Yarn Shop Survival Guide

My first yarn came from my grandmother’s stash when I was about ten years old. Later on (when I had babysitting money burning a hole in my pocket) I relied on the True Value Hardware Store downtown. For real, the hardware store sold yarn. It was pastel acrylic, but it was something.

Lucky for me (and you), today’s yarn offerings can knit circles around the baby acrylic of my youth, and – better still – we have expertly curated shops that contain all the lovely little things our knitter-hearts desire. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Are you ready to rock the yarn shop experience?

First, we need to talk about the elephant in the room

Before I begin my soliloquy on why your LYS is the second best place in the world next to being home (introverts, unite!), let’s talk about a painful truth:  One time you went to a yarn shop and the person working that day was rude, or ignored you, or scoffed when you asked a newbie question. If this has ever happened to you, I am so sorry. This doesn’t excuse it, but maybe it was a bad day for the person behind the counter (perhaps they found moths in their stash that morning?), or maybe that shop was a dud (it does happen), but in general, yarn shops are AMAZING places of synergy and connection, and I encourage you – implore you – to try again (or at least try another shop). The yucky yarn shop experience has happened to most of us at least once, but amazing yarn shop experiences happen FAR more often and they’re so awesome that it’s worth the effort to keep trying until you find the shop that makes your heart sing. It’s out there. I promise.

Now that we have that out of the way…

Yarn Shop Survival Guide:

How to find your tribe, commune with the fiber gods and get hooked on the good stuff

…with a little expert advice from Sarah Keller, owner of Knot Another Hat in Hood River, Oregon, Sonia Ruyts, owner of Stash Local in Corvallis, Oregon and Rachel Maurer, owner of Woolyn Brooklyn in Brooklyn, New York. A huge thank you to these three terrific, inspiring shop owners for taking the time to share their insights. 

  1. First and foremost: Are you a newbie? That’s cool. I can’t tell you how many times newer knitters have told me they were intimidated by their first visit to the yarn shop. Sarah Keller’s advice? “[On your] first visit … take time to take it all in. Don’t be scared to ask questions – we all know that everyone has to start somewhere. Our job is to be your fiber tour guide, and we love to do it.”  Like Sarah says, we were all beginners once and come on now, don’t you want your very own fiber tour guide? Of course you do. Sonia Ruyts says,“Go in with an open mind, be curious, and accept help. It’s hard learning new things, and you may not get it on the first try. That’s okay; we achieve progress through practice. And shopping for yarn is part of the pleasure and challenge of knitting. We have a lot of experience and have made ALL the mistakes (and keep making them), so we understand where you’re at. And Rachel Maurer puts it this way: “We’re all really passionate and excited about yarn/yarn crafting, or we wouldn’t be doing this; we want you to feel the same way.”  Passion is contagious, and if you’re looking for a safe space to learn, grow and stretch your wings, the yarn shop is the place to do it.
  2. Experts welcome. Did you know that your LYS totally wants to see the latest tri-color brioche sweater dress you’re making? Or the results of the mystery KAL you just finished? One of my favorite things as a yarn shop employee was when a customer came back in to show us what she made with the yarn she bought at the shop, or when a customer asked for help choosing the “pop” color for her next shawl. Show and tell, fiber talk and color play are some of the perks of the yarn shop experience that you won’t find anywhere else.
  3. You are a fiber artist.  Sarah Keller says it best: “I wish every customer knew, deep down, that what we do is just sticks and string, making knot after knot after knot. There’s no life or death in knitting, and there are very few “rights” and “wrongs.” I wish every customer knew that they are a fiber artist, whether they’ve only ever made garter stitch scarves or whether they design their own projects from start to finish.”  Yes, yes, yes! The LYS reminds us that we’re all creative people, clicking our needles and churning out cool things, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a lifer or brand new to the craft; we all make progress one stitch at a time. If you are inspired to pick up a skein of yarn and a pair of needles (or a hook, or a loom or a spinning wheel), you’re a fiber artist – the yarn shop experience helps us to honor and celebrate this part of ourselves.
  4. You don’t have to have a plan. Your local yarn shop is more than a store that sells yarn. Think of it as a place to escape the daily grind, gather inspiration and fall in love (with your next project). “When someone walks through our doors, my hope is that they will feel welcome and find what they are looking for. Sometimes that just means a comfortable place to hang out for 20 minutes until school lets out, sometimes that means yarn for the latest Olive Knits release (wink, wink – that’s actually a VERY common request). But either way, our job is to help them and make them feel like they are part of our Knot Another Hat home,” says Sarah Keller. (*blushing* I didn’t pay her to say that.) Your LYS understands that you might need time to squish and contemplate and find the right project. They also know that breathing yarn fumes and fondling skeins are good for the soul.
  5. You belong here.  A yarn shop worth its salt knows that knitters come in all shapes, sizes, abilities and backgrounds; their mission is to meet you where you are and support you in your fiber goals. Sonia Ruyts from Stash Local says it like this, “Our main goal is to make sure that EVERY customer feels welcome in the shop. Regardless of gender, age, ability, or previous experience, we believe that everyone has a right to explore their creativity. We’re here to help facilitate that exploration.” Fiber exploration and creativity? Sign me up.
  6. Find your tribe.  Are you new to the community? New to knitting and looking for your tribe? Or maybe you’ve been knitting on your own for too long and you’re ready to find some knitter friends? Start at your local yarn shop. I can’t tell you how many wonderful friendships have been made through yarn shops – it’s a transformative experience if you’re willing to get involved.  Sonia shares the following: “It is my hope that in addition to feeling welcome, our customers feel inspired to take risks, to try new things, and to make new fiber friends. The knitting community is so supportive and inclusive — it just makes the experience of crafting even more rewarding!”  Knowing that you are welcome and accepted for who you are – that matters. The LYS is more than the yarn on the shelves and the samples on display; it’s a community. There are opportunities for classes to grow your skills and meet other knitters. Most shops have weekly or monthly stitch nights, visits from guest designers, knitalongs, events, mixers and more. Participation is more than just a way to support the shop – it’s also a way to connect and grow as a fiber artist. If you’re just popping in to buy yarn once in a while and not sticking around for some of the *other* fun things going on, you’re missing out on some of the best a yarn shop has to offer. In my experience, the more involved you are with your local yarn shop, the more quickly your skills advance (if you want to stretch your creative muscles, the yarn shop is the perfect place for a workout).
  7. The 5 Minute Rule is Queen. One of the perks of a yarn shop is that you can ask questions and get basic help that isn’t available when you order online or visit a big box craft store. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a yarn shop – for all of its virtues – is still a place of business and not every knitting problem can be solved with a quick Q&A over the counter. I’ve had requests that range from “My skein got attacked by the cat – can you help me untangle it?” to “I bought this pattern but it’s in Japanese, can you translate it for me?” When in doubt, go with the five minute rule. If it will take longer than five minutes to answer your question or get you back on track, be willing to sign up for a class or a private lesson. Believe me – trying to cram an hour-long explanation into a five minute window only leads to frustration. If you’re really stuck, give yourself the gift of learning so you can grow past the challenge and have a more solid idea of how to navigate the situation next time. Sonia shares this perspective: “Customers should expect a courteous and knowledgeable staff, but be respectful of our time and the needs of other customers. If you need a lot of help, please invest in yourself and your craft by taking a class or joining a stitching group.”  One last thing on the topic of getting help – and this one is a little uncomfortable, but important: Please keep in mind that a yarn shop relies on the support of its customers to keep the doors open. Expecting free help on projects you bought elsewhere is uncool (unless you’re a regular customer who supports the shop in other ways, or you are making other purchases while you’re there). Think of it like this: you wouldn’t buy a coffee at McDonald’s and then take it to Starbucks, get comfortable at one of their tables, use their free wifi and maybe help yourself to splash of cream. Right? Sometimes we get a little extra comfortable at a yarn shop because it IS such a warm, nurturing and community-oriented space. But it’s still a place of business, and customer support matters.
  8. You don’t actually get to knit all day when you work at a yarn shop. This is a PSA on behalf of every yarn shop owner and employee who’s ever heard, “Oh, I would love to work at a yarn shop and get paid to knit all day!” As it turns out, running a yarn shop is actually a lot of work, so there’s a lot less knitting than you’d think. Translation: almost no knitting.
  9. Be flexible with your project and budget.  Yarn shop employees are conscientious about helping you find something that works for your project AND your budget (especially if you let them know what you’re looking for), but if you’re trying to force a combo that isn’t going to work they’ll probably try to talk you out of it. It’s not because they want you to spend more, but because they know you’ll be unhappy with your results. “Buy the best materials you can afford. Quality needles and yarn really do make a difference. A lot of the challenges people have are a result of trying to “make do” with yarn that’s not appropriate for the project,” says Sonia. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to trying to make-do and learning the hard way that it wasn’t a good idea. Rachel says, “[When necessary] we’re here to (hopefully, gently) point out why your yarn choice and pattern idea maybe aren’t a match made in heaven, and help you find either a better pattern, or a more suitable yarn.”  If only you could be a fly on the wall to witness the crazy ways these results go astray when the wrong combinations win out…
  10. They have samples. And samples are the bomb. How many times have you looked at a skein of variegated yarn and wondered if it would work for your project? Sure, you can use your imagination, but sometimes it’s hard to visualize; it’s a bit like choosing a color for your family room based on a 2 x 2 paint swatch. Samples are gold, and some stores really take their sample game seriously. (Case in point: go visit Knot Another Hat and say hello to one of my favorite knitters, Jill, who churns out sweater samples like a machine.) Rachel puts it this way,“A skein or ball of yarn is great to squish or pet, but there is nothing like a sample to give you a really good idea of what a yarn is like when it is knit up. Plus, a sample can not only inspire you with your yarn choices, but also introduce you to new designs and designers that you might not know of already.” Amen, sister. [And on a side note: Many shops, like Rachel’s, have window displays so terrific that you’ll want to run home and redecorate your house with yarn rainbows and pom-poms. Seriously.]
  11. The yarn shop is full of mysteries. I don’t want to alarm you, but there are indie dyers you haven’t discovered yet. There are yarn bases you didn’t know existed, and exclusive colorways you’ve only dreamed about (pssst… Stash Local just released an e-book all about their year of exclusive colorways). There are needles so shiny and smooth and pointy that you might worry about their potential as weapons. And don’t even get me started on the project bags. One of the best things about the local yarn shop is discovering a lovely, unique assortment you won’t find anywhere else. (And if you don’t visit often, you might miss something.)
  12. Support the LYS so the LYS can support you. I’m not going to pretend that there are no advantages to online shopping, but let’s be real for a minute. If you live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have access to a yarn shop, I get it; online shopping is all you’ve got (and on that note, there are lots of online shops that are ALSO local yarn shops – keep them in mind when you can’t get what you need locally). But if you live five or even forty-five miles from a yarn store, make the effort to get there. If the shop nearest you isn’t the shop that makes your heart sing, keep looking – but don’t give up. If we take our local yarn shops for granted, we run the risk of losing them as a resource in our community. Bye-bye yarn squishing, and quick help, and project applause, and color matching for your next fairisle sweater. Bye-bye clubhouse for the local fiber tribe. [insert all the sad emoticons]

So, there you have it. You have permission to squish, linger, ponder and soak up the fiber fumes. You have permission to ask questions or show off your latest accomplishment. Make a friend. Attend a stitch & sip night. Stretch your skills and try something totally new. (And count your lucky stars that you’re not shopping for yarn at the hardware store.)

Now, go. Go find your tribe.


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