Community Hub for a Solitary Pursuit: Running a Yarn Store in a Pandemic

3 March 2021
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“How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?” This has been a constant refrain of the last eleven months.

My answer is often hesitant, because in the grand scheme of things the shop and I are not doing too badly. I’m healthy, my staff and our families have been able to stay safe, and this particular type of international disaster results in many people having more time on their hands than usual. And of course, time on your hands easily translates into time with your knitting in your hands. So I am holding up okay, and I am constantly grateful that the type of business I own seems to lend itself well to this particular disaster.

But holding up okay and doing well are rather different. Another comment I hear more frequently than I would like is, “This pandemic must be great for business!” Truly people have said it, and more than once.

Should I have to explain that lockdowns, travel restrictions, yarn and needle shortages due to supply-chain and postal disruptions, lack of tourists due to travel restrictions, the stress of interacting with a public who in large part seem remarkably resistant to following lockdown rules and travel restrictions, not to mention the daily stress of potentially exposing myself and my staff to a deadly virus are not, actually, great for business? It takes rather a lot of my best retail restraint to respond with a smile, but the mask helps with that.

The truth is that lockdowns for this small business are a bit of a mixed bag. It is a boon that we are in the internet age and we can reach our customers through the wonders of online shopping, social media, and direct email campaigns. It was enlightening to discover just how much could be accomplished with a smart phone and an internet connection.

This past summer, we managed to host four trunk shows almost completely online. What had previously been single-day affairs held outside on our patio under the shade of our beautiful tree became four day-long events held entirely on our online shop (less community-based for sure, but still successful in their own right).

Image description: Four people stand in conversation.

The Yarns Untangled storefront. Photo credit Amelia Lyon.

I also discovered the fascinating world of Instagram Live videos, some of the sweatiest experiences I have ever had while standing still. Our followers are enthusiastic, and we have a wonderful time squishing beautiful new yarn together. We have even been hosting shopping appointments over Zoom for crafters looking for advice on their projects, and the digital classes we have been hosting have been gratifyingly successful [full disclosure: co-publisher Kate Atherley teaches such classes at Yarns Untangled].

The internet is not a perfect solution, however. A considerable proportion of our customers continue to be uncomfortable shopping online and uninterested in Instagram and Facebook, and I absolutely do not blame them. Making sure knitting and crochet was as much for everyone as possible has always been important to us. Not being able to offer any kind of beginner classes or hands-on help to newer crafters has been frustrating, both for us and for the beginners. Zoom lessons simply are not good enough (next time you’re on Zoom, hold your knitting up to the camera and try to demo a centre double decrease and you’ll see what I mean). Usually, we would be able to set newbies up in a class with their first project and send them home with an excellent foundation to build upon, but now they are for the most part at the mercy of Youtube.

I asked my staff how things had been for them during this time, and Annabel said,

“I especially miss helping the people who come to the store with their knitting clutched in their hands, looking terrified because they dropped their first stitch and think all is lost. Being able to do that quick fix for them is such an easy reassurance. It can be the difference between someone giving up at the first hurdle or powering through their first project and ultimately falling in love with knitting.”

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Photo credit Amelia Lyon.

Crafting can be a very solitary pursuit and that is a big part of why we exist. Yarn shops not only supply you with yarn, needles, hooks and books, but also give you a place to learn, expand your skills, and meet with the community.

The highlight of my week for the last five years has been our Wednesday stitch nights. Each Wednesday, attendees joined us from all over the city, many taking out dinner from one of Kensington Market’s fabulous restaurants and bringing it to the shop. In the summer, we sat outside and basked in the setting summer sun while swapping stories from our lives, crafting or otherwise. This whole operation moved to Zoom at the end of last March and while I still love seeing my friends on a weekly basis, I do not need to tell you how much it is not the same. You get it, you have been doing it for eleven months, too.

What may have been the hardest part of this whole experience for me is the way it has changed my relationship with my customers against my will. No longer am I a friendly neighbourhood yarn vendor— instead I feel like the COVID police. Even when we were open to the public last summer, the loudest thought in my head when someone came inside was not how to best get them set up with yarn and needles, but whether they were following all the rules. Why do they keep adjusting their mask? Is that a sniffle? Did they really just take their mask off to ask a question?

In large part, knitters and crocheters are a patient and understanding group (we have to be, otherwise we would find a different hobby!), but the constant stress of this pandemic has left us all with thin skins and an inability to cope with our yarn being held hostage by the rules. Since last March, I have had a variety of unpleasant experiences with likely very reasonable people, most of which can be traced to differing interpretations of the confusing guidelines issued by our provincial government. The most recent of these experiences left me baffled and in tears as a customer sped furiously away in her car.

It’s not all bad, though. A few hours later, another person trudged through a blizzard to pick up their order with a kind word and a smile. After they left I realised they had acquired a shovel from somewhere and had cleared the snow from our front patio and the entire corner sidewalk. Experiences like this one not only remind me that there are still good folks in the world, but also that there many people who recognize that we need extra kindness these days.

This idea is one I am holding onto. I will certainly have more of those unpleasant interactions and there will be more stock shortages to come. We will have many more weeks of Zoom stitch nights and it will be a long time yet before I can hug people as much as I want to. And of course, there is the omnipresent threat of illness and loss we all contend with each day. But I am grateful to know that as long as people continue to ask if I am holding up okay it means they are glad that Yarns Untangled is still around, and that is worth more than I can I ever say.

Featured photo credit: Vidya Menon

Copyright © Amelia Lyon except as indicated.

About Amelia Lyon

Amelia began her knitting journey as a child. She learned the basics from her mother and picked up new techniques along the way from aunts, friends of parents, and the owners and staff of her local yarn store in Ottawa. After moving to Toronto, she got her dream job working for Lettuce Knit in Kensington Market. Three years later when the shop closed in 2015, she opened Yarns Untangled in its place and began this exciting new chapter. Yarns Untangled is a colourful and cozy community hub that prizes inclusion, warmth, creativity, and crafting knowledge and excellence. It features a wide variety of hand-dyed Canadian yarn, high quality factory-produced yarn in a wide price range, and all the gear, notions and books you could ever need.

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