All posts by sheepshopcambridge

Owner of The Sheep Shop, a welcoming knitting and yarn shop in Cambridge, UK. You'll find fabulous touchy-feely yarns, knitting needles & crochet hooks and fleece for felting and spinning, as well as items from local producers.

Yarn shop for sale

“This is the best job in the world!”

Not many people are able to say that, and I’ve been lucky to say it almost every day since November 2011, when The Sheep Shop’s doors opened.  Being surrounded by colour and texture, hearing the sighs of happiness – often comically unintended! – when someone strokes a baby alpaca yarn, seeing how proud people are of what they can make,  teaching them to do even more (or organising so that others can teach them then basking in that satisfaction by proxy), figuring out cool new things for people’s enjoyment, these have peppered my life for years.  Along the way I’ve met a lot of people who are truly wonderful, and made a hell of a lot of friends (as a deep introvert this was completely unexpected).

Now this yarn shop is for sale.  The early years of business are fast-forwarded through, and it is voted one of the best yarn shops in the UK.  I like to learn new things and am ready to try something new.  If you think you would like to claim the mantle of LYS owner, read our LYS for sale information here.  Yarn = happiness and the yarn fumes here are strong!

Should anyone read this and panic – don’t worry! – new yarn is going to continue to arrive and all the classes we have on the books are still going to run.


Yarn Shop Day 2017

Yarn Shop Day has been going a few years now, at the instigation of Let’s Knit yarn shop day logomagazine. It’s a day to encourage people to celebrate independent yarn shops in all their glory.  We’ve had much fun in previous years thanks to our lovely friends (of both the teacher and customer variety) putting on cool events here.  There’s more fun we’ll be having at The Sheep Shop this year.

Saturday 6th May

10am – 1.30pm: A morning class – Louise Tilbrook is teaching Beginner Sock Knitting (which needs to be booked in advance).

Baby socks!

2 – 3pm: Closed as usual

3 – 3.30pm:  Lola of the amazing sci-fi and fantasy themed Third Vault Yarns will be here to talk about her hand-dyed yarns, where she gets her inspiration from and how that translates into developing and dying colours, and bring samples for you to squish. Please book your (free) space in advance.

third vault yarns
Some Third Vault Yarns

3.30 – 5.30pm: Here’s where you can delve in piles of loveliness!  Lola is bringing trunks of her yarn here just for the day, including lots of lines we don’t normally stock, so you can take some extra-special beautiful yarn home with you. Just drop in, or you can preorder yarn so exactly what you want will be waiting for you.

Goody bags will go to the first ten people to spend £20 in-store on Yarn Shop Day (excluding classes and gift vouchers), five more are also going to the first five people who booked onto the talk (if you would like to contribute any goodies to show off your business, do get in touch).

Come and enjoy Yarn Shop Day with us, it’s going to be a particularly great day!


Clothes moths

On WI visits, a question which always gets asked is “what’s the best way to stop clothes moths?”  As yarn is a prime target for moths and I need it in perfect condition to sell, this is what I’ve learnt over the years from pest control experts, other shopkeepers and the internet.

A dreaded clothes moth
A dreaded clothes moth CC BY-SA 3.0 by Aiwok

In the UK there are three main culprits who chomp away at your natural fibres: common (aka webbing) clothes moths, case-making clothes moths and carpet beetles.  The adults themselves do not eat yarn but they lay eggs on it and when those eggs hatch, the larvae do the damage.  The warmer months – May to September – are prime moth season but due to central heating and mild winters, they can now party all year in your cupboards.  Their lifecycles are flexible, and can completed within a month or take well over a year.

If you see one or two moths every now and then you probably don’t need to worry.  If you see six or seven moths in quick succession, you’ve probably got a problem.  (Three to five moths – quandary!) Don’t be tied to thinking the problem is where you saw them – the adults may be at one end of the room having already laid eggs at the other.

Traditional preventatives like cedarwood and lavender don’t work.  They *might* deter an adult moth who doesn’t like the smell but they won’t kill eggs or grubs.  You can’t rely only on direct sunlight or just small amounts of handling to disturb critters either.  If you are lucky enough to keep fleecy animals, they can even live in fleece whilst it is on the animal.

Dead common clothes moth
If you have to see ’em… CC BY-SA 3.0 by Lamiot

So what do you do?  Mothballs are illegal for a reason.  There are newer chemical control methods like Pest Control Formula C which are safer.  However, don’t rely on pesticides as a pre-emptive measure, as moths can build up resistance then cheerfully ignore them.

Here in the shop I have a system called Exosect.  Dotted about are tabs of waxy powder impregnated with female moth pheromones.  If a male flies in, it gets all excited thinking there is a super-sexy female nearby and heads towards a tab.  Its getting-jiggy-with-it hopes are dashed, but it isn’t killed, and gets coated with the powder.  As it then flies about, it scatters a trail of female pheromones.  The males get overwhelmed with these fake pheromones so if a real female flies in ready to mate, she gets ignored and doesn’t lay any eggs.  This is now available for home use, but is still expensive.

Pheromone traps are the next best method to prevent a problem, renewed every couple of months throughout the year.  There are two different pheromone traps for different types of clothes moth and another for beetles (some brands specify which they target, others do not) and they all only target males.  Keep items made of natural fibres out of harm’s way in airtight storage, even better vacuum-pack them, or pop them in bags and freeze them.

If you’ve got a problem, you need to clean everything (including the furniture), vacuum all the dust (which may contain eggs) from the cracks of the room and use insecticide.  I have read you can use diatomaceous earth alongside or instead of pesticide, but not put it to the test.  If you’ve got grubs already hiding, spraying the (fabric-friendly) types of pesticides might work on clothes and upholstery but isn’t going to help much if they are safely shielded by a nice thick yarn ball.  Affected items worth salvaging can either be put in the freezer for a whole two weeks* or put in a low oven (56°C) for at least an hour** to kill off eggs and grubs.

*Some sources say a few days but friendly experts say that’s not enough.

**Some sources say 30 minutes, others say two hours. The experts specify a non-scientific “hour or two”.  Kindly souls in 1982 tested out the quicker version, a microwave-as-death-ray-machine

How much does a shopkeeper earn?

Do you believe the news stories about how if you want to keep your high street shops open, shop local?  Or how shopping in independents puts money back into the local economy? Perhaps the message without the maths to back it up makes it all sounds a bit wishy-washy.  So here goes, a real-life example with data from this independent wool shop.

The Sheep Shop is an award-winning LYS (local yarn store) which had its fifth birthday in November.  Last year we took £60,500.  The annual cost for rent, gas, electric, water, phone, broadband, insurance, alarm maintenance, heater maintenance, fire extinguisher checks, not one but two licenses to play music on the radio, waste disposal, web hosting costs, sundries like till rolls, printer ink, loo rolls and teabags, carrier bags, window cleans, anti-moth systems, occasional  repair costs or new shop fixtures, card proceBoxes of stock to unpackssing fees, card machine rental, business membership, knitting magazine subscription fees and advertising (deep breath) came to £15,500.  I’m a bit of a tightwad so don’t think I’m paying over the odds for anything, nor buying anything I don’t need to.

Once the cost of new stock, teacher’s fees and their travel and accommodation costs are factored in there was £9,000 left, then once business loan repayments made, my take-home pay was £5,120.  That just about paid my personal rent and utilities so working tax credits – formerly £50 per week now £25 – is what I exist on, supplemented by my wonderful mother who every so often has surprised me with a big supermarket shop and filled my freezer.  My very lovely boyfriend (who I lured in on an online dating site with a statement that when I make my millions, he will benefit!) patiently puts up with me squawking if he wants lots of meat for dinner and my friends have almost stopped asking me to go anywhere or do anything.

Claiming tax credits when it is my choice to be self-employed used to make me feel a bit uncomfortable before I thought it through.  Several times more than those tax credits is going into the pockets of my (wonderful) teachers alone each week in class fees and if the shop did not exist I suspect it mostly wouldn’t be, so I feel the shop is a net gain to the public purse.Great Britain

Of what the shop sells, 35% of our money goes to local suppliers or teachers. 15% goes to other, truly British suppliers or teachers. 38% more goes to British suppliers but as not all their yarn is made in the UK some of that will end up abroad. Under 13% goes direct to foreign businesses.  Of the other goods and services we buy, where there is a choice, such as servicing the air conditioning, we use local contractors.  Apart from our purchases of things like knit group biscuits from the supermarket next door, and unavoidable things such as card processing fees, nearly all the money Sparkleduck Spiritwe spend is going back into British non-global-corporation hands.

Happily, my business loan has finally been paid off.  My (extremely lovely) landlady, who asks for a reasonable rent compared to most Cambridge premises, will probably still earn more than I do from the shop (with the crazy state of rents, if she turned this shop into flats she’d earn even more).  Shopkeepers talk, and almost every independent shopkeeper I have spoken to is earning less than minimum wage (quite often next to no wage) for a more than full time job.  If more people shopped with us, can you imagine the sparkly rainbows of delight you would be enveloped in every time you shopped in your even-happier-LYS-owner’s shop?

Some indie shops are able to offer online shopping and buying from them means you are keeping a LYS open somewhere.  Buying something you could get in a local shop from a discount online warehouse makes this happen.  The choice is down to you, if you want to keep shops on the high street they need to be shopped in, and every person counts.

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

Kate Atherley teaching here!

Yabbadabbadoo! Next year’s teaching calendar is going to be awesome. Kate Atherley is teaching here! Kate is a knitting legend, lead technical editor for Knitty and author of several books. Canada is her home so make the most of her trip to the UK whilst you can!

You can choose between Introduction to pattern design (Kate has written the only book for budding designers on the subject), Introduction to gloves (conquer the fiddly bits!) and a mega-cool knitter’s trick, knitting one sock INSIDE the other aka Two Socks in One: The War & Peace Method.
Kate is here in Cambridge the weekend of 25th/26th February.

You can find out more and book online here.