It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon at Purl Soho. Cubbyhole shelves line the walls of the shop, stuffed to capacity with thousands of skeins of yarn, in every weight and color you can imagine. Martha Stewart Living touted Purl Soho, “the downtown Manhattan yarn store [that] helped make knitting a hobby as likely to be practiced by models killing time on shoots as by grandmas producing booties.” Founded in 2002 by Joelle Hoverson, Purl Soho debuted at the forefront of the contemporary craft movement, during an era where knitting think-pieces proclaimed that cozy was making a comeback, and knitting wasn’t just for grannies anymore.
Purl Soho’s current shop is the second iteration of their retail space. Hoverson initially opened the shop in a smaller retail space nearby, on Sullivan Street. Purl Soho began as a yarn shop, driven by Hoverson’s passion for knitting with natural fibers, which she’d taken up as a hobby a few years prior. During the height of the knitting industry’s obsession with novelty yarns, Hoverson’s shop stood out. She was interested in bringing knitting out of the “acrylic dark ages,” by filling her store with beautiful, natural fibers.
With a background as an art director and stylist — Hoverson has an MFA from Yale, where she studied painting — Hoverson’s modern aesthetic set Purl Soho apart from other yarn shops. Aiming to create a welcoming space, full of kind and compassionate helpers who would share their knowledge, Hoverson harnessed her creative vision to build a yarn shop with a beautifully curated, modern sensibility. As the shop grew, Hoverson partnered with her sister, Jennifer Hoverson, and Page Marchese Norman to expand into a fabric shop, Purl Patchwork, and launched an ecommerce site for the brand. The three now co-own the business.
In 2010, Purl Soho and Purl Patchwork merged into the current retail space on Broome Street. The shop carries an enormous range of yarns, as well as dozens of bolts of fabrics, a rainbow case of thread, knitting and sewing patterns, notions, craft books, and a wide assortment of DIY kits. Staff members, often avid knitters or sewers themselves, are nearby to assist in selecting the perfect materials for a project. A large project table towards the back of the shop acts as a community workspace, as well as a gathering place for bi-monthly knit nights. Purl Soho also offers classes in their studio space nearby, like needle punching and beginning embroidery.
Purl Soho’s new warehouse in Irvine, California, serves as their fulfillment warehouse for online orders. Although the space isn’t merchandised like their retail shop in New York, the Irvine location often attracts 60-100 makers to their knit nights, with local knitters eager to browse the shelves and stock up on supplies. While Purl Soho wasn’t able to provide a revenue breakdown of their brick and mortar and ecommerce sales, they did comment that the two sides of the business seem to feed each other. “Shoppers come to the Broome Street shop directly from JFK airport every day, luggage in hand,” said Whitney Van Nes, VP of Communications at Purl Soho, “That wouldn’t be happening if they hadn’t first discovered us online.”
As leaders in the revival of traditional crafts, Purl Soho has made education a cornerstone of their business model. Their blog, formerly called The Purl Bee, began as a (pre-social media) employee project showcase, and now features hundreds of free crafting patterns, along with helpful tutorials and comments to help makers create their own projects. The blog has recently been integrated directly into their ecommerce shop under the heading, “Create.”
Creating educational resources for their customers was paramount, especially when it came to launching their signature yarn collection in 2012. “We’d constantly get comments from our customers like, ‘I love this yarn, now what do I do with it??’” said Van Nes. Sharing patterns was part social, and part practical: it gave customers new reasons to buy supplies. “The blog has been a natural evolution of us following our passions,” said Van Nes, who clarified that they reformatted their blog to create a more seamless experience between the tutorials and the ecommerce shop. “There’s much less confusion among our customers now.”
The owners hope to continue expanding Purl Soho’s offerings in the years ahead, just as they’ve added new categories of supplies for beading, weaving, and embroidery products into the mix. “We want to continue to add yarns to our signature collection, driven by what we love – hand-dyed yarns, mohair, machine washable… there’s lots more we want to add,” said Van Nes. Purl Soho also hopes to do some strategic collaborations in the future, to give new life to the brand, and expand their community. That’s the goal, Van Nes said: “Building community, having fun, and learning from each other.”
Erin Dollar is an artist, surface pattern designer, and founder of Cotton & Flax, a collection of boldly patterned textile home decor that is designed and manufactured in California. Her work has been sold in 100+ retail shops, from indie boutiques, to large mass-market retailers like West Elm, CB2, and Need Supply. By growing her ecommerce business to accommodate wholesale buyers, she has built a sustainable business that generates income year-round, and built a platform for long-term growth. See her webinar, Wholesale for Craft Business, in our archives.