the opening crush

Report from
The National NeedleArts Association
Phoenix, AZ

January 21-23, 2012

Last weekend many of us hitched our wagons and headed to Phoenix for the winter TNNA show. Twice a year, industry folks turn up to see new products and connect with peers. For as long as I can remember the show has been in southern California, but this year TNNA shook things up and moved to Phoenix.

For almost everyone, getting there seemed to be an adventure. The Pacific Northwest was snowed in, I was chased west by storms first in Maine, then Chicago. Even San Diegans were nervous about an approaching storm that threatened to slow their passage over the mountains.

the convention center

The Phoenix Convention Center is a vast, modern facility located in the heart of downtown. In years past we've shared the winter show with everyone from Mary Kay cosmetics reps to tattooed and pierced skateboarders. This time, it was a group of prison administrators, spa and pool manufacturers, and city employees. The only drawback to the impressive food court? No coffee after 2pm. Outside, young men in bright blue polo shirts were constantly greeting us in their pedicabs and offering us rides.

the Sonora Desert?

Inside, show organizers clearly decided to have fun with Arizona's southwest image. After the marketplace received an Apache blessing, we went inside and discovered a "TNNA Corral" lounge area complete with fake desert scene. We even had an opportunity to pose inside an old-fashioned "Wanted" sign.

Vixen up close

The Yarn News
Before the show opened, I'd already heard rumors that eyelash yarn was coming back. (It is. You've been warned.) How simultaneously appalling and reassuring to see that Alchemy Yarns, which uses some of the finest, most thoughtfully conceived yarn bases on the market, was premiering an eyelash yarn. Yes, that's right, Alchemy is doing eyelash.

Called Vixen, the new yarn is made from 35% silk, 55% rayon, and 10% polyester. The first two fibers absorb dye somewhat differently, while the polyester thumbs its nose at any of the color whatsoever. As a result, you get a yarn whose construction itself is already highly three-dimensional, but which also carries differing layers of color. The yarn does have a somewhat sticky feel to it, partly from the synthetic materials and partly from the silk. But if eyelash is indeed coming back, at least let it be something as pretty as this.

Alchemy also premiered two other new yarns, both differently proportioned versions of existing yarns. Silken Straw has been plumped up to a worsted-weight, called Silken Twine, which renders a happily full-figured stockinette. And Kozmos has been slimmed down to a fingering weight and renamed Tweedy.

Sportmate up close

Lorna's Laces also previewed a re-sized version of its popular Solemate, the sock-weight superwash wool/nylon blend that features a high-tech, heat-moderating fiber called Outlast. This time the nylon is gone and 70% Merino/30% Outlast viscose have been spun up at a sport weight and fittingly named Sportmate.

two from the Lopi line

One of my show goals was to find out what happened to Lopi now that its longtime distributor JCA let it go. The news is good, my friends. I found my beloved Icelandic yarn in the Westminster Fibers booth, where it will continue to be offered in the traditional Lopi and Lopi Lite weights (now called Lettlopi), as well as in a lace-weight version called Einband, which is nearly identical to the Icelandic lace offered by Schoolhouse Press.


Pure Merino and Babysoft
The Lopi yarns had been discretely tucked in the corner of a far bigger display announcing Westminster's newest addition, UK import Jenny Watson. The designer has been working in the knitwear industry for nearly 30 years, designing for Sirdar and more recently for Noro.

The initial launch features just two yarns, a DK-weight S-on-S cablespun Merino called Pure Merino and a traditional plied DK-weight called Babysoft that's made from 70% acrylic and 30% polyamide. Watson told me she intends to release new yarns each year.

Full pattern support is provided, as you might guess, by Watson herself. Her husband is a printer, so she was able to work with him to get her booklets and leaflets printed just so. She was especially proud of the shiny vellum swish of the JW initials on the back of her books.

Mira's Baah sign

Also making her debut at the show was hand-dyer Mira Cole and her Baah! yarn. Only in its second year, Baah! currently consists of only two yarns, a fingering and lace-weight springy two-ply 100% superwash Merino.

Mira's story is similar to many others: She learned to knit a few years ago, grew restless and dissatisfied with the colors she saw around her, decided to try dyeing her own yarn, and was instantly hooked. Pretty soon Mira had a surplus of dyed yarn and needed to find an outlet for it, which is how she and her husband found themselves driving up and down the California coast with a car full of yarn, pitching it to yarn stores. Soon the reorders started getting bigger and bigger, giving Mira the confidence to put her stake in the ground with this booth at TNNA.

A more well-established hand-dyer making her TNNA debut was Felicia Lo of Sweet Georgia Yarn. Though she's been in several stores for a while now, those accounts were built by word of mouth alone. This time, Lo decided to make a sincere outreach to new stores, and reception was high.

New Things from Familiar Players

Zen Yarn Garden
Meanwhile, fellow Canadian hand-dyer Zen Yarn Garden was celebrating its second TNNA. Owner Roxanne gave me some of her Serenity Silk Single to swatch. I'm eager to put this 75% superwash Merino, 15% cashmere, 10% silk yarn to the abrasion test and see how it does. The smooth, rounded surface of this singles yarn makes an ideal canvas for color.

Versa up close

In the Berroco booth, Norah Gaughan walked me through their newest yarns. Two especially intrigued me. First was Versa, a knitted tube whose 50% cotton and 50% acrylic fibers have been kept separate, each forming a knitted tube parallel to the other—but connected as one yarn. The yarn is dyed twice, once for the cotton and once for the acrylic. The resulting variegated colorway differs from side to side, creating a genuinely multicolored yarn that will not pool or stripe.

The second intriguing yarn was a wide woven strip called Lacey. Ruffle yarns were still hot at the show, and Lacey works very similarly to Rowan Kidsilk Creation (which, by the way, will be available in space-dyed colorways this spring). Instead of knitting Lacey as a yarn, you knit or crochet along its outer edge to produce a ruffled scarf. This version contains 60% acrylic, 25% wool and 15% nylon.

Over at Shibui, the news was all about their new chain-style knitted-tube linen yarn called, quite appropriately, Linen. This 100% linen yarn is still in production but shows promise, the chain construction giving the otherwise firm linen fibers a surprising amount of loft.

Lambswool up close

The Skacel booth was still buzzing with the new longer-tipped lace needles it previewed at Vogue Knitting Live last week. But this charming little dumpling of a 25g skein from Schulana also caught my eye. Simply called "Lambswool," the yarn is made from three differently dyed and textured strands of extrafine lamb's wool to which contrasting flecks of tweed have been periodically tossed into the mix. The yarn looks earthy but feels tender and inviting.

Ensemble Light up close

Speaking of inviting skeins, Artyarns was previewing its new luxury mix called Ensemble Light. The slick and decadent new yarn is made from two equal parts Japanese silk and Italian cashmere. A second option, called Ensemble Glitter Light, adds a touch of silver lurex sparkle to the mix.

the lavender Lavishea bar

Soft Skin
Maybe it was the dry desert air, but the hand-care vendors appeared to be doing swift business. Lavishea introduced four new fragrances at the show, upping the total to 14. The lavender and lemongrass are both made from essential oils. One unscented version is also offered. The rest get their scent from what is dubbed "skin-safe fragrance."

A key factor in Lavishea lotion bars is the total absence of gluten. This may not seem like much unless you happen to have a gluten allergy. The more severe cases can produce an allergic reaction to the glutens in skin products—just as those allergic to bees have to be careful about using skin products containing beeswax. Lavishea bars also contain a fair-trade, unrefined version of shea butter that allegedly retains more effective agents and fewer toxic solvents than the more common refined form.

Bags and Totes

the Namaste Boardwalk Bag
Finally, the bag market seemed as active as ever. Namaste launched a new backpack called the "Boardwalk Bag." The shiny faux leather exterior is branded as vegan- and animal-friendly. The microsuede interior made from PET, a form of recycled plastic that comes primarily from recycled plastic bottles. A snag-free drawstring closure is balanced by little metal feet on the bottom that protect the shiny exterior and make that satisfying "click" when you put the bag down on a hard surface.

But the other, perhaps more interesting news from Namaste wasn't on the show floor at all. Namaste owner Kelly spends a good deal of time in Turkey because of family and her husband's work. Through these frequent trips she has connected with a social project whose name literally translates, in the fondest way possible, as "garbage women."

Women in the small coastal village of Ayvalik are making bags and totes out of recycled materials. The "100" Bag is made from at least 100 recycled plastic bags, and its interior is lined with recycled flour sack material. Billboard Totes are made, you guessed it, from recycled billboard material. These don't come cheap. The "100" Bag retails for $198, but it takes one woman 10 days to make. Each purchase is helping support women in rural communities with very little other opportunity.

All's Well on the Western Front?
Overall, the show appeared quiet but nobody could agree on a verdict. TNNA is an organization in transition, with disparate branches of the needlearts industry both gratefully coming together and disagreeing about how best to move forward.

Some insist that the old wholesale market notion is dead, that it's all about social curation and social media. Others maintain that there's value in coming together twice a year to see and touch, talk and connect, and learn from others.

indie designers, Ravelry, and online retailer WEBS all chatting

TNNA is the only place where you get as complete a snapshot of our ecosystem. From shop owners to mill reps, yarn companies, upstart hand dyers, indie designers, authors, publishers, and site owners, the puzzle pieces are all there. While the landscape continues to change, clouds moving, mountains shifting, we still rely on one another to complete the picture.

the fashion show

So yes, the show was quiet, but all the pieces were still there. The fashion show was one of the best yet. Turnout, considering the gamble TNNA took moving the show to Phoenix, was still strong. And the giant cartoon saguaro, the TNNA corral and overall "howdy partner" undercurrent added a much-needed note of whimsy.

And the commerce part of things? Well, we didn't have people climbing over one another to place orders, but we did have people. They reordered the tried and true, and they took gambles on the new. They smiled and laughed, oohed and aahed, clearly still loving what they do. Considering the new, somewhat diminished economic reality of our market, I'd say the show was a success.

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