At The Wooly Thistle, proprietor Corinne Tomlinson says her customers want to travel through their knitting.Photos courtesy of The Wooly Thistle
Knitting backgroundLike many crafters, Corinne learned to knit when she was a child. Although she was a proficient knitter by her teens, Corinne put the needles aside for years, only to rediscover them when her daughter was a young child. For someone who learned to knit on long needles, using cryptic patterns, today’s knitting world – with comfortable circular needles and user-friendly patterns – was a revelation. By 2014, Corinne had started her own knitting podcast, New Hampshire Knits. She developed a loyal following of crafters who enjoyed hearing about her knitting journey.
“When I went over and touched them and sniffed them and squished them,” she recalls, “I knew I wanted to bring the yarn home for my friends.”She arranged for vendors to send big boxes of yarn to her New Hampshire home and her knitting friends eagerly snapped up the near-to-nature wools. What Corinne didn’t sell to her friends became inventory for an Etsy shop. Using her podcast’s built-in customer base, Corinne’s business grew. Today, The Woolly Thistle has a logo (the thistle is a longtime symbol of Scotland), an attractive and user-friendly website, and an ever-growing customer base.
Corinne Tomlinson, owner of the online yarn shop, The Wooly Thistle, had no retail experience when she opened her store, but she did have good instincts about what her customer base was looking for.Photo courtesy of The Wooly Thistle
Passion for yarnTo say Corinne is passionate about the products she sells is an understatement. When she started knitting again, she first cast on a workhorse yarn stocked by a nearby knitting shop. Like many new knitters, she later became curious about multicolored handdyes. After experimenting with various yarns, she began to wonder about different breeds of wool. As she knit with each breed, she asked herself “What kind of hand does it have? How does it behave? What is its unique character?” That’s when she fell in love with what she calls rustic or pebbly yarn.
“You can feel every bump,” she enthuses. “I love worsted spun yarns. I love vegetable matter – it’s a piece of the earth that the sheep was once on.”Her current favorites: Shetland (“you can’t beat it – it’s amazing!”), Norwegian Spælsau, Rauma’s Finullgarn, and Hebridean wool (“It’s deliciously dark and bitter-looking but feels so good”).
A vision brought to life
Visit the Woolly Thistle’s website and you’ll see Corinne’s vision brought to life. Blue-faced Leicester, Donegal Irish heathers, Shetland and Norwegian wools in a variety of colors as well as Lopi yarns are the most familiar (to a non-Thistler, at least). Side by side are more unusual yarns: creamy Jacob, darker Gotland wool, and breed-specific blends like a Hebridean/Zwartbles/Exmoor-BFL mix and a Spanish merino with Andalusian cotton. Many are from small producers or farms dotted throughout the UK. Some yarns come in microbatches that sell out quickly. Books focus on stranded knitting and folk knitting traditions, mixed with hip magazines like Pom Pom and Laine.
By focusing on the pebbly yarns she loves, Tomlinson created a shop with a unique mission. “Merino does not sell in our shop,” Corinne notes. “I love it but it’s not what people come to us for. People are looking for that next level, wools that get softer as you wash them, that hold their shape and become heirloom items. [They want] intriguing paths of inquiry and exploration, to escape from a difficult world and travel through their knitting.” That vision translates to a unique product mix, giving the shop a striking identity.
Corrine loves rustic, pebbly yarn and her shop’s logo features a thistle, a longtime symbol fo her native Scotland.Photo courtesy of The Wooly Thistle.
Building communityPassion? Check. Unique niche? Check. Corinne intuitively understands the importance of community as well. She benefited from building a warm and loyal community before going pro. “My podcast gave me a base of people who already liked what I was talking about.” she explains. “Find your people who will help build your business and are your VIPs.” Corinne continues to reach out to her customers via weekly YouTube videos, an active Facebook group, knitalongs, and frequent newsletters. During the pandemic, TWT even created a buddy system, matching customers who were housebound and lonely with others in the same position. “There are still buddy groups meeting, some even vacation together,” Corinne says. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of. We knew we had a lot of customers who were going to feel very alone and we put them together. [Having that kind of impact] brings me to tears.”
Positioning for growthAlthough the shop currently is online only, TWT’s warehouse and order fulfillment center just moved to a bigger space (Corinne admits she is tempted by the idea of a physical shopfront but not right now). TWT’s first in-house yarn, Rambler Sock, has been very successful, now in its third milling. A blend of Dorset, Corriedale and Romney, the yarn is 100% U.S. sourced and milled and comes in ten colors. As for future plans, Tomlinson would like to create a heavier-gauge yarn and add more TWT products (the shop currently sells tote bags, kits, and patterns). Love what you’re selling, find a community that shares your enthusiasm and carve out your own niche. Great advice for any commercial undertaking and the recipe for The Woolly Thistle’s success.
Carol J. Sulcoski