Knitters boost sales for P.E.I. wool businesses during pandemic

·5 min read

Prince Edward Islanders have been drinking, sewing and knitting their way through the pandemic — and local wool retailers say their sales are booming.

People are turning to tactile hobbies to reduce stress and boredom while they've been forced to stay home during COVID-19, and experts say that's good for mental health.

It's also good for the small businesses that supply knitters and crocheters.

"It's been a big boon for the knitting industry," said Kim Doherty-Smith, co-owner of Fleece and Harmony, a farm in rural Belfast, P.E.I., which for the past five years has been supplying wool from the ground up. It has its own herd of sheep, a small mill where they create the wool, and a retail store on-site.

Rachel Peters
Rachel Peters

"I think there's been the convergence of a lot of things, not just the pandemic," she said, noting that people are beginning to turn away from fast fashion and are looking to live more sustainably.

"Knitting was already kind of on the rise. Then the pandemic hit."

At least we're not falling backwards, and we're grateful for that. — Kevin Waugh

She noted that in the last few years more men have taken up knitting, along with people in their 20s.

"It's just not your grandmother's pastime anymore," Doherty-Smith said.

A lot of people who used to knit have started again, she said, and those who knit already are knitting more.

"It was a significant increase in our business," she said.

'Barely able to keep up'

Fleece and Harmony already had a website, so when the pandemic restricted travel, it was easy to shift sales online, she said. Well, not exactly easy — the pandemic lockdown began on P.E.I. the same day the women were featured on a popular international knitting podcast, Grocery Girls Knit. It was a perfect storm.

"We were barely able to keep up with demand," Doherty-Smith said. "We were a little bit blindsided."

Slowdowns in the manufacturing sector have somewhat affected supply of the one imported brand they carry — Rowan wool from Britain — but the rest of the yarn they sell is produced on P.E.I.

They also post videos to a YouTube vlog every two weeks, giving farm updates, showing off knitting in progress, and displaying wool they have in stock.

'A year unlike any other'

Down the road at Belfast Mini Mills, mill manager Troy Martin said they scrambled to put together a website after the pandemic hit and sales plummeted. A hot summer did not see sales of wool improve.

Knitting in general has come back big, like really big. — Traci Birt

The operation is a popular destination with fibre enthusiasts, who often visit annually and leave with vehicles loaded down. Travel restrictions cut that tourism-based in-person business dramatically, Martin said.

By the fall, Martin said local knitters were more enthusiastic than ever, buying more wool than usual and more often as they remained cocooned at home. A P.E.I. buy local campaign resulted in a boost of sales before Christmas, with more people buying finished products such as hats and mittens.

The mill's website is now seeing good growth, and Martin said he hopes that continues.

"We're hoping that anyone who is new into knitting gets stuck on knitting [and] continues to knit and crochet so we can continue to grow our growing community of people looking for more natural and long-lasting garments and new ways to pass the time," he said.

'We've done well'

One of the main destinations for knitters in the Charlottetown area is Owls Hollow, a hobby, game and toy store. The store had a "stellar" Christmas season, as people were looking for things to do at home.

Sara Fraser/CBC
Sara Fraser/CBC

"There's a lot of people wanting to return to it, people who haven't knit in a long time," said Traci Birt, the knitting expert at the store.

"Knitting in general has come back big — like, really big," she said.

She said they used to teach knitting classes at the store, but that stopped when the pandemic began. Instead, she said she's been giving people on-the-fly mini-tutorials in the store.

"So many people want to learn, as well," she said. "It surprises me… to see these people that had never knit that were probably in their 60s, wanting to learn."

Rachel Peters
Rachel Peters

They've also been dealing with supply issues, but Birt said distributors have been doing their best to try to get all stores a little bit of product.

"In some ways the pandemic… has been good for us," she said. "We've done well… definitely the sales have been good."

Owls Hollow also scrambled to put up a website when the pandemic began, and Birt said it has been successful.

She noted needle felting has also been very, very popular.

'Lots of room for growth'

The Trailside Yarn Shop in Kensington has been open for seven years, and owner Kevin Waugh said it too was a destination for fibre lovers vacationing on P.E.I.

Submitted by Trailside Yarn Shop
Submitted by Trailside Yarn Shop

COVID-19 made much of that summer business evaporate, he said, but it "balanced itself out" with locals knitting more this winter.

The Trailside Yarn Shop also pivoted at the beginning of the pandemic, putting up a website which caught on quickly, Waugh said, and now that more people are used to online shopping he is not sure they'll ever go back to shopping in person.

"[We're] very happy we made that move to e-commerce, we definitely think that's going to be a big part of our business," he said. "People don't want to go in the crowds as much."

The shop buys and sells wool from local yarn makers as well as imports, Waugh said. Imports that normally take three weeks to arrive at the shop are taking about six — not too bad, he noted, compared to delays and shortages in many other sectors.

Wool sales are an exciting business to be in right now, Waugh said, with "lots of room for growth."

Sales are probably up at the Trailside a couple of percentage points, he said.

"Not a lot, but at least we're not falling backwards, and we're grateful for that."

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