An earthquake, a severe arm injury and a pandemic – it’s been a tumultuous five years for the mother-and-daughter co-owners of The Yarn Queen, Ruth Walden and Joy Wintour.
When the covid-19 pandemic hit, the pair worried it might be their biggest challenge yet – but instead of struggling, business flourished and hasn’t stopped.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from all this is, it’s that pandemics are good for crafting – we feel very lucky to be in an industry that has responded positively to the pandemic, as we are very aware of how many have struggled,” Joy says.
Ruth and Joy bought The Yarn Queen in 2016 after the online store was looking for a new owner but their passion for yarn goes back much further – it's part of their family legacy and started with Ruth’s mother and Joy’s grandmother, “the yarn queen mother of our family”.
Both Ruth and Joy were keen to buy a craft shop and had each looked into buying a store before chancing upon the sale of the online boutique, The Yarn Queen.
They decided to buy it together to see if they could make something out of the store, but faced a “wobbly start”.
The day after they bought the business in November 2016, the Kaikōura earthquake happened – which was widely felt in Wellington where Joy was based in the time and who was unfortunately living in a tsunami zone.
The earthquake paused their business plans and they didn’t manage to open the revamped online store until April 2017.
Then, three months later, Joy broke her right arm and elbow, tore ligaments in her wrist and temporarily lost the use of her entire arm, causing her to go through a series of surgeries followed by physical therapy for 18 months.
Throughout it all, the pair ran the online store and went to craft markets but couldn’t fully unleash their plans until December 2019.
It was hard work doing something entirely different from everyone else in the industry. They were operating entirely online, specialising in high-quality yarns and boutique craft supplies.
“We were neither a retailer nor were we in the wool dyeing sector,” Joy says.
“It was quite a lonely place to be starting off. While we had some pretty good support, it was only emotional support and encouragement,” Ruth says.
“There was no one else we could learn from.”
Three months later in Febuary 2020, the pandemic struck.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, crafting was popular, because people were able to enjoy that sensory experience,” Ruth says.
“People weren't hugging their families. They were in their bubbles and all those tactile opportunities were no longer there.”
They say those early months of the pandemic surprised them in many ways – their business took off when they feared it might go under, and many people struggling through the lockdowns were in desperate need of a craft to take their minds off their worries.
“It’s easy to feel like it's just happening to us, but it was eye-opening to see how much the pandemic has – and still is – impacting everybody,” Ruth says.
“You become aware of just how global the pandemic is.”
The boom in online sales was needed for The Yarn Queen because income that would normally come from markets and big regional craft events dried up.
“Our uptick in online sales was a trade-off as we lost the markets but, thankfully, we saw a matching increase in online searches and purchases which replaced that lost market revenue,” Joy says.
'Finding your family'
For all the challenging ordeals the pair have overcome, they both say they’ve loved the community and craft enthusiasts they’ve found along the way.
“We've had incredible support from people. We appreciate them so much,” Ruth says.
“It's been almost like finding your family. We go to these events and feel this real warmth there – and it's pretty special.”
The pair split the running of the store between them. Joy handles the ordering and administration, which she fits around managing her partner’s automotive workshop.
“Mum does all our order packing and is an absolute machine,” Joy says.
“It doesn't matter how the day has gone or what's going on, she comes home from teaching every night and does the orders.”
Business has flourished since the pandemic but there have been challenges, as well.
“The cost of shipping has gone up astronomically,” Joy says.
“The products themselves have predominantly not been affected – apart from our knitting needles, which have unfortunately been hit by a worldwide shortage – but shipping prices have crept up over the past two years.”
They say they have a very high standard for all the items and yarn that they stock.
“We've said all along when we're choosing yarn, for example, that we would never stock it if we don't like the feel of it or we wouldn’t want to knit it ourselves,” Ruth says.
“If we don't want to knit it, we certainly wouldn't want to wear it and then why would we want to sell it?”
Most importantly, they want to make The Yarn Queen a community for craft enthusiasts as well as a store. They say the yarn community “has a lot of elitism that turns people away”.
“We want to make everyone feel welcome, as a lot of people in the yarn community have forgotten what it’s like to be new to this world,” Joy says.
“That’s really important for us and it’s something we’re constantly working on.”