This is a (growing) series on the local (to us) folks in the yarn industry. LYS owners and workers, dyers, spinners, distributors, we like to get the point of view from the whole ecosystem. Should you want to see someone here, please leave their name in comments or reach out to us!
Haley is the owner of Knit-o-matic, a full service yarn store on Bathurst Street in Toronto, near St. Clair West subway station. They cater to knitters, crocheters and yarn enthusiasts of all skill levels and budget by offering a wide array of supplies. They also provide very affordable semi-private and private lessons. She gladly volunteered to test-drive this new-to-us interview series.
YFI: How long have you been open?
Haley: Knit-o-matic started in 2004 at its first location and we moved two doors north just over 2 years ago.
Always on Bathurst?
Always on Bathurst.
Why a yarn store? What’s the big story behind Knit-o-matic?
The big story? I used to be an academic, doing my Ph.D in the History of Art at the University of Toronto.
What was your dissertation about?
It was about Altarity in Jewish communities in the XVI and XVII Century in Central Northern Italy.
I was working on that and I was getting sick. After a while, I realized it was the wrong work for me. It was the wrong side of the brain. I really loved it, but the prospect of writing for the next four or five years wasn’t appealing to me.
Following this, I was in need of a job and I wanted to find a career. Nothing I was looking at really “stuck”: I would be interested for a day, and then nothing. My parents were getting worried, and my father came and said: “Well, you’ve been knitting for a while, why not open a yarn store?” I looked into it, and I didn’t lose interest.
And back in 2004, there weren’t as many stores in Toronto, right?
Well, there wasn’t a ton. The industry was changing at the time, with the Internet becoming relevant for knitting. A new generation (Gen X and now Gen Y) took interest in the craft.
It was before Ravelry.
Yes. It was approximately when Knitty took off. Things were changing, people wanted to connect, socialize, and there wasn’t a lot of places allowing for that. Beyond a need, there seemed to be a desire to do things a little differently, allowing a younger crowd to take its place.
Why Bathurst, why St-Clair West?
There were already a few stores downtown, and the rents are quite expensive. Midtown was a little more affordable, there weren’t any stores nearby and the neighborhoods around made sense. So I tried it!
And it ended up working.
It worked, yes. At the time, the neighborhood was gentrifying, although not at the pace I was expecting.
So you’ve been opened for approximately 13 years. What were the challenges back then and how did they change over the years?
They’re still the same. The market keeps changing, and I’ll admit that it’s changing at a faster pace nowadays. As a retailer, it’s becoming very hard to just keep up. The internet is much more prevalent today, and we have many more indie dyers than back then. E-commerce is becoming more sophisticated, so they (indie dyers) have the opportunity to promote themselves, either through Ravelry or their own web-shop. This places retailers in a difficult position; we have to turn over our inventory, but the moment people lose interest in a something, it’s over for that product.
So you’re shuffling between indie dyers, distributors and customers.
Well you can’t really do what indie dyers do, you can’t provide that. It really depends on your customer base, and of course, your customer base shifts over time. It always was a delicate balance, and when I opened, I didn’t really know what my demographics wanted. Now it’s getting a little easier to know what will sell or not.
Would you say there is a difference between what Haley wants and what Knit-o-matic wants?
Oh absolutely! I once read online an adage saying you are not your clients and that is very true. The things I carry in the store are not necessarily what I want to use, and vice-versa. It really doesn’t have anything to do with quality or beauty, but more with what appeals to my clientele.
Would you be ok with sharing one of your biggest mishaps yarn-wise? Something you liked a lot but didn’t work?
Most recently, I had trouble with Noro’s Silk Garden Solo. I freakin’ love the stuff, but next to nobody wanted to touch the stuff.
It’s really weird, because when I started, Noro was so hot. Everyone wanted Noro. I also loved the Noro Iro, now discontinued, and also the Kash Iroha, but it wore terribly.
If you’re imagining your typical customer, what would she (or he) looks like?
Middle-aged woman, but it stretches from the twenties to seventies (which is still pretty young!). Increasingly more men, yet I wish there would be more of them.
They’re coming, they’re coming laughs
I hope so, I really hope so, because when you have a wider distribution of people, this is where it gets more interesting for me.
Would you be able to describe your store in one sentence?
Still no. Not my skill-set. smile I just love textiles and enjoy sharing that.
What are your workhorse in your store? What is selling very well?
Cascase 220 Superwash and Berroco Vintage and Vintage Chunky are very popular. I have a lot of clients knitting for kids, so washability is a big factor for them. Malabrigo Rios also, for the same reasons. Unlike (I think) many other stores, I also sell a lot of bulky and super bulky yarns.
Trick question: Yarn-wise, what’s the product making you the happiest?
I love, love love Berroco Ultra Alpaca Light. Best sweater yarn ever. I’ve made a ton of them with it. I’m a habit forming person, so when I get into something, I really get into it. I’m at the point where I’ve run out of flattering colours, I’ll have to go back to previously colours I’ve already worked with!
Another aspect that’s very important to me is wearability. If you put so much energy into your knitting, and since I’m not a super-fast knitter, this is a crucial element. Fun fact: when you’re a yarn store owner, you actually get less time to knit for yourself.
Any yarn that you’d love to carry (again or not)?
If I could, I would have a full wall of Koigu. I love it, I use it as an art material, but I can’t sell it in my neighborhood.
Something very special about your store is that, for the size, you have a great array of needles, notions or books.
I try to keep a good array, in an high-low fashion. I’m partial to quality, because I don’t really like the experience of having something break once they get home. I hate when it happens to me, so I do my best so it doesn’t happen to my customers. I think selling really cheap stuff is kind of disingenuous. I love Clover as a brand, they almost never disappointed me. That being said, I totally understand people not wanting to spend as much, or beginners not being sure if they’ll like it, hence why I have other options. I don’t carry super cheap needles because I don’t see the point. The experience of knitting is very tactile and so having a decent yarn and needles, comfortable and all, is very important.
I love carrying books, I would love to have more of them, but they’re a dying breed. The publishing industry seems to be chugging along, but a lot of the purchasing is done online when it comes to books. I read on tablets, and many people do too. As an academic, I still love paper books, and I think that reference books are better experienced as a physical object. A lot of time, it’s a lot faster to leaf through it. Another downside to reading with a tablet is that it’s hard to accidentally stumble onto something. When I was studying, I spent some time walking through the aisles and randomly picking books and going through them. Stitch dictionaries, reference books, I think those are better on paper. The younger generation might become used to tablets so it might not appeal to them anymore, but I still see value nowadays.
So beside selling, do you offer classes, private or group, or any other services?
We do group classes and workshops. On top of that, you can book semi-private or private lessons, which you can book during the week (too many people in the store on the weekend to keep the offering). We try to offer it at an affordable price so people can actually do it. We don’t make a lot of money out of it, but it fills the gap in traditional education where people learned how to knit from their families. You do need one-on-one instruction sometimes, because it’s a physical skill to a certain extent and not everybody learns well from books or the internet.
We do stitch-and-bitch a few times a week, we do a yarn swap a few times a year, where people can bring in the yarn and needles they do not want, and take what they want from the swap bins. The rest goes to charity. It’s super fun, and everything gets used. Some people are afraid to bring acrylic to those events, but most charity knitters actually prefer the stuff! It’s so much better than throwing it away.
Everyone has some stuff in their stash that they will never use but they don’t want to throw it away. Knowing that another knitter will use it lifts that weight and makes you feel better about it. My favorite things coming at the yarn swaps are actually the unfinished projects.
It’s like an anthropological study. You see the things people that get pitched.
If a brand new knitters comes to your store, what will she or he leaves with?
We usually don’t recommend much: a good pair of 9-10 inch wood needles, some bulky yarn and a darning needle. As far as teaching, we start with the cast-on, knit, purl, and go from there. The first project is usually a scarf, and because it’s a physical skill, they start making a mess, put it aside, and then start knitting their scarf. We encourage making mistakes and learning from them, as it gives the best results in your learning curve.
I wish they would keep those monstrous little squares and give them to me, and I would put them on display, but nobody does. I adore them.
When did you start knitting?
I started when I was approximately 8. My mother taught me and my Brownies troupe. I liked it, so I started making scarves and tube tops for my Barbies. I lost interest for a number of years, before getting back at it during my undergrad degree. There was a dumpy little store next to the University and I passed it one day. They were selling a lot of mill ends, so I bought some, asked my grandmother for a random pair of needles, and went at it. Thinking about it, my learning curve was much steeper than my customers’! My first project looked like a rug, the tension was so far off. I didn’t have the wisdom to see my grandmother and ask for help.
What do you carry with you, when you’re knitting on the go?
Up until very recently, I had a little pouch with cable needles, a row counter, another row counter, some scrap yarn and some dental floss, tapestry needles and a ton of stitch markers. I’m more confident now, so I don’t feel like carrying all my gadgets all the time now. I just pack what I need.
What do you like best about having a yarn store?
I really like connecting with the people. There is always the odd day where you’re like ‘Why am I doing this’? and then someone comes in and you make their day, so you keep going. After making a donation of charity yarn to a school knitting group, I received a hand-written note from the kid who organized it, and my heart melted. I felt like I was doing something important and not just “working”.
What aspect would you get rid of?
Paperwork. There is so much of it, it’s so gross. Getting someone to do it for you is very expensive, but you’ll have to if you want to grow beyond a certain size. Data entry is a special kind of hell. Most people going into yarn stores think about the glamour and the schmoozes, and then you get smacked with the making-money aspect, and the taxes, and the paperwork. People think going into retail is going to be easy because you love what you’re selling, but it’s not, it’s really hard work. Knitting isn’t my escape anymore.
Wooden or Metal Needles? I used to be wood, my tension changed recently, so I’m into brass now.
Stockinette or Garter? Stockinette, and I didn’t think I had a preference, it just came to me!
Flat construction or in the round? I like garments with a flat construction, but I like knitting them in the round.
Knit or Purl? Knit.
Knit, Crochet? Knit first, crochet in the summer.
Favorite thing to knit? Maybe hats?
Socks, toe up or cuff down? Toe up.
Favorite knitting book? Loop-d-loop, by Teva Durham.
Favorite non-fiber activity? Meditate, exercise, sleep.
Biggest mistake newcomers make? They don’t communicate that they’re novices. They should never be shy about being new. Everyone’s a beginner at the start, it’s our job to help and guide newbies. The more communication, the better!