Can a Yarn Retailer Be a Place of Therapeutic?


Unlike so many small businesses, Downtown Yarns, Leti Ruiz’s yarn business in New York’s East Village, has weathered the pandemic unscathed. A growing interest in handicrafts – including knitting and crocheting, the specialties of the business – brought in repeat and new customers looking for convenience and variety. When people got stuck at home, customers would order by phone or Instagram, and a friend of the store delivered to all five boroughs. In the end, the store did even better financially in 2020 than in 2019, Ms. Ruiz said.

But now Ms. Ruiz is faced with a new landscape: the unknown world of post-pandemic handicrafts. “It’s kind of slowed down because people are back to work or travel,” she said. “So I feel like it’s more like normal times now.”

For many, during the pandemic, crafting proved to be an essential way of reducing anxiety and turning feelings of unrest in the surrounding area into something calming and productive. Andrea Deal, the co-owner of Gotham Quilts in Midtown Manhattan, described a frenzy early in the pandemic that tripled normal sewing machine sales in her store. The swell isn’t just about keeping idle hands busy, she said. It’s a reflection of how people rethink their lives while in isolation.

“We see that low-wage workers no longer want to go back to work. They realize, ‘I’m more important than that and I want to do something more meaningful,’ ”said Ms. Deal. “To be able to create something yourself and to be creative and to produce something useful, either for yourself or for someone else, that’s a great pleasure in my opinion.”

However, with the stress and uncertainty about the future subsiding just a little – mainly due to the availability of vaccines and the lifting of pandemic restrictions – it is unclear what role crafting will continue to play in the lives of those who have embraced it as a stress reliever all in one exceptionally busy year.

Rita Bobry, who owned Downtown Yarns for 17 years before retiring and handing the business over to Ms. Ruiz, well remembers a similar moment of post-traumatic crafting in town. In 2001, when her store had just opened, she greeted anxious New Yorkers who turned to knitting to calm themselves down after the 9/11 attacks. That day the air outside the yarn shop was thick with dust, but Mrs. Bobry decided the shop would stay open. She lit candles to put in the window and opened her door to passers-by.

“I think people stayed home more, they wanted to be in groups, in communities; A lot of people have also lost their jobs, ”said Ms. Bobry. “When you’re not working, you knit more. If you’re afraid of going out, you knit more. “

The yarn store became a kind of assembly point. “People who felt lost just came in,” said Ms. Bobry.

Craft stores could not serve as physical meeting places during much of the pandemic. In search of convenience, young craftsmen turned to the digital options offered by various stores online. Purl Soho, a yarn store that opened shortly after September 11, saw a surge in traffic on its website during the pandemic as customers searched the store’s online repository of tutorials and free samples.

But the online experience cannot recreate the tactile joys of hands-on crafting or personal learning from other artisans. Purl Soho emphasizes natural fibers, colors and textures in the materials it sells, a perspective shaped by the visual arts background of the store’s co-owner, Joelle Hoverson. Crafting is a way to enjoy such materials – and connect with a shared past.

“There have been as many articles written in the last 20 years as ‘This is not your grandmother’s knitting’ – Google that sentence, you will find 100 articles with that title,” said Ms. Hoverson. “And everyone in our industry just rolls their eyes and says, ‘Yes. We know.’ We don’t do what our grandmothers did. But I think part of it is, we do what our grandmothers did, you know? “

Jennifer Way, art historian and professor at the University of North Texas, has studied the craft in times of crisis. She has found that the crafts themselves – the quilts, the scarves, the pincushions – are less important than the calming manufacturing process that creates them. Handicrafts have a “haptic quality” that ties in with ideas of mindfulness and wellness by touching and working with handicraft materials.

“Craft seems in a way, with its repetitive gestures and sometimes repetitive projects, an opportunity to reconnect the mind and body,” said Professor Way. “The craft practice itself offers the opportunity to connect mind and body to tackle healing, stress and all these things.”

The Quilt Emporium in Los Angeles hosted a Zoom quilting course with over 60 participants last year. Lisa Hanson, the owner of the store, says many of her pandemic customers are interested in personal quilting – though not all, which she believes is a natural consequence of the restrictions being lifted. After all, tinkering is a pastime that many have had an unusually large amount of in the past year. Those days can be over.

“I don’t know about you, but my life has got a little more complicated since things opened up,” said Ms. Hanson.

A survey by Premier Needle Arts, a holding company that operates several quilting craft brands space, found that the number of new quilters increased by 12 percent in 2020 and 51 percent of existing quilters spent more time quilting than in previous years. Mrs. Hanson maintains her belief in the new converts. “So far, a lot of people have kept some dedication to their newfound craft,” she said.

Annie & Company Needlepoint and Knitting on Manhattan’s Upper East Side recently held their first in-person classes since the pandemic began. Four out of eight places were occupied for her Saturday afternoon Beginner Needlepoint course.

“You either like it or you don’t,” said Annie Goodman, the owner of the store, “and those who get into it can find it very relaxing and meditative. And I think they’ll stick with it. “

The Saturday class participants represented a cross-generational group of new artisans who sat around a round table in masks and exchanged television recommendations as they learned the continental and basket stitches.

I watched the group moderator help a participant fix a bug in a neat row of green threads. As I watched the close interaction – the two of them head to head over the same mass of yarn and canvas, hands almost touching trying to figure out what went wrong – it seemed impossible to me ever to learn how to craft any other way .

Downtown Yarns’ Ms. Ruiz believes the online artisans will show up in person, just as her regular customers returned when she reopened her store last year. “It started with people in the neighborhood just walking by the door and I showing them yarn,” she said. “It felt like, oh, wow, we’re a small village. We are a community. And everything is fine. “