Think of it this way: It's like Mardi Gras . . . with yarn. It's like the Super Bowl . . . with spinning wheels. It's like Black Friday sales . . . with smiles instead of shoving.
It's the Rose City Yarn Crawl, and it's bringing thousands upon thousands of knitters, crocheters and spinners, and their money, to the greater Portland area from Thursday, March 2, through Sunday, March 5.
Trying to explain the concept of a yarn crawl to noncrafters has its challenges. "I have heard many voice their surprise that there is such an event," says Dawn Seymour, owner of Fiber Rhythm Craft & Design, one of the 13 participating shops. "[People think,] 'Like a beer crawl?' They expect it to require alcohol." Instead, they're more likely to find cupcakes, lambs and a woman who's dyed her mohawk to match her handknitted shawl. (That would be Portland artist Sunday White, and she does it - both the Crawl and the dye job - every year.)
The premise of the Rose City Yarn Crawl is simple: It's an annual four-day fiber arts extravaganza. Participants print event "passports," which they get stamped at each shop they visit. Visit every shop and complete your passport - and last year, more than 800 people did just that - and you can win one of the grand - gigantic -- prize baskets. Can't hit every single store? No worries -- there's a slew of other prizes you can still win. There are special patterns at each store, free with any purchase. (This year's theme: "Portland Pastimes.") There are trunk shows, special demonstrations and even the possibility of petting a lamb at certain stores. It is, says Jackie Kraybill, owner of Northwest Wools in Multnomah Village, "like a giant roaming street party or a carnival . . . a total blast!"
The event launched in 2009 and has since grown into a significant economic event for local yarn shop and related businesses. Last year, organizers say, 4,500 yarn enthusiasts from around the U.S. and Canada converged on Portland to shop, eat, drink and revel in the city's DIY culture. Over the four-day event, participating shops logged more than 17,100 customers. This year, the 13 shops involved fully expect to better that.
"The Rose City Yarn Crawl generates as much revenue in four days as we do during the entire holiday season," says Kraybill. And there's a lot more than yarn being bought. In an era of big-box shops and ferocious competition from online retailers, the Rose City Yarn Crawl is all about small businesses banding together in a big way. Shops host other fiber-related merchants - pattern designers; independent yarn dyers; and artists making ceramic yarn bowls, shawl pins and other gear - for trunk shows during the Crawl. "This is a terrific opportunity to meet the people behind the yarn and really understand how local and connected the community is," Crawl spokeswoman J.J. Foster says.The Rose City Yarn Crawl When: Thursday, March 2, through Sunday, March 5 Where: At 13 participating yarn shops through the area. (Get the full list here. And print your passport here.) This year's pattern theme: "Portland Pastimes," "encompassing everything from hiking to yoga to stargazing." For more information: RoseCityYarnCrawl.com and oregonlive.com/knitting
Non-fiber businesses benefit as well. "Each shop has a few shops and restaurants they recommend in their neighborhood on the Rose City Yarn Crawl website," Foster says, "but also anything between where the Crawlers parked the car or got off TriMet and the yarn shop sees an uptick in sales that weekend. . . . It has a huge ripple effect."
Tami Hawes of Hillsboro has not only done the Crawl every year - she's completed her Crawl passport every year. She's also had her mom fly up from Reno for the Crawl, and this year she plans to meet up with relatives from Seattle and Longview. "The most fun is going out with someone else to do all the stores," she says. Last year she managed to hit every store in a single day, and that's her plan for this year, too. "I know it's a lot of work for the store owners, but I know I look forward to it every year and visiting new stores and seeing how others have changed."
Barb Marold of West Linn only completed a Crawl passport once, but she made the most of it: She says she kept notes of which shops carried which yarns, for future reference. Knitting's more than just a hobby, she says. "The aunt that taught me to knit left a legacy of beautifully handmade items that I still cherish," she says. "My mom as well. These are not 'things,' but a piece of their earthly soul and heart." When the Crawl rolls around, Marold sees it as "a gathering of like-minded right-brainers . . . keeping an important culture/craft meaningful, purposeful and current."
A lot of hard work goes into the event. Cindy Abernethy of Pearl Fiber Arts says planning for the March event starts the previous April. "It's a challenge to think about the next year's Crawl when we've just finished one, but it takes that much time to get everything done," she says. The to-do list is extensive, she says. Patterns get designed, test knit, and edited. Themes are picked. Vendors are lined up to donate prizes. There's a newsletter to write, a website to manage, marketing to handle. Store owners meet monthly to make it all happen. "We have teams that also meet aside from the monthly meetings, as well as lots of email communications," says Cheri Clark, owner of The Naked Sheep Knit Shop in North Portland. "I've given up trying to keep track of hours spent; let's just say it's a lot."
In some industries, the idea of competitors joining forces like this would be unthinkable. But Crawl stores say the Portland-area yarn scene is different. "We all sell the same type of merchandise in the same area, but we are all so diverse in our offerings, shop locations and hours," says Vickee Cosentino of Wool 'N Wares, in West Linn. "I think of the other shop owners as partners, not competitors. We refer customers to one another and care about each other."
That all-for-one-one-for-all mentality tends to make for a friendly, inclusive event. "We have seen week-old babies up through 90-year-olds at the Crawl," reports Foster, the event spokeswoman. Knitting groups, families, best friends - the Crawl's a major draw for both male and female fiber lovers looking to bond and buy, she says. And the fact that Portland's event is transit friendly - the entire thing can be done on TriMet - is a plus, too, especially for out-of-towners. Posts on Ravelry, a social media site for "yarnies" with nearly 7 million members, indicate the 2017 Crawlers will include more than a few Canadians, plus folks from as far away as Texas and New York.
For Kristine Beeson of Vancouver, who's been hitting the Crawl since 2010, the event's about community and supporting local merchants. "Even if I can't spend a lot, I know that posting pics of where I've been and buying small gifts that I'd be buying for friends anyhow is something that I can do," she says. "The potential of prizes is nice -- I did win one year -- but I'm not going specifically to try for those. The thought that I could make some yarny connections while I'm out and about makes me smile. I always wear something eye-catching and sometimes my own designs with cards to give out."
Having happy customers translates to having a happy Crawl, Foster says. "We have the best customers in the world, and it all starts with them and their patience and enthusiasm," she says, noting that stores bring in extra staff and extend their hours to handle the extra customers. Her advice for Crawlers? Beat the crowds - start your Crawl early in the day, before the lunch rush hits. Start at one of the more distant-to-you shops and work your way back home. And above all, relax and enjoy the experience. "We call it a Crawl and not a sprint for a reason," she says. "Take your time and smell the yarn!"
-- Mary Mooney
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