Fiber artists and crafters vary greatly on the topic of LYS (local yarn store) vs. IYS (internet yarn store). This is a rather tangled subject and gets more so when one factors in carbon footprints. Your carbon footprint is the sum of all emissions of greenhouse gases, such as like carbon dioxide (CO2), which were induced by your activities in a given time frame. For instance, riding a bike to the store has a lower carbon footprint than driving there in your car. (Pic source: CAMEL Climate Change Education)
How can we compare LYS or ILY shopping?
LYS sales are affected (some would say adversely) by both the availability of online purchasing AND the growth of box craft retailers such as (in the U.S.) Michael’s and Jo-Ann. Big box retailers are often accused with putting independent businesses out of business. Yet we should recognize that fiber arts and crafting are not, at least in the U.S., as ubiquitous as they once were. Thus, the consumer market for fiber-related arts and craft is narrow. Larger stores can carry more “stuff” at a lower price to appeal to a wider audience of potential purchasers, not just fiber folk.
Of course there are a great many fiber artists and crafters who prefer to bring (whenever possible) their business to LYS. Local artists often gather there (“birds of a feather …”), and how many of us have immediately started looking for yarn stores when visiting a new town? 🙂 Less experienced fiber artists and crafters can receive assistance on their projects when they get stuck – whether from the owner, an employee or customers milling about. Usually any LYS will have a list of classes available, whether (1) commonly focusing more on beginning skills, or (2) committed to assisting their customers hone their skills, moving well beyond scarves and washclothes – such as K2Tog in Albany, California, which has created an amazing learning environment. (The pic to the left is the front of K2Tog.)
No matter how wonderful your LYS, however, you may not find exactly what you’re looking for – for instance, 100% bison down. But if there is not a big demand in your area for bison down, your LYS may not have it on hand.
There are many people who vastly prefer personal face-to-face service and face-to-face shopping. They want to smell, feel, or swatch the yarn; they want to see a garment knit in the yarn and assess how the fabric moves. Indeed, the less experienced fiber artists and crafters are at a disadvantage selecting their yarn and fiber supplies online.
Similarly, some LYS prefer to work personally with their customers. A visit to Soft Horizons Fibre is time well-spent for any fiber person; it has an amazing selection of yarns and other fiber-art related supplies. Soft Horizons, however, does not have an on-line store or even have a posted email address, though customers can place (snail) mail orders by telephone. A great yarn store, it is in a restored Victorian in downtown Eugene (pop. ~ 157,000), Oregon, USA, surrounded by a gorgeous garden. Just to see the garden alone may be worth the visit for some. If you’re ever close by, definitely pop in. I just perused its newsletter (available on its site), and saw that Soft Horizons pays strong attention to locally and U.S. made products – and not just yarn but ceramic yarn bowls, needles, and the like. It also supports community charity events (e.g., Caps for Kids). Soft Horizons is clearly a community member, and that community goes well beyond its yarn customers.
Artfibers – the yarn store I visit most frequently – deals with customers both face-to-face, via telephone and electronically. Yet no matter which way you visit, its service is customer-focused. Artfibers, for example, will mail you 100-200 yards of a yarn for you to swatch! Artfibers, however, sells no commercially prepared yarn. The owner truly “knows her stuff” – because everything is her stuff.
Of course, there’s the cost issue. If your LYS store is in a warehouse, its cost per square foot is probably much lower than a small LYS and will undoubtedly have a lot more sale-priced yarns available. Warehouse yarn stores are able to buy large quantities of discontinued yarns and/or discontinued colors and thus pass their savings on to their customers.
Increasingly as the internet makes its way into more facets of our lives, however, people make purchases online. You don’t even have to leave your house – great for misanthropes but not so good for new(er) crafters and fiber artists who need an expert’s help or a face-to-face explanation/demonstration. (Perhaps Ravelry is a good bridge in that regard.)
Many people prefer internet shopping because they can scour the e-universe to find specific yarns in specific colors at specific prices. Internet businesses avoid certain taxes that the brick and mortar businesses cannot and thus can pass that savings to their customers. You cannot meet the designers or owners, and many of the goods sold are made in factories in countries where labor costs are very low.
The internet also makes it easier (though sometimes time-consuming) to hunt around for sales and deals. Thus, online shopping (especially when you buy in a certain quantity and qualify for free shipping), may save you some money on purchases. There is a cost, however, to internet shopping that most people don’t think about.
The first (and perhaps most obvious) cost is that online stores may have no particular commitment to (or even involvement with), local artists, craftspeople or communities. If it is a corporation, its purpose is to make money for its shareholders.
However, there is a second cost: When you eat meat or eat food raised in the opposite hemisphere, you are eating high on the food chain and leaving a big carbon footprint. So when you buy online: you tend to leave a larger carbon footprint. (Click here to calculate carbon footprints from a US site, here for a UK site.)
In other words, buying from your LYS is like taking the bus instead of driving; buying from a LYS that diligently guides its customers to high fiber skills, markets its own yarns, and/or works with local vendors and producers is more like riding your bike. Hmmm … Perhaps buying online is like taking a single engine plane for a short jaunt? 🙂
Readers, please know that I am making no judgment on whether people (1) buy from LYS or ILY (I’ve done both), (2) spin and prepare all their own yarn, or (3) barter home canned goods for yarn. Well, to be honest, I guess I would be frightfully impressed by people who do (2) and (3). 🙂