A short piece in the New York Times (10/8/09, D3) about a weekend yarn crawl--"fourteen stores knit together"--around Manhattan and Brooklyn started me thinking.
It's hard to imagine a similar event in metropolitan New England, since there probably aren't fourteen LYS reachable by public transport or on foot within the Boston, Providence, Hartford, or New Haven areas. But the idea stuck. With automobile, one can embark on a yarn tour, if not a yarn crawl, which is what I decided to do--in Vermont and a bordering area of New Hampshire. I do wish there had been fourteen stores to visit, but in fact an Internet search came up with only four that were within reasonable distance of where we'd be staying, with friends who live in South Woodstock.
Owing to the very peculiar weather this spring and summer, official Vermont leaf peeping season happened early, and we arrived just past autumn's prime, though from the number of tour buses in restaurant parking lots, you'd never have guessed. Crowds of oglers hung over the railings at Queechee Gorge, snapping photos of the foliage, somewhat diminished in color, which dangled sparsely from the trees (it had snowed early on the morning of our arrival, though by midday everything had melted). We enjoyed a lovely dinner with our friends that evening, and the next day, after the usual obligatory death march up and down the surrounding hills with them and their dogs, I embarked on my quest, accompanied by the ever-loyal H, and T, ever the good hostess.
There is much to tell and some to omit, since my policy is not to write about shops that don't appeal to me. I will say of the two I visited of this ilk, one in New Hampshire, the other in Vermont, that the proprietors of both were cordial and knowledgeable. Perhaps if life had dealt them a different hand, their shops would have been spiffier. Instead, they were kind of dingy, sited by heavily-trafficked roads, and mainly carried yarns of the type you can find at any chain store, piled into epoxy-coated wire shelving. No thanks.
This raises questions about what makes a LYS a place where a knitter feels comfortable. Does one look for a cozy ambiance? A wide selection of yarns, patterns, and knitting-related literature? A good choice of notions? Helpful but unobtrusive sales people, educational offerings (classes and demonstrations), fair prices, convenience of access?And must a LYS meet all of the above, or will hitting just a few of the criteria satisfy?
To some degree this is a matter of taste. On the one hand, I have few preconceptions about what a yarn shop should be like, but on the other, I know what I don't like. I don't like cramped and dark places, stores where sales help breathe down my neck or ignore me, places that sell mostly synthetic yarn, places that sell hundreds of Christmas stocking kits, and places that are glaringly illuminated and belch crappy pop music out of their sound systems. (That about covers it.)
Just to add something definitive into the mix, at each shop I visited I asked the proprietor if she carried local yarns. This, it seemed to me, might distinguish yarn purveyors in rural New England from those in, say, Boston or Providence. In every case the answer was yes, though one shop had just sold its last two skeins of the local (fiber unspecified) stuff. Three of the four shops I visited (including the place in New Hampshire) carried beautiful alpaca yarns from nearby farms, and two carried an extremely nice heavy worsted from Bartlett Yarns, milled in Harmony, Maine, but processed (minimally, which gives the yarn great character) from the fleece of sheep in other New England states, including Vermont and New Hampshire. (www.bartlettyarns.com. Warning: this is a fairly rough website, and if you want to order yarns, you may be better off phoning than placing an order online.)
So...let me tell you about the two best shops I visited on this tour. They're both in Vermont, one in Norwich, the other in Woodstock. They're both visually charming outside and inside, with a great selection of yarns and matériel, knowledgeable owners, and a restful ambiance. Northern Nights Yarn Shop is in a lovely historic building in Norwich, at the corner of Elm and Main Streets; Whippletree Yarns on Central Street in Woodstock (www.whippletreeyarn.com). Northern Nights (no website) is two sizable rooms of great stuff, like the Bartlett yarn I mentioned, but also much fabulous fiber from all over the world, including a wonderful stock of Rowan and Colinette yarns. There's also an appealing atmosphere, quiet and calm as a library, as if time has stopped and the only thing that matters is deciding, in the most leisurely manner, what you're going to knit next.
Whippletree also has a wonderful array of top quality yarns from everywhere, and as well, a super selection of local yarns--skeins of un-dyed, machine-spun alpaca in different weights and yardages, hand-dyed and handspun alpaca, and an impressive selection of Vermont Spinnery products. The downtown area of Woodstock has, like the rest of Woodstock, a Martha Stewarty charisma, so if you have some time to stroll leisurely about you will find many diverting business establishments and domiciles of nineteenth-century vintage that will charm you into a stupor. Norwich is similarly appointed, though smaller, but it does feature the King Arthur flour store, where you can find ingredients and baking equipment you never dreamed existed. In sum, both yarn stores and towns are entirely worth a visit, and I will be returning to both when I next avail myself of T and M's hospitality.
On this foray I came away with a Knit Scene magazine, and the Sundae pattern book from Berocco (found at Whippletree), and two skeins of undyed brown Bartlett heavy worsted (from Northern Nights). At $8.00 for a 210 yard skein, this is a great deal, and a great way to support New England sheep farms. And on the trip back to Little Rhody, we stopped at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire. What a hidden gem! If you've never been there, you have something wonderful to anticipate. www.currier.org