The Warm Ewe

Anne McDermott and Tempe Croke

Your location on Main Street in Chatham has been home to a yarn store for over 40 years. What do you think contributes to the longevity of your business?

Anne: We’re in a great location. We’re right on Main Street in between the Chatham Bookstore, which has also been here for more than 40 years, and Brown’s shoe store, which has been in business since 1929. Main Street attracts a lot of people from the surrounding area as well as visitors. I purchased the store in 2014, and at the time, I was bucking the trend because a lot of knitting stores were shutting down. We’re a fixture on Main Street.

It’s also good customer service. We have a very loyal clientele, both people from the area and people outside the area who come to visit. We have a lot of people who stop by during the summertime.

We try to offer a wide selection of yarns to cater to all different budgets. We do a lot of classes to improve skills and stimulate creativity, like “Learning to Knit” and “Learning to Crochet” classes. We’re all about building skills and building community.

Tempe: We have a lot of longtime customers. Some of our customers have been coming since the 1960s and 70s.

Anne: And they’ve introduced their daughters and granddaughters to knitting and crocheting so it’s a multigenerational customer base.

What is the difference between knitting and crocheting?

Anne: When you’re knitting, you’re working with two needles, whereas with crocheting, you’re working with a hook. Some people find crocheting easier because you only ever have one stitch on the hook at one time. With knitting, you can have several hundred stitches on the needles.

Tempe: It’s a little harder to fix a mistake in knitting. There’s more concern about dropping stitches and losing stitches, but with crochet, there’s just one stitch. You might have to rip back a whole bunch, but people find it less daunting to rip out or fix crochet.

Tell us about your one-on-one lessons.

Anne: When people are starting off, we find it best to do a one-on-one session. We offer one-hour lessons and half-hour lessons for both knitting and crochet. As a result of COVID, we do them primarily outside of store hours so there’s less distraction. The other one-on-one lessons we will do is for someone who is in the midst of a project or who wants to start a project and needs some help with a certain technique.

When COVID happened, we had a lot of people who showed up with a project they started 20 or 25 years ago and wanted to finish it. They were completely at sea as to where they were going next.

Tempe: A lot of people came in saying, “I haven’t knit in decades and I want to get back into it. Can you help me?” It’s like riding a bike. As long as you’ve done it before, your hands and your brain remember how to do it. You just need some reminders.

You host weekly community gatherings for “crafting and conversation.” How did that start, and what do you enjoy most about it?

Anne: The previous owner started that. She had owned the store for about 14 years. When I bought the store, I didn’t want to make any radical changes. We needed to keep going with what works. There was a “community knit,” where we would sit around the table inside the store, pre-COVID. And then when COVID happened, we had to find another venue. The People’s Pub across the street hosted us because it was a bigger space and we could spread out a little bit more. Now we’re back in the store.

It’s a time for people to come and talk. They’re usually working on something. Other people will help them out if they run into a snag. People share helpful tips to improve your knitting and improve your crocheting.

Tempe: People get inspired by seeing what others are doing. It encourages them to learn something new or try another project. One of the great things about knitting and crocheting and other fiber arts is that it encourages a feeling of community.

Anne: Our main goals are to bring people in the store and to foster community. I think these days that’s been more important than ever.

The pandemic sparked a knitting revival, especially with young people. Have you noticed this trend?

Anne: We have seen a number of young people, mostly women and some kids. Parents have been bringing kids in to learn to knit or crochet. And a lot of people who are returning to the craft after a long hiatus. We want to get more people involved in the craft so it doesn’t die out.

Tempe: Social media has been a huge inspiration for people. We’ve seen a revival in crocheting as well. People are seeing stuff that they’re inspired by on social media, and they come in and want to do it.

What are some of the health benefits of knitting and crocheting?

Anne: It’s almost like a meditation. You can get into a flow where you’re really into it. Some people use it to manage chronic pain. There are definitely mental health benefits, because it takes your mind off of whatever is stressing you out. It also improves cognitive function. It’s right up there with bridge and crossword puzzles and things like that to keep your brain active. People also take up some sort of craft to stop smoking or to lose weight because it keeps their hands busy. I think that’s part of the attraction as well.

For someone interested in beginning to knit or crochet, what type of project do you recommend they start with?

Anne: Usually we start with a scarf. That way, you can learn just one stitch, and it’s something where size is not crucial. From there, we would extend to a shawl or a hat. Mittens are a little bit more complicated, but you can do a fingerless glove — it’s the thumb part that gets tricky. And then go onto a relatively simple sweater. There is a progression.

What is the hardest thing to knit?

Tempe: Knitted lace can be pretty complicated. One of the harder techniques I’ve learned and then taught is double knitting, which is where you’re knitting two layers of fabric at a time and it’s reversible.

Anne: And some of the multicolor things like Fair Isle, where you’re working with a couple different colors at a time. But again, it’s a technique you can learn. It’s not impossible.

Tempe: Some things that people think are really hard are not so hard when you break them down. That’s why we like doing the one-on-one lessons, because it gives someone the experience of learning something new and getting support while they’re doing it.

Anne: One of the big things, in addition to technique, is encouraging people and giving them confidence. They can do it.

Where do you get your yarn?

Anne: Lately we’ve been sourcing from more local dyers in the Hudson Valley area. We have yarn from a local farm in Chatham, and we also just introduced yarn from a customer who has Shetland sheep. But most of the yarn comes from big distributors that have a lot of different brands.

Tempe: Those yarns are produced in Italy, Turkey and Peru, which is where the major yarn-making mills are. And they’re the best ones, the highest quality.

There are so many types of yarn. How do you know which yarn is right for a particular project?

Anne: A lot of that is just experience. Most of the time, people will come in with a particular pattern, and the pattern will tell you what kind of yarn to use. There are three big categories of yarn. First are animal-based, so wool from sheep, llamas, alpacas, mohair and cashmere. Then there are plant-based, so cotton, hemp, linen and silk, which is sort of in between. Those don’t have as much elasticity as wool does, so they would be used for different things. The last category is acrylics.

If someone comes in and wants to do a blanket or a sweater for a baby, we would probably recommend cotton yarn or a superwash wool — something that can be put in the washing machine. If you’re going to do a lacy shawl, you’re probably not going to want to use a thick yarn. If you’re going to do an afghan or a throw, you probably don’t want a really thin yarn. You would use a silken mohair for a shawl because you want something soft around your neck, but not necessarily for a rugged outdoor sweater.

Explain what a pattern is and how it’s used.

Anne: Think of a pattern as a recipe. The first part gives you all the things you need: what kind of yarn, how much yarn, what size needle to use. Patterns are now size inclusive, so they go from very small to very large. And then it tells you how to start, how to do it.

Tempe: It’s like learning another language. There’s a language to knitting and crochet. You start getting used to the way patterns are written and the language they use, and then it becomes easier to do.

Do you have an all-time favorite item you’ve knitted or crocheted?

Anne: I have a jacket that I made with yarn that was hand-dyed and hand-spun. With a lot of these hand-dyed yarns, the labeling is not great, so I really didn’t know how much yarn I had. I knitted the sleeves and across the back and front of the sweater first. Then I knitted down, figuring as soon as I ran out of yarn, that would be how long the sweater would be. As it happened, I had a lot more yarn than I thought. So I almost have a fingertip length jacket. The yarn is two strands plied together that aren’t necessarily the same color. So it’s shaded beautifully, which was a pleasant surprise. It’s very heavy, almost like a coat. It’s stunning.

Tempe: Two years ago my son, Morgan, asked me if I would make him a sweater. I told him to look for images on the internet. He came back with a picture of a sweater, but I couldn’t find a pattern like it anywhere. So I knew I was going to have to build the sweater from the ground up. It was a really fun project because I had to figure it out as I went along, and I learned a lot that way. The greatest thing about it is that he wears it all the time. It makes it so worth it.

Anne: It was Best in Show at the wool booth at the Columbia County Fair.

If I’m a beginner, can I get everything I need to start at your store? Yarn, needles, patterns, etc.?

Anne: Yes! And lessons and continued support.

Tempe: People come here from all over the place. A lot of our business is word of mouth. People come here, have a really good experience and then tell people about us.

Anne: We’re doing something right, because people keep coming back.

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