A table outside of a classroom at Michaels displays samples of the current knitting and crochet projects being taught.
Photos by Abby Glassenberg
When Zaiba Malik was looking for a way to unwind from her medical studies she signed up for a knitting class at a Michaels store near her home in Troy, Michigan. She was curious about knitting and wanted to learn.
“It’s true these big box craft stores are the ‘entrance’ into a variety of crafts for many,” she explains. “I took my first knitting class at Michaels on a day off of my residency. The lady was so patient and even though no one else showed up she taught me and I think I even went in the store a week later to get some help from her.”
Today Malik is an eye surgeon and she’s still knitting. “It introduced me to a hobby that is portable and perfect for long airplane rides. I travel a lot and do international medical relief camps. I always pack a project in a Ziplock bag and it’s great for the plane or doing a few rows after a hectic day in the operating room,” she says.
Malik is not alone in turning to a big box craft store to learn a new skill. Last year more than 1 million people attended a craft class or in-store crafting event at a Michaels store, the nation’s largest craft store chain. Michaels offers classes on painting, drawing, making jewelry, scrapbooking, cake decorating*, knitting and crochet. Mallory Smith, public relations manager for Michaels, explains, “At Michaels, we believe anyone can make, and we strive to make it easier for customers to try something new or learn a new skill.”
But what is it like to teach those classes? Being a knitting or crochet instructor in such a large, corporate environment comes with particular challenges.
In order to teach knitting and crochet at Michaels, instructors are required to be certified by the Craft Yarn Council (CYC), a non-profit trade association whose members include some of the biggest players in the yarn industry: Lion Brand Yarn, Red Heart Yarns, and Boye Needles, among others. Certification can either be done over six months via correspondence course or over a weekend through all-day classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Candidates are paired with a master teacher and work to perfect both stitching and instructional techniques. Fifteen hours of teaching experience is part of the requirement.
CYC certification costs $85 for each of the two levels offered. Michaels employees receive a $15 discount, but must fund the certification on their own. “I don’t even make $70 in a week,” says Patti Courville who has been working part-time in the framing department at a Michaels store in Long Island. She applied for certification when her manager requested that she begin teaching crochet classes.
Theoretically, the CYC is supposed to match certified teachers with Michaels stores in need of instructors. In reality it’s not always so straightforward. Courville’s manager told her that she could begin teaching as soon as she’d filed her application with the CYC, even before beginning any of the correspondence-course lessons, a situation Courville found curious. “What if I fail my test?” she wonders. “I’ll have been teaching all this time.”
The yarn aisle at a Michaels store.
A Michaels instructor in New Jersey who quit her accounting job five years ago to pursue a full-time career in craft, but wished to remain anonymous for this article, has also found that it’s not always necessary to follow the official placement route. “Michaels is huge,” she says. “Sometimes you can just go directly to the manager yourself [to get a teaching job] instead.”
When I contacted the CYC’s executive director, Jenny Bessonette, to learn more about Michaels’s relationship with the organization she explained that a representative from the Michaels corporate office had called her in advance of our conversation and told her not to answer my questions directly. “We have to be very careful,” she said.
Beyond certification, the CYC also creates the knitting and crochet curriculum for Michaels stores, refreshing the projects every few months. Instructors are supposed teach the current project, but some find students prefer to choose from a range of projects. The New Jersey instructor keeps past projects on hand to ensure that her students can find something they’re excited about.
Most Michaels stores have just one classroom. If the room is occupied, as it always is on Saturday mornings when the Kids Club classes meets, the knitting and crochet teachers must set up their classroom in the middle of the store. Although good for visibility, this can prove challenging for teachers who find themselves frequently interrupted by customers asking for assistance.
Knitting and crochet classes at Michaels are two and a half hours long and typically cost $25. There’s a two-student minimum for enrollment. Yet, even with such a low tuition fee and small minimum enrollment, many Michaels teachers struggle to fill their classes. “Nobody came, week after week,” Courville recalls of the crochet classes she’s offered since the new year. “It’s cancelled every week.” Much of the problem seems to stem from the lack of local advertising for classes. For several years, teachers were encouraged to do two-hour in-store demonstrations to attract new students (for which teachers were paid minimum wage), but recently those were done away with.
The interior of a Michaels classroom.
Those customers who do realize that they can take a class at Michaels can either enroll at the register, in which case their information is manually recorded in a notebook, or since 2015, they can enroll online. A day or two before the class is to take place, instructors must call the store and ask an employee to check the notebook and the online portal for enrollments, a process that often takes more than 15 minutes, according to the New Jersey instructor. If the class will be cancelled it falls on the instructor to call students and reschedule.
After struggling with low enrollment and cancellations, the New Jersey instructor invented her own systems to fill her classes. “I figured out that it’s best to schedule all three classes (Beginner 1, Beginner 2, and the open knit class called Discover Time) simultaneously,” she explains. Combining all three classes helps her to meet the enrollment minimum.
The New Jersey instructor has also taken other measures to work around the Michaels system and make her classes succeed. “I really see myself as an independent business within Michaels,” she explains. She collects email addresses from her students so that she can advertise her classes to them and she even uses her own scheduling software so that her students can schedule themselves to attend her classes.
Her hard work has paid off. Once each quarter Michaels puts all of their classes on sale and she’s able to bring in crowds of students to purchase her offerings. She’s arranged with her store manager to allow her students to purchase bundles of 10 or 20 classes with no specific dates attached. “On class sale day, I’m bringing in 50 students,” she says. “The Wilton class will get maybe one. But the store manager meets their quota for class sales so they’re happy. And my classes always fill.” The New Jersey instructor says that among Michaels knitting instructors company-wide, she’s likely one of the most successful.
Teachers at Michaels are part-time employees. They’re paid their state’s minimum wage plus 90% of each student’s enrollment fee (at full price even if the class is on bought on sale). In New Jersey that translates to $180 for a class of eight students. For a class of two she earns $45.
But that compensation package is about to change. Beginning March 1, 2017, instead of minimum wage, instructors will get a flat $10 per hour fee plus $7 per student up to six students, or $10 per student with seven or more enrolled. Although at first glance this new arrangement may seem like an incentive to enroll more students and make more money, it actually translates to a significant pay cut. Teachers will now earn $105 for a class of eight (a 42% pay cut) and $39 for a class of two (a 13% pay cut).
“The changes in our compensation package have diminished the amount of my pay and also have reduced the recognition of my expertise,” an instructor at an Ontario, Canada store who wished to remain anonymous told me. She plans to quit in April.
The New Jersey instructor has also decided to quit. She’s realized that students attend her classes for the sense of joyful community she’s able to convey and that she can take that community elsewhere. She’s now also teaching knitting in a church basement where she charges $20 for a two-hour class with no overhead costs, and at a local yarn shop where she’s able to charge $100 an hour.
“Some people in the industry look down on big box craft stores and the yarn they sell,” she says, “but for many people that’s their introduction to the craft. That’s all they have.” After five years, she’s sorry to say goodbye.
*Cake decorating classes are offered through Wilton and have a separate certification program. Wilton instructors are independent contractors.