With so many people staying at home – and with a workshop just a few minutes’ walk from their home in Harrogate – Bobbie Naylor and Joy McMillan have been able to keep trading throughout the pandemic.
Hand-dyeing their own yarn, printing their own fabric and making their own knitted textiles, the pair create unique clothing and accessories as well as a wide range of yarns through the two sides of their business, Bobbie & Joy and The Knitting Goddess. Yarns from the latter brand are regularly on display at shows across the UK.
According to Joy, gifts that can be posted quickly and easily are particularly popular, such as knitted bags and scarves, as well as yarns to complete those long-forgotten projects customers are rediscovering during lockdown.
At the same time, the company has been busy supporting the fight against Covid-19, making use of their laser cutter to make the buttons and fastenings needed for personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Being such a tiny business has really worked for us, because it means we can adapt and change quickly,” says Joy.
“We’ve also really benefited from close relationships with our suppliers in Yorkshire.”
The Knitting Goddess has counted Baildon yarn spinners Laxtons Ltd among its suppliers for several years, specialising in high-quality yarns that Bobbie and Joy then dye by hand.
Dating back to 1907, Laxtons yarns can be found in products from brands like Jack Wills, Daks, Jigsaw and John Lewis as well as a host of smaller companies, while the company is also one of Future Fashion Factory’s core industry partners. It’s an important relationship for Joy, who says that working with and supporting local businesses is at the heart of the region’s textile industry.
“We source as locally as possible, and in Yorkshire wherever we can,” she says. “Supporting local businesses is what keeps the economy going, and the people who have those strong relationships with buyers and suppliers will be in the best position to recover when things start to pick up again.”
That supportive ecosystem enables close communication between companies, meaning supply chains are more transparent and yarns are traceable, while the carbon footprint of each product is kept to a minimum.
“I used to be based on the south coast of England, and at one point I was sourcing British wool that actually came to me via Peru!” adds Joy.
“Since moving to Yorkshire, we’ve even worked on a custom spun yarn project with Laxtons where the product travelled 80 miles from start to finish.
“We’ve always found a lot of positivity and pride in Yorkshire, too – there’s an attitude of making things work.”
In March as the Covid-19 outbreak became more severe, Bobbie and Joy were getting ready to take part in #OSJW, a campaign led by Gamer Crafting bringing yarn dyers, designers and makers together to sell their unique products to raise money for their chosen charities.
The Knitting Goddess raised much-needed funds for Stonewall as part of the #OSJW campaign, but Joy realised just how many of its followers knew they could not take part for financial reasons. She anticipated that this group would get bigger as the public health situation developed.
“It really highlighted a whole group of people whom you just don’t see, because they don’t go to yarn shows,” she explains.
So Joy hatched a plan along with Rusty Ferret Yarns based in Dundee – two of the skeins each company was dyeing for the campaign would be given to people who could not otherwise afford them, and they would cover the charity donation themselves.
None of the people who contacted Joy had to explain their circumstances; they simply sent her a message and said they’d like to be considered. Two winners were then selected at random, but Joy was surprised by the extent of the interest.
“We didn’t ask people to justify their need but we saw requests from people in all sorts of situations, dealing long-term health issues, leaving abusive households and much more. It can mean a lot to have ‘one nice thing’ in a difficult time.”
The first batch of yarn was dyed and distributed in mid-March, including the two ‘Skint Skeins’. But soon after, Joy was approached with a brand new offer, as Laxtons got in touch with 30 more ‘Skint Skeins’ to distribute.
“I spoke to Andrea at Laxtons and initially she was clear that the company wasn’t expecting to be named or credited for the offer,” says Joy, “But I thanked them when I announced we had even more gorgeous yarn to share with people who would struggle to pay for it.”
Joy hopes to collaborate with Laxtons on more Skint Skeins in future. In the meantime, while she and Bobbie are continuing to develop the business, they are also experimenting with new techniques to broaden the product range and investigating other sustainable fibres such as linen, which is manufactured using less water than cotton.
There is always room to try something new, Joy says, and she believes that the impact of the pandemic may encourage more people to do the same.
“For new designers and makers, at a time when the economy has suddenly shifted, there’s actually never been a better time to start your own business,” she explains.
“Initiatives like Future Fashion Factory are great for providing the support and contacts those people will need, allowing them to tap into the community we’ve always valued so highly.”