Today we are pleased to meet Jill Chapman, owner of North Star Yarns, a local wool shop and place in Blackhall Mill, County Durham, where enthusiasts can learn how to knit and crochet to find out. Jill opened her shop in summer last year.
What were you doing before you decided to open the wool shop?
Right from a young age, I had always wanted to be an engineer. Everything I did at school and college was to get me onto a good engineering course at university. I started university right after finishing college but due to long term illness, I was unable to sit exams and had to resit years of my course until finally I got to the point where I couldn’t complete it. I had done all the studying, but was unable to clear the final hurdle and come away with the degree. After I left university, whenever I applied for something else I was either under-qualified, as I had not completed my degree, or over-qualified because I had spent all of that time getting a university education.
Whilst all that was going on I had been a regular shopper in The Fat Quarters and attended quilting workshops with Kim Suleman. During these workshops Kim mentioned that there was an unused long arm quilting machine in the basement and offered me to use it three days a week. At the same time, a wool shop opened next door and I was able to work three days a week there too. I worked both jobs for eight months until the owner of the wool shop decided to move the shop out of the area and I was not able to keep my job.
What prompted you to start up?
I learned that the wool shop was moving while I was on holiday with my mum and my sister’s in-laws. One night over some glasses of gin and sangria, my sister and I were discussing what I could do next. Because of the under/over-qualified problem we came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to set up on my own. The wool shop that moved was leaving behind a great space next to an established craft shop that people travel miles to visit and it just made sense to take over the space. There was a good local community of knitters who now frequent the knitting group and the space was ideal for workshops
What did you do to prepare?
While on holiday in Lanzarote, my mum fell ill and could not leave the local hospital. I was stuck in the hotel for six weeks with a laptop and wi-fi. I had no spending money left, so I started doing research. I visited all the suppliers' websites and my potential competitors' websites and started to come up with a plan of what I would do and where I would start. I asked for catalogues and samples and by the time we arrived back at home there was a mountain of catalogues and a second mountain of wool samples with the neighbours!
My sister and I went to the bank with a plan and when the bank said 'yes' it was full speed ahead! I opened the doors three and a half weeks later. If I had not done it that fast I would have second-guessed myself and not really got started. Moving into a space that had previously been the wool shop I had worked in, I had listened to customer feedback and I knew what I wanted to stock. I fired off my orders, starting with a basic offering and we have increased the range every month. I started in the summer so we started with finer yarns and added in the chunky ones later.
What prompted you to start offering workshops?
I was asked by a customer if I was going to offer learn-to-knit sessions and the people in the knitting group I hosted wanted to learn new skills. I asked them what they wanted to learn, taught it myself first so I could teach it to the group.
What have been your successes?
The kits I have designed myself, because you can’t get them anywhere else. When you buy stock from the big suppliers, the patterns you get from most shops are all the same, so offering something unique has worked well. At the moment most of the kits are cushions, but the covers are a great way for people to learn techniques and I use them in workshops regularly.
What things have you learned?
Don’t always trust the reps, because when they tell you that it’s flying off the shelves it means that they can’t sell it. I also learned to check selling prices of wool before you order. The smaller independent yarns always need more research and whilst July is not the best time to open a wool shop, it certainly gave me time to build up to the autumn/winter knitting season.
What are your plans for next year?
More workshops in more techniques including crochet. I want to encourage people to move out of their comfort zone. I also want to extend the range and seek out some more unusual suppliers.
Would you recommend starting up a business to anyone?
I would certainly look at the location very carefully. I learned that even if there is a big department store nearby, you can compete with that. In the craft world, people want to share their projects so I get to speak to lovely people and see lovely projects. It’s amazing to see someone make something you never thought of from the wool we stock. So I love it and would recommend it but make sure you do your homework.
Jill's website and shop: http://www.northstaryarns.com/