Anyone looking for an easy gentrification metaphor this year didn't need to look beyond the 1700 block of Connecticut Avenue NW, where Pleasure Place, which describes itself as a "toy store for sophisticated adults," moved out, and Looped Yarn Works, which describes itself a "friendly, comfortable and warm shop with a selection of beautiful yarns and notions," moved in.
2010 also saw yarn-bombers and the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef come to Washington, the latter a collaborative effort that put the work of hundreds of crocheters on display in a Smithsonian exhibit. But those phenomena, as by definition they must, landed rather softly. The real story in yarn this year was in the hard numbers.
"We've been rocking for a while," says Danielle Romanetti of business at Fibre Space, the Alexandria yarn shop that she opened in 2009. Fibre Space's closest competitor, Knit Happens, closed down this year, a move Romanetti says had nothing to do with her shop — she and the manager of KnitHap "worked very closely to make sure that we didn't overlap" on yarn lines, she says. "We actually found that having brands that were not as popular was to our advantage, and people were ready to see something different."
Romanetti says business in December was up "60 to 70 percent" over the same month in 2009. "Crafts businesses in general tend to do better when the economy is worse," she says. "The only issue with opening a crafts business in a downturn is financing."
"It's been a pretty good year," says Marie Connolly, the owner of Stitch D.C. on Capitol Hill. Until Looped opened, Stitch was the District's only yarn store. "The second half of the year we were quite busy." She's up over last December, too, "and definitely up from the year we don't like to talk about, which is 2008."
Connolly, who's publishing two books next year, says she's not threatened by Looped: "I'm definitely of the theory that the ship rises for everyone," she says.
The Coral Reef was the yarn crowd's Woodstock. A fusion of crafts, mathematics, and eco-consciousness, the reef began in Los Angeles and has mutated into several giant pieces of knitwear; this exhibit traveled to London, Dublin, New York, and Chicago before beginning a six-month hitch at the Museum of Natural History in October.
No skein was left unskinned by this project; Knit Happens and Fibre Space, as well as yarn shops from southwestern Virginia to Hyattsville helped out. Fibre Space offered classes in crocheting to help students get their work into the exhibition. Rebecca Gordon, a musician and recording engineer who was on the board of Artomatic for years, was part of the volunteer curation team and is a docent for the exhibit. "I did four pieces that are actually part of the reef," she says, describing having work in the Smithsonian as "a thrill."
Gordon loves Fibre Space ("I am part of the furniture" there, she says) and digs Looped, too. "It's a lovely store," she says, and tells a story about bringing some sheep-farmer friends from Vermont into the shop to talk about selling some roving. "I sort of cold called them and dropped these sheep farmers on them," she says, a situation the staff handled very graciously.
Crafty Bastards, Washington City Paper's annual handmade-stuff fair, also helped turn October into Yarntober. "It was awesome. Best show ever," says Tigerflight's Beth Baldwin, the owl-wrangler I have interviewed for almost all of my crafts pieces this year. She had an amazing booth for Crafty, right on the midway as you come in. She sold a boatload of owls. She did not take part in the coral reef. Baldwin's New Year's goal: "I want to get into seven stores. I think it would take kind of thinking outside of the box. Be more businessy, which I'm not good at." She'd like to be a better knitter ("My mom always makes fun of my knitting because I twist my stitches") but is not interested in learning to make her own yarn. "I was shown how to spin this summer, and I was really frustrated, and I said fuck this. I'm just gonna buy yarn."
November's announcement that Wal-Mart is planning four D.C. stores in 2012 opens up a whole 'nother can of cute, crocheted worms. Kelly Rand, who writes about arts for DCist, says she'll wait and see. "Crafters, including me, will venture to Michael's or Jo-Ann's in Northern Virginia or outside of Baltimore to get craft supplies and less expensive yarns with a somewhat ok selection," she writes in an e-mail. "So it will depend on what they carry and I can see them being convenient for hobbyists, but not hurting yarn stores."
Gordon recently visited a Wal-Mart in Florida ("The home of the free-range grandmas," she says). "I was rather stunned how extensive the craft section was," she says. "There were weaving supplies. There were materials that would appeal to artisans." Connolly, who says "I've been known to write a pattern on the fly" for a customer, says she's not sweating the competition. "The thing with Wal-Mart is Wal-Mart doesn't carry as much yarn as people think. I'm of the thought that the stores they're gonna create in the city won't have as much of that."
If the Wal-Marts do have a crafts section, Baldwin says, "That would be kind of great because it's really hard to find stuff like a zipper in this town...it'd be nice not to have to go out to Northern Virginia for zippers and stuffing."
Wal-Mart did not respond to my queries as to whether it would have crafts sections in its planned D.C. shops.
Your correspondent's pick for the hot trend in fiber arts next year: spinning. Baldwin's troubles with the art aside, Gordon's got a regular drop-spindle group that meets at a Starbucks in Pentagon City, and Romanetti says Fibre Space has "a whole room of fiber, and we have spinning classes." She's not that interested in making yarn, either: "If you're an end-product knitter you do not want to spin," she says. "The folks who take our spinning classes tend to be our fibreholics." Any scene big enough to encompass such a divide can only get bigger in the new year.