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Friday, Jun 9, 2023

New Era for Knitting Business

Their days may be spent cutting deals, but by night a growing number of high-powered women are trading their calculators and spread sheets for the most unlikely of tools knitting needles. Knitting has come back in fashion, bringing with it a burgeoning business in yarn shops that cater, not to grannies hoping to whip up a few holiday gifts, but to women of all ages for whom the craft is not simply about ponchos, it’s about peace of mind. “It’s kind of like the new yoga,” said Debby Johnston, program and events coordinator at The Knitting Guild Association. “You have people who spend the whole day at the office running around like a crazy person, and knitting can be a calming thing. They can get together with other women. It settles you down.” Stitch N Bitch, an online community for knitters, lists 53 knitting shops in the L.A. area, 17 of them in the San Fernando Valley, where at least a half dozen have opened in just the past two years. Although specific numbers are hard to come by, the proprietors of these shops agree that their numbers have likely doubled in the past few years. Some say the events of Sept. 11 rekindled a desire to find activities close to home. Others note that advances in fiber technology have created the kinds of yarns that allow even beginning knitters to produce professional-looking items. And many believe that these knitting circles provide a sense of community that has been sorely missed. “First of all in L.A. people are really displaced,” said Edith Eig, widely considered a grande dame of knitting and owner of Studio City-based La Knitterie Parisienne, who has appeared on numerous talk shows and news magazines and authored several books on the subject. “We create a family bond. It’s a very social thing. You can take it with you. You can speak and knit. It’s also very relaxing.” Nearly all knitting shops offer different classes for knitters of all skill levels, and many provide big, upholstered chairs or large tables where knitters can gather, forming groups that are a kind of cross between the small-town beauty shop and the literary salons of the 1940s. “We have people who just come and hang,” said Sue Palmer, who opened A Yarn for All Seasons in West Hills two years ago. “That happens all day long. There’s a section where it’s all big chairs that people can relax in and get comfortable. We bring lunch in if customers want to have lunch with us.” The lunch hour crowd at Unwind, a Burbank-based shop that opened about a year ago, is just as likely to include executives from the area’s neighboring studios as stay-at-home moms. “During the week we have people here everyday,” said Stephanie Steinhaus, a former philanthropy executive who opened the shop with her husband Ron Shinkman. “They spend their lunch hour. They bring their laptop because we have wireless Internet connection. It’s very contemporary. It’s very clean. I keep hearing from people it doesn’t smell. Things have really changed.” Young and hip Forget those images of Madame Lafarge timidly sticking to her knitting in the dark and dank foyer while the revolution raged, today’s knitters are increasingly young and hip. Since 2002 the number of knitting and crocheting enthusiasts between the ages of 25 and 34 increased by 150 percent, and now account for about 33 percent of all those who practice the art, according to research by the Craft Yarn Council of America. But the number of women of all ages taking up knitting has also increased, now numbering about 53 million, the study found. “I’m 39, and I would say the vast majority of my customers are my age or younger,” said Steinhaus, whose store name, Unwind, is no coincidence, but meant to convey that the store offers more than yarn. “Life is stressful. We need things to do that are relaxing and creative and allow us to be in a community. You go to yoga and you’re very inside yourself. This is something where you can be with people and you can make something unique.” The newest flock of customers is giving these stores a different character from many of their predecessors. Projects run to hats and handbags, even crocheted bathing suits made with silk and other exotic yarns instead of the wool mittens and scarves that grannies once favored. Nor is knitting viewed as a way to produce these items more cheaply as it had been back a few generations ago. An average sale is typically $60 or $70, and it’s not unusual for a hand-knitted sweater to cost upwards of $150. “They’re very stylish,” said Palmer of her customers. “They don’t look frumpy. They don’t look like your typical knitters. They wear what they make, and people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have that.'” Despite the marketing opportunity posed by the new demographics, several of the shops that have recently opened in the Valley and even some of the older ones, were spawned from a love of the craft rather than a financial analysis. But for some, the decision is paying off handsomely. Steinhaus, a lifelong knitter and crocheter, decided to open the store because she saw a void for a shop that carried a large selection of yarns and personal service. The partners recouped their $70,000 investment, including a sophisticated point of sale system that allows them to track inventory and customer traffic, in just three months. Expansion Others, who started out in garages or their homes, have had to expand to retail locations to accommodate the business they’ve developed. Nearly all, however, are also acutely aware that the business could unravel at any time, particularly with the number of newcomers populating the retail landscape. “Remember all those needlepoint shops in the 80s? Where are they now?” said Eig, who moved her 30-year-old shop here from New Jersey to be closer to her children. “They’re gone. It’s a matter of wanting to retain your customer by giving them something new.” Yarn shop owners say that those merchants who cater to beginners wishing to make scarves without providing incentives to continue to explore the craft are not likely to be around long. They are encouraging lifelong customers first by catering to younger knitters and then by promoting projects from handbags to halter tops, conducting special events like charity fundraisers and creating an atmosphere that is as much social as it is retail. “A scarf takes two balls of yarn and you can make it in an evening,” Steinhaus said. “Here we try to move people off that really fast. It was part of our business plan to move people from skill level to skill level quickly. Otherwise it will just be a fad. I opened this store because I loved the art of it. And I think that’s what people are longing for.”

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