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Support Local Needlework Shops!

Or, how I survived TNNA -- and TNNA's efforts to attract younger consumers.

by Jenny Hart (September 3, 2007)

(Note: Jenny Hart is an embroidery artist and the founder of Sublime Stitching (www.sublimestitching.com). She is the author of two titles on embroidery for Chronicle Books and is an active member of the infamous Austin Craft Mafia (www.austincraftmafia.com). The article was originally published online by Get Crafty (www.getcrafty.com) and is reprinted with permission. Get Crafty is a fascinating site for businesses who want to better understand the needs and interests of the "new" generation of consumers.)

I see cottages and homespun samplers. I see bows of straw-like raffia wrapped around the necks of wood geese. Hundreds of women in embellished denim vests are pulling rolling suitcases behind them while wandering among endless selections of needlepoint canvases, hanks of yarn, button displays, and cross-stitch patterns. And more cross-stitch patterns. I see snowmen in July. Where am I? Why am I here?

I’m at TNNA (The National Needlearts Association) trade show in Columbus, Ohio along with my General Manager, Mary. I have been attending and exhibiting at this trade show for three years, offering my Sublime Stitching wares to a dying market of struggling mom ‘n pop needlework shops. This is a trade show open to retailers only, and the cost for exhibiting can easily reach into the thousands of dollars. Which makes attending a financial stretch for me.

My first year exhibiting, I thought I was there to help expand my business, but now I find I’m attending more in an effort to help support the continuation of their small businesses (although they don’t quite know it yet). There is an enormous disconnect between the DIY movement and these more traditional, independent retailers. I'm trying to connect them to us/us to them, and boy, it ain't easy.

"These are hot-iron embroidery transfers. Would you like a linesheet and free sample?" we repeat over and over to those who pass by. Most stop in their tracks as soon as they hear "embroidery transfers" and chuckle how they haven’t done embroidery since they were a child and that it was embroidery just like this that got them passionately interested in other kinds of needleworking. ("Yes! Exactly!" we tell them).

But we’re a cute novelty. And they let us know they "only carry yarn" or don’t have any desire to start carrying embroidery supplies, even though "people keep asking for it...." Then they walk off and continue bemoaning their dwindling clientele.

We stand utterly confused. Our business online and our wholesale accounts with specialty shops (like gift and clothing boutiques, where no other needlework product is offered) is more than we can keep up with, but the needlework shops themselves don't seem to be aware we exist, or that there is a flourishing market of hip DIYers and novice needleworkers, hungry to learn and be creative; they're just not heading to these stores. But we do notice that more and more who are familiar with us are starting to show up at our booth, excited to see us in person and check out the latest designs. Could this be working...?

The first year I attended TNNA, I was invited in advance by Cathe Ray, owner of Needle In a Haystack (www.needlestack.com ), to attend the Counted Threads and Embroidery group meeting which she chaired. I was amazed that she knew I was attending TNNA that first year and that she specifically asked me to be present at this meeting to learn about the struggles with the market, and speak about my company.

In a large conference room with over 100 shop owners was where I first heard retailers crying out that their businesses were in dire straits. I stood up and spoke to the group about the vibrant and active DIY market that's booming elsewhere – to a roomful of blank looks. And a few who didn't like the suggestion that they were, possibly, just maybe, slipping out of touch with a very important market.

I realized they didn’t know where the new needleworkers and crafters had gone. But how do you tell them? No one likes to be told they're out of touch, but I couldn't bear to hear them talk about closing their doors as if I didn't know where and how to find the customers they wanted to attract.

I also learned that ‘crafting’ was a dirty word to them (they are "needleworkers," while "crafting" suggests projects with popsicle sticks), and they don’t spend a whole lot of time reading Bust, ReadyMade (http://readymademag.com ), CRAFT www.craftzine.com) or looking at the interweb for alternative resources outside of the ones they already know.

They need serious help. I was going to have to do double DIY duty: educate these retailers on how to attract our market ("Don't fear tattoos and pink hair! New needleworkers might have facial piercings – this is okay!") and appeal to our own community on why we should cross the thresholds of the shops that seem so, you know....squaresville to many of us.

Why Shop Your Local Needlework Retailer.

1. Staff can actually show you how to do that tricky french knot (or anything else you want to know).

2. Offer a wider selection of specialty supplies and tools not available at big chain stores

3. Feature designs and kits by other independent artists (also not available at big chain stores).

4. Workshops are often offered on weekends and evenings.

5. You have more influence as a customer.

Fortunately, there are those in the industry who do see the need for change. They are excited to see newer, innovative businesses contributing to their community. But, is their community and industry too set in its ways to change?

TNNA itself does little to encourage new designers to set up booths at its shows. Companies who have decades of business behind them enjoy seniority and accumulate "points" according to their booth size (and spending power) that guarantee the prime locations and high visibility on the convention floor. The result is seeing the same giant companies front and center year after year without new businesses in the mix alongside them. As a newbie to the show, I’m stuck in the last row, facing a wall (along with most other first-time exhibitors and new designers). Also stuck in Siberia is Amy Holbrook of AMH Designs (www.amhdesignonline.com).

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for an organization that voices loud concerns for the need to attract new designers- by sticking them in the most obscure and invisible spots at the convention.

Can this picture change? Are the traditional needlework shops headed the way of the dodo if they don't let up a bit with that folksy/barnyard aesthetic? We shall see. In the meantime, you can do something about it: go visit your local needlework shop!

Tell them Jenny sent you.

(Note: Is Jenny right? Are some retailers too narrow-minded about the products – and the product categories – they carry? Should trade associations do more for new and/or small exhibitors? How many of our customers have tattoos? Email your thoughts to CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)

A Note from TNNA.

(Note: While preparing Jenny's column, CLN received the following from Sherry Mulne, Director of the Stitch to WIN Against Breast Cancer campaign and the PiPN College Internship Program.)

I was excited to see you highlight the future generation of crafters, the health aspects of the needlearts, as well as a company reaching out to the community through charitable events in your August 20th edition. These are the very issues TNNA has been focusing on for the last several years – and ones we plan continue to support.

Keeping in touch with upcoming generations of consumers is of primary importance to our members and to our industry. Because of this TNNA supports programs reaching out to youth of all ages.

Our Pathways into Professional NeedleArts (PiPN) internship program has recently completed a second, highly successful year. Eleven interns were immersed in the needlearts industry through hands on training and on-site, summer internships with TNNA members across North America. Not only does the program create awareness of needlearts within the college-age group, it opens the door to professional needlearts to young people who never even thought of the possibility before! Plans are underway to expand the program in the coming year.

The Needle Arts Mentoring Program, a project of the Helping Hands Foundation, reaches out to children grades K through 12. NAMP had 140 programs in 29 states, with 3,569 children participating as of last April. The program continues to grow at an alarming rate.

The healing nature of the needlearts makes them the perfect vehicle for promoting well-being, in addition to supporting charitable causes. Several years ago, TNNA began highlighting people who shared the needlearts to help those in need through our Unsung Heroes column in the newsletter. In 2004, we initiated the Stitch to WIN Against Breast Cancer campaign. Since then,

we've shared the healing aspects of the needlearts with thousands of people, and our members have raised over $70,000 to support services for those living with breast cancer. OnePixelataTime.org was also launched to raise funds and awareness.

The campaign has also embraced members who have held events and projects for other charitable causes, from ovarian cancer, leukemia and heart disease, to organizations for people dealing with loss and grief. Because our members do so much for so many causes, TNNA is considering expanding the original concept of Stitch to WIN Against Breast Cancer to Stitch to WIN for

Wellness. In this way, we can highlight the health benefits of the needlearts, while we continue to provide assistance to all our members who reach out to help those in need.

Thanks again for drawing attention to some very important issues affecting our industry both now and in the future.



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