Manhattan’s Knitting Culture And Economics

Lynne Kiesling

As you would expect in a large city, Manhattan has a fair number of good yarn stores: Purl in Soho, The Yarn Co. on Broadway at 82nd St., String on Madison Avenue at 78th St., Downtown Yarns on Avenue A, Knitting 321 on E. 75th St., Gotta Knit! on 6th Avenue, etc.

A variety of different types of stores, locations, yarns, retail experiences, price points. Yarn stores thrive on product differentiation, both in what they sell and how each individual store positions itself and the experience it provides relative to its competitors. Yarn stores, and shopping in them, are examples of the extent to which shopping can itself be a valuable and creative process. They illustrate how competition is a discovery process — you don’t necessarily know what’s possible, and how you value those alternatives that you didn’t know about, until you get out there and experience them in the different retail outlets available to you.

In this context I find the Yarn Bus fascinating. As discussed in this column from this week’s New Yorker, the Yarn Bus is a free shuttle bus between Manhattan and Flying Fingers, a yarn store in Irvington, in Westchester County 45 minutes north of Manhattan. If you go to their website you can see a picture of the Yarn Bus in all its kitschy glory.

Since the couple opened up shop a year and a half ago, their voluminous inventory has attracted customers from as far away as Canada, Ireland, and Alaska. But persuading New York knitters to make the forty-five-minute trip up the Hudson has been a harder sell. And so, to render the reverse commute sufficiently enticing, Lundeen, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, and Goldschlag, his wife, conceived of the Yarn Bus, offering free shuttle service between Irvington and Manhattan.

The Yarn Bus is a fifteen-passenger van topped with three enormous balls of yarn and a pair of knitting needles the size of 9-irons. To build it, Lundeen and Goldschlag enlisted Prototype Source, a California company that is one of the nationís leading makers of promotional vehicles, having produced such industry icons as the Hershey Kissmobile, the Yoo-hoo Stinkiní Summer Tour Garbage Truck, and the latest Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, complete with Mustard Splattered Walkway and Official Wiener Jingle Horn. To fabricate the giant yarn balls, the designers considered marine rope (too heavy) and real yarn (prone to rot) before settling on lengths of thin plastic tubing, coated with fibreglass to evoke a fittingly woolly look.

What’s the value proposition here? Why might this strategy succeed in the face of so many competing LYSs (that’s local yarn stores to you non-knitters) that are right there in Manhattan? I see three obvious ones. First, note that the store has a remarkable inventory, which is not necessarily likely in Manhattan given the higher rents; Flying Fingers may offer a wider range of yarns and supplies than its urban competitors. Second, the culture of non-urban yarn stores is often quite different from urban yarn stores, although across both categories there is a wide range of differentiated experiences. My favorite non-urban yarn stores are in rambling old farmhouses that make each room feel like you are going to make some interesting new discovery. Third, there is a strong current of community that runs through knitting, so I can imagine Manhattan knitters turning the road trip to Irvington into a “girl’s day out” adventure (I say “girl’s day out” because all of my knitting friends are women)! I mean, how kitschy-fun would it be to go with some folks from your stitch-n-bitch group on a yarn road trip in a van with big yarn balls and needles on the top? If the Yarn Bus can exploit these advantages, then they are likely to succeed.

This phenomenon also exists in other large cities, such as Chicago. We have wonderful LYSs here and in the suburbs (including my favorite LYS, Arcadia Knitting), but there’s still a lot of fun to be had in a road trip to Threadbear Fiber Art Studio in Lansing, Michigan, which has a massive inventory and two very personable and solicitous proprietors. OK, Lansing is not “non-urban”, but it’s still got lower commercial rents. I have to say that I have never had the pleasure of a Threadbear road trip, so if any of you Chicago knitters are planning one for the spring, let me know!

Thanks to Alison at the blue blog for the post linking to the New Yorker article.

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