I remember how excited I was the day my invitation to join Ravelry arrived in my inbox on March 23, 2008 (Raveler #100880). I joined my friend Abby, who had patiently taught me to knit the year before — she was already showing off the colorwork mitts and baby sweaters she had made using patterns she discovered on the new site. While I was thrilled to further explore my newfound hobby, little did I know how much Ravelry would change my life and my career — as it has for fiber artists all over the world.
This was several months after the social network had its beta launch in May 2007, filling a void in the knitting and crocheting world. Knitters had long been showing off their work and providing advice on blogs, Yahoo groups, and forums like Clara Parkes’s Knitter’s Review, and finding patterns via online magazines such as Knitty. But Ravelry founders Jessica and Casey Forbes saw the need for a central place to catalog and purchase designs, keep track of and show off projects and yarn stashes, and meet other knitters, crocheters, spinners, and weavers, without having to travel to festivals. The site now boasts more than seven million registered users.
The couple decided from the start to receive support solely through small, fiber-related businesses, who can spend as little as a few dollars a month to advertise on the site and also sell patterns, with Ravelry taking a nominal percentage. They have kept that base of support for 10 years while continuing to expand resources and create a mobile version of the site.
“We looked around a long time trying to find out how we could do advertising that wouldn’t feel yucky to us, in a way that would add content to the site and not distract from the content…not like, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of women on there, why don’t you put women’s razor ads or tampons or something on there,’“ Jessica said in an October 2016 interview with A Playful Day podcast. “Casey built an ad software for us because we just weren’t finding anything that would work for what we wanted to do…which was to have a lot of small advertisers with small budgets to see if that would give us enough money to survive. So we thought we would give it a shot and see if that would work — and it did.”
Ravelry expanded the market considerably for knitwear designers. In the early 2000s, designer Kirsten Kapur used the experience gathered during a career in Manhattan’s garment district to start selling knitting patterns online. Prior to Ravelry’s launch, Kapur sold her patterns via her knitting blog. While a few non-bloggers left comments and purchased patterns, most of Kapur’s customers were other bloggers.
“Customers had to go from blog to blog to find the patterns they wanted to knit, making it a much more time-consuming process,” Kirsten recalls. “Once Ravelry began, the number of members grew very rapidly. People who would never have considered starting a blog happily joined Ravelry.”
Designer Anne Hanson also started her business a few years before Ravelry came to be, and she was one of the first designers Jessica and Casey invited to come on board during the site’s beta stage. Her Ohio-based company, Knitspot, has since grown to include knitting subscription clubs and a line of custom-milled yarns.
“In the beginning, when the membership was smaller and the pool of designers was also not so big, it allowed my readers’ enthusiasm to be easily shared with knitters new to my work,” Hanson says. “They congregated in our group for knitalongs, discussions, and support – especially for knitters new to lace projects. At that time, a huge number of new knitters were exploring online resources and Ravelry was appealing for its centrality. This helped the databases within Ravelry to grow quickly and for other community needs to become apparent. Ravelry has always been keen to fill the needs that arise and keep pace with what knitters care about.”
The site also serves as a valuable tool for market research, with immediate and unprecedented access to customers and data — much more than can be found through other social media. “I go to the databases within Ravelry to research everything from yarns to pattern names to developing trends,” Hanson says. “There is a number statistic for almost every aspect of my work. In addition, the forum discussions provide a completely different, more personal way to hear the needs of customers (and friends!) and to shape the experiences we hope to provide. This interactive and constantly developing information helps us tremendously to stay on top of the needs of our customers. I don’t think our club programs would be nearly as successful without it.”
Ravelry team members: (L to R) Casey, Jessica, Christina, Sarah and Mary-Heather
Photo courtesy of Ravelry
Ravelry has also been instrumental in inspiring knitters to become designers and yarn dyers themselves and to launch other craft businesses. One of the site’s many social groups led to a new career for Victoria Moss in 2010 after she closed her award-winning youth dance company outside of Washington, D.C., in the wake of the Great Recession.
“When I was sort of ‘sitting with’ the idea of reinventing myself, after closing my dance company and leaving the not-for-profit arts world behind, my knitting was my solace,” Moss says. “It was what I did while I was thinking, pondering, fretting, scheming. I spent a lot of time on Rav, hanging out with a very wise and witty gang of women — they were funny as heck, generous with their time and their love, and quick to support each other through good times and bad.”
When Moss decided to start a business selling handmade project bags, the encouragement from her fellow Yarn Hoars on Ravelry helped her press on. They told her what they liked and didn’t like in a bag — “One even went out and bought a bag she loved and sent it to me to see!” Moss recalls — and served as “product testers,” as well as her first customers.
“I will never forget that first time I loaded up my Etsy shop,” Moss says. “I uploaded a whole shop’s worth of items, and posted about it on the Yarn Hoars board, hoping to sell a few things, but also feeling kind of weird about trying to sell things to my friends. I was stunned as that first batch of orders rolled in. I nearly sold out in the first couple hours. That level of support from my peers, from knitters I admired? That was priceless! And I thought that since I trusted their taste in yarns, and patterns, and food, and literature, and so many other things, that if they felt my work was good enough to support? Then maybe I should have a little faith, too. Even if I wasn’t ‘all that and a bag of chips’ yet, it encouraged me to keep trying to move forward.”
Nikki Jones found Ravelry to be a valuable resource after launching her yarn dyeing business, from New Zealand in 2014. “Because of my involvement with the Yarn Hoars, I knew that I needed to make a product that would stand up to scrutiny by people who really knew their stuff,” Jones says. “I wanted eventually to be able to have my yarn stand alongside the wonderful things I’d found through that group.”
Jones also found plenty of advice on the technical aspects of dyeing in a Ravelry group called Love to Dye. “One of the things that’s remarkable about Ravelry is the extent to which people share their knowledge,” Jones says. “Clearly a dyer doesn’t want to give away their recipes or all their tips or tricks, but that group shares a phenomenal amount of stuff, from chemical/technical information to equipment set-ups. Sometimes you have to dig around for it, but it’s all there.”
The Yarn Hoars group also inspired me to launch my knitting business, Indie Untangled, in 2014. I came up with the idea for the site — which allows knitters to discover indie yarn dyers, designers, and crafters of knitting-related accessories — after reading on discussion threads about how hard it was becoming to stand out on Etsy, and after being frustrated by my own experience of missing shop updates from popular indie dyers (who I learned about from the Yarn Hoars, of course).
Ravelry’s growth has come with pros and cons for the small knitting-related businesses that are dependent on the site for visibility. The market has exploded with new yarn dyers and knitwear designers, so it has become harder to stand out. Knitters, particularly new ones, tend to explore outside Ravelry less and may not see the other products businesses have to offer, Hanson says.
“I know my business is now entwined with whatever happens on Ravelry, so I try to enjoy the pros of this relationship and use the cons as inspiration for change,” Hanson says. “I think one has to be prepared to tackle challenges along with success no matter what the environment. In the case of our industry, Ravelry has had a positive impact that I respect and appreciate and which I feel I have benefitted from. I am so glad for its presence!”
The business of knitting aside, what I and others love most about Ravelry is how it has connected us with fascinating people who not only share our hobby and “get” our yarn and fiber obsession, but who have become close friends. My fellow Yarn Hoars have come together to knit blanket squares when members of our group are expecting babies or have lost loved ones, and even chipped in a few years ago to help a friend from Greece experience the famous New York Sheep & Wool Festival for the first time.
“I always have somewhere to go where I’ll be welcomed and supported,” Jones says of Ravelry. “It’s pretty much the best of the internet.”
As the popularity of certain social media sites ebbs and flows, Ravelry stands as a constant and special part of our lives, and a testament to the ability of a big business to stay focused on its close-knit core.
Lisa is a freelance journalist in the New York Metro area who specializes in home design, real estate and healthcare. When she’s not writing, or knitting shawls and sweaters, Lisa runs Indie Untangled (www.indieuntangled.com), a marketplace and blog that promotes the work of yarn dyers, pattern designers and crafters of knitting-related accessories.