Once a week I post interviews with interesting people about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry. I’ve noticed that every one of these individuals makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world.
I started out with a small line of very saturated bright colours, and since then my inspiration comes mainly from trying to create colourways that work in tandem with them. I don't tend to think about my colourways in isolation, I'm always thinking about how they would pair up with something else. I love colour work - even it's just stripes - so I think that prejudice comes through in my dyeing choices.
What is your favourite dying technique?
It's hard to describe - my technique is a combination of dip dyeing and kettle dying. I used to do a lot of hand painting when I started dyeing and I still love it, but for me, I found it very difficult to get consistent colourways and saturated colour using that technique. I really wanted to be to provide consistency - if a customer bought a yarn from me year ago and decided to come back for more, I want the skein they get to be close enough that they can incorporate it into the same garment. It's such an obsession for me that I usually put aside odd dye lots for my own use and won't sell them.
How do you choose the fibers that you work with?
I work with animal fibers because I'm dyeing out of my house and the acid dyes that get such great results on wools and silks are relatively harmless. I'd love to expand into plant fibres and artificial fibres - one day when I'm rich and famous and have my own dye studio away from home.
How did you determine what weights of yarn you stock?
I started out with sock yarn because, well - people are really into sock yarn right now! I wonder if the craze will last, and I hope it will because you can kind of go nuts colour-wise when stuff if meant for feet. I also dye lace weights because I love working with it, and I recently added a fingering weight wool that isn't meant for socks - it's more of a Shetland 2-ply, and I'm starting to design stranded patterns to go with it. I don't do worsted weights because they are expensive to stock and I tend to prefer solids and heathers in worsted and bulky weights. I may change my mind on this eventually, but for now I'm sticking with the skinny stuff.
How do you come up with names for your yarn?
Ha! Good question. All our yarns are named for elements on the periodic table. Well almost all. My partner Pete came up with the idea, and we decided our regular colourways would be elements, and our special one-offs would be molecules. A few of the one-offs have become regulars and kept their molecular names. I named one colourway - a very dark blue - Carbon, but Pete lobbied for Carbonite, the stuff Han Solo gets encased in in 'The Empire Strikes Back', and it stuck.
Could you give us an idea of how long the process is to dye a batch of yarn and prepare it for sale?
It depends on my goals - when I'm getting ready for a show, I can crank it out. I can probably dye about 35 skeins an hour if I push myself, then a day or two to dry, depending on the weather, then I re-skein, checking for knots and flaws, then packaging it with labels... I'll put it this way, if I get a special order or someone wants more of a colourway than I have in stock, I can usually get it out the door in 3 days.
Do you look at other dyers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their yarns?
I do look at others dyers' work and I'm as much of a yarn addict as the next guy, but I've never tried to replicate another dyer's work. I think that because of the way I approach filling out the colours in my line, I'm more likely to look at paint swatches than yarn for my next inspiration. I have sometimes spotted colourways similar to ours in other lines and I get this moment of fear, like 'why do I bother, look at this beautiful yarn that someone else made' but usually after closer inspection, I'm relieved to see that there is something unique about our stuff. Most semi-solids rely on differences in intensity - ours have different hues. It's subtle but it makes a difference.
Are you a knitter as well?
Oh boy am I. I knit almost constantly. I'm also pushing myself to expand my designing. I've always designed for myself, but I'm now writing patterns, and grading them for size. Which is like going back to school and majoring in math. It hurts, but it's worth it.
Did you do a formal business plan?
I would say I did an informal business plan. Pete and looked into pricing and did a projection of what it would cost to start up, how much money we were willing to lose in the first year and what goals we wanted to hit. Now that we're in our second year, we check in about once every four months to see how we're doing. Our goal now is not to lose money, which can be a tightrope act sometimes, but we manage by keeping inventory quite low.
Do you have a mentor?
S'n'B type of person - I can't knit and talk at the same time. Pete is a great partner - in business and love - but he is not a knitter. If anything, starting the business helped me get to know the people I admire in the knitting world. Kate Atherley of wisehildaknits.com who has designed patterns for us, Glenna C of knittingtostaysane.com who has used our yarns for her patterns - and in passing, Stephanie Pearl McPhee, Lucy Neatby and many other awesome knitters who have stopped by our booths at various shows. Maybe I should place an ad on Ravelry: Mentor Wanted!
Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
Not really - I admit we sort of make it up as we go along. Which is not advice - just a fact.
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
I would not have even considered this business if it wasn't for the Internet. We don't wholesale and we don't have a storefront, so the Internet is it for us. If the Internet dried up and disappeared tomorrow, I'm afraid we would too.
How do you maintain your life/work balance?
I'm not sure I have really. Van Der Rock is not my full-time job by any stretch, in fact it sort of comes in third of my three jobs. It's the job I do at night and on weekends and in the few hours I have off between working for a local film festival and writing a twice-weekly television column. The nice thing about being a TV critic is you can knit while you work.
How do you deal with criticism?
I tend to shrug it off. The great thing about the 'net and the increased accessibility of hand dyed yarns is that if you don't like what I do, you can go elsewhere. And the thing is, when you are confident that you've tried your hardest and done your best, criticism kind of bounces off you. I've had people tell me our sock yarn is too expensive, but I've done the math and that's what it costs. Some people will see the value and pay for it, others won't. Criticism that I do take seriously is something about the quality of the product. I had a colourway that I got multiple reports about - it was running like crazy in the blocking process. I worked on my process until it didn't run. That stuff, I always want to hear about.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Ask me again in ten years.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in hand dying yarns?
Keep your day job? No seriously, a few things. Don't try to compete on price - you'll lose. Charge what your work is worth and if it's good, you will find customers. Use your yarns - factor it into your business plan that you get to keep a bunch of this glorious yarn you dye for your own projects. You will learn more about what you are doing right - and wrong - from using the yarn to knit, weave, crochet, whatever - than from anything else. If you can make beautiful things from your yarns, others can too - and often photos of your finished objects are the best ad you can give your work.