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Growing a yarn business

Jamaica Plain woman finds niche with younger knitters

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Growing a yarn business
Diane Ivy markets brightly-colored yarns to the growing segment of younger knitters through her Lady Dye business.

In the knitting yarn world, where muted earth tones reign supreme and colors like “antique rose,” “oatmeal” and “terracotta” dominate catalogues, Diane Ivy’s street art-inspired colors seem a bit out of place with names like “hot chocolate,” “dynamite” and “bloody Mary.”

But Ivy is banking on her yarns’ appeal to the looming legions of younger, more diverse knitters and crocheters. Her Lady Dye selection of yarns, launched in 2013, has steadily grown from a part-time preoccupation to a budding enterprise.

The Hyde Park, Illinois native had been working in the nonprofit sector with stints at City Year and The Boston Foundation’s StreetSafe Boston initiative when her creative urges became too strong to ignore.

Her color schemes are inspired by murals and graffiti she encounters in her travels.

“I found my passion to be in the arts,” she said.

She took inspiration for her yarns from street art she has encountered locally and in her travels. The saturated, vibrant colors of murals and graffiti are blended together in solid and multi-colored skeins.

“I mix colors people wouldn’t assume go together,” she said.

She often begins a color scheme by photographing a mural, then picking out the colors for her yarns.

“Street art is very bright,” she said. “You can see it from miles away. It’s something people recognize.”

Ivy’s inspiration could come from graffiti in San Juan or a mural in Halifax, like one she photographed while teaching knitting on a cruise to the Nova Scotia regional capital.

Ivy started by dying her yarn in her Jamaica Plain apartment and selling skeins (wrapped bundles) in local stores. She supplemented her income teaching knitting in the Boston area.

But the yarn business wasn’t taking off.

“It wasn’t profitable,” Ivy says. “I was selling it on consignment. I realized that in order to grow, I needed to do more trade shows.”

Getting started

In 2013 Ivy enrolled in an accelerator program, put a business model together and learned how to make a pitch for her venture. Using an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, she was able to raise enough money to go to the National Needle Arts Association’s annual conference — her first trade show. There, she obtained $10,000 in orders for her yarns from stores.

She also contracted with a sales representative who helped her get her product out to 35 stores in the southeast.

Yarn shops typically place orders with yarn suppliers by advancing cash. That practiced has helped Ivy to scale up to meet the demands of her growing orders.

Ivy also reached out to Glynn Lloyd, managing director at the Boston Impact Initiative, a social investment fund that helps local small businesses scale up. Lloyd helped her refine her business model. Next, she headed to Stitches Midwest, another important conference for the yarn industry. It wasn’t always easy for her to pitch her product.

“I noticed that out of 150 vendors, I was the only African American,” she said. “The yarn industry has a problem of not being inclusive.”

But Ivy sees the current lack of diversity as a competitive advantage for her business.

“The fastest growing segment in the yarn market is the 18-34 urban knitter, but a disconnect exists between her and the product offered in local yarn shops which skews older, suburban, and safe,” reads the business pitch on her website. “These knitters cite ‘creativity’ as the number one reason they knit, but can’t readily or locally find a range of yarns to feed that desire.  The local yarn shops struggle with building a large loyal base of repeat customers. My business model will make it easier for retail stores to meet the demands of their customers.”

Sales reps at Stitches Midwest saw Lady Dye’s competitive advantage as well. She contracted with agents representing stores in the Pacific northwest, Pacific south, Midwest and northeast regions of the United States and got her yarns into an additional 30 stores.

Ivy’s short-term goal is to get her yarn into 250 stores across the United States. For that, she says, she will need more space than her kitchen and dining room can provide.

“You need a dye room,” she said. “You need a drying room. Ideally you need an industrial space.”

That space probably won’t materialize in Boston, where the cost per square foot is beyond the reach of manufacturing firms.

“Boston isn’t good for the textile industry,” Ivy said. “People are going to Lowell, Fall River or New Bedford.”

Wherever Ivy ends up dying her wool, she’s sure she’ll be able to tap into a growing market of younger, more diverse knitters.

“Young people want to have fun with their knitting,” she said. “My yarn and my brand is in tune with this demographic.”