Today’s knitting circles have grown way beyond the neighborhood
Knitting has come a long way since the earth-tone, scratchy acrylic mittens, ill-fitting turtleneck sweaters and ponchos of the 1960s. A sampling of patterns from Debbie Stoller’s book Stitch & Bitch includes thigh-high lace stockings and baby sweaters inspired by tattoo flash. Jennifer Stafford’s www.domiknitrix.com features snow caps with yarny Mohawks and devil horns. Today’s yarners and darners are just as likely to have a Harley in the garage as a rocker on the front porch.
Spinning some yarns
Laura Zander, owner of Jimmy Beans Wool, exemplifies this evolution. When you see the slim 32-year-old wearing jeans and a hooded T-shirt, you might mistake her for a graduate student at UNR. In fact, she already has her MS in political science from Washington State. Having hard-earned business savvy to match her creativity, she has built a $1 million-a-year business from humble wool-gathering beginnings.
Zander learned to knit while working in San Francisco as a computer programmer. “Go to knitting class, hop on a motorcycle and then off to rugby practice,” Zander says of her early knitting days. In 2001, she and her husband, Doug, also a programmer, escaped the frantic dot com world to do computer freelance work in Truckee. A Placerville wool-dyer paid in wool for Zander’s programming services and suggested that Zander open a yarn store. She did just that, and Jimmy Beans Wool was founded in May 2002.
With both a brick-and-mortar outlet and an internet presence, the store blends he many talents. “Doug does the web stuff and the hard goods, I handle the soft goods,” Zander says.
The hip knitter
In “Doublewide Blues,” Todd Snider sings about his neighbor, Jimmy, who is so cool because he has a blue plastic pool in front of his house. That expression, “Cool like Jimmy,” soon became Laura’s nickname in the slightly unexplainable way that any nickname sticks. The Zanders added “Beans” after the “Jimmy” since, at the time, they also owned a coffee shop. While the java is long gone, the comforting sense of warmth remains. Finished sweaters adorn auburn walls over shelves filled with vibrant-colored yarn, rich in texture. Smaller projects, such as beanies, scarves and baby sweaters are tucked among the bundles of yarn at eye level. Framed pictures of Wiley, the Zanders’ German shepherd/greyhound, and Buddy, the Border collie, preside over the entrance to the office/storage area at the back of the store.
Zanders explains many of her in-store clientele are exactly those who you would expect to pick up a pair of knitting needles: mothers and retired women “who knit between golf games.” Her online clients are a disparate mix of urban professionals with plenty of disposable income but no time to go to the store.
The store’s three main ship-to destinations are California, New York and Illinois, but the online store has clients in 50 different countries. The granny-demographic aside, there are a few yarn devotees who you would not so much expect—skater guys who crochet beanies. One Jimmy Beans employee who rides her Harley to work favors knitting beanies to wear under her helmet.
What about the single needlers, the crochet crowd? Do needle duos get better press coverage than a single hook? Zander, who learned to crochet in college, estimates that the ratio of knitters to crocheters runs about 80 percent to 20 percent, respectively. Crochet projects generally require more yarn than knit patterns. Zander notes that, “Crochet is starting to pick up with more fashionable garments available.”
Not only have the patterns changed, but the materials too. The greening trends toward organic has hit the fiber world, spinning skeins from corn, bamboo, crab and shrimp shells, and recycled silk.
Zander even has a yarn made of 100 percent bamboo that is smooth and silky to the touch. She says she has seen an increase in manufacturing co-ops, such as kettle-dyed yarns from Uruguay and family-based companies in the yarn industry. Another “go-green” trend is the focus on patterns to replace paper towels and plastic grocery bags with reuseable kitchen towels and market bags.
Commenting on the organic trend on her website Zander said, “It is knitting with a purpose for many people.”
Hollywood hooksand loops
A July Fortune magazine small-business profile of Jimmy Beans Wool led to an unexpected star turn. A Los Angeles executive mentioned the article to his wife, an avid knitter and owner of Madison & Mullholland, a gift company, leading to an invitation for Jimmy Beans Wool to provide palm-leaf totes filled with knitting accessories and organic yarns at the 2007 Emmys. In addition to handing out swag, Zander persuaded stars to knit a pink scarf, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Zander figured 20 to 30 stars worked on the 60 inch by 10 inch scarf, including Kevin Sorbo (Hercules), Christian Clemenson (Boston Legal) and four of the actors from the Heroes series.
The Zanders’ booth became a popular stop for celebrities, like Patrika Darbo (Days of Our Lives), who says she regularly knits on the set. “It was fun to do something different, and people kept coming back,” Zander says of the three-day event.
The finished scarf garnered $265 at the website auction, Clothesoffourback.org—a charity founded by actors Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing).
Jimmy Beans Wool is currently selling a scarf kit inspired by the celebrity scarf, with $5 of each kit purchase to be donated to the Young Survival Coalition (Young Women Against Breast Cancer). The store also recently finished its first charity drive for Stitches from the Heart, a Santa Monica charity devoted to providing baby clothes and blankets to needy newborn and premature infants. Customers who purchased yarn from the shop and donated the finished project received a 25 percent discount off their next yarn purchase. Amazed by the response, Zander estimates that they received between 50 to 75 knitted items. Many of her clientele brought in knit goods and waived the discount.
Charity knitting spans a broad spectrum of need in the United States and overseas, including chemo patients, premature babies, homeless people and pets. A large number of knitting websites, including Jimmy Beans, feature links to charity sites. While discussing charity knitting, Zander shows off a crew-neck sweater—a Fair-Isle pattern of greens knitted on size-one needles. The pattern is clean and consistent on both sides of the garment. One of Zander’s early customers knitted it for her, working on the sweater while undergoing leukemia treatments, choosing to focus on the intricate pattern rather than the discomfort of the treatments.
Inspired by her friend, Zander is currently at work on a book about people who knit through their difficult times. The coffee table book will feature both stories and knitting patterns. The book is still in its early stages of discussion with a potential publisher. Zander is currently designing the patterns with plans to gather the stories later.
With a successful trip to Hollywood in the rearview mirror, Zander is looking forward to more national exposure, possibly having Jimmy Bean Wool goods as a “Win It” prize for Redbook magazine. Zander also has dreams of appearing on The Tyra Banks Show (the supermodel mogul is also a knitter). Someday, she hopes to enlist the support of another Hollywood A-list knitter, Forest Whitaker, to teach Oprah how to knit.