LYS, ILY & Carbon Footprints

carbonfootprintFiber 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 K2Togwhen 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.

softhorizonsFromMonaSimilarly, 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.

artfibersArtfibers – 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). 🙂

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29 Responses to LYS, ILY & Carbon Footprints

  1. Thanks for your comments! Like you, I like to splurge on yarn smaller items like scarves. (I once priced a sweater out of quiviut … gulp!) I haven’t seen the online chatting you mentioned so will have to keep a lookout for that!


  2. Jamie says:

    Artfibers in San Francisco is my favorite yarn shop. I don’t get there as often as I would like so I’ll call and talk with Roxanne and have her send me what I need. I love to shop locally but where I live there’s not many shops near by. Also, I have a small business so I buy online quite a bit. When I’m making something for myself, I’ll splurge but for my scarves I use very fine quality yarn and I need to be able to get the best price I can. Also, what I’ve found is that most online shops are actually small knit shops, and many rely on online buyers to keep their doors open. Also, I’ve noticed that a several have online chatting so you have a chance to ask questions if you need to.


  3. Well said! I agree.


  4. TexasSnow says:

    The LYS should focus on providing what the Internet can’t…the experience of bonding with other craftsmen (crafts women?), sharing knowledge one on one in classes, and featuring unique, locally produced fibers. That’s why I pay $2-3 more per skein. I do buy online as well, for everyday projects.


  5. Thank you for reading. When I lived in Eugene, Oregon, I was able to buy yarn spun from locally raised sheep. It turned out my vet’s receptionist raised sheep just for that purpose. I still have a very warm large lace shawl I knit from her yarn from her sheep. I wear it only at home, wrapping up in it when I sit on the couch or up in bed reading and sipping a hot cup of tea. Every time I wear it I think of her sheep and their beautiful environment!


  6. You make a very good point about the common courtesy in human interactions. I also expect, at least at LYS, that the clerks will actually be knitters or crocheters. I am always surprised when they are not and, on one occasion, was speechless when I realized the owner seemed to have only basic knitting skills.


  7. I guess that would make a visit to your LYS a big event to look foward to then! Is there space for you to sit and browse books and chat with other knitters too? One of the yarn shops I have started frequenting has an espresso machine, and the owner will make espressos for her customer (we pay for them of course).


  8. Leah says:

    I love this post. I’m on a kick right now to source all of my fibers for spinning from local farms. It’s quite a process to learn, going from sheep to yarn…but very, very gratifying!


  9. Interesting read! Of course, I am still divided on this issue for the most part. I should probably be much more concerned about the environment in this issue. So this is great food for thought. I believe I tend to think more about what I get from these transactions. Somewhat selfish, I suppose. In this culture, most times, these skills we do because we want to and less out of necessity anymore. In my very uneducated opinion (:)), much of our culture has become so money-oriented/hungry without growing in any social graces, it’s difficult for me to take the jump when it comes to buying supplies for something I enjoy doing (as opposed to something I might need for my job, for instance–and actually, this view has kind of slipped into that too for me). If handmade crafts tend to bring you back to the basics of what it means to be human, then when I’m buying to participate in those pursuits, I like it when I am pleasantly surprised by someone that still understands what customer service and building relationships is about even though they are still trying to get my business dollars, you know? I guess that’s the part that becomes more important for me. Common courtesy, especially during monetary exchanges. So, I do think I take the middle road. I like buying from both. Usually, going to an LYS is a bit more expensive and impacts my contribution to the family budget a little more than ordering online, lol. But that’s what makes this point so important to me. I don’t want to have to put myself out for unkind people and less than positive exchanges. At the same time, I like to buy from the LYS we have here in DE because it’s the only one that is devoted to yarns and needlework and supporting it makes me feel like I’m telling DE how important it is to have those. But…and some may share in this, depending on the LYS’s they have frequented, and others may not…I have been in LYS’s where it seems just as much, if not even more cut and dry business-like than online. Because I brushed up against abrasive personalities in these times, it made the experience less than stellar, I think. I have had quite a few unfriendly, uncomfortable visits to LYS’s. Sometimes even in my favorite ones. On the other hand, I’ve cybermet beautifully friendly people who exude warmth over an email while ordering online (and others who don’t-it’s a mixed bag). I just feel if it’s going to be as impersonal a prospect (or even worse) buying from an LYS, I’d just as soon buy online, at times. Sometimes, it’s just a better experience for me. I’m really given to that when I’m buying anything anymore these days. With the exception of Netflix (and I can’t wait until their monopoly-like reign is over and I have more choices 🙂 ), it’s my dollar and I don’t spend it very often in places where I’m given negative vibes-online or off. It sort of eradicates the guilt for me. LOL! And it makes me feel like I’m supporting the notion that how you treat people is important-even in 2013. Not sure how that figures out impact-wise on a larger scale or makes the environment any healthier or more energetically sound. But, it just feels right to me.


  10. Knitn' Green says:

    Great post, so much to think about. I visit my LYS’s but alas they are all 20-40 miles away. So they do constitute a ‘road trip’ combined with other errands to the big city.


  11. Thank you for this article. I am lucky that I have several LYS in my area and they are always very helpful when I have questions. I’ve always bought my needles and patterns from my LYSs. I love walking through them, touching the yarns, ogling the sample items and wishing I had tons of money to get everything there.

    However, I”m often conflicted when it comes to buying yarn. I’m in the group of those who don’t have a lot of money to purchase yarn with (and probably just as well since my stash area is also small!). Most of my knitting over the years has been for my daughters’ dolls and dolls don’t really mind wearing clothes made from the cheaper yarns one finds at the large craft chain stores. I’ve mostly made slippers for my family and again, the acrylic/wool blend yarns from the craft stores work well for those, too.

    Now that I’m designing and knitting things for people, I’m trying to be more aware of quality yarns and the importance of keeping LYSs in business. The price of LYS yarn has always been an issue, but as time goes on, the craft store yarns seem to be going up in price as well, and so the difference in monetary cost between the two is diminishing.

    I guess the other problem I have with buying yarn from my LYS is a personal one, and maybe just a matter of knowing where to look, but I seem to have problems finding yarns that will work for my designs as I envision them. I have difficulty finding the colors or yarn weights I want to use as many of the beautiful yarns I find there are multicolor, multi-”ingredient” yarns for really amazingly beautiful sweaters, shawls, and socks. It seems I use basic yarns in basic colors for my designs and my LYS stock yarns that are more creative and chic.

    I am trying and will continue to visit and research the LYSs in my area to find ways to use their yarns as well as the internet yarns I use now. However, for my dishcloths and knit grocery bags I will still look forward to the cotton yarns going on sale at the craft stores.


  12. Yes, you’re right. It applies to every purchase and decision we make. Here in the US people can go to the market in January and find blueberries grown in Chile. We try to eat “seasonally.” In the summers I can fruits so we can have the taste of summer in the winter too. 🙂


  13. Yes – someone has to try – it’s not a topic stressed in the popular press or television! 🙂


  14. I agree; it is a tactile experience. That is why I think buying yarn via internet is most difficult for newer knitters or knitters who do not have a lot of understanding of or experience working with a wide array of yarns. I look to squeeze and sniff! 🙂


  15. Some time ago at one of my favorite LYS I saw a woman with some beautiful yarn she bought on a trip to Australia (she told everyone within ear shot about this). That woman was pgesterin the clerks – basically wanting private tutoring for free – and they were trying to graciously answer a few questions without taking time away from their customers. (I don’t know if this woman was being purposely obtuse or what.) Then the woman came over, asked me if I could knit, and then started in asking me questions. (She didn’t even ask whether I was willing to help.) Despite her lack of manners, I sat down with her, took a look at her project and yarn, asked her a few questions about her skill level, etc. The yarn was a black mohair and she was a rank (very rank) beginner (never had a lesson, knit one scarf or something when she was a child). I made sure she understood that I didn’t work for the store and told her that both the project and the yarn were way above her skill level. I told her she should not try to get free help in 3 minute increments from the staff; she needed much more help than clerks had the time to give her. I advised her to put the mohair aside, sign up for the series of knitting classes offered at the store, and only once she reached, at minimum, intermediate level, should she try again. Otherwise, I told her, her project would be a knotted mess and she would turn her lovely Australian yarn into a rag. She got very irritated at me and marched out of the store. The clerks seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief at her departure. Apparently that woman had been coming in every day for a couple of weeks for “help” – literally following the clerks around while they tried to help other customers – but refused to take a class.


  16. I love finding new yarn shops when I travel. There is a bead shop near by that was started in the 1960s. An older gentlement runs it. It is openly three or four days a week, and I love browsing in there. And the proprietor can answer any and all questions!


  17. Thank you for your cogent contribution. Yes, externalities are something few people think about. Many people, when introduced to issues that you have described have an “ah hah” moment. Others don’t. At my first job out of the university environment I worked in the public sector. My first week there I heard several people chatting about great buys at the biggest “big box” retail store in the U.S. Then they asked me if I “caught the big sale.” I shook my head, saying I do not shop at these stores. They looked surprised, so I asked if they considered the external costs to their purchase, which I briefly explained. They started laughing and said, “hell no – we only care that we can get a lot of stuff cheap.” That experience taught me that there is a wholly different language and understanding of “externalities,” “multiple nodes of oppression,” etc. that I can’t use. At least I couldn’t in that place!


  18. Stephanie says:

    This is extremely interesting. I am an economist by profession, so I think about similar market issues all of the time. I pretty much always order my yarn from two sources, both in different countries from that in which I live. One of them, in Wales, I have been buying from for years, so I kind of consider them family :). The thing is though that where I live I simply can’t buy the stuff that I would knit with. What I can buy has already been shipped from distant places. When I can, I do buy from small producers directly (or more often my mother does on my behalf, as she tends to be more often at fiber fairs).

    More broadly, being aware of these issues, I make a point in my broader life to reduce my carbon footprint where I’m willing to compromise (not on yarn!). For example, I shock people (most especially Americans) by telling them that I’m 42 and I’ve never owned a car. It’s not because I can’t afford a car; it’s because I think that for someone of my profile (healthy, no kids to tow around, live near my workplace, have to travel transatlantically a few times a year for family reasons) it would be socially irresponsible to own a car. Sometimes in the winter, in the snow, as I’m hauling my groceries by hand, I do reflect on the inconveniences of not having a car, but of course I can always rent one when I’m really desperate. 🙂 I also think about where my food comes from, use second-hand furniture and some clothing, and even go so far as to rip apart old sweaters (sometimes second-hand) and use the yarn to make new sweaters (I started this practise in grad school when I had no money to buy new yarn, and it grew to something I believe in quite strongly).

    Anyhow…interesting piece!! Your point is well-taken that most people these days do not think about what economists call “externalities.” I particularly dislike places like dollar stores, because it’s crazy to pay a dollar for something without realizing that somewhere someone or something (especially the environment) is paying for the fact that that plastic bit of nothing has been shipped all the way from China..Oh and of course there are a lot of complexities to this, as others have noted. Sometimes the overall impact to the environment of producing and shipping something from far away is less than the impact of producing something inefficiently but locally (this is surprisingly often true in the case of produce (food produce, I mean)). A tricky topic.


  19. caityrosey says:

    Reblogged this on All She Wants To Do Is Knit and commented:
    This post sums up many of the thoughts I’ve had about sourcing my yarn. Is local necessarily better? I still think it is, for the most part, but I can’t ignore the environmental savings that may come with increased efficiency.


  20. ethgran says:

    I spent most of my adult fiber and bead needful life in a town without a LYS or LBS so when given the opportunity, I went wild in any shop I happened on while traveling. Three years ago I moved to a wonderful small city (Gainesville, Florida) that has a well established yarn shop – I love it and it is such a treat to shop there – and two bead shops – one of which I nearly exclusively shop at because the feeling of being welcomed. (the other shop is an entirely different experience) To me the big difference between the local shops and the internet is how friendly the people who work there are – plus getting to handle the product. (to me knitting is a particularly tactile experience) I have ordered on line when a color just wasn’t available and it was quite a savings but I would have gladly purchased it from my local store if I could have.


  21. knitish says:

    I’ve never worked in a store where this was an official “policy” but I think it’s a bit like taking your own food to a restaurant, it’s just not polite that said, I would happily give advice to anyone in the hopes that they would then return to support the shop. I didn’t mean to imply that internet shopping is bad. In a lot of cases there just isn’t anything else. In other cases your LYS really won’t have what you need (almost none of them carry plain old crochet cotton). I have (and still do) shop both ways but with an eye to giving my LYS as much of my business as I can.


  22. Yarn buying really is a tactile experience. Sometimes I’m inspired by the yarn, sometimes by a pattern. That said, I try to support a bunch of local shops but also do some internet buying too.


  23. We seem to be on the same page with our posts this week. : ) Always good to raise awareness of the carbon footprint and the ways in which we may not realize that products and services increase that footprint.


  24. streepie says:

    Thought-provoking post – and it does not only apply to yarn stores…. but to any purchases we make. The small town where I live close to, and which has 5000 inhabitants, used to have a LYS – but it moved to another, bigger town a few kms away. As I don’t shop there, I don’t get to visit the LYS, and thus make my yarn purchases online. BUT – I order nearly exclusively from a company that is based in France, and produces the yarns it sells in a factory in France (I live in France).
    My aunt (she lives in Germany) has a LYS that she has been shopping in for decades. Now, the grand-daughter of the owner is running the (very) small shop – and if she does not stock a yarn you want, she will order it for you.


  25. I read an article long time ago about the impact a large box retailer has on small towns. One of the (negative) examples given was that a local pet store soon started loosing business to the large box retailer. But then one of the large box retail clerks, who knew nothing about pet care but worked in the its pet department, would call the local pet store to ask for advice. I imagine a similar dilemma faces LYS. Do LYS have a policy that they will help their customers but will not give free advice on projects knit up from yarn bought from IYS?


  26. Thank you, and yes indeed. I think the number of fibers shops is much lower than “in the old days.” 🙂 And conversely, not everyone has internet – which is easy for me to forget because I am so “wired.”


  27. knitish says:

    Really good post. I think about this all the time, not only because of the carbon footprint issue but also because I worked in the retail industry for almost 30 years. Not only did my boss’s livelihood rely on our customers but so did mine and that of my coworker’s. When you buy at your LYS you may not always be getting the lowest price on your yarn but you are getting a lot more than just yarn. You are getting the experience and help of the people who work there. Thanks for posting this.


  28. Tina says:

    I think another important factor to consider, not everyone is blessed to have a LYS and must rely on the Internet or other means for purchasing. I have several shops I visit often but at times do not find what I’m in search so turn to the online shops. Great article 🙂


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