You own a yarn store because you love yarn, so the next logical step is creating your own, right? Developing and marketing private-label line of yarns can be as simple or complex a project as you want it to be. We’ve spoken with some yarn store owners and mill owners about what’s involved in creating a proprietary line of yarns, giving you insight into the factors involved if you decide to take this next step.
There are two major approaches to developing a unique line of yarns for your store, and the course you choose will depend on your customer base, your current inventory, and, of course, profitability. You could develop a line of basic workhorse yarns in standard weights with either a custom or a standardized palette. Many mills that make their own yarn also accept custom processing orders. Karen Hostetler at Mountain Meadow Wool Mill provides one example: the mill will offer a menu of yarn styles and weights based on their specifications on which you can put your own labels. Depending on their dyeing capabilities, you can go with their palette, picking and choosing and possibly renaming their colors, or you could work with them to develop your own unique palette. “We encourage shop owners to just call us with their ideas and we can put the ball in motion,” Hostetler says.
Pumice Tweed Worsted by Mountain Meadow Wool.
The other approach is to develop a collection of custom colorways dyed exclusively for your store by working with a dyer who will create your exclusive colors (or you could also opt to dye them yourself). You can choose from the yarn bases the dyer offers and work in collaboration to bring your color stories to fruition.
Both approaches offer the opportunity to create an exclusive product that your customers will not find anywhere else but your store, and that is the key to such an undertaking. One of the most frequent questions yarn tourists ask is whether the store has anything “local.” That can mean locally raised and/or processed yarn, locally dyed yarn, or yarn colorways inspired by the local region. It can also mean a yarn for which your store is the only source. In fact, that last option guarantees exclusivity, so developing a private label for your store means you will always have stock on hand that meets that desire for “local.” Margaret Craig, owner of Heidi and Lana in Sebring, Ohio, did just that: “I think it was a good choice from a branding standpoint. It makes your shop stand out with a product customers can only get from you.”
Heidi and Lana yarn shop.
Whether you decide to go with yarns or colors ultimately depends on what your customers want. Think about your customer base and what generates the most excitement and sales among them: are they always chasing after the hottest indie dyer or do they go wild for sweaters and shawls in time-honored traditional shapes and colors? Is your store in a tourist destination, where travelers want a souvenir skein, or do you run a comprehensive studio that tries to meet the needs of all yarn and fiber crafters? You want to commit your resources to the option that will generate the most revenue for your store.
Craig has chosen to stock Heidi and Lana with yarns that meet two criteria: they are made in the USA, and they are natural fibers (with the exception of some blends for sock yarns). Developing a line with her own palette of colors was the natural next step for her: “I started thinking about having my own yarn brand when I started designing patterns. When vending at large knitting shows, I would sell kits for my designs and just thought how great it would be if the whole kit was my brand. I started looking into it and it took some time to find the right mill to make this happen.”
The line began with worsted, DK, and chunky, the weights her customers used most; later on, fingering was added to Heidi and Lana’s Homestead line. She recently expanded to include Meadow, a 50% alpaca/50% Merino in fingering, DK and worsted. While she hasn’t eliminated any other brands she has been carrying, her customers love the Heidi and Lana-branded yarns and they are far and away her best sellers, so that’s where most of her inventory budget goes.
All of the yarns are spun at Sweitzer’s Countryside Fiber Mill of Seven Valleys, PA; owner Heather Sweitzer spoke with us about the mill’s side of the private-label story. At first, Sweitzer’s offered potential private-label customers a standard menu of yarn bases and weights, but “we found that they were really looking for something special, so now we help each customer develop a perfect blend of fibers,” such as Craig’s alpaca/merino blend. Sweitzer extends this level of customization to dyeing the yarn as well, working with each customer to develop a unique palette: “We started out having a standard palette but quickly found that customers knew what would sell best in their stores. So, having them send me paint swatches or Pantone colors has worked well.”
Sweitzer’s can do both solids and variegated colorways for their customers. The combination of custom fiber blends and custom colorways allows Sweitzer’s to offer their services without geographic restrictions, as each local yarn store creates unique products in collaboration with the mill. Sweitzer estimates that the private-label yarn for local yarn stores is about 10% of their business right now, with another 40% coming from small wholesale distributors and indie dyers. The rest comes from people with their own flocks of fiber animals, whether it’s a hobby farm or a large operation.
It’s a slightly different story for Jaime Jennings of Fancy Tiger Crafts in Denver, CO. Their first private-label yarn was a bit of a surprise.
Sweitzer’s Fiber Mill.
Jennings had been working with Jeane deCoster of Elemental Affects, who does single-breed wool yarns. When she got a batch of Romney that wasn’t what she had in mind, deCoster offered it to Jennings. Jennings had deCoster dye it and named the worsted-weight Heirloom Romney. deCoster was so pleased with the result she continues to produce, dye, and distribute Heirloom Romney to yarn shops across the US; Fancy Tiger helps with promotion, pattern support, and branding, receiving a small percentage of the sales.
Jennings and Fancy Tiger also produce a limited edition DK-weight yarn. Last year’s was called Colorado Junegrass. Jennings worked with local farmers and a local mill to produce Junegrass, and plans to create a unique DK-weight, Colorado-raised-and-milled yarn annually, varying the fiber blend to introduce customers to a wider range of native wools. The yarn is not dyed, but is a natural gray blended from the wool of the fleeces that go into the production run. The size of the run is limited by the amount of wool the sheep produce.
Fancy Tiger Heirloom Romney.
With the two yarns, Fancy Tiger meets the demands of customers who want an American-made worsted-weight wool in predictable colors, as well as those who want an exclusive and unique product. Both fill the niche of offering something local in the local yarn store: “Our Junegrass Colorado yarn sold out in about three days. I think people were especially excited because they knew it was a limited edition yarn with finite quantities. Heirloom continues to be a good seller to people who are visiting from out of town and are looking for something unique. We have developed a lot of patterns for it so we have a nice display in-store of samples, patterns, the yarn, and kits.”
Deciding to develop your own line of yarn is a big commitment, but mills are ready to work with local yarn store owners to make their dream a reality. Sweitzer’s asks for a 300-skein minimum for an initial order, but that can include up to three different yarn weights. Subsequent orders need only be 100 skeins. Craig of Heidi and Lana notes that the yarn is so popular in her store that she always exceeds the minimum order when she’s ready to restock. Her only challenge is predicting the colors her customers will want, but that’s part of the fun. Turnaround time for an order is about four to six weeks, but if the fiber is on hand, it can be as quick as two weeks. Jennings of Fancy Tiger Crafts works directly with farmers, bringing 600-lb. bales of wool to the local mill. The timeframe is similar, although keeping the yarn a natural gray removes the time needed for the dyeing process
Susan Post, owner of A Good Yarn in Sarasota, Florida, chose to develop a collection of hand-dyed yarns in exclusive colorways for her shop, the Purl Diver Color Club. The colorways are inspired by her husband Murray’s underwater photography and carry evocative names like Sea Lilies, Mantis Shrimp, and Gulf of Mexico. Post works with a number of different dyers from companies like Lorna’s Laces, Three Irish Girls, and Handmaiden to realize her creative vision. While she used to have the colorways dyed on more than one base, now she limits each to a single dyer on a single base. She works closely with the dyers, relying on her knowledge of their work to choose which colorways to assign to specific dyers: “Since we’ve been doing it a few years, I tend to know who is better with the colors for each picture. I am always looking for new people, though…. Most of the dyers are excited to work with us. I give them several months’ leeway to get the yarn to me. I send the actual photos as monitors can change the colors. We discuss the direction and what base they have that might be best. The minimums are never a problem because the club has well over a hundred subscribers, which they are always happy about.”
Extra inventory from a dye run can be available to the general public on A Good Yarn’s website under Exclusive Colorways, but quantities are always limited and colorways have been retired.
All three local yarn store owners (Craig, Jennings and Post) agree that creating their own yarn lines has been an enormous hit with their customers, and gives them a product that differentiates their stores from the competition. For Jennings, it was about supporting the Colorado wool industry, a mission fit for Fancy Tiger Crafts: “We love US-made yarns, single-breed yarns, and natural fibers. It seemed natural to want to create our own yarn. We were really excited to try to produce a 100% Colorado yarn and work with local farmers and mill. The people we have been working with for this yarn have been invaluable in helping us make this a reality. It makes the process so much more exciting when we get to visit the farms during shearing or lambing and meet the sheep whose wool we are purchasing and tour the mill to see exactly how the yarn will be made.”
For Post, she knew her oceanside location was what made her shop unique, so going with beach-inspired colorways would make her shop stand out, and it grew from there. For Craig, whose shop carries only American-made yarns, having her own seems like a natural extension of her brand.
Producing a yarn that is exactly what you and your customers want to knit can be a good business move as well as a satisfying creative project. Whether your vision is one of unique colors or custom fiber blends, you can find dyers and mills to work with you to make your yarn dreams a reality.
Laura writes about knitting industry topics as a contract writer for Stitchcraft Marketing. She lives in Vermont.