Knitting and electrical engineering might not seem to have much in common, but they link together perfectly for Carrie Sundra. A few years ago, Sundra, who created a naturally-dyed yarn business called Alpenglow Yarn after feeling burnt out by her career as an electrical engineer, decided to use her technical expertise to help her business, and her fellow yarntrepreneurs.

After winding skein after skein of yarn for a major fiber event where she was vending, Sundra ran with “necessity is the mother of invention” and created a machine called the SkeinMinder, an accessory to the small motorized tabletop winders many small dyers use to create their sellable hanks. The device automatically stops the winder when the pre-programmed yardage is reached, allowing dyers to focus on other things instead of watching the rotation counter on the winder. The device was a hit, and Sundra funded production through the $70,000+ raised via a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Photos courtesy of Carrie Sundra

Now, she’s back at it, and recently began working on a device called the SkeinTwister, a machine that uses a hook-like attachment to twist skeins, cutting down on tons of manual labor and potential injury-causing repetitive movements and, ideally, creating consistently twisted skeins that let shoppers focus on the beautiful colors.

“Twisting skeins is one of those things that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, until you have to do hundreds all at once,” says Sundra, who is based in San Luis Obispo, California. “Even dyers who sell smaller volumes will typically have a big crunch time right before a yarn show, when they’re finishing up as much inventory as they can to take with them. If you’re twisting everything by yourself, it really wears on your fingers, wrists, and elbows.”

“For dyers who already have repetitive stress injuries in those areas, it can be quite painful. Even if twisting is normally no big deal, the weather can actually make it a pain. When I was shipping out yarn for the SkeinMinder Kickstarter rewards, there was a heat wave with high humidity and the skeins were sticking to my fingers when I twisted them. They looked crappy because I had a hard time with consistency, and I got blisters for the first time,” she said.
To create the SkeinTwister, Sundra first went through several proof-of-concept models, then made a prototype, and finally built about a dozen beta units herself, sending them out to testers this past spring. Through testing, the device underwent one major change, and Sundra is currently considering more adjustments to prolong the life of the gearbox. She is also investigating the mass manufacturing process, which is more challenging than it was for the SkeinMinder.

“Most of my experience is with building electronics hardware, and since the SkeinMinder is a purely electronics hardware device, it was easier and faster for me to develop,” Sundra explains. “I already had the right computer programs, vendors lined up, everything. The SkeinTwister is a different beast because it actually has to move and has force applied to it, so there’s a large mechanical design component. I had to do a bunch of research to just figure out an affordable CAD program, and it took some time to learn its quirks. Then I had to figure out how to get the custom hook manufactured and find the right vendor. I had to do a lot of motor research and find the right style and vendor for that. It’s definitely been a more challenging project, and there have been more iterations and testing throughout.”

The device has the extra challenge of handling the human factor. “There’s a bigger variety in the ways that dyers use the SkeinTwister,” Sundra says. “For the SkeinMinder, winding is pretty much winding, and I only had to interface with about three different winder styles. With twisting, everyone likes a different degree of twist and firmness to their skeins. Fiber content makes a big difference in twist force, and everyone has different size put-ups.  So, there were more variables on the user end of things.”

Pricing is also a big challenge. Normally, Sundra would take the cost of materials and labor, double it for the wholesale price and quadruple it for the retail price. However, since the materials and labor costs are fairly high, the devices won’t sell if they’re priced too high. And because they don’t have the same demand as a cell phone or kitchen appliance, setting a price becomes even more complicated — all while Sundra is trying to cover advertising and other administrative costs and make a profit.

“It becomes this crazy optimization game of trying to be clever in the design, make the function as simple as possible, and reduce parts cost at the very beginning,” Sundra says. “These two products aren’t enough by themselves to be a self-sustaining, one-product or even two-product business. My goals with these devices are to build them because I like to build them and I want to support hand dyers by offering helpful tools, charge a fair price that is affordable to both small-volume and large-volume dyers, and not work for free in the process.”

Katie Franceschi, the dyer behind Yarn Love, a studio located just outside Des Moines, Iowa, says the SkeinMinder and SkeinTwister, which she has beta tested, are indispensable to her business, which is 80 percent wholesale. “Winding and twisting skeins used to take more time than the actual hands-on dyeing process,” Franceschi says. “With the SkeinTwister, I can have a skein fully twisted and ready for a yarn band in 15 seconds. I estimate it saves me about 60 to 70 percent over twisting manually. It also reduces the amount of repetitive motion, making twisting much more comfortable… I had a difficult time sending my beta-unit back for a software update this summer. I would go so far as to say that the Minder and Twister are indispensable for any indie yarn artist who relies on efficiency and accuracy to keep their studio profitable.”

How One Woman is Automating the Indie Yarn Business, a Skein at a Time
Lisa Chamoff

Lisa Chamoff


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.

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