Friday, November 8, 2013

An Interview with...Caroline Sommerfeld

Knitted Cats at Combers Beach

Once a week I post interviews with interesting people about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry.  I’ve noticed that every one of these individuals makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world.
You can find Caroline here and here on Ravelry

Where do you find inspiration for your colourways?
Ooh, this is tough to put into words. It is an interesting process for me as a lot of it is intuitive. Each colour is a labour of love, and takes a lot of thinking and planning, some conscious, some unconscious (in a way) as a colour will take shape in the subconscious for a certain period of time. I want a colour to be authentic to the cat(s) it represents, but it must also – and this is very important – make sense for a knitter to use! I see no point in producing a colour that doesn’t work up into something great. Not all cat colours look good as a knitted item, so that has to be taken into account in the design process.

An idea for a colour comes about as a combination of factors.  With the cat line, what helps is that I have known a LOT of cats over the years thanks to fostering stray and abandoned cats for many years, and I draw on that knowledge. In addition, beyond wanting to do colours based on cats I like, I consult other cat people and knitters. For instance, when I started the Meow line I had a meeting with the craft department of Meow Foundation where about 15 people got together to help me brainstorm the first set of colours. After that I went to knitters to find out what sort of things, including issues like certain lengths of colour repeats, would make them happiest. Third, each colour has specific cats and their stories as an inspiration. It might be only one cat, or it might be as many as six who form the direct inspiration, but there will come a point with each colour where I want to do something based on a story/cat that really inspires me. That makes the colour sing!

The process really is the same for any of the colours I do. There is always an inspiration behind a colour, and it is expressed as that colour. It could be nature, it could be a story, a place, a person, a song, a painting, but regardless there is a reason behind each colour I dye.

Please tell us about the Meow Yarn Collection.
The Meow Yarn Collection includes 18 colours that are based on the cats I have known during the time I have volunteered with the Meow Foundation, as well as the cats I have worked with, rescued on my own, and who have owned me. They are meant to reflect the essence of these cats, and bring to knitters something that can remind them of their own special feline(s). These colours are dyed on a range of yarn bases including 4 ply fingering/sock yarns made of 100% Superwash Bluefaced Leicester Wool (BFL), 75% Superwash Wool/25% Nylon, and 75% Superwash Merino/25% Silk. I am expanding the line this month to include 75% Superwash Merino/25% Silk Lace yarn, 100% Superwash Bluefaced Leicester Wool (BFL) DK, as well as a fabulous 52% Superwash Merino/48% Silk DK singles yarn based on feedback I have had from knitters. 

The goal of this collection is to raise awareness and funds to help stray and abandoned animals. We donate a portion of the proceeds on every skein of this collection to animal rescue to help with this vital work. Currently these donations are all being made to the Meow Foundation in Calgary, AB Canada, but I am pleased to report we are going to be expanding the program to include other charities as well! A number of our customers have indicated they wish they could help charities closer to home, and so starting in January 2014 all the proceeds from yarn sold to customers in the USA will be donated to an animal rescue charity in the USA. As our international sales build we will locate charities elsewhere too, but in the meantime we are supporting a number of international groups who knit for animal rescue charities. 

What is your favourite dyeing technique?
My favourite dye technique is immersion dyeing. I was a watercolour painter for many years, and I am fascinated by how one can layer colours over each other to get the most amazing and subtle effects. I feel this style of dyeing introduces a certain luminosity to the end product that painting yarn alone just cannot give to a yarn. I do incorporate some yarn painting, but it only adds highlights (or lowlights). I work only with primary colours, black, and some brown, and mix all my own colours according to my own unique recipes. I like to emulate the colours found in nature, so the shades of my colours are often different from a lot of the commercial yarn available to knitters.
How do you choose the fibres that you work with?
I choose the fibres I work with based on quality, on how knittable they are, how well they take dye, and of course on customer preferences. I have been a knitter for 44 years, and a spinner for 15 years, and I draw on this background (and on my studies about wool and other natural fibres) when sourcing my yarn. Being a spinner is a huge advantage as I can analyze a yarn and know for sure if it is going to wear well or if it is going to pill. I buy only the best quality yarn made from the cream of the wool crop because that makes for both the best result when dyeing, and for the best experience when knitting. It also means that the final project will wear well and last a long time, and I think that is very important. Many people buy this line of yarn in order to commemorate a favourite pet, or to make a gift, and they want the project to last. Top quality yarn means it will! 

How did you determine what weights of yarn you stock?
I determined what weights of yarn to stock based on demand from customers and from retail stores. Knitting trends come and go, but a fingering/sock weight yarn is always popular because there is so much one can do with it, so this is where the line began and where it focuses – on fingering/sock weight yarn. I am expanding the line to three other yarns including a high quality lace and DK weight due to customer requests. I don’t tend to use yarn heavier than DK as there isn’t as much demand for it, although I will do custom dyeing on any weight of yarn if a customer requests it. I am particular though, and if a colour isn’t going to make sense on a particular yarn then I will make alternate suggestions. It is important that a yarn be suitable for the colour ways themselves, since the colour repeats must still make sense in a knitted garment.

How do you come up with names for your yarn?
The names are based on a number of things.  Many are based on a specific breed of cat. I might have a very special cat in mind that I want to memorialize in a colour, and the colour way gets named for the breed of that cat (e.g. Blue Persian or Russian (Silver) Blue). Some are based on the name of the colour and tied back to the cat (e.g. Cat’s Eye Cobalt which is based on the vivid blue eyes some cats have). One is based on a piece of art work incorporating a black cat I saw reproduced all over Paris. And finally, two of the newest colours include the name of a special cat who is part of the inspiration for the colour way. 

Could you give us an idea of how long the process is to dye a batch of yarn and prepare it for sale?
Oh goodness, this can vary quite a bit between the colours. Some are extremely labour intensive and some less so. It breaks down into two groups. The easier colours take about one and half to two hours to dye. This includes layering colour on top of colour in the dye pot (even the simplest colours have at least three layers of colour on them), and then washing the yarn and putting it to dry. I always thoroughly hand wash all my yarn to make sure it is completely colour fast and at a neutral PH so the yarn will last for years. The yarn is laid flat to dry overnight on special racks (this preserves the spring in the yarn), and then labelled and packed for shipping. The more complex colours may take double the time to dye. For instance, Siamese Cat is dip dyed over the course of several hours in order to get the gradation of colour that runs from cream to deep chocolate.  It can take as long as four hours if the yarn doesn’t feel like cooperating, and just like its namesake it often does not. Maine Coon Kali is the most labour intensive as it is dyed in three separate steps using a lot of different techniques. It too can take as long as four hours for the dye process itself, and then there is the washing, drying, labelling etc. Orange and Brown Tabby have the most layers of colour applied, both coming in at nine different layers.

Do you look at other dyers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their yarns?
I love looking at other people’s yarn!  There are so many of what I call “yarn jewels” out there it would be a shame to miss them. It can be a lot of fun to think about how the dyer might have achieved the effect they have in a skein of yarn, or what dye they might have used, and one can learn a lot from this process much like oil painters who spend time copying the masters in order to learn their technique. I don’t worry about being influenced, because all my colours are inspired by specific pictures, places, memories and so on so whatever I do will have my own twist on it. It is inevitable that a dyer may end up with a colour way similar to someone else, as there are only so many ways to apply dye, but for me I feel (and hope) it will always be unique thanks to the process I use to develop a new colour. 

Are you a knitter as well?
Absolutely! I demanded that my mother teach me to knit when I was four, and I have never looked back. I have been knitting ever since and would never be without at least four projects on my needles at any one time. Well OK,  if truth be told more like eight projects… I love lace knitting, and the more complex and challenging the better!

Did you do a formal business plan?
Yes and no. It is tough at the beginning to do a proper business plan for such a business because initially one has to be very sensitive to finding the right niche and opportunity for your particular product.  Even so, right from the start I had certain goals in mind, even if I couldn’t put a time line to them. However, as the business grew and became a going concern I most definitely started using more and more detailed business plans to guide me. These are very important since they make for better company growth and better customer service. At the bare minimum any small craft business needs to keep track of costs and sales, as well as product performance to help guide their growth. It is important to identify how your money is working for you and to make sure it is working for you! It doesn’t do you any good at all gathering dust on a shelf. A good plan and tracking make sure this doesn’t happen.

Do you have a mentor?
Yes and no. I have always tended to do my own thing in my own way, but I have had one person in particular who has been a great inspiration and a great help to me along the way. She encouraged me to start my fibre business, and gave me material help along the way by allowing me to apprentice in her booth at trade shows. She has been a huge moral support, she is always more than willing to help me brain storm ideas, and she helps me whenever she can with industry contacts. Finding someone in your industry who can act as a mentor is a very important strategy and makes it all the more enjoyable. I have been lucky as a number of people have given me a hand along the way, and continue to do so. In turn it means I can do the same for people just starting out, and that is very rewarding.

Tortoiseshell Cat Inspiration

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
I have a background as a Corporate Controller (I did this for 20 years) and my specialty during this time was straightening out companies who were in a growth position, but where that growth had gotten ahead of their records and systems, and helping them to realize their goals. So I guess entrepreneurship is in my blood as it is something I have done in one form or another for a very long time. My business model in some ways is very simple. Find out what you and the customer want in terms of your product, make it the best it can be, market it carefully, and be smart with money along the way. Never outgrow your resources or diversify faster than your company can support. And most important of all listen to your customers! Great customer service is what it is all about and this is something that I never forget. The one thing I have noticed is that one has to have a very flexible business model in order to take advantage of trends and opportunities. Things can change on a dime if a fad for a particular colour or yarn comes up and you have to be able to respond to this sort of thing.
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
The internet has had a HUGE impact on my business. Online sales are much easier in this day and age of course, and thanks to the internet I have sold yarn to every continent except Antarctica! Social media via the internet has been very, very important for a number of reasons. Twenty, or even ten years ago, advertising would have been via routes like direct mail, or magazine ads, and it would take a long time and a great deal of money for one to gain product recognition and/or sales. Social media shortcuts this and changes everything. For instance, blog posts can go along ways towards making a company successful, and I have been very fortunate to have some great bloggers and reporters decide to promote or discuss the Meow Collection online. It has meant that we were able to achieve some goals in our charity program that we thought would take two or more years in only six months! It is both humbling and exciting at the same time to see what people really think about your product, and it is so rewarding to be able to see how happy it makes people. That is a huge thrill that really makes this business worthwhile, but at the same time it allows me to respond much more quickly to what customers want to see than I could have prior to the internet being so prevalent in daily life.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
That one is tough. I love what I do! It isn’t work in the sense that I have to get up and go to work and look forward to retirement so that I can finally do what I really wish. What I do is hugely fulfilling and so it can be hard to remember to take time off. What they say is true. Starting your own business means a lot of very hard work. The temptation is to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and one must firmly take control of that urge and take at least one day a week off or one risks burning out. It helps that some of the inspirations for this yarn, in the form of my cats, will make sure I take the time to pay attention to them!

How do you deal with criticism?
Criticism is tough for people, particularly when it is criticism of something that is intensely personal, like an artistic creation. Yarn dyeing is as much an artistic creation to a hand dyer as is painting a painting. But criticism doesn’t have to be bad. I feel it can be looked at as either something negative, or as an opportunity, and I prefer to see it as the latter. I would much rather say to myself if someone is critical, what is it that I can do to solve the problem that the person making the criticism identified? Often there is good solid help available to a business if they look for it, and this is one of the places to find it. I have been very honored in that there has been very little negative said about the Meow Collection. What little I have seen was very helpful because it pointed out that the line was lacking some of the cat colours that people really wanted to see. That gave me the OK to go ahead and expand the line to 18 colours and that means we can help more kitties through our charitable donations. In the end it was a win-win!  

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
The yarn branch of the company is what allowed me to support myself, and I would estimate it took just over two years to build that side of the company to the point where I am confident I don’t need a second job to make ends meet.  The great thing is that I did it in such a way as to have no debt so I am in really good shape to be able to grow the company! 

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in hand dying yarns?
This is not an easy industry to succeed in for a number of reasons. There is a lot of competition. You are in essence taking on companies like Rowan or Diamond or Noro or any other of the big commercial yarn companies head on. It is hard, hard physical work if you do it right. The hours are long, you spend a lot of time by yourself, and sometimes you will wonder why you did it. If you have a passion for this work it will make up for everything. So you must have passion! In addition, there are a number of things I would say are really important. First, get to know your market. Be a knitter, get to know more knitters, figure out what it is YOU really like, figure out what sells and put that all together! This is key and so many dyers ignore it. Yarns come and they go. You have to know what is current in your market and stay with it as it shifts. You cannot expect a colour that sold well this year to sell well next year. Second, come up with a concept for your dye work that is uniquely you. Don’t copy someone else as it always shows, not to mention the ethics of it are a dubious. It is OK to emulate technique, but dye Your colours in the way that makes YOU happy because others will recognize that passion and appreciate it. The best dyers all have their own “voice” and one can tell a skein of their yarn at a glance. Develop your own style. Third, use quality materials. Like artist watercolours where the professional grade just produces a better painting, use the best yarn you can find, and the best dyes, and make sure your yarn doesn’t bleed, or pill at a glance! Fourth, don’t diversify too much. Yes, one can get 30 or 40 or 50+ types of yarn to dye, but pick a small number of them and start with those yarns. The biggest and best indie dye companies all have a specialty and are known for it. You can add yarn types in as you grow and find a market for them, but it works better to become known for a specific yarn and style and work from there. Really if one thinks about it many of the big commercial yarn companies do the same. Fifth, network, network, network. Attend the big trade shows, but go to the smaller ones as well. See what your competitors are doing. If you can, find a mentor and work for them at shows for a while to learn the industry and to gain contacts. Go to knitting conferences, look at the magazines, find out what the trends are doing. Try to be a trend setter not a trend follower, but never forget or ignore what the industry is doing in general. You need contacts for this. Take knitting classes, go to knit nights, and know your clients.  Sixth, be more than one thing. Be a dyer, a designer, a sales person, a teacher, and anything else you can think of in your industry. It helps you bring in the money you need to make the company support you, and it helps you promote your yarn as well. Seventh, ADVERTISE. Knitters will happily seek you out if they know about you! Be creative and vary it. Use social media, have an online store of some sort, sponsor knitting classes and designers, and as you grow use some print media as well.  And last but not least, never, ever forget customer service. This isn’t about you, this is about your customers! Provide the service to your customers you want from others and the rest will follow. With a little hard work of course…   

Orange Tabby Dougie Inspiration
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