Yesterday I launched what I hope would be a growing celebration of independent producers and the beginning of a conversation about some of the challenges that indies face in growing a successful business. One of the inspirations for this new series is Victoria from Eden Cottage Yarns who drew my attention to an issue that struck at the heart of what I do as a professional and personal choices that I make as a consumer.
Victoria is an amazing dyer. She is a strong advocate for British Wool and her yarn range reflects that commitment. I've had the pleasure of meeting Victoria and was impressed by her determination and commitment to her craft as both an art form but also a business. It's a difficult balance but one that Victoria is achieving as well as being one of the warmest stall hosts I've ever met an event! She was charming!
A recent reaction to a new yarn range, launched by the Women's Institute got Victoria and I chatting so I asked her to share her thoughts as an independent yarn producer who is a strong advocate for British Wool. Here's Victoria to talk you through why she believes the Women's Institute have made an error when it comes to collaborating with HobbyCraft:
"On the 29th of April, @AlisonPhilcock tweeted me (thankyou!) to ask if I'd seen this press release from the Women's Institute (link explains what the WI is for those of you who are not familiar). The press release announced a partnership with Hobbycraft to produce their own brand of yarn, exclusive to HobbyCraft as a retailer. I read it and retweeted, of course. Here's an easy summary of what I thought (reduced to fit into a tweet):
"Attributing the resurgence of knitting to celebrities (RAGE!), pure acrylic yarns, and cutting out indie yarn shops. http://tinyurl.com/l9dj7ys"
After tweeting that and posting it on Facebook, and the more I thought about it, the more wound up I felt. It was clear that so many people agreed, from the responses I received. Now that the dust has settled, here's my reasoning for strongly objecting to the partnership and the press release announcing it.
Firstly, on re-reading they weren't exactly attributing the resurgence of knitting to celebrities, but this really got my goat. This came only a couple of weeks after THAT Guardian article, which had also wound me up in the same way. If you don't fancy reading it, this is the paragraph with the bit that I think most people reacted negatively to:
"In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in crafts, partly fuelled by celebrity knitters such as the Duchess of Cambridge and Kate Moss. According to the UK Hand Knitting Association, there has been a 12% increase in people participating in crafts year on year, while Google reports a 70% increase over the last year in searches for 'knitting and crochet'. Wool shops now are places of luxury offering cappuccino while you browse designer, hand-dyed yarns. Knitting not as necessity, but art – for women who have just too much time on their hands."
Need I say any more? It's undoubtedly great that celebrities are seen to be knitting, truly it is. But let's be clear that they are following a trend, not creating one. People who knit will knit, regardless of what anyone else is doing. So please media, stop attributing the resurgence of knitting to celebrity knitters. It shows a lack of research, if nothing else.
The second point about this whole thing, and one that seems to have struck a chord with the most with people, is that the WI is working exclusively with Hobbycraft. I think we have to assume that Hobbycraft is financing the yarn, so it stands to reason that they would want exclusivity. I'm sure the WI won't have the facilities for e-commerce in terms of shipping yarn out to retailers and dealing with invoicing etc, so Hobbycraft will have to look after that side of it (one would imagine - I don't know for sure). However they DO have the resources that if they wanted to supply their own-brand yarn to other retailers, they could.
(Sidenote) I do think that Hobbycraft have a place in the market as well as local yarn shops, and I don't have a problem with them specifically - I used to work there and it was a great place to work. In our store, the manager was genuinely interested in us and the crafts, and we were really encouraged to share craft knowledge and learn as much as possible so that we could help inform customers. However many of us were students, and shops like that can have a high staff turnover, so it can't be easy to achieve a high standard of knowledge base in that sort of environment.
Anyway, back to the point - the frustrating thing is that the WI have a 'shop locally' campaign, so it's incredible that they would then agree to their name being used on products which are specifically not going to be available to local (ie independent) shops. You can read about this campaign as well as some further thoughts on these conflicting campaigns from Tracey Todhunter over on her blog, Baking and Making. I know that what they've done makes economical sense for Hobbycraft, but I am convinced these two organisations could have come up with a way of having this shared product and making it widely available.
The next issue is the yarn itself: three out of the four are 100% acrylic yarns. There's nothing inherently wrong with acrylic for handknitting/crochet - it has its place and its uses in terms of fibre. However, the WI also currently have a campaign underway called 'Green is Working', which is all about spreading the message that green policy is working, and led by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition. Acrylic fibre is created from compounds that come from petroleum-based chemicals, which doesn't strike me as a particularly green option to have picked for a product that's got the name attached of an organisation who are campaigning on green issues.
The acrylic is also largely produced in the Far East, Turkey, India, Mexico, and South America, with a small number of European producers still in operation. Whilst I encourage import and export of goods around the world (I run a business, how could I not?), there is room within business to choose carefully where your products are made, and to make careful decisions based on that.
The WI/Hobbycraft have picked one yarn to be made from wool, so why not all four? Wool has huge green credentials, and ticks so many boxes. They could have made so much more of this by going for all wool yarns, which would have helped drive the British (and international if they'd have chosen) wool industries. Not to mention British rare breeds that they could have made use of and promoted - to me that fits in with the WI's values.
Do you think it's down to affordability? Sorry, that's no excuse. There is a wide enough range of wool yarns now available to fit all budgets - more so now than ever. You can see Alison Stokes's recommendations and thoughts about it HERE, and Tracey Todhunter's recommendations and thoughts HERE just as a starting point. From my own experience this Saturday just gone I was in Ramshambles store, admiring the West Yorkshire Spinners yarns, and commenting about how good value they are. For example, their Aire Valley DK is £4.75 (75% wool, 25% nylon) and is entirely made in their mill in Yorkshire. I can also recommend King Cole's Merino Blend ranges - whilst these are not premium merino, the wool is still soft and hardwearing, and amazingly good value. It's stocked by many of our great British yarn shops. Their baby alpaca DK is also fantastically good value.
If you're looking for even more ideas for great British Wool, you should follow @LilyWarneWool on Twitter, I strongly suggest you do as the photos of their cute Grey Faced Dartmoor sheep are enough to brighten the rainiest of days. More to the point though, their yarn is great value at £5.95 for 100g, and comes in a range of beautiful heathery colours, which I'm about to succumb to!
There are now many, many wool yarns that are machine washable as well, so that excuse won't 'wash' either I'm afraid. My final thought on the use of acrylic yarns is this: you will spend the same amount of time knitting and wearing your item regardless of what it's made in, so use the best materials you can afford, whether that's WYS at £4.75 per 100g, or say our most expensive 4ply (baby yak and silk) at £24.00 per 100g, or anything in between.
Sadly another issue within this whole thing is the jewel amongst the range - a Shetland wool yarn. From much discussion about this lovely yarn, it does seem to be unavailable in Hobbycraft stores around the country while the other yarns are stocked. Hopefully they'll be distributing more of that yarn, but it seems they are really playing down the best aspect of the range. You can read more of the discussion on Ravelry here.
Finally, having read the descriptions of the yarns on the Hobbycraft website, and sentences like "enjoy traditional weavings", I am very doubtful as to whether these were edited (or translated?) by someone who knows anything about knitting. I do think the descriptions on all the yarns make them sound cheap and misunderstood. On the WI's first paragraph of the press release, they also describe acrylic yarns as 'wool', which is a common misconception, but no less irritating for the pedants amongst us. It's one thing for the general public to make this mistake, but another for an organisation who are trying to sell this product to do it. It would have been so easy to just have someone who knits go over these descriptions!
In conclusion: I think the WI and Hobbycraft have missed a few tricks, and although I can see the economic reasons for it, the exclusivity situation comes across as hypocritical. Finally, if possible, wear wool (or at least a good blend)! It may cost more, but it will be better. It's worth saving the pennies for."
Thank you to Victoria for sharing her thoughts on the WI debate. If you'd like to chat further about our Love Our Indies topic, join the conversation on Twitter or the dedicated Ravelry thread in the Playful Group.
Next we have Louise Scollay of KnitBritish and her guide to buying British Wool.