Dreaming Of Owning A Yarn Shop? Sambra Neet served in the Peace Corps in Turkey

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By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, July 06, 2001 - 1:37 pm: Edit Post

Dreaming Of Owning A Yarn Shop? Sambra Neet served in the Peace Corps in Turkey

Dreaming Of Owning A Yarn Shop? Sambra Neet served in the Peace Corps in Turkey

Dreaming Of Owning A Yarn Shop? Sambra Neet served in the Peace Corps in Turkey

In 1971 with a friend, Sambra Neet, who "ran away" after 2 years to a farm in Oregon. We met in a dye class and a spinning guild and discovered we'd both always had a dream of opening a store. I was a grad student at UC Berkeley in textile design at the time. Sam worked in a medical office (she'd been in the Peace Corps in Turkey).

Q: How did it all begin?

A: We started very small. I had a list of suppliers and a teeny bit of money; she had her savings from the Peace Corps. We opened with a budget of $1375 and had $35 in the bank in a 500 sq ft space in a "dead" area of Oakland called Rockridge that is now a booming boutique area. Not a recommended way to start a business. All our furniture was recycled and we used stacked orange crates for shelves. We only had spinning and dyeing supplies, no yarns at all. I was working on my MA, had a half-time job and had a 14 month old son. Sam had one child, a half-time job and another child on the way. If we'd asked for small business advice we would have been told to forget it!

Susan Druding spinning. Susan Spinning
We kept our overhead way down: small, cheap unheated space, mimeographed stationery and catalog, recycled bags, etc. etc. We worked opposite days and were together on Saturdays. I was Wednesday-Friday-Saturday and she was Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. That way we kept our jobs for income. We took nothing out of the shop in money!

Q: It began as a spinning shop and grew from there. How did that happen?

A: No one knew what hand spinning was in 1970-71. Sam had learned in Turkey in the Peace Corps and I learned out of sheer curiosity with a drop spindle and a little book from the UK since I was studying textile history. I found out there was a Guild (Spindles and Flyers) started by a wonderful man who built wheels (Anthony Cardarelle) in Richmond, CA and I joined. That's how I met Sam. After Sam left (I bought our her half of the inventory, which had grown to $7,000 when she left) Straw Into Gold "made it" due to my heavy teaching schedule to support the days when no one came in. Straw Into Gold was the first supplier of mail order supplies for hand spinning in the USA - we advertised in the old Handweaver and Craftsmen magazine (long gone) and later in Interweave Press' Spin Off once it started. So gradually we got known nationally. I didn't hire my first employees until Straw had been open for almost 7 years! Being on the retail desk full time for 6 days a week got pretty tiring.

Q: Do you offer classes?

A: We offer spinning and knitting classes, but no longer offer lots of the other ones we used to. We used to be the only source of many classes. Susie Hodges, an excellent knitter and spinner (who did a video on Multi-color knitting with Victorian Video) teaches a lot of our classes. I no longer teach - after 20+ years of teaching I "retired".

Q: How large a staff do you have?

A: We have about 15 employees, but it fluctuates depending on how many are part time and the time of year. This includes staff for both our wholesale and retail. Retail is now open much more limited hours than in the past and so our retail staff is four people plus a couple who do some wholesale and some retail.

Q: Is success possible financially just selling yarn?

A: No - to be perfectly honest. Without something 'extra' it's very hard to make it as a yarn store these days. Doing a combination of textile arts is what worked for us in the beginning - one of my favorite phrases is "Keep a lot of irons in the fire and work on the ones that get hot!" You have to teach to build customers, too. You have to be very careful about inventory and costs. Rents are higher in many areas than they were a decade ago and this puts a lot of pressure on shops. I think if I were starting a new shop now I'd think about doing yarn, fibers-spinning, basketry and some quilting.

Q: What are your keys to success?

A: Well, I'm a bit of a workaholic - though I'm slowing down some. I think keeping one's eyes open for new areas is a must. Getting rid of slow-selling inventory, putting it on sale. If someone doesn't buy a yarn and you've moved it around to a new location in the shop a couple times it isn't magically going to start selling - get it out and put in some new yarns.

Q: What was the biggest obstacle to getting started?

A: Financing! We went to our local Bank of America and they said "Come back in a year" - Ha! But, I think the biggest problem I see with shops to which we wholesale (as Crystal Palace Yarns) is problems with financing the business and then running it in a serious manner.

Straw Into Gold. Straw Building
Q: What was the biggest obstacle you overcame to achieve success?

A: When my partner left and I got divorced (all in the second and third year of my business). I had no money and was a single mother with a business. That was hard! My ex- did take my son half the week and I taught classes solid during that time: weaving, basketry, spinning, dyeing, knitting to support myself. Later my new partner, Andy MacEwan, who both became a "life" and "business" partner and also made a loan to the business that made going into wholesale possible. As the business grew we moved three more times - from 500 sq ft to 1200 sq ft to 10,000 sq ft and now we are in 25,000 sq ft.

Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in opening a local yarn shop?

A: Do some serious research! Is there a popular shop in a 50 mile radius? If so, think twice. Do you know that there is a population of women in the area who would become customers? I'd suggest doing some local teaching at neighborhood centers, senior centers, etc. to gauge the interest. Do you have enough money to put in a good inventory and run for 6+ months without having much income? Do you have a partner where you both can keep a part time "day job" (which is what we did)? Do you have stamina and are you easily defeated? Do you really know about knitting (and spinning?) - can you teach your own classes and develop your customers yourself to start?

And, with the market so much slower than it was 10-15 years ago I'd think about what else you could sell in your shop to "support" your yarn - (depending on where you are): tourist items, gifts, children's toys, etc.

If you plan to do mail order have your catalog done and ready before you open your doors or you won't finish it! Mail order gives you something to do when you have slow days (Straw Into Gold wouldn't have made it without mail order).

Q: Why do so many yarn shops fail (aside from lack of knitters!)?

A: Poor location and/or poor management. Knitters who love to knit shouldn't think they'd love to have a shop. If your shop is successful you won't have time to knit! You have to have an idea of what "open to buy" means - if you aren't making sales you can't buy more inventory! You must not order more than you can pay for when the money is due, etc. But, there is a slump in knitting and it's making it much harder to open a shop now. Teaching can build new customers, so it's a must!

The aisles are stuffed at Straw Into Gold. Straw Into Gold
Q: 25,000 sq ft is huge! Just how much yarn do you stock?

A: We have our wholesale Crystal Palace Yarns business and our retail Straw Into Gold business all in one building - so we aren't a "typical" shop. We have thousands of pounds of yarn and fiber in the building! The downstairs is our retail area and we now focus more on retailing our own Crystal Palace Yarns as we have so many that they fill the shelves in our retail space. The upstairs and a 5,000 ft warehouse behind our building are all full of yarns, fibers and Ashford Spinning-Weaving equipment (we are the USA distributor for Ashford). Retail, we also still carry all of Rowan's yarns, Manos, and some other yarns we buy especially just for our store from France and we stock Patons Yarns from Australia (different from the Canadian-UK variety). We also have a huge book inventory; I'm a book junkie so I order a lot of books that stray beyond the typical knitting-spinning variety and into design, textile history and such.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Turkey; Special Interests - Knitting



By MegB on Thursday, April 17, 2003 - 10:33 pm: Edit Post

I am thinking of starting a yarn shop and would love to be in touch with someone that has started and succeeded in the yarn business. I am willing and enthusiastic about doing an internet business to offset the slower winter season we have in our predominantly tourist town. Thanks in advance for any thoughts, ideas, advice.

By Steve Neary (cache-ntc-aa03.proxy.aol.com - on Monday, July 18, 2005 - 5:05 pm: Edit Post

This story was great to read! I just stumbled on it today (7/18/05). I always have wondered where Sambra wound up and what she was doing. Hellos after almost 40 years. Steve Neary.

By monique dear ( on Wednesday, October 07, 2009 - 12:02 pm: Edit Post

Great story. I am gearing up to open my own yarn store but I am plaining to supliment by setting it in a coffe shop enviorment with wifi. Just making it a hang out spot,comfy cozy and sell all the yarn and supplies,teaching classes and other ideas as the business expands. In Fremont,newark area. Do you have advise? Thanks Monique Dear

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