Cult Shop: Purl Soho, a yarn sanctuary for a nation of knitters
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
It’s time to take up ice swimming, suggested one newspaper, adding a new option to the by-now lengthy list of thriving pandemic-friendly pastimes. Plant tending. Foraging. Forest bathing. Flower pressing. Letter writing. Shelf curating. Lest we forget bread baking. But the hottest hobby of 2020 is, according to a recent survey by craft website Diys.com, knitting. It’s also the most relaxing, with the repetitive action of wrapping yarn round needles decreasing the average heart rate by 18.75 per cent. The study of 357 Fitbit-wearing subjects placed fishing in second place, while baking ranked ninth.
“People really are knitting! We’ve been selling way more of our Learn to Knit kits than ever before,” says Joelle Hoverson, co-owner of New York knitting store Purl Soho, which has been operating online-only since March. One of the last customers to come into the physical store was Kate Hudson, while regulars include Uma Thurman and Katie Holmes. “We’re getting many, many more comments on our website than usual – and for the most part they are the questions of a person who’s right in the middle of trying to learn a new technique.”
Hoverson’s take on knitting is no flash-in-the-pan fad, however. She set up shop 18 years ago in a tiny space in SoHo’s Sullivan Street, after cutting her craft teeth at US homemaking stalwart Martha Stewart Living magazine. “I was really into knitting but I couldn’t find the shop that I wanted to shop in – a store that sold all the most beautiful yarns.” Her kaleidoscopic selection of “pure, natural fibres” has since shuttled into bigger premises nearby and been joined by her own-brand ranges, alongside all the tools and books imaginable.
The website has flourished in tandem, with Hoverson’s sister Jennifer overseeing a fulfilment centre in California, and her friend and former colleague Page Marchese Norman joining in 2008. “Over time, we realised that the online content was really driving and defining the business,” says Hoverson of the wealth of patterns she and a team of contributors have conceived over the years – from the simple chunky ribbed Seafaring scarf to the Striped Crew socks and the cool neon-pop Windy Day blanket.
“My favourite things to knit are blankets because they’re these big colour stories, and you don’t have to worry if they fit or not,” says Hoverson. “There are two projects I designed that I particularly love: one called Nature’s Palette and a newer one called the Library blanket.” Both are available as all-inclusive kits – catering to a customer base that is primarily “advanced beginners” – as is the investment-level Cashmere Ombré wrap, containing eight skeins of fine, hand-dyed Mongolian cashmere and priced at $410.
“Yarn is still the cornerstone of what we do,” adds Hoverson. “We sell lots of our own Linen Quill – a fairly fine blend of alpaca, linen and wool that comes in a humongous array of colours – and our Super Soft Merino, which is a thicker yarn that’s very easy to knit with.” But it’s not all knitting. When Purl Soho posted a free sewing pattern online for City Gym shorts in 2014, mixing floral Liberty prints with a sportswear aesthetic, “it kind of went viral. Everybody was making them and sharing their version of it. Every summer, a whole bunch of people start making them again.”
Sewing supplies range from fabrics and dressmaker’s shears to style-minded patterns for quilts or baby bloomers. And elastic. “We’d had the same roll of elastic on our website for about 10 years – and then all of a sudden we were just selling miles of the stuff. And loads of Liberty fabric. There’s a lot of handmade Liberty of London face masks out there.”