I live in yarn shops. Whether I’m going to visit friends an hour away or traveling halfway across the world for a longer vacation, I always search for the pockets of peace and woolly goodness of a yarn shop. Yarn shops have long held a particular fascination for me, not only because I love brick-and-mortar retailers, but also because I’m always intrigued to see how their selection of yarns and knitting accessories differs (or sometimes doesn’t) from what I’ve seen in other areas of the world. It’s also been wonderful to see yarn shops evolve and grow during the years—yet sad to remember the ones that are not around anymore.
For me, yarn shops are indicative not only of the tastes of their owners, but also of where the industry is headed, which trends are currently prevailing, and how brick-and-mortar retail spaces can interact with and reflect the online knitting community. One aspect that I’ve noticed over the last few years is how much more international the knitting community has become. Using Ravelry and Instagram as our main platforms enables us to connect with like-minded folks from across the globe and get inspired by projects and yarns from outside our immediate circle. Etsy, big yarn retail websites, and indie dyers’ websites help us get our hands on yarns from Australia, South Africa, and the US with just a few clicks, even if we are – like me – based in Europe.
Ana Alvarado Baldous
For the European knitting community in particular, we’ve seen a rather dramatic shift in the yarns available over the last few years. European knitters were once primarily focused on commercial yarns—think Lang, Lana Grossa— and were reading magazines that have been around for a long time. Over the last several years, though, we’ve embraced hand-dyed and small-batch yarns from overseas. Interestingly the total market volume (i.e. revenue) of hand knitting yarns sold in Germany alone has steadily decreased in the last four years, from 520mn € in 2013 to 375mn € in 2016, and now retailers are facing the challenge of balancing the needs and wants of old-school European knitters with the demands of the newer international-focused market.
I’ve spoken to a few yarn shop owners in non-English speaking countries in Europe to understand how they’re managing the effects of the increasing popularity of yarns from overseas, especially the from the UK and US, and the internationalization of the crafting market in their retail spaces.
Ruta Sluskaite, owner of Berlin-based yarn shop, Wollen Berlin, tries to stock local yarns, but has started to add international brands like Brooklyn Tweed and Juniper Moon Farm as well. She sees two main challenges in the crafting market right now.
“The first challenge is to advise your customer and help them find out about new yarns and international patterns,” she explains. “For the shops, the challenge is to be able to get international yarns. Mostly you have to apply to be a stockist and wait for the answer. This process takes very long, sometimes a few years.”
Susanne Wenke from Stil-Blüte in Braunschweig, Germany adds a third issue. “While American yarns were very interesting for us at the beginning, dealing with customs, taxes, and long delivery times has become a big hassle, which is why we’re focusing more on European yarns these days.”
Shop owners in France, a country with a strong knitting tradition, see the language barrier as another challenge to overcome. Ana Alvarado Baldous, owner of the yarn shop Lanae Tricot in Grenoble, France, says, “Because France is not a country with a very good English level, knitters (mainly the older generations) are not aware of what’s going on in the English-speaking knitting world. Therefore yarn shops rarely offer American or UK-based brands or patterns. I also have the impression that the brands I have in mind (Brooklyn Tweed, Rowan, Blacker Yarns, for example) present a more rustic feel and natural content that a good part of the French knitting sphere doesn’t always appreciate.”
Acrylic-based yarns have been popular in France for decades. The trend in the UK and the US toward more natural fibers has been slow to take hold in France with English acting as a boundary, but also quality and the prices that comes with quality.
In addition, a lot of knitters gravitate towards hand-dyed yarns these days which are sold directly by the dyer presenting an additional challenge for overseas buyers. Sluskaite explains, “Many indie yarn dyers and online wool sellers offer special small batch or hand-dyed yarns on Etsy or in their own online shops. Local yarn shops cannot offer this huge variety so finding the right selection will be the most important task for the future.”
Another key skill is advising and educating customers, about new patterns and yarns, primarily through Ravelry. Wenke says, “We’ve been able to introduce our customers to Ravelry and English patterns more and more.” Sluskaite sees the same development in Berlin.
Stil-Blüte in Braunschweig, Germany
“We tell our customers to take the time to find good patterns on Ravelry. Now that Ravelry is available in German, it is a little bit easier to use. […] Since you can buy patterns on Ravelry as a shop for customers, it is easier to sell these patterns. And we can help the customers find the right yarn.”
Baldous also focuses on explaining the benefits of lesser-known yarn brands and helping her customers expand their knitting skills. “I’m willing to educate them about the more natural yarns, and I teach them how to use Ravelry (for free). I take the time to explain and introduce them to new techniques like knitting with circular needles.”
Maintaining a balanced selection of old favorites and new goodies is key. Actively pointing out the benefits of yarns they might have not tried yet also helps. Sluskaite explains, “We try to offer products for experienced knitters and those new to knitting, and we show knit-newcomers that you can knit with different yarns! Nice yarn makes it all.” She also sees a slow, but steady development in the types of yarn her customers are looking for. “70-80 percent still just want superwash, merino yarn. But the other 20-30 percent are getting more interested in different, unknown, hand-dyed yarns.”
Baldous consciously integrates trunk shows and events like workshops into her shop that mix both types of knitters and introduces them to new yarns. “With trunk shows, for example, I’ve had people see hand dyed yarns for the first time and being willing to buy them.”
Like yarn shops everywhere, European stores are struggling with the ease of ecommerce. As Wenke points out, “I believe the customer wants both the direct contact, the meeting of like-minded knitters in my shop, and at the same time they like ordering their yarn from the breakfast table.”
Wenke has some suggestions for yarn shop owners.
“A yarn shop is not only selling yarn anymore. It also brings our online connections into the real world and creates communities of knitters offline.
“Establishing events like regular knit nights, holding workshops, and creating a welcoming atmosphere are going to be key, along with having an updated website, ideally with a webshop, where people can browse your selection online. For countries with a strong language barrier, like Germany and France, helping customers understand English knitting patterns, providing translations where necessary, and educating them about platforms like Ravelry is also essential for yarn shops,” Wenke said.
From a creative business owner’s perspective, the effects of the internationalization of the knitting market on the European knitting scene are both exciting and scary. Exciting because they offer endless opportunities for creativity and for coming up with new concepts and ideas on how to make a retail space inviting and relevant. Scary because they require a re-thinking of what a physical space needs to be and a bit of courage to change as the global marketplace evolves.
Hanna Lisa Haferkamp
Hanna Lisa is a coach for creative business owners, project bag designer and co-founder of the independent knitwear publisher making stories. She loves knitting, writing, and working with other female creatives on making this world a better place. If you’re curious, you can find out more about her on her website, Etsy, and Instagram.