SHE'S GOT KNITS (the interviews) - Frances Yarns
Welcome to the She’s Got Knits blog series, where I share the conversations I had in Spring 2021 with Auckland knitting enthusiasts about their experiences in business during COVID-19. We talk about adapting and thriving in a time of massive change, and they share their tips and tricks for people who want to learn how to knit (and there may even be some new info in here for people who've been knitting for a while).
First up is my newest friend, Frances Coulibaly from Frances Yarns. Our conversation happened way back in September, when I finally got going with this series and when her business was newborn (it is now, as at publication, just over two months old). Not a lot has changed for Frances - just more of the good stuff and some options for knitting for Summer.
Amanda: Okay, let’s do this. Tell me a bit about You:
Frances: Well. I was born in 1990 in Grey Lynn (I’m 31) and lived there until my early twenties. I did some AD-ing, producing and a bit of editing after studying Film, then worked as a civil engineering draftsperson for a few years. When my partner Hennik and I moved to Amsterdam I worked as a nanny while I studied web development before working for a couple of agencies over there. We lived in the Netherlands for four years and moved back to NZ just before COVID. Then I found out I was pregnant so that was great timing, really.
It seems to me like crafts and knitting in particular have been rising in popularity in recent years.
I totally agree.
Why do you think this is?
People have been starting to think about the impacts of the fast fashion industry, mass consumption and the environmental issues that flow on from that. They are also realising the pleasure that comes with making, wearing or using a one-of-a-kind item that you have created yourself.
There has been a mental shift towards slowing down and the importance of "me time". I think people have turned to crafts and tactile creative outlets as a way of doing that. And then of course COVID came along and heightened everyone's anxieties while at the same time leaving us with a massive amount of spare time on our hands and an internet full of DIY tutorials.
Yes, thank goodness for Very Pink Knits! She’s an amazing teacher. So when did you learn?
My grandmother, also named Frances, taught me to knit when I was about nine. She wasn't particularly interested in it herself, I don't think she had the patience, so my first beanie came out looking very misshapen with a lot of dropped stitches. My dad still wears it on his morning walks which is mortifying.
I've knitted on and off since then (with the help of YouTube) and really got back into it about 4 years ago when I was living in Amsterdam. Naming the shop Frances Yarns is an ironic shoutout to my Grandma who would have much preferred to be out hiking than inside knitting.
How long have you been in business?
[As at Tuesday 21st September] Ten days! It has been a while in the making, but Level 4 was announced just before I wanted to launch, which threw a few curve balls. I decided to go ahead and launch anyway, despite still having stock stuck in Customs, in the hope that come Level 3 I could help relieve some lockdown boredom by providing people with new projects to get creative with.
So what’s it like to be a creative person in business?
I feel like I’m not “in business” yet because it’s just new; I feel like I’m still in the fake-it-til-you-make-it stage. (Am I a creative person in business?)
I think so. What do you think about when I say that?
It’s just interesting for me because for so long I’ve just done crafty things on the side and worked for someone else and, you know, I’ve never really thought of myself as that creative but yeah…I guess it’s sort of heading that way a bit more. And I prefer it that way.
It seems like Frances Yarns’ main thing is to be a NZ importer or rep for Wool & The Gang (WATG); is that your main purpose or are there other aspects to what you’re doing?
The business started purely for selfish reasons, really. I wanted to get the WATG Crazy Sexy Wool in but because of COVID it was going to take weeks and weeks (and when I want a project, I want it now) AND it was going to cost an enormous amount to ship. I started spending hours on YarnSub trying to find something similar and it just wasn’t working for me. After a while I thought, surely other people are having these problems so I’m just going to see what it’s going to cost to import it and then I perhaps could sell it.
Then I started discovering all these great designers online and started thinking, well the thing that got ME knitting was buying kits, where everything is just put together for you - so I wanted to do that for other people as well. And now there’s a bunch of other yarns that are hard to get in New Zealand so I’m talking to new suppliers.
Basically, I started Frances Yarns to encourage others to start knitting. I remember when I started knitting from patterns I was overwhelmed by the different options and needle requirements etc. I wanted to create a package that takes all that out so you can just choose your colours and get going.
So what was it you wanted to make so badly that you became a yarn importer??
It’s actually something that’s now a kit, the Criss Cross Applesauce Jumper by Brenda Lam. It’s such an easy pattern, it’s something slightly different but is also really wearable. That’s what Frances Yarns is all about: sure, there are some crazy/wacky things out there but I really wanted people to be able to make things that they can actually wear.
[Frances wears the Criss Cross Applesauce Jumper by Brenda Lam. Photo: Sophia Bayly]
How has COVID affected your business?
I guess it made it more feasible to start up because I knew that online shopping had grown - it has gone nuts everywhere because of COVID - and it was also me not being able to get WATG into NZ very quickly because of freight delays and costs. I guess it kind of opened the option up for me and maybe just put things in the right place for me to go “oh right, well this is actually what I want to do...”. I do a lot of things, I’ve got a very short attention span.
Yeah me too. I get bored really easily. But all of the different things do tend to feed into each other. I don’t think all the things people like you and me do are actually that disconnected from each other although it can look like that from the outside.
Yeah, I mean I’ve started down a few different career paths. I’m very lucky that I have my very stable partner. Hennik, he’s half-Dutch, he grew up in NZ. He’s my grounding influence.
You’re the kite and he’s down there, holding the string. I think in start-up mode, and in creative and artistic mode, you’re really fortunate to have that kind of support and stability. It’s not like he’s steering you though.
I mean when I was talking about starting it up, he just looked at it and went, Okay how much are your overheads gonna be and how much will shipping be, and then he looked at my spreadsheet (he loves spreadsheets so much) and said Yeah okay this looks feasible. Generally, if I have hare-brained ideas he says “That’s ridiculous, don’t do that”.
Have you always knit stuff from kits?
No - that started when we were living in The Netherlands. For a long time I just knitted scarves. I got really fast. I knitted scarf after scarf after scarf. And then when I found out that my brother and his partner Laura were having twins, I started knitting sweaters for little people.
Quick. Ish. And you get to learn some new skills.
Yeah. And an old school friend of mine had started a charity page called Premmie Knitting Club so from Amsterdam I started knitting her things and sending them back here. It doesn’t take long to make a little hat and you can use crazy colours coz it’s for babies, it’s fun. That’s where I got into following patterns and from there I discovered WATG and We Are Knitters, living in Amsterdam, and ordered a few of their kits. It was such a good way of going about it because I was always like, I don’t know which needles go with this wool…
Do you still have any of those things? Or have you frogged them all and knit them up again into something else?
I think they’re all in some thrift shop in the back of beyond in Holland now…
But that’s all part of it, right? Just being able to bear with the fact that you’re shit for a while. So. What’s the most complicated thing you can do now? What skill are you proud of?
I think to be honest I’m really proud of being able to just pick up some wool and needles and have an image in my head and be able to put that together. Sure, I might have to undo it a few times (maybe the arm hole is too tight) but I don’t have to follow a pattern and I can just make something myself.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve made “free” in that way, that you’ve self-drafted?
They’re still generally small things - normally they’re for my daughter Florence. The latest is a sweater - it’s quite funky, she looks hilarious in it. It has a roll neck and puffy sleeves. It’s blue and white and she just looks so sweet running around in it.
So who do you represent? WATG and who else?
I sell the WATG yarn - not kits - and I sell We are Knitters and Petite Knit kits too along with some of the Sandnes Garn yarn that Petite uses. I’m talking to some other suppliers and they’ll be added over time. I’m constantly talking to designers and adding new kits.
So how is business going?
There’s been a really good response! I will start doing some proper marketing and drive people to the site who don’t know who I am. It’s such a relief. I still feel really nervous though…
Let’s get into the Beginner’s Stuff. What have you got online now that would be good for someone who’s wanting to learn how to knit?
Well I know you tell beginners “Don’t knit scarves” but there’s a free pattern which is good for learning to read a pattern even if it’s just “this many across and this many down”. It’s in AlPacino Merino which is chunky but not too chunky so it’ll go fast enough, on 8mm needles which aren’t too big, and it’s garter stitch. I’ve also just added some lovely wash cloth kits that are small and perfect for first timers.
So you’re doing knit stitch for the whole thing? And you sell the needles too?
Yeah, getting the needles in stock has been a real mission. I’ve had to go through a few different wholesalers and everyone I’ve talked to has said that COVID has just mucked up supply chains completely. Needle supply has been all over the place. But all the kits have the needle option so you don’t end up doubling up over time - you can buy a kit with no needles if you want.
If your bestie was wanting to knit, what are five things you would say to her? Your Top Tips that beginners usually don’t know?
Well a friend of mine got a beanie kit, the Russell Beanie on the website - she’s a total beginner - and she keeps unravelling it and I’m like “You don’t actually have to unravel the whole thing when you realise you’ve made a mistake.” It’s really disheartening to have to start over and over. So (1) let yourself make mistakes and keep going. (2) Put in a life line. (3) Google how to pick up stitches - you can actually fix mistakes like dropped stitches and the wrong stitches when you get to them next time; all you need is a crochet hook.
My most useful tool in the last couple of months has been a 3mm crochet hook. I created a simple pattern - the Sloppy Beanie - which has a very basic Aran pattern in it, just a combination of zigzags and diamonds, but I was watching Ted Lasso (listening to it, let’s face it) while I made a bunch of them during Lockdown. I got distracted so many times I had to fix purls that should have been knit stitches and vice versa. Now I feel like I can fix any stitch error because I made so many mistakes.
I think it makes you a much better knitter, making mistakes.
Okay so: Instagram. Who should people follow?
I’m really not very good at Instagram! But okay:
Laerke Bagger, number one.
Mette at Petite Knit.
Helga Isager: she makes incredible, quite complicated patterns and has her own yarn line. It’s like if you were to go into an incredibly expensive shop and buy the perfect sweater. Edie & Co in Cambridge sells her yarn.
Brenda Lam from Canada. Her chunky stuff is so simple. It’s all bottom-up but you don’t have to do any seaming and her patterns are easy to read and straight forward.
I often follow knitters on Instagram because I want to be like them.
So who’s your favourite aspirational knitter then?
Helga Isager - to be able to knit like her would be incredible. I have my Saved posts of things to try and I think I’ve made like one of them…
I’m trying to make myself wear more colours - I’m very much a blue-black-grey kind of person so the purple and white Bubblegum jumper, that was quite out there for me. But it’s a lot of fun to make these things and then do a photoshoot - I’m just trying to get out of my comfort zone.
[Frances wears the Bubblegum Jumper by AlizaKnits. Photo: Sophia Bayly]
Yeah - one jumper at a time. I’m the same. I live in a black turtleneck and jeans all winter but I’ve really enjoyed adding a bright cardigan. And I made this really chunky blue scarf out of some Crucci yarn that I got from Knit World when I was on a job down in Dunedin during Autumn. When I’d finished it I thought, I will NEVER wear that in Auckland…but I’ve worn it nearly every day! It’s a real Doctor Who scarf, nearly two metres long.
I love that. That’s amazing. I love it when you do something like that and realise it was SO worth it.
I’m a bit over chunky yarn though. I find working with really big needles, my hands get quite tired.
I find that as well. I think I’ve done like four chunky things in a row and I’m really looking forward to going back to small needles. Knitting something really light and feminine which is not what I usually go for.
What are you knitting at the moment?
I just finished a cardigan (pictured, below). The Need to Have cardigan by Brenda Lam, it’s so cosy. And I’ve actually just dyed some wool. It didn’t come out at all the colour I wanted it to be. It was meant to be olive green but it turned out turquoise-y. It’s going to be some Petite Knit house socks for my partner who always complains that I never make him anything. I got some Natural Undyed Base Yarn from Wild Earth Yarns. It’s all wool from a high country sheep station near Christchurch. They have so many different options. Dyeing is another cool option for the business too.
And what about you - what are you making for you?
For me next - it is getting warmer - I’m going to knit a few little strappy tops and cotton tee-shirts which I will make into kits as well. I mean…this whole thing was just so I could get high on my own supply, I’m not gonna lie [laughs]. I’m just really enjoying having so much yarn at my disposal…
Well it’s so tactile and such a sensory experience, the whole thing, that it’s so hard not to want to…you know… “roll one”.
Yeah, it’s like I don’t even have a project in mind for this but it’s JUST SO GOOD.
COMING NEXT: Lester Mismash from Prosper Yarn, Glen Eden.