Local Business

Colorful Yarns

Local yarnmaker weaves herself a thriving business…

Like many couples with a young family, Judy Maclean and her husband David came to the Comox Valley 30 years ago looking for a quieter place to raise their children.

In doing so they found a thriving arts community and a place for Maclean to turn a passion for the fibre arts into a thriving home-based business. Today, Maclean is the maker of Sweatermaker Yarns, producing hand-dyed, hand-spun yarn out of the basement of her Fifth Street home. Her product caters to the new generation of knitters, crocheters and crafters seeking color, diversity and high quality exotic fibre.

Maclean came to the fibre arts almost by accident. Husband David started out as the artist in the family, studying Fine Arts at the University of Calgary in the 1970s. She worked in business. Together they spent a lot of time socializing in the arts community, and in Maclean met a group of weavers who took the time to teach her their craft. A six-week night course in hand-spinning soon followed. By the time the family moved to the Comox Valley, Maclean owned a loom, a spinning wheel, and lots of fleece.

“I had always worked in business—I was a document controller for an engineering firm when we moved here,” says Maclean. “But this is the Comox Valley and there weren’t a lot of office jobs here. There was, though, a lot of support from the arts community, and within a short time I was selling my handspun.”

Sweatermaker Yarns was born. At first, Maclean focused her business on custom, hand-knit sweaters based on her yarns. She specialized in brightly colored, highly patterned sweaters in the style made popular by American comedian Bill Cosby in the 1980s. Many of those sweaters are still being worn today and can be found around the world. Maclean’s hand-spun was anything left over from her knitting designs.

Custom hand-knitting, however, proved a challenging business. “The stress of doing custom work is you’re always anticipating what the client wants. Did I see what that person wanted or did I see what I wanted?” says Maclean. “Originally I made all of my sweaters to fit me, in case they didn’t sell!”

Maclean also couldn’t produce enough knitted goods to keep up with the demand for her work. In the end, hand-spun seemed easier.

“Wool fits everybody,” says Maclean with a laugh.

To differentiate her product from widely available commercial yarns, Maclean made the decision early on to use exotic fibres like alpaca, cashmere and silk and to dye her yarns in colors not readily available in the marketplace. Her yarn was a hit, especially in the Valley’s arts and craft community that already had an appreciation for small scale, artisan production.

Maclean, however, was also a mom with small children, and most of her work was done in the hours after the kids went to bed. The result was unique, often one-of-a-kind yarns. But her product lacked the consistency needed to grow a business.

“Knitters need consistency in their yarn,” says Maclean, adding that this is what helps the hobbyist knitter and crocheter turn out attractive handmade textiles like sweaters, socks, afghans and scarves.

“There came a point when my children got older and I decided to become more of a business,” says Maclean. “My husband was working, my kids were in school and I didn’t think housework was all that exciting.”

That meant making changes in how she made her yarn. For example, Maclean started dying her yarns in five-kilogram batches to produce large quantities in the same color schemes. Likewise, she started pre-weighing her fibre to turn out skeins with the same weight and meterage. Finally, Maclean sourced out a supplier of raw wool able to provide her with a consistent product from order to order.

The changes had a huge impact on her business. “Once my yarn was all one type of fibre my sales changed,” says Maclean. “They doubled.”

Another important decision in growing her business was to focus on production, rather than sales. “I really don’t have the through traffic to justify a storefront in my home,” says Maclean. “Besides, it’s a distraction from my work, and some of my best spinning time is at two in the morning.

“I make what’s in my business,” Maclean adds. “And it’s hard to separate myself from it sometimes. I can talk people out of buying fibre because I give them too much information.”

Instead, Maclean relies on the knowledge and expertise of local yarn stores to sell her product. Uptown Yarns in Downtown Courtenay, Fun Knits on Quadra Island and the Knit ‘n Stitch Shop in North Vancouver all carry Sweatermaker Yarns. Fun Knits also has an online shop that makes Maclean’s yarn available to any knitter with an internet connection.

“I love that I can walk out my front door, walk four blocks down the street to drop off my yarn, get my groceries and walk home,” says Maclean. “The store owners know their knitters and their skill level and what they need to know. It works well for all of us.”

Maclean is also a regular participant at the annual Filberg Festival, an event that gives her direct contact and one-on-one time with the people that buy her yarn. And the feedback is positive.

“My customers are from all age demographics and the only thing they have in common is a love of good fibre,” says Maclean. “The retailers who carry me tell me that overwhelmingly, the first reaction is always first to the colors. And then they are hooked once they touch them. There is just something about actually being able to touch the product.
“I would also say that because I am working in smaller amounts than some of the big companies, I am more flexible,” she adds. “I can produce new combinations of fibres and colors very easily and so I am constantly re-inventing what Sweatermaker Yarns looks like.”

And that seems to be what knitters, crocheters and crafters are looking for. Maclean’s business has grown steadily in the last three or four years, with demand for her yarn increasing every year. However, Maclean is determined to stay small.

“I haven’t pursued an online presence because I want to remain small and I am almost exclusively wholesale,” says Maclean when asked about plans for her business. “I think a website could result in demand that I am not prepared to meet. The yarns themselves have established an online following through knitter’s blogs, but to be honest, I believe my biggest sales still come from one-on-one sales in the stores that carry me.

“Quality control is of the essence for me as well,” she adds. “I try very hard to only sell an excellent yarn.”
And that is something any knitter, crocheter or crafter can agree with.