Monday, June 13, 2005

You Think You've Got a Problem? Stash Enhancement at the Professional Level

You’d think that, after ten years of buying a shopful of yarn for the Fall season, it would be fairly simple: fill in the depleted stocks of the yarns we always carry, picking up any nice new colors the manufacturer offers; replace any yarns that have been discontinued; choose a few from among the huge number of crazy novelty yarns that change every year. Get a preview glimpse of the Fall designs, chat with the sales rep about trends in handknitting and in ready-to-wear, call it a day.

Not quite.

It usually goes more like this: sales rep comes in, opens one of a profusion of suitcases and bags,

shows you a brand-new yarn—say, a tweedy wool that gets about 5 stitches to the inch. Of course, we already have maybe 5 wool yarns that get about 5 stitches to the inch, and at least one of them is a tweed, but you look at it anyway. (Do I hear someone thinking that that’s the mistake? Why even look at the yarn when we already have one like it? Putting aside that we like yarn,

so it’s always fun to look, there’s the fact that some knitter’s going to come into the shop next season holding a pattern that calls for every new yarn, and we’re going to have to try to remember what it looks like so that we can recommend another like it if we don’t have it.)

So you look, and the colors are really pretty. And someone says, “That’s a really nice range of reds.” And someone else says, “The one we’ve got doesn’t really have a good red.” And someone says, “This one costs fifty cents less.” And someone says, “The other one has 20 more yards.” And someone says, “Check out this pattern from the new book—people are going to want to make that.” And someone says, “We’ve still got a ton of the other one in backstock.”

Along about now, the rep usually pipes up, “If you order 15 bags, we’ll send you the model sweater for free.” Or, “The company’s really committed to this one—we’ve ordered a warehouse full of it, so you’re going to be able to get it easily whenever you need to reorder it.” (To which we’ve learned to reply, “Yeah, right. That’s what they all say. Come December, you’ll be backordered like everyone else.”)

And someone says, “I hate how long it takes to ship that stuff from Seattle.” And someone says, “The other one comes in balls; this one is skeins we’ll have to wind up.”

And on it goes. Eventually, we reach a decision about whether to stick with the one we’ve got, or try a new one. Then we move on to the next yarn, and have a similar discussion about whether we’re satisfied with our brushed mohair, or our DK-weight baby yarn. Tomorrow or next week (or sometimes only an hour later, if the same sales rep carries multiple yarn brands), we’ll see another wool tweed at 5 stitches per inch, and we’ll do that same whole conversation again.

I exaggerate just a little: fairly often, a rep flourishes a color card, and we say, “Nope, we’re happy with the one we’ve got, no need to look at this.” And there are also lots of cards we pass quickly by, saying, “Nope, we don’t have much call for 100% acrylic yarns,” or “Nope, we don’t carry fur yarns.” (I’m not talking about all the faux-fur textures here: I’m talking about strips of rabbit fur, pelt still attached. Ew.)

But the stuff that’ll drive you crazy, and the reason we just seem to cram more stuff into the same amount of space every year, is the yarns in new categories. When I used to play “fantasy yarnshop” (you know, “If I ever have a yarn shop, I’m going to carry every color of La Gran mohair”), I’d think about the categories I’d need to fill: fingering weight, DK weight, worsted weight, bulky weight; a mohair, a washable synthetic for babies, something affordable and easy-care for afghans. Back then, I didn’t have to consider anything thicker than “bulky”--the biggest pattern gauge we routinely saw was 3 stitches per inch, and about the only yarn on the market thicker than that was Colinette’s Point Five. There were a few sweater patterns for Point Five, but mostly people used it for scarves; you either carried Point Five, or you didn’t.

Then, in the late ‘90’s, yarns started getting fatter and fatter, and patterns calling for them appeared as well. For about a year, you could hesitate and consider whether it was just a momentary fad. Then it became clear that it wasn’t. The competently-stocked yarn shop was going to need something that got two and a half stitches to the inch, whether it was Rowan’s Big Wool or not.

At the time, we thought the question was simply, “Will anyone want to make sweaters this bulky? Are they unflattering, or too warm?” But it turns out that we were seeing a whole new category of yarn emerge, and if you used to know where you displayed the thin yarns, the medium yarns, the thick yarns, the baby yarns, etc., you were now going to have to figure out how to carve out some real estate for super-bulky yarns. (And you can take that shelf-space question as a metaphor for the inventory-buying budget as well.)

Remember Darwin and the finches in the Galapagos Islands? One of the principles of evolution is that species will evolve to fit every available niche in the ecosystem. Well, when Darwin’s in the yarn cellar, the principle of differentiation of yarns means that “superbulky” won’t stay one category for long. For one thing, it’s particularly difficult to fudge gauges with superbulkies, because every half-stitch per inch makes such a difference in the garment’s finished size. (Substitute a yarn that gets 2.5 sts per inch in a pattern calling for 2 sts per inch, and the sweater that’s supposed to measure 40” around will measure 32”.)

And if you’re trying to keep all your customers happy, I’m here to tell you that having one yarn that gets a given gauge isn’t going to do it—even if it’s the exact yarn specified in the pattern. Someone’s going to want one that isn’t wool (because it’s too warm, or too itchy); someone’s going to want one that’s machine-washable; someone’s going to want one that’s less expensive; someone’s going to want one that’s a solid color (if the original was a multi) or a multi-color (if the original was a solid). Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. Just that it’s suddenly gotten much harder to have enough kinds of yarn, because the number of kinds of yarn you need has expanded.

This is the sort of thing that leads to ordering our third alpaca-silk blend, as we did last month. It’s how we went from carrying one beautiful, perfect laceweight yarn—Zephyr—to adding Alpaca Lace (a bit heavier, not so shiny, warmer), Merino Silk (to fill in some colors Zephyr didn’t have—and it turns out Merino Silk is thinner), and now Jade Sapphire’s Lacy Lamb (because someone pointed out that we didn’t have one that was just wool).

So there you have the biodiversity theory of yarn-buying. Or as Proust describes the family cook, Françoise, choosing the menu for Sunday lunch: she might have “a brill because the fish-woman had guaranteed its freshness, a turkey because she had seen a beauty in the market at Roussainville-le-Pin, cardoons with marrow because she had never done them for us in that way before, a roast leg of mutton because the fresh air made one hungry and there would be plenty of time for it to ‘settle down’ in the seven hours before dinner, spinach by way of a change, apricots because they were still hard to get, gooseberries because in another fortnight there would be none left, raspberries which M. Swann had brought specially, cherries, the first to come from the cherry-tree which had yielded none for the last two years, a cream cheese, of which in those days I was extremely fond, an almond cake because she had ordered one the evening before, a brioche because it was our turn to make them for the church.”

What’s the difference between a rationalization and a justification?

Next up: TNNA.


Kathy Merrick said...

Lisa, dear, you are skilled at putting into fine words things that most of us just consider casually.
I well remember the true angst of attempting to have not-too-full shelves of nearly everything any knitter might need or want.
But, you are a lucky woman indeed if you don't have to struggle with yarn choosers who are somehow zealously against blue, or think everyone hates yellow, or can only identify with non-colors.
That was a huge issue at that place along the river in that artsy town in NJ.

Lisa M. said...

What are "not too full" shelves? And why does anyone want them? And does anyone ever succeed in having them?

As for choosing colors . . . sometimes the best reason to order all the colors a yarn comes in is to avoid negotiating which red, how many greys, etc. I've been in buying meetings where full-grown sales reps were nearly reduced to tears by the color selection "process."

Kathy Merrick said...

Well, mostly too-full shelves come in July, when you've ignored Liz Dougherty's advice that summer is not a season in knitting, and you're left with too much dicey stuff that people only find attractive in February, when they're longing for May, and all the autumnal yarn begins arriving, and who'll ever buy the springy stuff when they can have TWEED or some gorgeous browny worsted WOOL...