Purls of Wisdom

Knitting shop Village Wools stitched up its bottom line

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, January 4, 2010

Cathlena Burr isn’t sure what fueled the knitting revolution, but she knows her store started booming after Sept. 11, 2001.

Burr is a co-owner of Albuquerque staple Village Wools, along with Meg McKenney, Franzi Collins and Linda DeBlois. The yarn store, which stocks hundreds of different kinds of yarn from more than 200 companies and offers an array of classes, has been around in various forms since 1971.

But it wasn’t until after the towers fell that business “just exploded,” Burr says—and it’s never really gone back down, even in the Great Recession.

Within the past decade, knitting, once thought of as a pastime for the elderly and the fashion-challenged, has made a comeback. In the 21st century, knitting is chic. And if you walk into the yarn store nearest you, you’re more likely to find twentysomething hipsters—of both sexes—than you are to find Great Aunt Helen.

Burr is hesitant to name 9/11 as the sole cause for the craft’s resurgence, but on a certain level, it makes sense to her.

“I think there was a whole return to a feeling of home and safety,” she says, “and making things for loved ones, and making things that meant something ... a whole return to handmade things.”

Shelley Martinez and Julia Rodriguez, friends who have shopped together at Village Wools for six years, have their own theory about knitting’s popularity.

“I think women have found out that we need to relax, and this is a way of relaxing,” says Rodriguez, who has been knitting her entire life and has noticed the change in the industry.

“The world’s just too fast,” Martinez adds. “We’re all looking for something to slow it down.”

Martinez began knitting about six years ago, while spending a lot of time in hospitals and doctors’ offices as her husband was “going through something.” What drew her to knitting was that she could “take it anywhere.”

Whatever the reasons for more people picking up needles and skeins, it’s a trend that’s visible in Burr’s business. When she bought in as an owner in 1992 for $3,500, she worried that Village Wools would have to close. The store had had myriad owners since its inception, and the people who owned it right before Burr had lost interest in it, but waited too long to realize it, she says.

So when Burr signed on, along with three others, she says it was like starting from scratch. One of the previous owners had stayed with the shop, so there were five owners in total. Business was so slow that every owner only worked one day a week, with no other employees, alternating Saturdays.

Now, Village Wools has four or five people working every day. It offers about 50 kinds of classes and in 2008, it grossed more than $685,000.

Burr never planned to own a business. She majored in French and English in college, but also fell in love with weaving. After graduating, she managed a fabric store. She eventually found her way to Village Wools as an employee in 1985, when the shop was more focused on weaving than knitting. She worked there for seven years before buying in as an owner, and several more years passed before she felt sure the business would thrive.

The store’s success is due to more than industry trends. Burr and her co-owners put a percentage of every day’s intake into a money market account to help make up for the slow times of year. September through March is the store’s busy season. Once spring rolls around and the weather warms, there’s a drop in customers. So the daily savings—5 percent of intake in busier months and 3 percent in slow months—makes a huge difference.

Burr says another crucial element is the fact that every member of the staff is well-versed enough to answer any question a customer has. They work in all the media to which the store caters. Besides knitting, those include weaving (Burr’s craft of choice), crocheting, silk painting, spinning, dyeing, tatting, felting and temari (Japanese thread balling). Customers know they can always call or come into the store and get help with their projects.

Because there are so many owners, no one is solely responsible for the business, and that keeps all of them from burning out.

“It’s a fantastic working relationship,” Burr says. “It’s just fun. And we get paid for it.”

Each year’s profit is invested back into the store. Even the owners are paid hourly rates. When business is good, everyone gets raises, and there are bonuses once a year. But owners don’t split the store’s profits.

Burr is a little amazed that business hasn’t slowed during the recession. It’s actually been on the rise—due in part, she says, to the store moving to a larger location three years ago (it was located on San Mateo, north of Comanche, for 25 years).

“Maybe it’s one of those things people don’t give up,” she says. “I always sort of thought of this as a luxury industry—because it’s not cheaper to make your own sweater. You can definitely buy a cheaper sweater at Walmart.”

But knitting, or any kind of crafting, isn’t always about money, or the lack of money, she says: “I think it’s the activity, the community of it. There’s definitely a community here, that’s for sure.”