and shelves of yarn; one entire wall is dedicated to sock yarn alone.

Andrea is no stranger to hard times. She was profoundly affected by September 11th. Her business has always been near the World Trade Center, now Ground Zero. While I was at her store, a fire truck drove by outside, siren blaring. “Do you smell smoke?” Andrea asked, looking around alarmed. She quickly apologized. “Since 2001, my sense of smell is off. I constantly think I am smelling smoke. It makes me so nervous.” I experienced Andrea as a very compassionate person who cares deeply about people who struggle, although she was quick to tell me that some people consider her difficult (“I just have a low tolerance for people who are rude, so I am rude right back”).

Andrea makes it a point to support small businesses: a spinner who is just starting out, a small company selling a yarn no one has heard of… If she likes the quality, she’ll buy it and sell it in her shop. She’ll even give business advice. She told one spinner to name all her yarns after smells because her company name conjured up the smell of pine. “When I got the first package from her after that conversation, I unpacked the yarn and thought I smelled something. She had actually put some coffee and some vanilla in the package. We were all just sitting there sniffing… :-)” Andrea loves strange and obscure yarns. She carries buffalo, yak, milk- and corn yarn (see my blog entry on January 13th for details). She’ll try out any gadget that strikes her, like Kollage’s square knitting and crocheting needles (mentioned in Vogue Knitting’s most recent issue). Knitwear designers can order yarn through her at a discount. “It’s not wholesale, but I try to give them a break on the price.” But it's also fun to hang out with her. Andrea is a treasure trove of information and she loves to share it. After nearly two hours of chatting about yarns, downtown, and life in New York, I finally asked Andrea my seven (or rather eight) questions:

Me: When did you start your business?

Andrea: I’ve been in this area on and off since 1997, but I started the yarn store in 2002.

Me: What made you choose this location?

Andrea: I stayed downtown because I had been here already. I thought having a yarn store down here would bring some business into an area that needed it, but I also thought it would give people who work down here a chance to go somewhere for their lunch break and relax. We are right around the corner from Century 21 and down the street from J+R computers. I thought people would be able to combine errands. You can go and shop for electronics and then come and sit on our comfy couch.

Me: Who is your staff?

Andrea: Lauren has been here 6 months and Susan and Claire 4-5 years. I have some online partners, LaJuana, John (who played bass guitar with David Bowie), and “Little John”, who is also a rock musician. They work in Portland and maintain the website. We still do market research, just a lot less, and we sell a lot more yarn now.

Me: What do you look for when you buy yarn?

Andrea: I look for quality versus price. I search for unique things, things that I don’t see every day. I carry Debbie Bliss, Blue Sky Alpaca, Punta Del Este, but also Pinewood, Blue Heron (a small hand-dyer from Maryland), and Kollage…

Me: What kind of classes do you teach?

Andrea: We teach beginning, intermediate, and advanced beginner classes. We have a sock class. Most of our classes are at night. Our classes are taught by Claire and Naomi (both ex-presidents of the Big Apple Knitters Guild).

Me: Who knits your store samples?

Andrea: Our staff, although some of the yarn companies send store samples.

Me: What made you open a yarn store?

Andrea: I learned how to knit from my grandmother when I was a kid. I’ve been doing it ever since. I just love it.

Me: How do you think the recession is affecting people?

Andrea: I think people are finally getting to their stashes. People are making more things and giving hand-made presents to save money. A lot of people can’t afford expensive luxury items.

Ooops! I realized I was running late to pick my daughter from pre-k, so I grabbed a pair of square needles and some Pinewood silk and wool yarn and jumped in the subway to head up to Harlem.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Downtown Yarns

When I walked into Downtown Yarns (at 45 Avenue A between 3rd and 4th), I was struck by the beautiful, knitted snowflakes in the window. I was so mesmerized by them that I nearly tripped over the fluffy Golden Retriever lying behind the door. Oh! Now I understood the sign in the door: Please pick up your dog- Frankie thanks you! "Hello," I greeted the bundle of golden hair. "You must be Frankie."

"Can I help you?" A warm face at the end of the long narrow store was peaking over the counter. Rita, the owner, was in the process of ordering wool. I told her I was the woman who had called about the blog, and that I wanted to review New York knitting stores. "Right," she said. "Why don't you hang up your coat." She motioned me to step behind the counter. "Do you want some coffee?"

Wow, I thought. It must be nice to work here.

Since Rita was busy on the phone, I began by exploring the store and taking pictures. The store is long and narrow with very high ceilings. Yarn shelves reach from the floor to the ceiling, adorned by open skeins dangling loosely from hooks on the adjacent walls. I was impressed by the craftsmanship of the knitted samples; whimsical lace dresses hung next to jackets, coats, hats, and a number of dinosaurs. Knitted dinosaurs?

"That's a pteradactyl," Rita said and smiled. "We had a dinosaur theme recently. The window was full of them." Two people walked in the door, one carrying a Yorkshire Terrier who seemed very familiar with the surroundings. Leti, one of Rita's part time staff, helped the woman solve a pattern problem. The other woman showed her finished hat to Rita, who admired it greatly. I used the time to explore the yarn in the store. Rita carries almost entirely natural fibers: Misti Alpaca in various thickness, Chunky Malabrigo, and bright pink Colinette Point Five. Classic Cotton in vibrant colors, and a whole shelf full of kid mohair. A librarian ladder leans on a shelf filled with a blend of undyed alpaca and wool. "I'm done," Rita said. "Do you want to ask me some questions?" So we moved on to the interview part of my visit.

Me: When did you open your store?

Rita: In 2001.

Me: What made you choose this location?

Rita: I live upstairs--and I love this neighborhood.

Me: When you buy yarn, what is important to you?

Rita: Quality and value. I always ask myself: is it worth the money?

Me: What kinds of classes do you offer?

Rita: Different people, who I just think are good teachers, teach different classes; some knit, some crochet. Some work here and some don't. We have a website where you can find more information:

Me: Who is your staff and how long have they been here?

Rita: A lot of people work here, most of them part time. We have many different temperaments and expertises in the store. Some of us spin, some design store samples, some crochet, some are great finishers... The first criteria is that the staff are really nice.

Me: I guess that answers my next question: who makes the store samples?

Rita: We all kind of do. Irina did the pteradactyl. She does a lot of the dresses. She is very, very good. And Leti here is a fabulous designer." Leti blushed and smiled.

Me: What got you into yarns?

Rita: I've knit all my life. I was a florist for 17 years, but it was too stressful. The yarn shop is a good fit for me. It's like play. Wool is just as pretty as flowers, but it doesn't go bad.

Me: This is a question just for me. I don't know yet if I will include it. Do you think people are knitting more or less in the recession?

Rita:I think that's hard to say yet. It's still cold out and people generally knit more in the winter, so we'll probably have to wait til the spring to know more about that.

Me: Thanks, those were all my questions.

I hung out a little bit more, just because I liked the atmosphere so much. Then I bought some chunky Misti Alpaca to make a scarf for my husband. I carefully stepped over Frankie, petted her on the head and headed back uptown to my kids.

What a great morning. I'll be coming back here!

UPDATE February 9th:

Rita just contacted me to tell me she has a new window installation.

Her newest theme is felted boots. I just love it! Everyone in the store knitted and felted a pair of boots, and a shoe artist is going to create soles for each pair. The finished, felted boots can be worn outside as regular shoes. Rita gives out the pattern with the purchase of the yarn. I'll be getting mine next week!