How do I choose my yarns?

One of the questions I’m asked most as a shopkeeper is “How do you choose your yarns?”

There are nearly 11,000 yarn brands across the world and nearly 112,000 yarns on the Ravelry database.  33,000 of those are now discontinued but that’s still 79,000 to choose from.  They come in 12 difference thicknesses from thread to super-super-chunky and can be made of all sorts of different fibres.  I do my best to offer a fine selection of yarns to suit those most often asked for.  And then also cover all but the extremes of the range, with lots of choices of fibres for those thicknesses most commonly used, choices to suit those on a budget and those for looking for indulgence.

Malabrigo Rasta, a superchunky South American merino

How do I find them?  People ask for them. The companies I already deal with let me know of their new ones either by a rep visiting toting an exciting big suitcase (or three), or posting me balls, or by good old email.  Other companies are always calling up trying to get their yarns on the shelves.  I keep an eye out when out and about, reading magazines and on Ravelry and listen when people are excited about what yarn they’ve met when they’ve been on trips.   When I feel there is something missing, or something new is needed, I search amongst what I’ve come across or go looking even further (and kick out something no longer popular to make room for it).

Britain dominated the world with its wool and after a bit of a bumpy ride we have an enviable choice of wools again. If a British yarn looks and feels great and is a reasonable price, it’s a winner.  For environmental, patriotic and economic reasons, I’d rather get yarn from the UK.  Merino sheep don’t much like our weather, so not all our wool is British.  And not all yarns that people want are made in Britain, so for those I go wholesalers who import lots of different yarns from abroad.  If no UK wholesaler imports a desired yarn then it doesn’t get a home – the unpredictable import duties, shipping fees, currency exchange fees and exchange rates put it out of reach.

Naked Wool Shetland DK (British)

There are lots of different wholesalers, and they usually have a minimum order of at least a couple of hundred pounds (at wholesale cost).  So I can’t just buy a small amount here or there, at least not without paying a fortune in small order charges and postage costs. Because no one company has a complete range of yarns I think worth stocking, (and even if it did, it would be dangerous to put all eggs in one basket) I go to several.  Not too many though, because then we’re in must-meet-minimum-order territory and have to wait a long time for enough yarn to have gone to make it worth reordering. That’s why a LYS can’t order any and every yarn requested.

Now most yarns come in different colours – usually between 10 to 20 colours but a choice of 60 colours is not uncommon, and some have more than 150.  Almost all yarns have to be ordered in packs of 10 per colour. The main room of The Sheep Shop is a little over 400 square feet big so if I were to order for every yarn here a pack of every colour there is, I’d need the shop to be a Tardis (I’d like the shop to be a Tardis!).  Some of the shelving here does house 30 or more colours of one yarn.  Most yarns have certain popular colours and I keep a rotating range in of other colours.

That’s it folks, it’s a balance between offering a wide selection of types of yarn, a wide choice of colours and keeping enough in stock for people who need a large quantity of one colour, without yarn exploding out the windows or money haemorrhaging away.  All good fun.



Interview with Lola of Third Vault Yarns

Lola Johnson is thoroughly lovely – so lovely that people begged me to stock her yarns having met her at a festival (I’m not sure if they even saw her yarn!). Hers are the capable hands which dye the glorious colourways that make up Third Vault Yarns.  She kindly agreed to be interviewed here.

Lola of Third Vault Yarns
Lola of Third Vault Yarns

How do you come to be hand-dying yarns for sale?

I’ve been knitting in earnest since 2012, before then it was mostly just on the odd occasion. When I went back to University after my placement year, I joined the Stitch ‘n’ Bitch society which helped me get back into knitting in a big way. The next year, having decided to give back, I became a committee member. Which is incidentally when I also started teaching, knitting and crafting skills.  Myself and the other committee members were looking to plan a range of workshops and dyeing yarn got the best response when broached. I mean what fibre artist isn’t slightly fascinated with the idea of dyeing their own yarn!?  In any case having had no experience at this point, it was up to me to figure out how! So I watched YouTube videos, read books and played around with yarn and food colouring, achieving passable results. Having a decent idea of the process, I then taught a fellow committee member and we went on to teach a class of eight others. It was a great afternoon accented by cups of tea, biscuits and lots of colour!  This was the start of an addiction to playing with colour and dyeing my own yarn. I even taught my partner how. I ended up dyeing yarn for myself and others on commission, so towards the end of my Masters degree, it just felt like it made sense to me. To do something I loved and to take that leap into sharing my passion for beautiful yarn with others.

Many of your yarns are variegated in different ways, what sort of techniques do you use to get the different effects?

No trade secrets here!  I like to use lots of different techniques to achieve my different colourways, largely the techniques I use will be influenced by the inspiration behind the colourway I am creating. For example I talk a bit more about how I come up with colourways on my blog, specifically Saphira, for which I use a combination of immersion dyeing and resist techniques. Other methods I use are dip dyeing, hand painting and lately I’ve been playing with kettle dyeing.  I like to experiment with lots of techniques to help create my vision for each colourway.

Some Third Vault Yarn colours

Matching variegated yarns with patterns which suit them isn’t always easy.  Have you got any tips?

Generally. That’s something I find hard too, but often when I’m dyeing I have a feel for how a colourway might knit up which is part of the effect I’m going for. When you don’t have that though, I would go with what Bronagh Miskelly mentioned for Tesseract: “Wind before you decide”. This can give you an idea of how the colours might play out in fabric when knit or crocheted as it shows you the length of the colour repeats.  When looking at patterns, look at projects that have already been made [Ravelry helps for this]. How does the texture or some of the features of the pattern play out with other people’s yarn choices (this helps more if you Loki colourwayplay closer attention to projects that use yarn with the same sort of colour distribution as yours. If there aren’t any other projects with variegated yarn, look more closely at the features and techniques used in the pattern, is it a repeating pattern? Is it heavily textured? If it’s cables are the cables simple and chunky or thin and intricate? What kind of stitch does it use? You are more likely to lose the yarn and pattern in heavily textured patterns, thin intricate cables are not as likely to show up whilst simple thin or thick ones won’t be affected as much.  Ultimately it depends on the item you are making, sometimes heavy texture can help to tone down a very variegated yarn, which can make a very pretty hat or accessory, even garment. Sometimes you may want to pair the variegated yarn with another simpler colourway to create a different look.

All of your yarns have a fantasy or sci-fi theme, what gave you that idea?

Well I’m a computer scientist by degree and generally a sci-fi and fantasy fan since my early youth. I think everyone needs a little fantasy in their lives. Theming my yarns
The Magpiethat way is my way of staying unapologetically geeky, also my little nod to the other geeky fibre artists out there that feel one of my colourways resonates with their favourite fandom. In any case despite my theme choices, colour and combinations are accessible to all and regardless of whether someone identifies with the fandom, I love to share my passion for colour with everyone.


Can you now watch sci-fi without ogling characters for colours?

Of course not! Why waste the inspiration! In all honesty I see colours everywhere, which I love. Even when I’m reading, if there is a particularly evocative passage I sometimes think of how fabulous a yarn it would make and I envision colour and layout.

Inspired?  We currently have both acid dye starter kits and natural dye kits in stock, along with lots of undyed yarns.  Want to cast on?  We currently have Lola’s Companion 4 ply and Vortex Sock yarn.

Third Vault Yarns rainbow