The beloved shop Churchmouse Yarns & Tea will be online-only going forward.
Two decades ago, after leaving a corporate job as copy director for Nordstrom’s catalog, Kit Hutchin opened a yarn shop on Bainbridge Island, a small community of roughly 20,000 people in Washington State that’s connected to Seattle by ferry.
At the time, knitting was in the midst of a revival, and in Churchmouse Yarns & Teas, Hutchin and, later, her husband, John Koval, built both a quintessential LYS, with a variety of classes and a selection of mostly workhorse and occasional novelty yarns, and a destination for crafty tourists in the Pacific Northwest.
Like many businesses, Churchmouse had to shutter its bricks and mortar location during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, Hutchin and Koval made the difficult decision to permanently close the space. Instead, they plan to focus more fully on churchmouseyarns.com, which launched in 2010 and includes a growing collection of more than 100 original garment and accessory patterns, many of which can also be found in yarn shops across the country, yarn from brands like Rowan and Brooklyn Tweed and a curated stock of notions, accessories and gifts.
Kit Hutchin and John Koval, owners of Churchmouse Yarns, share a moment of laughter.
“As you know, small businesses are precarious at the best of times and we entered the COVID-19 crisis with garden-variety financial vulnerabilities,” read their email to customers announcing the closure in July. “While the lockdown has certainly added stresses, it has afforded us time for soul-searching.”
“We realize that we don’t have the resources to rebuild everything as it was before.”
In a way, the decision mirrors the turning point nearly 10 years ago, when Island residents encouraged the couple to pivot online, to what eventually some started calling “churchmouseyarns dot calm.”
Pivoting to ecommerce
“The shop wasn’t providing as much revenue and we realized we either had to close it or grow it,” Koval recalls.
The move online enhanced the business and made Churchmouse more than a word-of-mouth destination though, like many retailers, sales had begun to plateau in recent years and they were looking for ways to continue to grow. Then COVID hit.
The company had to let go of two-thirds of its staff of just over a dozen employees and made plans to vacate its space on Madrone Lane, a few blocks from the ferry terminal, at the end of August. They will remain on the island in an office space to provide web order fulfillment.
For Hutchin, who spent years “making knitters” through personalized instruction, the decision has been particularly difficult.
“My first love was not virtual,” Hutchin says. “I personally would have chosen bricks and mortar over online. For me, it’s really going to be about figuring out how we have those relationships, especially when you can get anything anywhere.”
Diversifying into tea
The decision to sell tea along with craft supplies was part of the goal to make the shop both unique and approachable. Though the space was already decorated to give it the feel of an English cottage, with antique armoires and even table lamps, Hutchin explains that they wanted to prevent it from being too intimidating to new crafters. The tea — the majority classic blacks and greens, mirroring the yarn selection — was always on display in the back of the store so that customers could come in under the guise of exploring the teas, and then warm up to yarn crafts by observing the people working on their projects from a safe distance.
A cozy nook inside Churchmouse Yarns & Tea. The shop is now online only after closing due to the pandemic.
A new chapter
Hutchin and Koval are looking forward to some parts of the new chapter for their business, including the ability to innovate more without juggling two businesses, plus the additional expenses that come with a physical space.
“One of the things we’re looking forward to is not having to synch what’s in the store with what’s online,” Hutchin says. “Now we can have a little bit more control or direction and not have to match that up.”
The couple has considered doing pop-up events in the future, but say they will mainly focus on their new direction for the website and curating both classic handmade fashions and community through a newsletter and other virtual channels.
While the industry’s independent knitting and crochet designers have taken to using complex colorwork and brightly speckled yarns, Churchmouse focuses on simple silhouettes and monochromatic fibers.
“We don’t really see ourselves as providing yarn, we see ourselves at providing projects,” Hutchin says. “We want you to knit the garment that you’re going to wear for 10 years.”
As Hutchin and Koval embark on the next chapter for Churchmouse, they acknowledge that their company’s commitment to customer service will be difficult to replicate online.
“That’s the part we’re going to miss — serving people,” says Koval. “We saw what we did for 20 years we really touched people. There were people who considered us our LYS that have never even lived here.”
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.