A new generation of knitters has bred a new generation of knitting businesses - from sit-and-stay yarn cafes all the way down to companies that make environmental wool wash.
Across Canada, a resurgence in interest in knitting - and to some extent, the related hobby of crocheting - has come on the heels of a craft renaissance that has included sewing, quilting and scrapbooking.
But the knitters of today aren't whipping up the acrylic granny afghans of yesteryear - they're a younger audience seeking the cachet of quality fibres.
"It's a different type of knitter," says Lorena Ladan, owner of The Naked Sheep, a yarn store in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood, of her store's clientele.
|Liz Clayton, Business Edge|
|The Naked Sheep owner Lorena Ladan says premium quality yarns are in high demand.|
"The trend that we have seen is in young professionals, and mothers who are staying at home with their children for awhile, and ... from an income perspective, it's people who do have some money," says Ladan, who carries mainly high-end wools at her store.
Allison Patrick, owner of the Knit One Chat Too knitting store in Calgary, agrees that it's a new generation - one whose mothers often weren't knitters themselves - that's picked up sticks and thrown down their wallets.
"I have to say, the odd time I'll get a grandma coming in here and I can't sell them what they're looking for," Patrick says. Although chain retailers such as Michael's, Wal-Mart and Zeller's have increased their selections of yarn in recent years, Patrick sees little overlap in their market segments.
Today's new knitters are attracted to premium fibres for their quality, colours, and, of course, softness. Wools made out of alpaca or cashmere are considered part of the luxury market and can cost between $10 and $40 a skein.
Though Ladan is quick to point out that price isn't necessarily a barrier to the hobby - there are lots of affordable yarns out there and even pricey yarns can be purchased in small quantities to make quick projects like hats - it is in the finer quality yarns that the industry is seeing growth.
Kathryn Thomas of Nova Scotia-based Fleece Artist has been hand-dyeing premium yarns for more than 20 years. She's seen the industry go through several ups and downs, but says her sales in the last five to six years have been steadily increasing, with an annual growth of about 20 per cent.
The company, which makes multicoloured mohair yarns in varying thicknesses, now dyes about 6,000 kilograms of wool per year.
Fleece Artist also carries a second brand, Hand Maiden, which is based in Vancouver and specializes in hand-dyed silk and cashmere. The Hand Maiden line, run by Thomas's daughter Jana Dempsey, allows the company to get "a West Coast feel and an East Coast feel," Thomas says.
Thomas sees her company as being able to offer the knitter something just a little more special than the mass-produced fibres widely available at craft and knitting stores.
Each Fleece Artist colour pattern, or "colourway," is unique to each batch and can be affected by anything from the dyer's mood that day to the Nova Scotia humidity.
"If you see the same colours over and over again you get used to them and get bored with them and I think that's the difference with hand-dyed," Thomas says. "You can get computer-printed yarns, but they're printed exactly the same, so you know exactly what you'll get each time.
"And every time we get a new batch of yarn the natural fibre is different. It comes from animals so (the fibre is) never exactly the same. Which makes it good for us because if we had to dye the same colours over and over, we just wouldn't do it. It would be boring."
It's keeping things new and exciting that's the key to maintaining this level of interest for knitters as well, Thomas says.
"I think retailers have gotten more sophisticated and they really adapt fast to what the customer needs. And I think if they keep on top of it and they keep new knitters coming in and giving them what they need, and yarns they like, and keep coming up with new projects, we'll just keep growing," she says.
Patrick agrees about what it takes to sustain the current industry pace.
"I've got to be ultra careful to keep in touch with what's selling," she says. "It's up to us as retailers to keep in tune with what the customer's looking for. It comes down to the atmosphere of your store, how much service we give, how much product knowledge, the knowledge of the staff.
"I don't know exactly how many stores will keep going, but you have to provide that service to keep going. You just have to be prepared."
Patrick's business, only open for two years, has already expanded to triple its original square footage and offers a fireplace and sofas, as well as warm and cold drinks in addition to a selection of high-end wools.
But beyond offering quality raw materials and a welcoming environment - many specialty yarn stores offer classes and encourage knitters to attend open "stitch 'n' bitch" nights - retailers must keep on top of the myriad trends in knitting notions and accessories.
One such newcomer is Toronto's Soak, a maker of biodegradable and phosphate-free handwashing liquid for wools.
"It launched out of people asking how to take care of our stuff, and us recommending shampoo or Snuggle or those kind of things," says Jacqueline Sava, who launched Soak as part of her knitwear design company Jacq's Hats last October.
"Basically, we learned that people don't know how to wash wool," says Sava, who saw an opening in the marketplace for a soap that was more environmentally sensible and had bright, fresh packaging, unlike the existing granny brands.
Soak was designed specifically for what Sava called the "new generation of knitters," an artsy, younger set that won't bat an eye at a high-priced ball of yarn. The product is available in about 50 stores in the United States and Canada.
"It's a secondary product, but it's still really useful," Sava says. "And if you're spending $80 on yarn for a scarf, you should know how to take care of it."
Though the knitting resurgence is still only dawning on some people, it has heralded not a fad, but an industrywide change, Ladan says.
"I get a lot of comments from people surprised that knitting is back because the first thing that they think of are these things that their moms or grandmas made for them that were these nasty itchy wool sweaters that they have these horrible memories of," she notes.
"The industry has really evolved. You can still make an itchy wool sweater if you want to, but the merino wools now are so soft and beautiful and durable and wonderful that it's kind of a thing of the past. Every year they come up with new things that are just unbelievably beautiful," Ladan adds.
And though the finished products of knitting are often works of art on their own, the true love affair for knitters is with the process, says Fleece Artist's Thomas.
"It's not about buying yarn and having a finished project, it's about the process of making something and creating something. When you finish that, you feel really good about it. It's not about the yarn itself," she says.
(Liz Clayton can be reached at email@example.com)