Shopping for knitting wool (a bad experience)

Last Saturday I shared my thinking and my questions on what sort of yarn and pattern to choose.  And, as ever, you have given me the very best advice, based on experience and offered with the utmost kindness and generosity. Wonderful experienced knitters from all over the world (many who I do not know) took the time to give me very wise, learned, thoughtful proposals on what sort of patterns would work for me, and what are the best yarns to use for comfort and colour work. Wow! It was an amazing and unexpected response and I have learnt a great deal. My thinking has advanced and I will share my plans soon.

You might wonder why I didn’t go to a wool shop and ask for help and advice there.

Well I did.

A customer walks into a major, central London  department store with a large selection of knitting yarns, plus a reputation for fair prices and excellent customer service.

Two women sit at the craft table, knitting complex, colourful lace scarves. They cradle their circular needles, heavily loaded, and continue to knit throughout the encounter. There are no other customers in this part of the shop.

The customer feels excited. She assumes the two knitters include a customer and an advisor, so she waits for a few minutes for the conversation to conclude. Then she spots that both are wearing “Rowan” badges.

Customer: Oh great! Knitters! I hope you will be able to help me. I am a beginner knitter. I have only made one thing so far. A jumper! And now I want to make something colourful, as my jumper is grey!

First sales assistant (FSA): Well the wool is over there –  (waves hand to the wool supply shelves)

Customer: Yes. The thing is I have a few questions I need to discuss first

FSA: OK. What do you want to know?

Customer: Well I want to use lots of colour and I was thinking of something like a Fair Isle.

Second sales assistant (SSA) with raised eyebrows: Fairisle?

Customer: Yes.

SSA: Well you need a pattern. (Hands a weighty Rowan magazine to the customer).

Roan magazine 60
£12.50 Rowan magazine

There are lots of Fair Isle patterns in here. Find one and then you can choose your colours.

Customer: Well I need to ask some questions first, then choose my colours

SSA; No you need to choose your pattern first.

Customer: Actually I was hoping to look at the colours first as that will influence what I might want to make.

SSA: (interrupting) No you need to buy a pattern first.

Customer: Why is that?

SSA: Because there are lots of choice of yarns out there and a limited number of patterns.

Customer(who usually buys fabric before a pattern in her world of dressmaking): Oh. (Takes heavy Rowan magazine and holds it). Also I need to know about ply, and composition. What sort of yarn do I need for Fair Isle?

FSA: Double knit

Customer: Not 4 ply (customer had checked out a 1940s pattern which specifies four ply)?

FSA: No. There are more patterns for double knit.

Customer: Also I don’t want scratchy wool. This is very important to me. Apart from the colour. I want something really soft I can wear against my skin.

FSA: Merino. Look for wool that says Merino. Go and have a look at the wools.

Customer: What about other fibres that are soft?

FSA: Cotton. You can look at cotton.

Customer: For Fairisle?

FSA: Yes. Just go and have a look at the yarns (takes back the Rowan magazine).


Customer walks over the yarn section and starts considering cotton and merino. She spots two things – some yarns seem to be a mixture but this hasn’t been mentioned.  There are also other options – such as silk, mohair, alpaca, bamboo and synthetics. And there are some knitted up samples that can be used to determine feel – this seems more realistic than just touching the ball of wool. The yarns are labelled and by reading and feeling she begins to work things out for herself.

FSA: (walks over still knitting). How are you getting on?

Customer: I quite like this one – Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino. There are lots of tones of colour, which I like.

colourful yarn

FSA: You don’t need lots of tones for Fair Isle. And you can’t use the variegated yarns. You don’t want tones, you want contrast.

Customer: Well I might like a subtle pattern. Customer shows her handpainted silk dress  to show that tones close to each other can work well.

FSA: Very nice.

Customer: Can I mix yarns?

FSA: You can’t mix four ply with double knit.

Customer: No I understand that. I wondered if, assuming it is double knit, and say Merino, can I mix it?

Can this be mixed with Cashmerino please?
Theoretically can this be mixed with Debbie Bliss Cashmerino please?

FSA: Yes. But you should go with the Bliss Baby Cashmerino. It’s soft and it has lots of colours

Customer: Thanks. You have a lot of choice, so I will look around a bit more. The knitted up Baby Bliss isn’t quite as soft as the balls.

FSA: Yes it is. That’s as soft as you will get.

Customer: I will have a look round now. I think I prefer the colours in the cotton. In fact today is a research day. I don’t think I am ready to buy patterns and wool today.

FSA: OK. Wanders off.

The shop that sells yarn has a huge advantage over the online seller in that you can feel the fabric and see the colours. You can put the colours next to each other, and hold them up to your face. The prices may be a little lower on-line but once you have paid for postage it may not make much difference. The really wonderful thing about a bricks and mortar shop is that it is staffed by real people who can communicate. My experience with the Rowan experts was embarrassing. When I got home I looked (online) at the offered Rowan magazine.  While  I liked two of the Fair isle sweaters both were badged as advanced, and one has raglan sleeves that I wouldn’t want. But the idea that I might have been fobbed off with an unsuitable pattern beyond my capabilities and a lot of expensive wool is disappointing.

Thankfully my internet friends have given me amazing advice and support. I try to do the same for beginner dressmakers – I fan their joy and enthusiasm and try to make things easier for them. Maybe I just need to get a job in a shop. Or knit some Aran tights.




40 Responses

  1. ellen

    Yuck! How utterly disappointing, and unlike my usual yarn-shopping experiences! You need to find the sweet local shop where the staff knows you and they are excited to share their knowledge and delight in your expanding skill set as a knitter. That’s the norm!

    I know there were a million comments on your previous post, so I will just share a couple of additional thoughts here. I LOVE knitting stranded projects. My first sweater (made when I was 15 or 16) was a snowflake design from a circa 1950s norwegian pattern book of my mom’s that I wish I still had….

    As a previous comment mentioned, getting the tension right is the key. Knitting in the round is easiest, I find (harder to see the logic of the pattern from the backside)–so I would lobby for a nice hat or mittens to play with. Hats are easiest; there’s a nice one called Elise on Revelry. Very elegant, and would look lovely in a low-contrast colorway. That said, I’ve found over the years that I am happiest with higher contrast fair isle projects.

    Look for patterns where there aren’t more than 5 or 6 stitches of the same color in a row. Some of the cute bird designs on Revelry (i.e. Nightingale) are gorgeous but a pain to knit because you have to make extra loops to carry the contrast yarn over longer stretches. If you change color every 5 or 6 stitches, it’s a non issue.

    I mix and match yarns with abandon, and have made some delightful baby sweaters where I just went freeform fair isle with a bunch of odds and ends with related colors and a variety of textures. Very fun and they look fantastic! One trick I learned was to loop two strands together so you have a double strand of the same yarn on each side of the connection point. Then, spin them tight to make a single strand, and run your fingers over the seam. If they seem roughly the same size, they’ll work fine in fair isle. But honestly, if you’re even in the neighborhood, and you don’t mind some unevenness / texture, it’ll work out. Sport weight, DK and aran all work fine together.

    Alice Starmore has some lovely patterns you might enjoy. Her projects are very nicely designed and have solid instructions. There’s a Faroe sweater ( with some nice details that you could easily adapt.

    Good luck and can’t wait to see the project emerge!

    • fabrickated

      Ellen – thank you for saying you can mix yarns together. I had a hunch that was the case. The double loop idea sounds fantastic but I need a demonstration. I am thinking of starting a knitting group at work, but so far everyone seems to know even less than I do. We used to have a Burmese man who was very good at knitting and crochet, but he has left. I am not sure my first projects will be that exciting! How are you getting on?

  2. Linde

    There is a lovely shop in Kentish Town which has a huge stock and lovely ladies. Personally I wouldn’t go near the department stores they are just interested in selling and I have found the ladies have the attitude you came across.

  3. Miriana

    John Lewis is boring…. Rowan, Debbie Bliss, some absolute synthetic rubbish and that’s it. And clearly not all that from a customer service perspective. Not sure that Roman patterns are the place to start off! I mainly buy online or from iKnit London on Lower Marsh in Waterloo (mainly because it’s near my work). For your first bit of stranded knitting, choose something small with only 2 colours so you can practise the technique. Spend some time figuring out Ravelry, find a hat / cowl / thumbless mitt pattern that has 2 colours and is in double knit (and easier thickness when you’re new to it) – ravelry allows you to filter in all these things (it’s an AMAZING resource). Then buy some relatively inexpensive merino wool (Rico and Drops brands for example – you can get both from Wool Warehouse online, for example).

    • fabrickated

      Knit London has been mentioned by a few people Miriana. And Loop – which is very close to my work. I know Ravelry is good – it’s just I haven’t found my way around it yet. I am not that good with complex websites and found it a bit hard to understand at the moment. But I will get there. Thanks so much for your lovely advice and support.

  4. Sam

    Oh my goodness, what a horrible experience! I must admit, whilst they have some lovely designs, I would never choose to knit a Rowan pattern unless there was no alternative similar. Their yarn is so expensive and often very scratchy, and I somehow always get the feeling that “Rowan” look down their nose at lesser knitters. I’m probably completely wrong in that.

    Miriana mentions Rico merino – I have used that in the past and it was nice to work with and not at all itchy. I am the same as you, I can’t wear anything with the slightest hint of scratchiness to it. I often end up with something blended with acrylic because of this, but you do get nice colours in the pure wools and merinos.

    There is an amazing yarn shop in Camden Passage – Loop – which stocks wonderful yarns and seems to be a place that people love. I’ve only been once and was a bit overwhelmed to be honest, but it is a gorgeous shop.

  5. Barbarags

    Getting advice as a beginner is difficult. Many moons ago I used to enjoy going to John Lewis for knitting and sewing supplies but those days are long gone. I still get wonderful service and advice from the electrical and white goods departments but now only tend to use them for sewing if I have run out of thread on a Sunday. Smaller shop seem to be staffed by people who actually knit and love to talk about it. Perhaps you could check out if there is a local knitting group near you and join in. Failing that sit down in public and start knitting, sooner or later an enthusiastic knitter will come along and, lured by the click or needles and the flash of coloured yarn, start chatting to you.

    • fabrickated

      I agree with you about JL – I still love the shop, but for dressmaking it is not very good. But I love the idea of sitting down in a public place and getting the knitting out. So far I have confined my knitting to the privacy of the home, but as I gain a bit of confidence and begini to learn a bit of terminology I will do as you suggest. I really enjoy eating my lunch outside in a park or garden near work and usually take my book. But knitting must be a bit like having a dog – a real conversation opener.

  6. eimear

    like the comment from Barbarags, I tend to prefer the smaller shops for yarn as they tend to be staffed by makers.. the local fabric shop here can be like your experience above but its the only one in town and I am always surprised that only half of the staff there actually sew … I have used debbie bliss cashmerino for a sweater and its gorgeous but expensive – some of the bamboo yarns can mix in well and they are not as heavy as cotton or as insulating as wool, which can be handy as I find wool sweaters can be too hot when I am out as everywhere seems to have big central heating except my house…I also check before I do anything (as I also have 200 favourites listed there and I intend to make someday somehow) – as then you can check the pattern by name and look up who has made it and what yarn they used as well as changes they made…. and although I am a crochet-er I have quite a lot of knitted pieces in my favourites. I have a link to one who’s cardigan I will make someday when I get beyond garter stitch….

    • fabrickated

      Thanks so much for the great suggestions and resources Eimear. Interesting point about being too warm. One of the reasons I want to get onto cardigans which I often wear, even in relatively warm weather.

  7. Chris

    Ugh – that really is a poor experience. The ‘experienced’ knitters there seem to equate a beginner with somehow being an idiot ! The value of a good yarn shop can’t be understated ……When I was sixteen I decided to knit a very complicated jumper, only the 2nd or 3rd adult pattern I had ever attempted. I asked advice in my local yarn shop, the two ladies there told me it was a very difficult pattern (vertical stripes and all cabled, meaning I would need to have multiple balls of yarn hanging from the work), they said I would be fine as long as I had patience, and took time to explain the pattern to me. The wool needed would cost quite a bit, so they took out all the shades and put them in a bag, put my name on the bag and told me to pay only for what I needed to get started. Then every week as I progressed, I returned and bought more wool from ‘my’ bag. I finished the jumper and gave it proudly to its new owner . Over twenty years later, I still buy regularly buy from the very same shop, even though their prices may not be as low as online. Retailers could do well to follow their example. (ps..I often regret handing over that jumper and wish I’d kept it for myself – it turned out so well!!)
    I think you should trust your instinct as to whether yarns can be mixed and matched – similar blends should be fine – as long as the thickness of the yarn is fairly consistent. If you can’t settle on a pattern,my thoughts would be to find a plain stockinette jumper knit in the round, in the style you like, then find (or design!) the fairisle pattern you like and combine the two.

    • fabrickated

      Yes. I felt like an idiot! I love your story Chris, and to be honest it was seeing your beautiful jumpers and wanting to make one, and receiving your warm encouragement (several months ago) that made me gingerly open the knitting door – and what amazing enthusiasm and support has blown right into my life and brain. I too love this story of your early experiences and I will treasure it. In my mind the bag was a paper bag with pink candy stripes on it.

      Thank you for saying trust your instincts – that is what I am already beginning to do even though, as I write, I have one unfinished jumper sitting by my bed. I am going to do more or less what you suggest I think. I have a simple pattern identified and some wool on order and I will experiment.

      • Chris

        I’m more than a little bit chuffed to hear that I helped light the spark.:) I have put my own knitting aside the last little while as my college course took alot of time. Reading about your knitting adventure is making me eager to jump back into some knitting.

  8. Liz Cooney

    You had the exact opposite experience here that I have had. – Were you in a large department store? Perhaps that is why. Try a small local yarn store (LYS), where it is a community of like-minded, caring people. A world away from what you have experienced! – I actually go out of my way to support small and local. I want them to thrive…because I feel that I am supporting a real community. ~

    • fabrickated

      Yes it is a large department store, but it is also local to me – a short walk from home, which is why I tried it first. But I know now that was a mistake. It could have been very different.

  9. Stephanie

    I love Chris’s story! Reading the comments to your knitting pieces is so informative and interesting. Although an experienced knitter, I haven’t done a huge amount of stranded knitting as it has never been the style that appeals to me the most. I would love to improve my skills for the technical learning aspect, however, so am reading the comments with an eye to maybe making a jaunty beret or maybe a little cardigan with a stranded band this winter.

    As Chris’s story suggests, and I think I’ve suggested to you before, I think a beginner can make just about anything provided that they have the patience. Knitting is not difficult, as you have discovered, but it does require patience and commitment. What makes a nice knitted piece is similar to what makes a nice sewn piece – a care to fit and finish the garment well, as well as a good eye for colour and texture. Fitting is not difficult, as, as others have noted, it’s really an issue of counting stitches and figuring out how many more or how many less need to be added to fit your shape. There are hundreds of tutorials and articles out there on how to refine shape further, e.g. shaping sleeve caps, etc. What is really fun about knitting happens when you get in the weeds and start experimenting with different techniques to improve the finish on different segments of the garment.

    When I read about your experience in knitting shops I thought back to mine over the years and have to say that I have not received great service in yarn shops over my lifetime. There was one lady who owned a shop in Montreal near where I lived as a student who was positively acidic – as though she hated having people in her shop. Many other shops I can think of similarly were owned by older ladies who were not interested in me and did not treat me as though I knew anything about knitting. I have loved to knit since I was a little girl so this has never interfered with my enjoyment. I started ordering yarn from a shop in Wales of all places many years ago and still go back as I have always received such good service from them. Recently, too, I have been exploring yarn shops in Italy, which is an interesting experience. The ones I have been to offer excellent service although the stock is not great. This is a very interesting thing because so much wool that is sold in western countries is milled or processed in Italy, including many Rowan yarns (I think that Debbie Bliss yarn you are interested in is, too). I get the impression that mostly elderly ladies knit things like baby booties in Italy, as there is often a selection of blended wools and acrylics and other yarns that I don’t like. I’m the exact opposite of you and that I prefer more rustic yarns and stay away from the super soft ones that have synthetics in them or that are superwash. I don’t want yarns that pill or that have strongly saturated colours usually. The selection where I live is pretty limited as well, so I think I need to start making treks to Montreal or Toronto or to yarn shows and to start building up a stash of things I love again.

    Anyhow, keep at it. It’s an interesting process and I don’t see why you can’t take a simple sweater pattern that you like and then add a stranded design that you like to it and use whatever yarns or combination of yarns of similar thickness to get the design you want.

    • fabrickated

      I assume G is napping or you are hiding in the forest. How nice to get a longform response from you. I always love your insights, based on the deepest experience. I also love that you have such an independent reaction to things and go with your own instinct and knowledge. For me I learn through having a try rather than reading the instructions (I know, its naughty) but each of us learns our own way. I think I am going to do exactly what you suggest. Get a simple sweater and colour it in myself.

  10. Su

    Oh Kate! For a complete antidote visit Loop in Camden Passage immediately. I don’t knit, I have no interest in knitting… but could hardly tear myself away. The shop is full of the most beautiful yarns (the hand-dyed ones are an absolute class apart) and knitted samples, and people who have dropped in to knit… The staff are exceptional. You won’t believe how much you’ll enjoy it!

  11. PendleStitches

    Not what you’d expect from Jonny LooLoos at all. But I can highly recommend Loop in London. I’ve only ever bought from them online but they have wonderful staff. Some of their yarn is fabulously spendy but they never fail to offer top notch customer service. Hope you have more luck trying to find your next project. And I’d definitely raise this with JL Customer Services. I think they’d be interested to hear about it. Their staff are paid to help, not sit around like a knit ‘n’ natter session.

  12. Maggie

    I was out of town when you posted your other knitting post, so could not comment. I want to recommend a book- Stranded by Ann Kingstone. I bought the ebook. It does have patterns, but it more importantly it has fabulous tips about knitting colorwork. when I first started knitting, my son requested a colorwork hat that was a copy of one worn by the US Olympic team at the time. I just jumped in and knit it, not realizing that it was supposed to be difficult. I managed to knit it and since then many other colorwork patterns, but Ann’s book has really upped my game.

    Have you knit with cotton before? I find it painful on my hands and my knitting does not look very good. If you want cotton I might suggest you try a blend- it makes the yarn a lot easier to work with but you still have the good qualities of the cotton.

    • fabrickated

      I love your spirit of adventure Mags, and I am begining to think I will design my own knitwear once I get the basics sorted. Ambitious I know but that is the spirit of learning and discovery that does it for me.

    • fabrickated

      I think this is the best advice ever. Just jump in and knit it. I also love the idea of copying Olympic wear. There are some amazing items at the winter olympics. I have knitted with cotton once or twice (for baby wear, in the 1980s) – main issue was that it wasn’t very flexible and therefore not ideal for dressing little kids in. But I like the feel – there seem to softer and tougher cottons out there.

  13. Jennifer Miller

    As a non-knitter, I’ve no personal experience….but, my mother knits. We’ve been exploring the few knitting shops around town, and have not had a truly positive experience yet. (Likely because mom seems to be “just looking” and doesn’t ask any questions.) The small shops do a much better job of showing some interest in the shopper.
    This is similar to what I’ve noticed in sewing. We have a severe lack of fashion fabric shops (most cater to quilters), and I’ve ended up happiest with the one small local shop nearby. The owner is usually onsite, and her “helpers” are knowledgeable and very willing to help. I think they enjoy the opportunity to be creative. So I’ll echo the knitters who’ve replied – stick to the small local shops. And use your own fashion impeccable fashion as a guide.

  14. Kim Hood

    I was late to the last post and didn’t comment but I would just reinforce all those who emphasised the importance of tension. Ignoring that is the quickest way to disappointment. I find Ravelry very useful for patterns – and opinions on said patterns! I agree it may be worth trying a small project with fewer colours to get to grips with the technique needed for fair isle – but with patience there is no reason to believe you can’t do this.
    Avoid large department stores for yarn – the independents may cost a little more but will almost certainly come with help if you have problems understanding a process.
    Good luck!

  15. Joyce Latham

    Sorry to hear you didn’t have a positive experience. It boggles my mind why they couldn’t have been more gracious . You know, it’s kind of funny the way photographers react to one another sometimes too!
    Keep looking, I’m sure you will find your match with personal service in the near future.
    Till the next time.

  16. Michele

    Hi Kate, I’m sorry to hear about your experience as that’s not what you’d expect from JL.

    However, you have 2 great shops in London that I know of which are independents too. I Knit – Waterloo, used to be run/owned by a couple of blokes, (not up to date with this). Has a good reputation, on-line too. I’ve not been usually OH picks up anything I have needed.

    The other is Loop now in Camden owned by Susan Cropper and I warn you now, it’s a Mecca of wool. I would perhaps pick a day to go mid week if you wanted to stop and a really good chat, it’s popular and busy, but please don’t let that put you off. It’s worth going just to stroke the wool, see the colours etc etc. This is not your acrylic and granny knitting squares shop. Has on line shop too. Warning – May hurt your credit card.

  17. gill

    I heartily agree with everyone else – give John Lewis a wide berth and go to Loop or another little yarn shop. (Loop is in Camden Passage, Islington, not Camden, by the way)
    Well done for not mentioning the name of the store – but we all knew anyway. Been there, done that, had similar experience.
    In fact, last time I vowed I’d never go to JL in town again, although my local branch is excellent.

    • fabrickated

      Well I wouldn’t buy fabric there so I suppose I should take my own advice. However I do like the shop and buy lots of things there (eg recently a few Finery pieces in the sale) and generally I regard it as a good shop, close to home.

  18. Annieloveslinen

    Makes you wish you were a mystery shopper. There’s probably an affiliation with Rowan yarns and you were in the wrong place, asking the wrong people selling the wrong product for your needs. There’s no excuse for the indifference or appalling customer service though, it’s exactly this sort of response that strengthens my resolve rather than diminishing it. Knitting consists of only two stitches, knit and purl from which the possibilities are endless, the only difference between you and those that do is knowledge. On your next expedition explain that you are a novice and may ask obvious questions but are looking for specific help to audition yarns for a particular technique, that will tell whoever where you’re at and the level of assistance you will need.

    Good luck!

  19. BMGM

    As a long-time knitter, I can relate to both your experience and the shop assistants’.

    Double Knitting, DK, is 8 ply and you brought in a picture of a vintage 4 ply sweater/ It takes about 3-4 times as many stitches to make a 4 ply sweater as an 8 ply one.

    It’s a classic newbie phenomenon to want to make a gorgeous, multi-color (manipulate more than 2 colors on one row) large project (sweater instead of hat) with fine yarns (more stitches). Most are never completed, frustrating everyone involved. They don’t know about your perseverance and problem-solving skills. They just know the average customer who gave up.

    I’m surprised that they didn’t try to steer you away from Debbie Bliss’ superwash yarns. Superwash yarns have been chemically-treated to remove the microscopic scales. Thus, they are slippery and not ideal for your first stranded (Fair Isle) project.

    Merino or long-staple wools (I like mid-priced Cascade 220) in a mid-weight are a good first project. I mixed it with an 8-ply.

  20. Sue

    What a disappointing encounter. In my advancing years I have started calling this sort of assistant out, giving them “free professional development” (which used to be one of my hats), and telling them why they have now lost my business, possibly forever. Whilst it’s embarrassing at the time, and I am constantly waiting for abuse (I think they are too shocked to articulate anything), I like to think that the next customer might be better treated. I look forward to seeing your fairisle jumper – you are one brave lady, to knit fairisle as your second knit!

  21. Hélène

    Your post reminds me of a funny experience I had a few years ago when I picked up knitting. I wanted to make a little button-up hoodie for my niece’s newborn and went to a local wool shop. When I showed the sale assistant the pattern I had chosen in Ravelry, she asked me: “Can I be honest with you?” I said yes and then she said point blank: “It’s ugly”. I just laughed so hard – I think it upsetted her – and said I loved it anyway, just as many knitters did in Ravelry. Did I bought the wool there? No. I went to another shop downtown and found what I needed. At the end, the complete hoodie with large stripes was very nice!

  22. Grace Whowell

    Hi Kate

    I am a novice knitter too (I have only knitted rectangles so far but am ready to get a bit more adventurous…. ) and have been totally seduced by all the gorgeous wools I see at the Knitting fairs I attend with my stall, e.g. Woolfest, Yarndale, Yarningham, Fibre East, Edinburgh Yarn Festival. There are loads of small companies, spinners, dyers, designers etc and their passion and knowledge is amazing. It certainly opened my eyes to knitting as it stands today. If you haven’t been already, go and visit one when you can.

    • fabrickated

      This is great advice Grace, and I promise to take it. The thing is knitting seems to take alot of time, so there is not much need for supplies. I really don’t have space for another stash of materials so I will hold back until I have finished at least one jumper.

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