“We are fiber evangelists,” says Mim Bird, owner of Over the Rainbow Yarn in Rockland. “We want everybody to have a fiber component to their lives.”
Over the Rainbow (OTR), which opened in June, 2012, stocks tools and supplies for fiber arts, including knitting, crocheting, spinning, weaving and felting. But for the owner of what appears on the surface to be a straightforward retail store, Bird views her business in unusually strategic terms.
“We are not here to sell yarn. Selling yarn and needles and patterns and books is a byproduct of what we’re really doing here, which is promoting a lifestyle,” she explains. “How we market that has everything to do with ‘how are you going to support your lifestyle?’, not ‘how are we going to make you buy more yarn?'”
Central to the fiber arts lifestyle is its social aspect: participants often pursue their craft in social groups, made possible by two characteristics common to many of the fiber arts: they are portable (one can readily stick one’s knitting project in a bag and take it anywhere) and – not to demean the skill or artistry involved – they can be done without a great deal of concentration. Consequently, says Bird, knitters, crocheters, et al, enjoy getting together for pure social chatting, as well as “helping each other over the rough parts, and teaching and learning new techniques, and giving each other pattern and design inspirations.”
OTR supports this lifestyle by offering free events and programs that bring fiber artists together to share their craft and their company. Two evenings and one morning each week, the store holds a “Stitch and Spin Circle,” in which women (it’s predominantly women) simply gather at the store to work on their projects and chat. The event takes place in a circle of comfy chairs and sofas right in the front of the store, where it can be readily seen from outside. There’s no program or sales pitch: just a hospitable place for the participants to get together with easy access to tools and materials (should they need them) and expertise.
Although participants are not obligated to buy their supplies from OTR, the store will often place an interesting new product on the table in the midst of the circle. “It’s gentle marketing,” says Bird. “There’s no sales pitch or call to action — it’s just there. Sometimes they ooh and ah over it and nobody buys it that night, but the seed is planted.” And sometimes, she says, people love it and buy it on the spot.
OTR offers similar weekly sessions for youngsters (After School Stitch and Spin) and for mothers with very young children. In the latter, the store provides a safe space in which infants and toddlers can play, and toys to keep them occupied while the mothers have a chance to chat and knit with their peers.
At the 2012 Maine Lobster Festival, a mere six weeks after OTR opened, Bird pulled off the first Maine’s Fastest Knitter competition, with eight contestants and dozens of spectators. The event attracted interest from knitters in Connecticut, California, and Nova Scotia, all of whom asked for Bird’s permission or guidance to use the concept in their own areas. This she readily granted, urging the hopeful organizers to stay in contact after they run their own events. The objective is to arrange competitions between the respective winners, so that national and even international “fastest knitter” contests can be held in the future.
In connection with the national I Love Yarn Day sponsored by the Craft Yarn Council of America, OTR organized a Community Blanket Marathon in October, in which shifts of four knitters worked around the clock, for 24 hours, in the small park in front of the Brass Compass restaurant, at Rockland’s key downtown intersection.
The event originally had a simple charitable objective: to produce a knitted blanket that a local nonprofit organization could raffle off as a fundraiser. But Bird found a way to extend the benefits in several directions. As a means of selecting the single nonprofit recipient of the blanket, she invited all local nonprofits to a friendly competition to donate the most nonperishable food items. Ten or so organizations brought empty boxes to the knitting event and spread the word among their own constituencies, urging them to “vote” for their favorite organization by donating food in the appropriate box.
The event produced “winners” all around. Over 200 pounds of food were collected and donated to the Area Interfaith Outreach food pantry. New Hope for Women, as the biggest vote-getter, won the blanket. Bird then displayed the blanket and sold raffle tickets at OTR, raising $530 for New Hope for Women. One individual won the blanket for the nominal cost of a raffle ticket. The knitters – 43 of them – had such a good time that almost all of them have already signed up for this year’s event. The yarn distributor, who donated the yarn and knitting needles, got excellent exposure, including getting the materials into the hands of 43 serious fiber artists. And sales of the yarn used during the event saw a dramatic spike of three week’s duration at OTR, benefitting both the store and the distributor – and, presumably, the knitters, who were pleased with the product.
While all of this makes for great YouTube and FaceBook content and local publicity, it’s a lot more than your standard “event marketing”: it’s a truly strategic approach to business. By helping anyone who’s interested in the “fiber lifestyle” to live and enjoy it, Over the Rainbow Yarn is primarily engaged in pursuing its mission. And the fiber artists who benefit from these events that support their own passion are almost certain to become evangelists themselves for the organization that makes them happen.