04 October 2006

Yarn Market continued

Things have been busy lately (yes, got started on the new chapter for real, and no, no book contract that will make me a millionaire - if ONLY), and I'm afraid there's no knitting news to report since last time. However, I am about to go to New Hampshire for a long weekend, and I'm hoping that will mean lots of good knitting time, and an exciting blog when I get back.

In other news, there are just a few more things I want to add to my previous "Yarn Market" post and in response to some of the comments (and thanks guys, as always, for the wonderful comments!).

First, I should probably say that I come to this issue with some assumptions of my own devising which would probably be worth stating outright: namely, I think that in the same way that democratic government doesn't work unless citizens choose, individually, not just to vote but to keep themselves informed enough to make rational decisions about their own interests and the greater good, I also believe that capitalist economies don't work without an informed market. I won't go into what I think is going wrong in our country right now -- or why I don't believe it can be fairly said that we are living either in a democracy or a functioning capitalist market and how it's our own faults -- but what's relevant to this discussion is that I think it's always in any buyer's interest, naturally enough, to know something about the market so they don't waste their money. Duh, right? We all know that. I also think this idea can be extended - I believe the whole market is ultimately better off when consumers are informed. Some sellers might lose in the short term -- but mainly those who are charging more than a product is worth, or selling a useless, unwanted, or low-quality product -- and they, too, are ultimately better off by providing what their market actually wants (or going into another line of work). You'd think they'd want to know what actually will sell and keep buyers coming back over and over, rather than just lazily trying to make what money they can from overpriced crap until the bottom inevitably falls out and they hope they can run off scot free like certain CEOs we've all read about.

I don't know about you, but I've been seeing an awful lot of the latter, lately. I've also been seeing an incredible amount of sheer general incompetence on the part of nearly every company I've tried to buy anything from in recent years. Crappy products. Screwed-up orders. Deliberate deception. Inaccurate charges that require months to get fixed, if they ever do. Unfair practices that no one seems to have the power to stop. And what is up with how every electronics device on earth breaks precisely a week or so after the warranty is up, no matter how long the warranty??

How does this relate to yarn?

First, the ONLY companies I can think of that I've never had any problems with in recent years (besides Trader Joe's and Amazon.com, which are pretty much the only other places I spend any money any more, besides farm stands and other independent sellers) have been people who sell yarn or knitting supplies. I'm convinced, of course, that knitting makes people better people, so this has got to have something to do with it.

But, I've also had a few, very few, bad experiences with yarns and stores, and I've heard quite a bit from others who buy more yarn from the big distributors than I do about poor quality and high prices. And then I read about Sarah, and her controversy.

And, as I've also mentioned here before, I have this overpowering dread sometimes that this whole knitting-as-yoga trend will dry up, the LYS's will close, and it won't be possible to find good yarn at all anymore. You understand - I'm a child of the 80s, and I have bad Red Heart-related memories. And I still haven't got the hang of spinning.

I always pay close attention when I hear knitters tell stories about periods in their life when they knew how to knit but didn't actively do it, and why. Usually, the reasons include one or both of the following:

1. there was no good yarn available
2. the knitter got stuck on something difficult, or a project that wasn't turning out as well as it was meant to, and lacking any better ideas, they stuck the thing in a closet and forgot about it.

I'm happy - SO HAPPY - to see that the internet is making an enormous difference in making it possible for no knitter to ever suffer from tragedy #2 any more. Those who aren't online also have the LYS, which for now at least is an entity springing up seemingly on every corner. As for tragedy #1....I'm still afraid.

I also think that a lot of the big companies - and Sarah's experience with Tilli Tomas confirmed this - are just out there to take advantage of what they see as a passing fad, and as in any new market where consumers are perceived as a bunch of ignorant, indiscriminate newbies with money to burn, a lot of crap is being pushed out there, and a lot of yarns that range in quality from crap to delicious are being sold for much more than they're actually worth, presumably because the producers think they need to inflate their profits now to make up for the bottom falling out of this market when all us trendsters move on to skateboarding, or collecting dolls.

I'm not trying to suggest that manufacturers and distributors shouldn't make a healthy profit, much less, god FORBID, that LYS's should be squeezed out. I'm suggesting that a handful of the largest companies shouldn't be allowed to make off literally like bandits at the expense of the general health of our craft and the small stores and producers who make it truly worthwhile.

As I said in my earlier post, I'm afraid that many people who do come to knitting because of the fad may run into a third, relatively new tragic reason to abandon knitting:

3. they're getting fleeced (please excuse the pun - sheep don't deserve this) by greedy companies, and/or sucked into buying "luxury" yarn that is actually kind of a pain in the butt to work with, because they walked into the wrong store.

I don't think we need to protect yarn distributors or stores that make up for their poor management skills or ignorance of their own market by falsely hiking up prices, on the premise that buyers are too dumb to notice.

I DO think we should do everything we can to protect the hand-spinners, the small companies providing an original service (both "brick-and-mortar" and otherwise, and most online companies like Sarah's Yarn's and KnitPicks DO pay for staff and premises) and the LYS's that do their best to make knitting affordable, easy to learn, and fun for everybody who wants to try.

I think the best way to do this, as I said in the previous post, is to be informed consumers. Above all, it's in our best interests to make knitting less like yoga and more like gardening - one of those hobbies that will be around forever, and that can afford to keep reputable, honest, legal companies in business keeping practictioners well-supplied.

As for Lion Brand - see Laura's latest post on that topic if you haven't already, and its comments.

About KnitPicks and handspun yarns (apparently my previous post wasn't entirely clear on this - sorry, I thought it said more than it did):

My own personal ideal would be to knit only locally and organically, just like I would prefer to eat that way, but for me it's not quite possible yet (though I think I'm working toward it).

As I said in my previous post, it's the handspun and/or handdyed yarns made by artisans that actually are worth high prices, and I'm willing (or will be, as soon as I have an income =] ) to pay for the time, expertise, craftsmanship, and art that are put into precisely these kinds of yarns.

That's not what I'm talking about with Tilli Tomas, or Lion Brand, or the vast majority of what they stock at String.

I'm more than willing to pay fair prices for truly good yarn - I'm anxious to do so! I'm not asking for cheap yarn - I'm asking to pay the right people a fair price, period. The chief purpose, for me, behind my whole campaign with these posts is to keep knitting popular, fulfilling, and rewarding precisely so artisans can actually make a living through spinning, dyeing, designing, writing, teaching and making and distributing materials for knitters. I want it to be possible for artisans to do this, not just huge companies who operate under conditions consumers aren't allowed to know about.

I DON'T think KnitPicks can in any way be meaningfully compared to Walmart. KnitPicks IS committed to fair trade and sustainable production! Just because something is cheap and popular (or machine-spun) don't make it bad! Sometimes, in a very few cases, it might mean a business is actually being run by sentient, even highly intelligent and moral, human beings.

Rather, my complaint with Lion Brand could be fairly accurately re-worded by saying I think they're a bit too much like Walmart. They're cashing in on consumers' need to feel like they're getting a bargain, yet there actually is no bargain...the goods aren't worth having, and not worth even the relatively low prices asked for them. (In my not-so-humble opinion.)

[Okay, I'm going to be a little facetious here, but - does the new catalog look mean they're trying to move up from Walmart to Target? I little more flash, a little higher prices, but same crap??]

When a company combines ethics and passion with efficiency and sheer managerial competence (wonder of wonders!), other companies tend to get pissed, and scared. I'm all for supporting ethics and passion when they are combined with competence, and I don't see why that shouldn't be the standard we expect when we pay good money for something. In fact, in most areas of my life, even though right now my income is well below the poverty line and I owe a truly staggering figure in educational debt, I would be only too DELIGHTED to pay for quality and competence. If only I could find some. So far, I've found it almost exclusively in the knitting and yarn world. I want to keep it that way, fad or no fad. That's my bottom line.

In her summary of my post for Yarnival, Eve suggested that a place like Yarndex could work much better than any kind of button as a centralized venue for honest yarn reviews. I agree, but this depends on knitters going there and reviewing like crazy. She's right though - wouldn't it be amazing if you could shop for yarn the same way you do at amazon.com or buy.com - based on reviews? This requires having enough reviews that consensus emerges, so that a product won't be unfairly hurt based on a fluke or someone with a grudge.

Looking further into the future, I'm really excited about Brenda Dayne's idea for an all-encompassing knitting encyclopedia, presumably on the Wiki model. There are wikis for everything these days. The writing program I taught in last year uses one as a resource for assignments, handouts, and exercises - teachers deposit them there, and as each semester goes by, the wiki is built up into a massive resource for new teachers. There's even a wiki for my favorite band, of all things: This Might Be a Wiki. It sounds like this is more or less what Brenda has in mind, as a compendium of Creative-Commons-protected knitting patterns, techniques, and ideas. It could also be a compendium of information on yarn and yarn companies that could help to shape our little market into a strong, healthy, creative, ethical force from which everyone who participates benefits. That's how democracy is supposed to work too, and I for one still think it's possible. But you have to participate.

Maybe I'm wrong about some or all of what I've posted here. I don't claim to be as well informed as I should be about all of the issues I've touched on here, or all of the companies I've directly or obliquely referred to. I'm open to having my mind changed, but this is what I know now, and what I think about it, for what that's worth.

Now, because this is all rather heavy...I'm going to post, separately, a few memes I've had floating around here, so there's something to read while I'm away in New Hampshire. And - in case you hadn't noticed - I changed my template! Woo-hoo!! I did it with much help and moral support from Laura, who helped even though my whole reason for doing it was that I was jealous of her ability to put a pretty yarn picture in her header. I will miss my history-themed template a bit (it seemed so right at the time), but fortunately some of my favorite blogs also use it, so I'll still see it around. And this one is much easier to color-coordinate with my pictures! :-)


The Purloined Letter said...

Fantastic! Glad to see you engage some of these issues. Off to print this out.

The new background looks great and works well, but I'll miss having you as my twin!

Veronique said...

Congrats on the new template! It looks good!

Kate A. said...

I know - I feel bad - I liked that us two historians had the same "scribe" template...I couldn't deal with all that brown, though!

Marianne said...

Great post, and I'm with you all the way, being on a more limited budget...by choice at this time...I feel I'm always scrambling for good yarn at a better price. I did get in touch with Sarah's Yarns, and I'm very happily impressed with the majority of what they have (I'm not much into the frilly frou frou stuff) and the promptness with answering my questions, sending me info, etc, so a big thanks for posting about them.
So, how *does* one put that beautiful banner (I know that you put your own 'whatever' in) at the top of the template? You have helped many a blogger with your other instructions.

Marianne said...

sheesh, forgot,,, that's a beautiful photo, took my breath away.

Eve said...

I would have agreed with a wiki model two years ago, but unfortunately I don't anymore. I tried to run a wiki for a community that was fairly tech-oriented, but it was still hard for people to accept the method of editing and navigation. I know it's pretty simple for people who are familiar with wikis, but your average knitter just wants to knit; they don't have time to learn [[how to write a new page]] or what a red link means.

I think we're going to have to stick with blogs. I have no problem with that!

utilly said...

Ok, well, what's your take on this big question on the wiki thing? A separate knitting wiki or fleshing out the knitting stub in wikipedia where there is already a commited community of wikipedians using a format that has publically comitted to improving usability by improving it's WYSIWYG editing tools? Just testing the water ;)


Yvonne said...

I've been thinking about setting up a knitting wiki for a long time, actually. Every time, I hit two stumbling blocks:

1) Someone ultimately has to be responsible for the cost of hosting such a site. I could set up and host the site initially for the price of the domain, but if it grew beyond a certain size, I wouldn't be able to sustain it, unless people were willing to donate money to support the site.

2) You really need to have a team of dedicated editors to keep a wiki organized and running. Are there many Wikipedian knitters out there?

I would love to have a centralized knitting encyclopedia on the web. If there's a group of people who really wants to put our heads together and make this happen, please include me!