One of the original inspirations behind the Love Our Indies feature was meeting Anna, the owner of Wild and Woolly, a new yarn shop in Hackney. I visited there for the opening party and collected some audio for the podcast a few months ago. I was really struck by the unique way Anna had put her shop together. It's not easy running a bricks and mortar store and I love to see new stores open as it is so important for crafters to interact in *real life* rather than always online. How else can your queue grow explosively as you see shawls and sweaters in the wild, moving on real people?!?
So with that in mind, I invited Anna to tell us a bit about herself, her store and what it took to make it a reality.
Please introduce of yourself
I'm a 43 year old former website planner, with a long standing love of yarn and fibre arts in general, and knitting in particular. I'm originally from Norwich but have been living in Hackney, east London since the late 90s. I'm from a big family, most of whom live very nearby and I have two teenage children.
Why a Bricks and Mortar store?
For the last 15 years I've been supporting small non-profit organisations with their presence online by planning their websites and developing their online communications. And although that work was all about engaging real people out in the world with the issues my clients worked on, my role was always firmly located in the digital space. I used to find that an incredibly exciting place to be - with all its new possibilities, ways of working and opportunities for creativity constantly changing.
Equally, it can feel like a very intangible place. And over the last years (and in spite of the amazing work of my web clients), the web's lack of texture, hold and warmth, started to disappoint and then frustrate me. I responded by using new-found free time (from kids getting older) to explore personal fibre passions with short courses at the City Lit and a much longer and more involved City and Guilds course with the knitwear designer, Loraine Mclean. I also began volunteering with the knitting group for clients of the Helen Bamber Foundation. With hindsight I can see I was gradually working a new section of my life: Proper learning of stitches and techniques, inspiring class outings to examine antique knitting in the vaults of the V&A, spending more time with really serious knitters, teaching stitches that I could see soothing the troubled hands of refugees, and of course all the time working through new creations with my needles at home.
The contrast with the flatness of the online world I was dealing with in the office was not lost on me. And so this fantastical and rather ridiculous idea grew - to make a real place where knitters could come and squeeze and stroke and check and ask and offer and just be the way that knitters are. I imagined a space which would be real and inviting and which could respond out loud, with texture, form and colour to fill those gaps left by our lives online.
How did you choose the location?
I wanted to be in a place that I was very familiar with, so that my local knowledge could be part of the shape and approach of the shop. My vision was a very conventional one - of a neighbourhood wool shop that local people could depend on for their knitting supplies and pattern support. I grew up with a little wool shop like that at the bottom of my street in Norwich. Later after we moved to North London when I was doing my A levels, I always had put-by yarn waiting for me behind the counter at ColourSpun in Camden Town. It's shops like those that have really been my inspiration.
Meanwhile Hackney is where my children were born and grew up, where my mum and sisters are, also where my great grand parents lived and worked when they arrived as migrants over a hundred years ago.
So I wanted this shop to be a place that was easy for local knitters in Hackney to get to. And when I found the shop on Lower Clapton Road, it felt like the right size and location for what I had in mind.
What aesthetic did you go for?
The aesthetic came from working together with product designer, Gregor Timlin and graphic designer Raquel Dumas, on interrogating values and themes which were central to my vision of a good wool shop. These included a slightly antiquated sense of 'expert retail', of modest industry and manufacture - where things are created on a small scale with an emphasis on crafting and grafting, a workshop-like space with an atmosphere that can cultivate a sense of industriousness and creativity. And from all of that, we gravitated towards a light industrial aesthetic, with echoes of a well stocked apothecary or tool shop. The design was also heavily informed by the constraints of my tiny budget and the understanding that everything during this early stage is experimental. So the shop you see now is a first iteration and there's an acknowledgement of that in the wheels that underpin all the wool cupboards, and the wooden tracks that support all the haberdashery display boxes. Nothing is fixed and everything can be altered and re-iterated as I learn over time what works and what doesn't.
What was the hardest thing about having a blank canvas?
I'm tempted to say that the absence of a blank canvas was a bigger challenge, and that reaching blankness felt like progress. The shop I moved into was an unloved, messed up place that had the scars of its previous series of hastily erected enterprises, all of which needed peeling way to get to the blank canvas that would form the base for my shop. And in some ways I feel that the minimal product design approach that we've taken means that that blank canvas is still visible and tangible beneath the wool and needles. It's part of what I hope can make people feel like there's space left in the shop to cultivate their own creativity.
Things you've learned already?
1. Knitters in Hackney/Clapton come from all sections of the local community. At the moment I still can't point to any one dominant customer group. It's a complete mix of old and new Hackney, and of course all the different ethnic groups that Hackney is known for. I'm particularly pleased about that as gentrification in this area of London means that new shops can be quite divisive between old and new and at the moment I seem to be steering a course that includes both.
2. There used to be a wool shop 2 doors away at 118 Lower Clapton Road which closed 20 years ago and was much loved by lots of the people who now come into my shop. The Designer Yarns SE sales rep, Mike Cole, spoke really fondly of supplying 'Claire's' with Sirdar yarns for years.
3. Twitter is key for reaching the not-local knitting sorority. I was a Twitter novice when I opened up and was very reluctant about making friends with Twitter. I'm now a reformed character and have to acknowledge that Twitter really does reach the knitters other media don't get to.
4. Vegan knitters are a bit of a misguided bunch. Sheep and Alpaca fleeces are exploitative to animals but using up fossil fuels isn't????
5. Floro/neon yarn is in! I really don't like it but it's definitely on trend in Clapton. I'm going to have restock soon.
6. Knitted samples are crucial for pattern sales. If it's knitted and it's here, I'll sell the patterns.
7. I'm never ever going to have a complete and finite stock of needles, no matter how many hours I spend pouring over the wholesale cataglogues. Buying needles is a nightmare!
8. Yarn dyers are very special people. They have a love and knowledge of fibre that you don't find in anyone else.
9. That I love being a shop keeper!
10. Male knitters are very serious about their hobby
Favourite moment so far?
Hhmmm there are quite a few strong contenders for this spot..
- Having my former City & Guilds fellow students come in and praise my range of yarn
- Watching the smile spread around the face of the guy who bought a load of skeins of Jacob yarn after I put it on the swift and invited him to crank the wool-winder handle
- Listening to Linda Lencovic describe the properties of her yarns
- straightening out some muddled circular knitting for a customer who was struggling with a baby hat pattern, and getting them comfortable with their first set of dpns.
A big thank you to Anna for her inspirational answers. Please do go and visit if you're in the Clapton area and say hi for me!