If the vultures are circling,
we aren't giving them any place to land.
An August 28 Publishers
Weekly article entitled "The End
of the Yarn?" got knitters off- and online,
in and out of yarn-industry circles, debating
whether or not the imminent demise of knitting
was upon us. The article -- about the glut
of knitting books on the market, sales of
which have indeed plateaued (read
it for yourself) -- was ultimately
more positive about the future of the craft
than not. But the title, cryptic question
mark and all, put forth in black-and-white
the nagging concern felt by anyone who works
in a business dependent on disposable income.
"Everyone has the same thought in her
head: You want to make hay while the sun shines.
You want to sell yarn when people are buying
it. And you're feeling when things are going
well there's going to be a downside,"
says designer/author/instructor/blogger Annie
Modesitt, who, in fact, foresees nothing
of the kind for her beloved vocation.
Despite the irrefutable
strength of the current knitting zeitgeist,
there's no doubt that the faux-fur scarf fad
that started the fire is over and the attendant
business shift -- or "correction,"
Laces' owner Beth Casey puts it -- is
in process. But there are many differences
between the knit-times in which we live and
the last time stitching went south, in the
late '80s. Several industry insiders share
their thoughts on how and why we as knitters
got to where we are now and where we're going
Beyond the Bandwagon
"You're going to have peaks and valleys,"
says Jill Bujold, owner of Kaleidoscope Yarns'
dual-pronged retailing biz (an LYS in Essex
Junction, Vermont, and a booming e-tail
site). "It was a peak several years ago
because of the interesting yarns and the fact
that people had to learn just one stitch and
they could make a scarf. A lot of it was also
the perception: If you knit, you're hip. What's
happened now is, you can make only so many
scarves. If those people didn't connect with
the craft, they're not doing it anymore. All
the people who've been knitting forever had
other reasons; we weren't doing it because
it was hip. And anybody who picked it up and
went beyond 'I'm so cool, I'm knitting' and
really appreciated the craft, those are the
people who have stuck with it."
"Of course, people are buying
less yarn, says Adina Klein, the triple-threat
editor in chief of knit.1
and fashion director of Vogue Knitting and Knit Simple. They're buying
thin yarn and knitting cables, and that takes
longer than a fun-fur scarf on size 17 needles."
Tarie Dillard Williams, the owner of Yarn
Heaven in Arlington, Texas, who polled
150 or so yarn retailers about their opinion
on the state of the market, agrees. "We might
have seen a slight decline in our numbers,
but we haven't seen a decline in our knitters,"
she says. "There isn't necessarily a slowdown;
it's that the scarf-craze knitters have turned
into real knitters and are branching out into
sweaters and things that take more than a
day or two. They're not coming back in as
often because the projects take a little longer.
I also see people spending less money, staying
away from the higher end and going toward
middle-end yarns. They want the best quality
they can get for the best price, comparing
prices more than ever before: 'Let me call
you back; I want to call a few more stores.'
Says Annie Modesitt, "I
know there's this feeling out there that knitters
are extravagant and we'll buy yarn we can't
afford, but I find most knitters are very
intelligent about buying what they need. And
that's the salvation of knitting. Because
if you have people being extravagant, that's
good in the short run but bad in the long
run. If they can't keep up the habit, it's
a bad habit. But if they're pragmatic about
it and buy the yarn they need, it's a good
You can't get much more
pragmatic than this: Adina Klein recounts
a story about one shop that had so much fun
fur yarn, the owner decided to throw in a
free ball with every purchase. "And the customers
were taking it out of the bag; they didn't
even want it."
Yarn of Your Dreams
So what do we want? More and more, the
answer is artisanal yarns that provide luxury
for a price budget-conscious knitters can
justify paying. "The shift toward the hand-dyed
stuff is because of the shift away from novelty
yarn," says Klein. "Smooth yarns are the way
people are going now, and hand-dyers are getting
smarter and are supplying the great fibers
in tonal solids as well as their colorways;
that's definitely what I'm drawn to these
"Everybody has something
organic right now, which has a lot to do with
the whole green movement," she continues.
"Even cottons. Between global warming and
air conditioning, these non-wool fibers are
really going to do well. You could look at
any company, from Lion
Brand on. Its catalog is an aesthetic
shift and it's coming out with an organic
West Trading Company pioneered the use
of soy and bamboo in handknitting yarns and
is continuing to make news with corn and milk
fibers, the latter of which turns up in one
of its new Vickie Howell yarns, "Craft." "It's
a spectacular trend to see the art move away
from fossil-fuel-dependant fibers toward things
that are good for the planet and great for
your skin," says SWTC owner Jonelle Raffino.
In the same vein are Hand
Maiden Fine Yarn's Sea Silk silk/seaweed-blend
yarns. Says owner Kathryn Thomas, "We always
try to come up with something new but not
totally trendy, because the way we dye we
can't dye anything synthetic. I've never found
manmade fibers on their own stand up to the
test like natural fibers." After considering
bamboo and the like, she was introduced to
SeaCell and immediately loved it for its connection
to her Nova Scotia roots. "The kelp in the
ocean's more close to home."
Eco-friendly plays big at
Yarn Heaven, as do yarns from Plymouth,
Horse, a "fabulous acrylic/nylon mixture
that's just to die for," says Dillard Williams.
Lorna's Laces hand-dyed sock yarns are a perennial
best-seller, and it's interesting to note
that, according to Beth Casey, LL's worsted-weight
fibers sells almost exactly the same quantity
as the company's incredibly popular sock yarns,
a testament to the quality of the product
and the shifting focus of the yarn-consuming
Speaking of quality, that's
what Kaleidoscope Yarn's Bujold looks for.
"We're going back to the touch factor," she
explains. "Every inch of it goes through your
hands as you knit it. We brought in some Buffalo
Gold bison fiber this year: It's brown, very
basic, but it's the fiber that's different.
It's very soft and has no known allergies
to it. People are really open to anything
they haven't tried before." Alpaca in all
its iterations is in at Toronto's Lettuce
Knit. So is Blue
Moon Fiber Arts' Socks That Rock and the
quick-selling Hand Maiden yarns; owner Megan
Ingman sees Hand
Jive Knits, a fingering-weight merino
colored with vegetable dyes, as the next indie
line to make a splash.
"I think it's really important
to encourage the small company," says Annie
Modesitt. "Using hand-dyed yarns adds so much
to the excitement in the marketplace. It drives
the larger companies to keep on their game
and keep the good stuff out there. If designers
don't champion some of the smaller companies,
they won't be there."
It's easier for designers to champion
yarns when they know the knitting public will
use them right. And that's what's happening
now. As newer knitters progress and fabulous
fibers draw lapsed knitters back into the
fold, the technical skills of the entire community
are on the upswing. "Our technique classes
are always full and have waiting lists," says
Jill Bujold. People want to learn how to do
the right thing when it comes to piecing together
a garment or picking up stitches. They're
really experimenting and are willing to say,
'OK, this neck is really low and I'm going
to raise it, so can you help me understand
what that means for my decreases?' "
"Two or three years ago
people wanted a class to make a bag or a scarf,"
says Modesitt. "Now they want technique, which
is much more exciting. I feel it's like, Teach
a person to fish and they'll make scarves
for the rest of their lives; give them a fish
and they just have one scarf."
and its summer Stitch N Pitch at an
Arizona Diamondbacks game
Much has been made about the influx of twentysomething
knitters, some of whom are hooked, some of whom
have walked away. But what really piques the
experts' interest is how many much younger people
are seriously picking up sticks. Mary Colucci,
president of the Craft Yarn Council of America,
asked some of the 140 volunteers at the recent
New York Knit-Out what trends they noticed.
"They were really surprised at the number of
very young, we're talking teens and younger,
knitters who came over to ask questions," she
says. "We've never had that before.
At an Arizona Diamondbacks
Stitch N Pitch game back in September, SWTC's
Jonelle Raffino "noticed a substantial and
growing interest from men, young and old alike.
The mother of one young boy told me they were
at the game just for the lessons. At one point
he got so frustrated that I found him around
the corner in tears. I sat down and chatted
with him about my experience learning, then
told him all about Kaffe Fassett and some
of the other great men of the art. The young
man bolted back to the table, determined to
learn. Two weeks later, he and his mother
dropped by SWTC to thank us. Now he's a knitter,
finishing his first scarf."
You're reading Knitty, so you're already
aware of the power of the online knitting
community -- a nonexistent factor the last
time knitting faced a downturn. "Immediately
everybody knows about new things, whereas
in the past it took years and years to get
around," says Hand Maiden's Kathryn Thomas.
Just look what the popularity of Kate Gilbert's
in did "in terms of revenue and exposure"
for Lorna's Laces, says Beth Casey. "Shops
I had never done business with were calling."
Lettuce Knit has become a real destination
stop, thanks to its prominence in the Yarn
Harlot and Knitty
blogs. "Steph's blog, it's unreal how
huge she is," says Megan Ingman of Madame
Pearl-McPhee. "When they come to Toronto,
they make sure they find the shop. It's really
good for business." Sock knitting, lace knitting,
spinning -- would any of these have been as
big as they've gotten without bloggers spreading
"They are driving trends
in the sense that they're driving the energy,"
says Adina Klein of knit bloggers. "A place
like NY Sheep & Wool, which I've gone
to for Lord knows how long, I've never seen
it so packed in my life, ever. Another thing
about the bloggers is that they're smart.
They want to educate themselves technically,
so they're learning quickly on the Internet."
They also want to brag about the bargains
they find. And the explosion of virtual e-tailers
as well as actual retailers has contributed
to the industry redistribution. Yarn Heaven's
Tarie Dillard Williams doesn't mind competition
-- a preponderance of new shops in the Dallas
area hasn't affected her bottom line at all,
she says -- but she does mind it when people
brag about Internet discounts when they're
in her house. "There's a young lady who comes
to my knitting group and said, 'You know,
you can buy this online for this amount.'
And I said to her, 'I love having you here,
but I find it really hard to swallow when
you come in and tell my customers the great
deals you can find on the Internet. If you
continue to do this, and you and they continue
to buy from the Internet, I'm not going to
be here anymore.' She looked at me and said,
'I never thought of it that way before.' Not
that I mind you getting a deal; I think everybody
should get a good deal, but I really wish
you would talk about it outside of the store."
"People are people," says
Annie Modesitt. "They're going to buy some
stuff online and some stuff in the store.
That's just how it is." She's equally sanguine
about the free patterns available online,
one of the main reasons knitting-book sales
have leveled off (others include the sheer
saturation of beginner titles -- "How many
how-to-knit books do you need," asks Jill
Bujold -- and the number of non-craft publishing
houses trying to cash in on the craze). "A
rising tide raises all boats," Modesitt says.
"If you can get people excited about knitting
with a free pattern, then next time they will
buy a pattern.
So What's Next?
"Those of us who are hard-core knitters
know just how good it is for your spirit and
your soul; it's not going to go anywhere,"
says Modesitt. So what can we look forward
to? Says Adina Klein, "Eco-stuff is going
to be big. Everybody's got to have a sock
yarn, that's for sure. And by next fall oversize
sweaters that were sort of in when I came
into the industry in the late '80s, people
are going to be wearing them again. They're
really fun and easy to knit. There's this
absence with the horrible poncho gone. A stockinette-stitch
drop-sleeve sweater is just as easy to make
and, in the end, better for the industry because
you're shaping and improving."
Aside from the potent portable,
SWTC's Jonelle Raffino forecasts "a huge trend
in crochet and fusing crochet with knitting
in garments. We also see freeform as a real
up-and-coming trend with a growing worldwide
Modesitt predicts a boom
in sweaters made with "smaller needles, finer
yarns. I think the sock knitters have done
this, which is a beautiful thing. That's not
to say that big needles aren't going to be
around; they always will. But if you can turn
a heel and shape a toe and work on a size
2 needle, you can certainly make a sleeve
that fits and shape a waistline and work on
a size 4 needle. OK, it's going to take you
a month and a half to knit this instead of
three weeks, but when you finish it you will
have something you will wear every single
week because you love it so much."
And no matter the chatter,
the immense love of knitting will keep things
moving for a long time to come.