How yarn stores are adapting to and preparing for social distancing

June 10, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

Just before New York City made it mandatory for nonessential businesses to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Pearl Chin decided to temporarily close Knitty City, her Manhattan yarn shop of 15 years.

Chin had just come back from a vacation in Puerto Rico days before making the decision. While her business kept operating as usual, she noticed people “panic shopping” when she went out for groceries. Her concern grew for her staff, as well as her customers, which included a number of regular senior shoppers. Then her son Zac—who helps manage the store—said he felt it was time to close. They decided to shut down after Saturday, March 14, giving customers a chance to stock up on supplies.

“The moment that we made that decision, I’ll tell you, I stopped worrying because I felt that this was the best decision to make,” she says.

Chin’s store is among many in the fiber-arts world that closed, either right before or around the time government mandates about closures were issued. Some have weathered the storm by fleshing out their online stores and offering curbside pickup. But now they’re trying to figure out how to reopen safely, especially given that such businesses often serve as a place of community where like-minded people gather during classes and in knitting circles to work on projects and socialize.

From community spaces to online stores

Even though businesses in Georgia began to reopen in recent weeks, Athens-based Revival Yarns offered only curbside pickup at first. It’s slowly reopening its doors this week to appointment-only shopping, though the owners may close it again if the state sees a spike in coronavirus cases.

While the store has a wide range of customers, Revival Yarns co-owner Lindsay Woodson says many are in the 65-and-older age range, which made her and the store’s other owner, Cara Cannon, nervous about reopening too soon.

“I hate telling people I can’t help them with their projects one-on-one, and I feel terrible having to back away from a customer when they’re telling me about how their children are doing, and they’re coming close,” Woodson says. “It’s just not who we are. But it’s essential.”

Revival Yarns closed its physical store earlier than many businesses in the state, as Athens’s mayor called for closures before the governor did, Woodson says. From there, it was a “frantic dash” to update the website with the yarns available for sale. The first couple of weeks after closing were tricky because customers wanted to support the shop, Woodson says, but most of its inventory wasn’t listed yet. Some initial orders were taken over the phone and even via social media messages.

“We had a website, but we’d never sold any yarn online before,” she says. “The fiber world is very much a community thing. We’d always prided ourselves on being a community space and helping people and not being another online store.”

The store has been fulfilling online orders for a couple of months, while the owners also respond to messages across platforms “with photos and suggestions” to help customers.

Catherine Clark, owner of Brooklyn General Store—which sells yarn, fabrics, and related supplies—also refocused her attention to her website after closing on March 16, working by herself in the shop to fulfill online orders. The orders for fabric in particular, which “took off,” are what helped keep her in business, she says. Pivoting to making masks and selling mask-making kits has also played a big role.

“Maybe about a month into the closure, I decided we really needed to offer this, and it was a way for me to continue to pay [my employees],” she says, explaining that she had a couple of workers producing masks for sale, since they couldn’t fulfill their usual duties at the shop.

Brooklyn General Store, which sells yarn and fabric, pivoted to selling masks and mask-making kits for order because of the pandemic.
Courtesy of Brooklyn General Store

Other yarn stores have followed a similar path. The Perfect Blend Yarn and Tea Shop, a yarn store that also sells tea products at its brick-and-mortar location in Saugerties, N.Y., now lists yarns, kits for knitting projects, and other supplies on its website.

Back in New York City, Chin, who sporadically tried to fulfill orders via email during the initial part of the shutdown, started ramping up those efforts in late May. Knitty City is now offering free curbside pickup a couple of times a week, local delivery within Manhattan’s Upper West Side for $5, as well as orders that can be shipped for $8. The website is also being updated with yarns, needles, tote bags, and more.

What will yarn stores look like while social distancing?

But store owners are also thinking about what they’ll do once they can let customers in. It’s still unclear how easily the coronavirus can be picked up from fabrics, but buying yarn is a tactile activity, so hand sanitizer will be on-site, and customers will have to wear masks, according to the shop owners who spoke to Fortune. (“A lot of people want to put it up to their face and inhale yarn, so that’s not going to be allowed,” Clark says.) A number of social distancing practices, such as limiting the number of people that can come in, will also be in effect.

Revival Yarns’ appointment-only strategy will allow only one customer in at a time, Woodson says. Customers will be encouraged to place any yarns they’re interested in on a table typically used for display pieces, instead of piling them up at the shop’s counter or carrying them all over the store.

It’s too early to be sure when they might let more customers inside; plus, Woodson and Cannon both have small children whose schedules may also determine next steps.

“I’m sure if school is back in session, if those types of gatherings are happening, then we probably would allow more than one person in the shop at a time,” Woodson says. “It’s just so hard to say. We may say we’re opening for more people, and then we might shut it back down if it feels unsafe.”

Revival Yarns, which is starting to offer appointment-only shopping, has a table set up for customers to keep the yarns they’ve selected to one side.
Courtesy of Revival Yarns

Clark, whose store is fairly large at 1,800 square feet, is considering a safe counter pickup area for the future when New York City allows stores like hers to let shoppers inside. “I’m not sure quite yet how to do it, but I’m thinking kind of like an ice cream shop where you can taste a few items and then choose your flavor and then we will gather your items for you,” she says.

Perfect Blend’s owner Mary Ebel plans to buy a couple of chairs and benches to keep outside her store for anyone waiting to come in, while allowing a maximum of only four customers inside when it reopens. She’s not yet sure when she may start knitting classes again at her store, but when she does, only four attendees will be able to participate at a time—by reservation.

Chin, who also plans to limit the number of customers inside when she officially reopens the store, is considering keeping some tables outside her store featuring yarns for sale, while the door will stay open during the summer months.

“And I don’t know whether we’re going to go as far as no cash, only credit card,” she says. “I think we’re going to take our lead a lot from the small places that are already open—the food places and the small smoke shops—and seeing how they’re doing.”

Why an in-person community still matters

Meanwhile, many of the stores have found both formal and informal ways to keep classes and gatherings going. Chin says some of her regulars started doing Zoom meetings, including those involved in a weekly men’s knit night. Her store’s website is now offering customers a chance to connect with instructors for virtual help with projects.

“A couple of our instructors have gotten set up where they can have two cameras, so that they can have a camera pointing at their hands and also be speaking with a customer, so that they can kind of do help sessions, like little mini classes,” Woodson says. “People who have used it have been really happy. I think a lot of people are even hesitant to try it because knitting is hard if you can’t see someone’s hands very well.”

Ebel has also done Zoom gatherings and FaceTime calls with regulars, figuring out a socially distanced way to help fix customers’ projects when they get stuck on them.

“They’ll drive by. I let [the project] sit for the day before I open it,” she says. “I fix it, and I call them, and they come back and pick it up.”

Most of the shop owners imagine that this is how they’ll have to maintain their communities for the near future, even after their physical stores reopen, though it’s not ideal.

“We have people that come here three times a week, just to hang here, just to be together,” Ebel says. “You become friends, and you bond. It doesn’t matter the age; it doesn’t matter the gender—nothing else matters except they’re your knitting buddies.”

On top of that, events have become a key part of the knitting community—Vogue Knitting Live! is big in cities like New York and Seattle, while Rhinebeck is home to the annual Sheep and Wool Festival

“That’s our big week for the year,” says Ebel of the festival, pointing out that Saugerties is near Rhinebeck. “Right now, my gut feeling is it’s not going to happen, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

“The retail sort of depends on all that other stuff to keep us alive,” Clark says.

Though the businesses Fortune spoke with have managed to get by over the past few months by adapting as needed, it hasn’t all been easy. Like other small businesses, some have also needed Paycheck Protection Program loans. In Revival Yarns’ case, Woodson says some of that money was applied toward paying staff to knit projects that can be displayed at the shop in the future.

Ebel, whose landlord did give her a “little break” on the rent, says she’s been “maintaining enough” to keep the business going, though she’s not bringing much extra in. Knitty City had a GoFundMe set up during the early part of the shutdown to benefit staff, though Chin—who says she can “borrow from myself”—has since decided that contributors will be able to receive full store credit.

Clark ultimately believes most yarn stores will be just fine as the pandemic prompts people to focus on more “home-centered” activities. Crafting, cooking, and gardening are among activities that have grown in popularity in recent months. “I feel like knitting is going to see a big increase, as well as sewing—home sewing and home knitting, and just general homemade things,” she says.

And while Chin is also concerned about changing business practices, the inability to hold events easily, and the likelihood that the international visitors that have been a big part of her shop’s customer base will no longer be able to visit for some time, she is ready to adjust as needed.

“We’re probably not going to buy as much yarn as we have in the past. I mean we’ve had problems in the past with cash flow, where we’ve overbought for a certain season, and we had to deal with it, so we’re not a stranger to having to work out cash flow for the business,” she says. “So, it might be slow, but we’ll work it out.”

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