Eco-conscious yarn on a budget part 2: The businesses giving new life to unwanted materials

Suzie Blackman
Monday, 24 June 2019

We talk to two innovative small business owners, Anna Feldman of Wild and Woolly and Simona Marian-Maloney of Recycled Yarn Co. about their very different eco-conscious yarn initiatives.

This is the second in a series exploring the sometimes difficult relationship between cost and sustainability of the materials we use. In Part 1 we looked at budget synthetic yarns and asked if they really offer value for money. I want to thank everyone who commented, shared the article and messaged to discuss it further. There is so much to talk about! It was reassuring that collectively as makers, we share a sense of urgency about reducing plastic consumption and minimising our environmental impact, and this is true right across the spectrum of financial means. At the same time, the need for knitting to be financially accessible to everyone is clear, and I feel that I understated this. It is not just about the value of the finished object – the escapism and sense of achievement that a few stitches can provide are all the more precious to the people that have the least. I want to give a special thank you to the thoughtful human that reminded me of this by privately sharing their own experience.

Mass-market sustainable yarn options are more expensive than budget yarns, putting them out of reach of some makers. So, if we are to ween ourselves off synthetics, we need alternative sources of low-cost yarn. Our first interviewee has created just that.

The Stash Depot is the brainchild of LYS owner Anna Feldman, giving customers to her East London shop, Wild and Woolly, the opportunity to buy and sell destash yarn without the hassle. [Regular readers may recall that I am myself a user of this service]. I met up with Anna at her beautiful shop to find out more about the initiative over a cup of tea.

Anna Feldman outside Wild and Woolly local yarn store

While most local yarn stores have a strong community focus, they’re dedicated to conventional yarn retail. What gave you the idea to set up The Stash Depot?

“The idea came from being a wool shop customer, before being a proprietor. As a knitter, I was aware that knitters often buy more than we can knit with (our eyes are bigger than our tummy!). Over time, it can lose its allure, our taste moves on and we get excited about other things. A stash can become a source of guilt that can stop you knitting because you don’t want to use it, but you feel bad about buying anything new.

“When kids were little, we shopped at a children’s shop where you could bring clothes your children had grown out of and they would put them on sale. They were labelled with a number for each customer, and you got credit based on what had sold. The shop took their cut too. They gave you a membership card and you could buy new clothes with your credit. Everything was washed and iron and they took care to present things well – it didn’t have a charity shop feel. I thought this was a great model for circulating wool that people had accumulated in their stash.

“I was also thinking about what was missing in wool shops. I was often disappointed about shops I visited and felt that knitting spaces can tend towards cliquiness – not everyone feels included. I thought ‘if I had a wool shop, people could get rid of their stash and made to feel welcome’. When I opened the wool shop decided to do it.

“I had fears about how selling cheap wool would fit in. I had contradictory goals; to sell really nice wool in natural fibres only, and for the shop to be welcoming to everyone. I wanted that when people walked in they could find something suitable for their project regardless of their income level. A key area of inclusivity is not just about being friendly, it’s filling that missing gap. I’ve done my best to fill a price range of yarns – from about £3.50 a ball – but the Stash Depot yarn is £2/ball and often there are real gems.

“Making is often about being rough and ready, e.g. making pompoms with kids, and it’s nice to have cheap yarn for times when retail yarn would not be appropriate for a project. The Stash Depot compliments what’s in the rest of the shop.

“I expected that the Stash Depot would be full of single skeins, but often it’s full of sweater quantities. Stash Depot shoppers come back very quickly with an FO, and it’s great because the yarn probably sat unused in a stash for many years, and suddenly it’s transformed and created a world of joy. The customer has had a great experience, it’s cost them under £20 and the seller now has some credit to spend in the store.

“In the old shop [before refurbishing earlier this year] it was a challenge because the Stash was a diverse bundle of yarn that looked messy. In the new shop, it’s in specially designed crates on wheels. There is a good balance between people dropping off and buying and it turns over regularly.

“The environmental aspect is also important. As a shopkeeper, I’m aware I’m peddling consumption, and I’m keen to encourage people to only buy what they will use, but it’s inevitable that people buy more than they need. The Stash Depot gives a nice feeling of balance and helps address that problem. It is a good model of sustainability.”

How does it work?

“There are a few constraints on what is accepted; must be full balls, labels preferred, new and unused only. The seller (or ‘dealer’) fills in a form and agrees for it to be thrown away if there are any bugs (and I often microwave it to be sure). They are assigned a number, which goes on the wool on a sticker. Every time it sells it is registered and the dealer gets £1 credit per ball, with the shop also taking £1. The dealer can come in any time and check their credit. Credit can be used against a new purchase. Occasionally dealers ask that the money is given to charity.

“Dealers get less money this way than selling it on eBay, but that advantage is that it takes no effort.”

What’s the fanciest yarn that anyone has destashed with you?

“We’ve had some pure cashmere, but the most unusual was Mission Falls, a luxury Canadian brand which is no longer in business.”

Do you think it’s right for us as makers to expect cheap yarn?

“It’s a really difficult issue. The makers I know around here are really struggling to make a living and they do it because they have integrity and belief in what they do. They struggle to charge a price that reflects the work they do. You want to plead with people that buy it to pay properly for that work. On the other hand, the more expensive our materials become the less accessible it is. As a shopkeeper, I would much rather people bought less and only bought what they need, what they’re going to use, and bought materials of more value.

“It would be interesting to look at the consumption habits of people that complain about price [of goods in general] and look at how much they’ve bought and consumed. If they had spent the same amount on less, it would be interesting to see if makers had been able to be paid fairly.

“There’s a big debate about pattern pricing. Often patterns are cheaper even than the needles. I think knitting should be accessible but I think the real question is how much people are consuming vs how much they are making and whether and that’s what we should be thinking about. I am a believer in people being paid properly for what we do. In our capitalist society the way we show the value of people’s work is by paying for it. Mass produced yarn comes at an enormous price.”

As a user of The Stash Depot, I think it’s fantastic. I am always so happy to discover that my unwanted yarn has found a new home and, earned me some credit towards a new book or set of needles and supported a wonderful local business. It is so encouraging to hear that it’s also proven to have been a good business model and I hope others follow suit.

Our second interview is with Simona Marian-Maloney, proprietor of Recycled Yarn Co. based in Carrollton, Ohio in the United States. I think I first discovered Recycled Yarn Co. browsing on Etsy, and I was immediately fascinated and thrilled to find a small business specialising in reclaimed yarn. Simona started recycling thrift store and garage sale garments as an affordable way to get quality yarn to use for her own knitting projects. What started as a hobby has grown into a business, and Simona now regularly vends at yarn shows as well as selling online through her Etsy store.

I spoke to Simona via email to find out more, and she shared some wonderful insights into yarn recycling and her business.

Simona Marian-Maloney of Recycled Yarn Co holding yarn and sweaters

“I am a first generation immigrant from Romania. My mom always recycled our clothes. From her hand-knit sweater, she made me a sweater and then my sweater got turned into a vest for my brother. When my children were younger, money was tight then, but I still loved luxury and I know quality. I started to go to thrift stores and so I discovered sweaters made from cashmere, pure silk, fine Merino wool, linen. I love natural fiber and I started to unravel and reknit from it. All the garments got washed as soon as I got home because I didn’t know who had them, or where they come from.

“At first, I used the yarn right as I unraveled it, but as time went I progressed and straightened the yarn with my steamer. It took out the kinks. Knitting friends commented on my garments and yarn and suggested that I should put the yarn on eBay. I did and I sold. Amazed, the more I sold the more I got encouraged and I haven’t stopped.

“The yarn that I sale is wound into cakes of yarn, the fiber content is listed along with the actual yardage, weight in grams and ounces, and the original label. Today I travel around to fiber shows and sale in person. I love to introduce knitters, crocheters, weavers and felters to recycled yarn.

“Not everybody likes recycled yarn. Some of the comments that I get are ‘I will never buy used yarn’ to ‘how wonderful is to purchase fiber that is not going into the landfill’. I try to have samples in my booth of a variety of garments made from the yarns that I reclaim. Sometimes that sales the yarn.

“Over the years I probably unraveled more than 600 sweaters.”

That’s a lot of unwanted sweaters given a new life!

Recycled Yarn Co. has a continually changing range of fine-quality yarns for sale, including luxury fibres like silk and cashmere for very reasonable prices. As the yarns are recycled from commercial knit sweaters, they typically laceweight, but can be held together for heavier-gauge projects, and are in lots of 1000m+. Yarn can be shipped worldwide upon request.

You may also be inspired to have a go at recycling a sweater yourself, which although time-consuming, is very cheap. EJ Jones is a knitter who works exclusively with natural fibre yarn he up-cycles from thrift store sweaters. He shares a few tips and tricks in this video.

[Anyone else got thrift store envy? They’re not quite like that in London.]

We’ve explored two inventive and successful business ideas for yarn reuse/recycling that turn unwanted goods into great-value, useful materials. Both offer both a personal touch but also a retail experience. By ensuring that yarn is well presented, labelled and in good condition, they avoid the negative associations we may have with “second hand”.

Next time in Part 3, we look at other sources of yarn and how they measure up for sustainability and cost.

The author

Suzie Blackman

The dyer, designer, photographer, creative technologist and maker-of-things behind It's a Stitch Up. She lives in East London in a home filled with colour, fluff and house plants.

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