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Interesting and different yarns and threads for knitting, crochet, needlepoint & embroidery in mostly natural fibres

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A Customer Made Me Think!

Last week I was chatting to a customer when she said something along the lines of ‘I remember when yarn shops were the place you went to find something new and exciting, but now people go to Yarn Festivals’. That got me thinking! Should I have become an indie yarnie instead?

What is it about yarn festivals that make them so attractive? I’ve been to a few: Wonderwool Wales (in its first two years - hasn’t it grown?), Woolfest, Yarndale and Bakewell Wool Gathering. I’m a spinner and have dabbled in dyeing, so I’ve always been more interested in looking at the fibre at shows. Though I’m not immune to taking home the odd lollipop of 4 ply yarn. I’ve enjoyed all the shows immensely and have been duly inspired. Like a lot of other people I’ve left them with my fair share of stash enhancement and oodles of inspiration. So I can totally see how they are attractive.

What makes these festivals so successful? A quick scout round the internet threw up several magic ingredients they offer. From presenting artisan products and introducing their makers, with a Welsh emphasis (Wonderwool) via showcasing talent, and celebrating the best in wool (Woolfest) through inspiration, passion and creating a little slice of woolly paradise, with stunning creative displays (Yarndale) to being full of colour, texture and creativity with everything you could want - wool, needles, spinning wheels and all things woolly - not forgetting the excellent fleece sale, testimony to which is the number of fleeces I am processing at home (Bakewell Wool Gathering). There’s a lot on offer. As a lover of all things fibre, I appreciate and join in with the excitement of the shows, and the novelty factor of seeing things not available locally.  

I also know what it’s like to be at the other side of the table. Last year I took a stand at The Big Textile Show in Leicester. The exhibitors were a friendly bunch, and lots of people were more than appreciative of the yarns I had on offer. It was very hard work: taking stock out of the shop, putting it up at the show, (wo)manning the stand for two days, then taking it all down and putting it back tidily in the shop in time for the next day’s opening.  It was worth all of that to be able to take my wares to a different audience. The downside was that, like whatever you keep your stash in, there was just not enough room on the stand to show a representative sample of what StitchUpp, the shop, is about.  

So if shows are also so much fun for yarnies, why am I paying rent, and investing my money in a High Street shop?  It’s a good question. The start-up costs were so much higher, the legal stuff is complex and not free of risk for retailers renting property, and I have to be more than good at marketing, sales, buying, stock control, finance, customer service, and smiling a lot, even when I’m having a bad day. Oh and standing on my feet for a long time in an environment where you can bet your bottom dollar the day you need to do the accounts a lot of customers come in?  

Don’t get me wrong - I love having customers, and if I was communicating with them through a website each day I would really miss the chats, and the common interest in what a yarn feels like, what it looks like knitted up, and even what it smells like.  The gentleman’s outfitters across the road think I’m a bit weird.  I would especially miss those who bring their projects in to show me how they’ve got on (or not, and then advice is always available). A particularly special day is when two complete strangers come in, meet, and leave having found out they have a great deal knitterly in common. My customers can’t ever be logged off from, unlike a website order.

So does all this make me think I should swap full-time retailing for doing the rounds of the shows and backing that up with an all singing all dancing website?  Well no, not at all. My shop reflects what I’m interested in better than a stall at a show can, simply because of the space it allows me. I carry at least 16 different combinations of wool, cotton, linen, silk, alpaca, plant fibres such as bamboo and soy silk, and milk protein.  Then there are about 10 in natural fibres with added nylon or other synthetic fibres, including sock yarns. I support Fair Trade yarn from Manos del Uruguay, and stock jumpers’ worth of fine Italian yarns by Adriafil spun in their own mill. I support British Wool from Woolyknit and Faroese wool from Navia. You’ll find 8 different weights of yarn in solid and variegated colours, including fluffy yarn, boucle, single ply, worsted spun, a few core spun fancies and sequins. There’s a double knitting weight superwash Merino that comes in 46 colours - I’ve accumulated 21 of them so far. That’s before we get to the accessories, the fibres, the stitching threads and haberdashery.

I think I offer enough different yarns for most people to be able to find something they like.  I appreciate it’s not as much choice as a fibre festival hosting 180 different exhibitors, like Yarndale does. So I guess the question becomes ‘How much choice do my customers need?’