Sunday, February 17, 2013

On "Competition"

Today, a wonderful woman came into the studio to gather some more help with a couple of sweaters she wants to knit from nice hand-painted wool-mohair yarn that she bought some years ago when a shop went out of business.  She’s making one blue-y batch into a kimono-style sweater, made in strips, with a cool shawl-like collar.   And, in the course of things, she said that she was glad to see that my place was NOT “so awfully expensive,” as she’d heard in another shop.    
                I just sat there, overcome with sadness – not anger, not a desire to exact revenge, not an interest in learning who had said such a thing – but weariness and sadness.  And of course the hardest part was trying to figure out how NOT to show what I was feeling. 
                Here’s why.  We have heard this stuff before.  Over and over again.  It usually is attributed to some other yarn-purveyor in the metro area – a shop, never a customer.  I have always said that I do NOT want to know who it is.  Once, the person blurted out the shop name and I stopped her too late.  So I have anecdotal evidence about at least that particular shop.  But it doesn’t matter, does it, who is doing this?  What matters is what it says about community, our ability as an industry and as mostly women to create a culture that is simultaneously nurturing and entrepreneurial, to encourage one another, to understand how the boats really DO rise together when the ocean rises?  Once, I even heard tell (who knows how much of this is true?) that someone in another shop had said unkind things about a history professor presuming to know anything about knit and crochet.  Sigh.  What a downer.

                There are larger issues here, and they are rivetingly important.
                Long ago, a yarn company rep spoke disparagingly about “the politics of yarn shops in Michigan,” and he indeed meant to set us apart from yarn shops elsewhere, which very often have cooperative, sharing customs unlike what we experience here.  I expect that some part of that comparison is specious:   Every micro-culture looks greener from a distance.  But the larger point is important.   In Michigan, and especially in the Metro area, there is an extraordinarily thick layer of unhealthy suspicion, even nastiness, from time to time, as if each shop is to be conceptualized as an island in a hostile sea.  (Sorry for all of the oceanic imagery).
                Not long ago, I was sitting in the shop on a Saturday, with a handful of really nice women who come to the so-called Knit-Together on Saturdays, and suddenly three women burst into the shop, all with unpleasant scowls.  They didn’t look left or right – they just entered, walking like guided missles toward the back of the store.  I greeted them; they didn’t answer.  I asked one of them if I could help her, and she said quite testily, NO.  So I didn’t. Who would?  Several of us watched with interest (and astonishment) as they pulled out little index cards (I gather we weren’t supposed to be able to see LITTLE cards – this was a Stealth Mission) and began to jot down prices for things like Mini-Mochi and Kureyon.  One of them went over to a wall of hand-spun yarn – the most expensive stuff in the shop – and snorted.  They left just as they had come, in a scowling WHOOOOSH.  I asked them to come again; no answer.  
                It took me a few minutes, in fact, to figure out that they WERE spies!  Somebody had actually dispatched employees or friends to come see what we charged for yarns that were carried in more than one shop.  And that brought to mind the trip that a colleague and I had made maybe two years earlier to another shop in the NW sector of the city, where we were treated like enemy aliens on someone's no-fly list.  The owner took my card, held it as if it were a grenade, and said a bit too loudly that she had never heard of us, as if that were some kind of virtue.
                What a sad, sad moment.  Understand this:  I have my nasty moments.  Everybody does.  But they usually have to do with the misbehavior of a certain HUSBAND.  I visit other people’s shops all the time.  I make it a point, in fact, to buy something when I visit shops, even if it’s just from the sale room.  Some of the people I love best on this earth are shop owners.  They know who they are; we share e-mail notes and even dinner sometimes.  I have tried (without much success because of scheduling problems) to set up a network of visiting instructors so that shop owners could teach in one another’s shops.  Once a year, quite a few shops (though not by all means all shops) gather in a Detroit suburb to host Knit Michigan, which is undertaken in part for charity.  That's a good, strong step in the right direction.  People on the NW side of town also have a shop crawl that seems to have succeeded (ours on the east side did not, perhaps because the shops that wanted to participate were quite far apart).  So the question comes to be, why on earth, in an industry that’s known to be low-profit and mostly dominated by women, should we be spying on one another and, far worse, badmouthing one another to customers and company reps?   What a sad commentary on us and on our city’s fiber arts culture.  Think how much more we could do if the silliness evaporated.  
                So, for the record, let me say some things about my beautiful little studio.  We do indeed have some very expensive yarns.  I just bought three balls of hand-painted yarn, in fact, that I have priced between 60 and 90 dollars – each of them will make a good-sized shawl, but they’re expensive.  Of course they are.  They are hand-crafted.  They are made of fibers like silk, merino wool, and alpaca.  The hand-dyers used the best undyed stock available in the world.  I paid retail for these three and added FIVE DOLLARS to each of them to cover transportation costs (I don’t yet have a wholesale arrangement of any kind with this small firm).   There is indeed a wall of hand-spun yarn, some of which I bought from spinners across the country AFTER yelling at them in public about the ludicrously low prices they were charging for their labor – insisting that I pay them MORE.  I charge what I have paid plus a modest profit, never ever  more than the standard retail markup, and typically much less.  Hand-crafted is hand-crafted.   It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  But we should be clear about what it is.  We are the only shop in the state that carries this much hand-spun and hand-painted yarn.  Nobody sells more hand-crafted buttons than we do.  Am I ripping people off?   Hardly.  On many of these yarns, I can secure no more than maybe a 25% discount – at the New York Fiber Festival, the Maryland festival, the smaller festivals scattered all over the country, women sell their wares ONLY there, and they need to make money.  So if I want to stock a store with hand-crafted, unique yarns, I can’t have much of a profit margin.  I add an amount to help me recoup travel costs, and that’s what I charge.  The entire point is to provide a clearing house for very small producers, and then to mix up those hand-crafted yarns with some of the best mass-produced yarns in the industry, for people who don’t want to pay a fortune for their handcrafted shawls and sweaters and socks.
                In other words:   I will insist that critics distinguish between yarn that is OVERPRICED or UNFAIRLY PRICED and  yarn that is fairly priced but still expensive.  I have never overpriced a yarn knowingly since opening the shop.  If anything, I underprice, on the understanding that if I sell something with only 20% profit, I’ll make up the difference with, say, vintage buttons.  And here is the part that really annoys me:   We have the best prices in the state on Stonehedge Yarns.  Nobody sells them as cheaply as we do. We charge NO MORE than a standard retail markup on all of our other mass-produced yarns.  Not a dime more.
So, my friends, it’s plain nastiness, isn’t it, designed to keep people out of other people’s shops.  What an unhealthy situation.   We are, or should be, a community.  I have always hoped, too, that a mostly female industry would NOT be just like, say, car dealerships.  I send people to the Wool and the Floss for things we don’t have.  I do the same with the Knotted Needle, Crafty Lady Trio, on and on.  We have called shops in other cities to get balls of yarn for people who have run out in mid-project.  I have thought twice, I confess, before sending people to the one shop that I know has not been truthful about us.  But – others get customers from me.  And why not?  Again, we are women.  We are supposed to be sisters -- skilled artisans interested in preserving ancient crafts for future generations of boys, girls, men, women.    We should not send spies.  We should not try to harm other people’s prospects by spreading lies and venom.
So now you understand the source of my sadness.  Thanks for listening.   It makes me weary enough to think about retiring.  The Third Coast Fiber Arts Festival has been an attempt to cut through some of this, to gather IN some of the shops, to aid in the task of cooperation and community – to give DETROIT something to be proud of.  Last year, it did a lot of good in those directions – but, of course, I later heard that I was somehow trying to undermine other festivals in the state, as if anyone could do that when they are months apart and many miles away.
Knit on.  Crochet on.  And let’s hope for happier times in this very special part of our lives.



  1. Here, here, Sandra. You have much to say that makes all of us pause for thought; probably more than you know. I started paying my test knitters more money based on our years-ago conversations. Karma will win out in the end. Hugs. lb