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Special Guest Column

Support Local Needlework Shops!
(Or, How I Survived TNNA)
by Jenny Hart

comments (4)
Written on July 24, 2007 3:34 PM

I see cottages and homespun samplers. I see bows of straw-like raffia wrapped around the necks of wood geese. Hundreds of women in embellished denim vests are pulling rolling suitcases behind them while wandering among endless selections of needlepoint canvases, hanks of yarn, button displays and cross-stitch patterns. And more cross-stitch patterns. I see snowmen in July. Where am I? Why am I here?

I’m at TNNA (The National Needlearts Association) trade show in Columbus, Ohio along with my General Manager, Mary. I have been attending and exhibiting at this trade show for three years, offering my Sublime Stitching wares to a dying market of struggling mom ‘n pop needlework shops. Unlike small craft markets, this is a trade show open to retailers only, and the cost for exhibiting can easily reach into the thousands of dollars. Which, makes attending a financial stretch for me. My first year exhibiting, I thought I was there to help expand my business, but now I find I’m attending more in an effort to help support the continuation of their small businesses (although they don’t quite know it yet). There is an enormous disconnect between the DIY movement and these more traditional, independent retailers. I'm trying to connect them to us / us to them, and boy, it ain't easy.

“These are hot-iron embroidery transfers. Would you like a linesheet and free sample?” we repeat over and over to those who pass by. Most stop in their tracks as soon as they hear ‘embroidery transfers’ and chuckle how they haven’t done embroidery since they were a child and that it was embroidery just like this that got them passionately interested in other kinds of needleworking ('Yes! Exactly!' we tell them). But, we’re a cute novelty. And they let us know they 'only carry yarn' or don’t have any desire to start carrying embroidery supplies, even though 'people keep asking for it...' Then they walk off and continue bemoaning their dwindling clientele. We stand utterly confused. Our business online and our wholesale accounts with specialty shops (like gift and clothing boutiques, where no other needlework product is offered) is more than we can keep up with, but the needlework shops themselves don't seem to be aware we exist, or that there is a flourishing market of hip DIYers and novice needleworkers, hungry to learn and be creative- they're just not heading to these stores. But we do notice that more and more who are familar with us are starting to show up at our booth, excited to see us in person and check out the latest designs. Could this be working...?

The first year I attended TNNA, I was invited in advance by Cathe Ray, owner of Needle In a Haystack, to attend the Counted Threads and Embroidery group meeting which she chaired. I was amazed that she knew I was attending TNNA that first year and that she specifically asked me to be present at this meeting to learn about the struggles with the market, and speak about my company. In a large conference room with over 100 shop owners was where I first heard retailers crying out that their businesses were in dire straits. I stood up and spoke to the group about the vibrant and active DIY market that's booming elsewhere- to a roomful of blank looks. And, a few who didn't like the suggestion that they were, possibly, just maybe, slipping out of touch with a very important market. I realized they didn’t know where the new needlworkers and crafters had gone. But how do you tell them? No one likes to be told they're out of touch, but I couldn't bear to hear them talk about closing their doors as if I didn't know where and how to find the customers they wanted to attract. I also learned that ‘crafting’ was a dirty word to them (they are 'needleworkers', while 'crafting' suggests projects with popsicle sticks), and they don’t spend a whole lot of time reading BUST, ReadyMade, CRAFT or looking at the interweb for alternative resources outside of the ones they already know. They need serious help. I was going to have to do double DIY duty: educate these retailers on how to attract our market ("Don't fear tattoos and pink hair! New needleworkers might have facial piercings -this is okay!") and appeal to our own community on why we should cross the thresholds of the shops that seem so, you know....squaresville to many of us.


Staff can actually show you how to do that tricky french knot (or anything else you want to know)

Offer a wider selection of specialty supplies and tools not available at big chain stores

Feature designs and kits by other independent artists (also not available at big chain stores)

Workshops are often offered on weekends and evenings

You have more influence as a customer

l to r: Doug Kreinik of Kreinik Thread and former President of TNNA, the author, and Jeanne Hutchins, editor-in-chief of Piecework Magazine at TNNA 2007

Fortunately, there are those in the industry who do see the need for change (people like Doug Kreinik and Jeanne Hutchins pictured above). They are excited to see newer, innovative businesses contributing to their community. But, is their community and industry too set in its ways to change? TNNA itself does little to encourage new designers to set up booths at its shows. Companies who have decades of business behind them enjoy seniority and accumulate ‘points’ according to their booth size (and spending power) that guarantee the prime locations and high visibility on the convention floor. The result is seeing the same giant companies front and center year after year without new businesses in the mix alongside them. As a newbie to the show, I’m stuck in the last row, facing a wall (along with most other first-time exhibitors and new designers). Also stuck in Siberia is Amy Holbrook of AMH Designs. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for an organization that voices loud concerns for the need to attract new designers- by sticking them in the most obsure and invisible spots at the convention. Can this picture change? Are the traditional needlework shops headed the way of the dodo if they don't let up a bit with that folksy/barnyard aesthetic? We shall see. In the meantime, you can do something about it: go visit your local needlework shop! Tell them Jenny sent you.

Jenny Hart is an embroidery artist and the founder of Sublime Stitching. She is the author of two titles on embroidery for Chronicle Books and is an active member of the infamous Austin Craft Mafia. Jenny lives and works (but not without the help of a dedicated staff) in Austin, Texas.

comment by Diana on July 25, 2007 10:33 PM:

I must protest loudly against the stereotyped picture that Ms. Hart paints of the traditional needlework shop. I have been frequenting these shops for over 20 years and have seen fantastic changes made towards welcoming new, younger and non-traditional stitchers. Even as a young teenager, I was welcomed as "one of the family" and encouraged to experiment and learn. I have seldom had a shop owner who was not willing to help me locate designs and materials, even if it was not the exact style they were use to. And I have not seen any "folksy/barnyard aesthetic" at any of the shops or mail/web outlets that I frequent. I strongly urge those of you reading this to head out to your local needlework ASAP. Take your latest project and just talk to the staff. They are an invaluable resource to any needleworker or potential needleworker. And I guarantee that you will be welcomed and pleasantly surprised, regardless if you are a "traditional" blue-rinsed senior citizen or a "non-traditional" pink-haired punk.

comment by rectangel on July 26, 2007 10:47 PM:

I would agree with what Jenny is saying. I've had a hard time finding a local needlework shop and the ones I've found tend to cater to the quilting/cross-stitch crowd. They are totally countrifed and always confused when I tell them what I'm looking for - I have yet to find a brick and morter store that carries hot iron transfers.
Interestingly I think the bigger chain stores may catch on before some of the local shops do -Michael's had A(read one) pretty cool kit with transfers last time I was there. I hope everyone runs out to their local store and so the next time I ask if they have a transfer pencil I don't get a blank stare.

comment by Christy Petterson on July 27, 2007 11:08 PM:

Diana, it sounds like you've had great luck with your local shops! That's wonderful! I think the aesthetic and attitude that Jenny is describing is most likely more the norm, but you both agree that the local shop is an invaluable resource and should be cherished. There is, in fact, a disconnect between many crafters and the new wave crafters but Jenny is setting an excellent example for us all by attending TNNA and reaching out to the community there.

comment by bessiemae on August 15, 2007 8:49 PM:

Embroidery, cross stitch, etc. is undergoing growing pains and identity crisis, much as knitting did a few years ago with publication of Stitch N Bitch. My LNS is less than stellar when to comes to staying ahead of trends and designs. The clerks tend to be churlish on their best days. A needleworker for 30+ years and numerous awards, I prefer NOT to contribute my cash to establishments with poor service and snark. I can get that at Walmart. There is room enough in the industry for all levels of ability and aesthetics. Give friendly, good service without the exclusive Girls Club snark, be open to new developments beyond Country, and the shops shall flourish. Quilt shops Purl and Keepsake are successful because they embrace the trends and still cater to Girls'Club Traditionalists.

Last year, "Piecework" published an editorial bemoaning the absence of the next generation of "needleworkers" and what ever shall happen to our beloved craft?? Nomenclature and aesthetics differ, but the skills/supplies are the same. No mention was made of Get Crafty, Craftster, Glitter, etc. Hmmm... wonder why? Piecework and LNS would be prudent to court new customers with vibrant threads/fabrics, embellishments, accessible hipster designs (charts or iron-on), and friendly staff. Even Old Skool chicas can learn something new or different. Piecework magazine is also having difficulty in its attempt to evolve. But it is trying! Crafty Girls would be wise to check it out, as it usually has amazing features and tres cool adaptations of ethnic designs and traditional methods.