Hello, everyone, it’s Kate here – to introduce a new series of conversations on the KDD blog. I was born in 1973, a year after the Treaty of Accession paved the way for Britain’s entry into the European Union. Both sides of my family are shaped by histories of European immigration, and as a teenager, the very first thing I wanted to do with my earnings from my factory job was to travel around Europe (which I managed to do in 1990). At the University where I studied, English was taught in the broader context of its connection to, and relatedness with, other European literatures. Then, when I became responsible for the Erasmus programme in one of the departments in which I worked, I saw firsthand how students from very different cultural backgrounds benefited from learning from one another. EU funding supported the research Tom and I did in British universities, and now, as a small business, our European connections are at the heart of everything we do. We collaborate with an Irish mill to produce our Milarrochy Tweed, and commission work from a wide range of European designers, suppliers, and subcontractors. Yarn and book stores all over Europe stock our books and patterns, and every day we communicate with our European customers, enjoying seeing what knitters from Sweden to Portugal, from the Netherlands to Poland, do with our designs. In recent months, I’ve been talking a lot to friends and collaborators – to our European Yarn Community, as it were – reflecting on our cultural identities as individuals and businesses, and considering the connections and networks that bind us all together in these odd Brexity times. These identities and connections might be conceptual or political, commercial or familial–they might be very different for each of us– but for all of us they are important, meaningful, substantial. I’ve decided to publish some of these conversations here, and hope you find them as interesting and illuminating as I do. The first is with Yasmin Harper of innovative yarny business, Laine des Iles. Grab a cup of tea or coffee, sit down and hear what Yasmin has to say.
Hi Yasmin! Can you tell us little about yourself and your background as a knitter?
I don’t really know why I was particularly drawn to knitting, as there is no tradition of it in my immediate family at all. I taught myself to knit when I was in my teens – unlike many women who learnt from their mothers or grandmothers, I didn’t grow up surrounded by knitters or makers of any kind.
I do have a theory about this attraction though. I am of mixed race – my father was Indian and my mother was Austrian. Neither of them had any family in the UK. My mother sadly died very young when I was only 3 years old, and my father later remarried, with my stepmother being of Asian East African origin. Her family however are all in the UK, so I grew up with a large, extended Asian family, who, true to stereotype were almost all accountants or (like my father) doctors! My mother however was a very different kind of person – a seamstress who travelled all over Europe in the 50’s and 60’s, working in Sicily, Germany and Paris before finally settling in London where she met my dad. For a young woman from a small rural town in Austria to be so adventurous at that time was very unusual, and I like to think that I have inherited some of her free spirit and creativity. My grandmother in Austria had kept a chest of my mother’s things for me which I was given on my first solo trip to see my family in Austria at the age of 16 – full of the most beautifully made and elegant clothes, and one or two knitted cardigans as well. So I would say that my desire to make must somehow just be within me, inherited from my mother.
(Yasmin in Gudrun Johnston’s Halligarth)
You are British, but you moved to France to establish Laine des Iles. Can you tell us a little about what it was like to relocate and develop a new business in a neighbouring European country?
At the time of our move in 2013, my husband had seen his freelance CAD work gradually drop away after the crash in 2007, and I was in a job that really wasn’t fulfilling me. I had worked for most of my career in the fashion and then homewares trades, and I was questioning more and more the ethics of what I was doing – importing largely throwaway goods from China and just filling the world with more useless stuff. I had also started to suffer from a chronic autoimmune condition that was making normal life difficult. I felt I needed to de-stress and live more sustainably.
My husband and I met when we were already in our 40’s, and although we have friends who had had children at that age, we both felt the time was no longer right for us. Not having those ties made it a lot easier. We’d been coming to France on holiday for several years, and in the end we just thought, why not? Property in Brittany is very cheap compared to the UK, and selling our house in London left us with enough profit to buy the kind of old farmhouse with land that in the UK is only available to those with deep pockets – much as we would have liked to, it wasn’t within our reach financially in the UK. With the benefit of free movement, it was extremely easy to make the move. Many people, I think, have the impression that moving abroad is a preserve of the rich, but there is a very large British community in Brittany who were attracted by the cheaper property, and most of them are just ordinary folk who wanted a better quality of life and were able to find it here.
Starting a business in a new country may seem daunting, but actually it was not hard at all. The large expat community (not only British, but from all over Europe) means that there is always help and advice to be had from others who have done it before. My husband had always joked about me having my own wool shop, so I decided to give it a go. My previous background had at various times covered wholesale buying, logistics and sales/customer service, so I had the right kind of experience to set up a retail business. I found that unlike the UK, the online sector for yarn offered a fairly limited choice in France, and I saw real gaps in the market. Setting up a small business is easy in France, there are simplified regimes for the self-employed. I had never worked for myself before and was a little afraid of taking the plunge, but it’s been surprisingly painless!
What do you particularly enjoy about living and working in Brittany?
After spending most of my life in London, the peace and quiet and sheer space that we have now is quite wonderful. We have 1.5 acres of land bordered by a stream, and it is rare that a day goes by without seeing deer, hares or red squirrels in the garden (although I admit that the occasion a 20-strong family group of wild boar decided to drop in was a bit hair-raising!)
We live in a village on the River Rance, an estuarial tidal river, just a short drive from the stunning North Brittany coastline, so there are plenty of beautiful walks in the area, and of course fabulous clean beaches in the summer.
We chose this area for its coastline, but also as we are only 20 minutes from the ferry in St Malo, so it’s very convenient for popping back to the UK when we need to – and far less hot than the south of France. Although it feels very rural where we are, we really have the best of all worlds, as we can get to Rennes (the capital city of Brittany) in half an hour, from where we can also get a TGV and be in Paris in under 2 hours if we feel the urge for city life – which to be honest I rarely do any more!
What does an ordinary day running Laine des Iles look like for you?
Mornings are usually spent answering customer emails and queries, followed by packing up the day’s orders. After lunch I go and drop off my parcels at the post office and other drop-off points, and the rest of the day could then be spent in a number of ways depending on what needs doing: it might be sorting out any deliveries that I’ve had, placing orders with suppliers, accounts and admin, photographing new yarns, website maintenance and updating, writing my newsletter, researching new products or even translating a knitting pattern into French! It can be pretty varied, and even during “quiet” times I am never short of things to do. In fact it can be hard to fit in any actual knitting!
Laine des Iles has a distinctive focus on the knitting traditions, yarns and aesthetics of the islands and outlying areas of Britain, France and the Nordic countries. Can you say a little about your decision to use your business to highlight the important woolly heritage of these areas?
If I’m honest, it wasn’t my original plan. Originally I had intended to set up an exclusively British yarn shop. I’m very proud of the UK’s particular woolly heritage, and noticed that quite a number of beautiful British brands, yarns and sheep breeds were completely unrepresented and unknown in France. I had really wanted to showcase British products and show them off to an audience who perhaps didn’t know much about them. However, when the EU referendum took place, I felt that it might be a mistake to put all my eggs in one basket as I had no idea what might happen in the future and didn’t want to find myself limited.
Rather than be disappointed, I realised that this gave me the perfect excuse to sell some of my other favourite yarns, such as Snaeldan and Ullcentrum, which were also unrepresented here. When I started to research further products for the store, a pattern soon emerged, and I began to understand how important the islands of northern Europe were in the history of sheep farming, wool and knitting. It was clear that this wasn’t a coincidence – waves of Norse, Scottish and Irish settlers travelled across the Northern seas, bringing their sheep and their traditions with them. Many of those sheep breeds are sadly now endangered, so by choosing to specialise in island yarns, I hope I can contribute in my own small way in supporting those who keep them alive.
To me, islands suggest separateness and interdependence simultaneously – surrounded by the sea, but always looking outward, like the lighthouse in your logo. What do islands mean to you?
I think that’s a very good way to describe it. When we think of islands, we perhaps think of insularity in a negative way, of closed communities who don’t welcome outsiders. But when you look at the history of the islands of northern Europe, what you find are populations who traded extensively with their neighbours and territories beyond; you find seafaring communities of enormous curiosity who travelled far beyond their own shores, some of them even “discovering” America long before Columbus. The islands of Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland, Brittany and the North Atlantic all have shared histories, none of these communities evolved in isolation. It underlines for me the fact that we are all connected, we all need each other and can benefit from what others have to offer. It’s become something of a cliché these days, but in the oft-quoted words of John Donne: “No man is an island entire of itself”. Those words still ring true, perhaps truer than ever these days.
You stock a range of beautiful yarns from Jamieson and Smith to Hélène Magnusson’s Gilitrutt and obviously enjoy really woolly wool. Do you have a favourite sheep breed, or a favourite type of sheepy yarn to work with?
All breeds have their own special character, so it’s hard to pick one, but if pressed to choose a particular breed-specific wool, it would probably be Shetland. It’s such a good all-rounder – a good quality worsted spun Shetland yarn can be soft enough for anyone who fears “scratchy” wool, a laceweight is perfect for the most delicate shawls, and of course there is no better yarn than Jamieson and Smith’s 2 Ply Jumper Weight for colourwork.
As far as actual breeds go, I have developed quite a soft spot for the Breton native Ouessant sheep – another descendant of the Vikings’ sheep. Ouessant is a small island off the western Atlantic coast of Brittany, a pretty wild place where the grazing and nutrition was so poor that the sheep evolved into the smallest breed in the world. Nowadays, being too small to be of interest as a meat breed, they are mainly kept as pets and/or for conservation grazing. They have become quite popular as “green lawnmowers” and you see them around here quite often. The true Ouessant is an all-black breed, but you do see some white variants. They are tiny and terribly cute.
What do your customers particularly enjoy about Laine des Iles?
When I first came to France, I found that there was in general a very strong preference for “soft” yarns, and everywhere I looked I saw merino, and a lot of superwash. I have nothing against merino per se, far from it – but so much merino is imported from Australia where of course there is the danger of mulesing, and from an environmental point of view I am certainly not in favour of superwash yarns. I find it quite frustrating that there is no requirement to label a yarn as superwash or for manufacturers to explain on their labelling what this means (essentially, that it is plastic-coated). I still find a lot of customers who react with surprise when I tell them this – they just don’t know.
I really wanted to buck this trend and show people that other breeds, and more natural types of yarn have their own merits, and I’m finding that my customers are really appreciating this and are enjoying trying new yarns that they didn’t know before. I don’t claim to be the only person promoting more natural yarns in France, but I think I have been one of a relatively small number who are trying to make the move away from what was the norm, and show customers that there are other choices beyond a superwash merino.
Another important aspect I think has also been customer service. One thing I have taken from my previous experience is that transparency and good customer service is possibly the most important thing of all when running a retail business. I always try to answer customers emails within 24 hours, to give them as much help and advice as I can and never to fob them off – it’s better to just tell a customer the truth than to try and make an excuse, and they will always appreciate that more than anything.
Recently I’d sent one of my regular customers some photos of different colour combinations to help her choose – she thanked me for all my help and I told her it was no problem, it’s my job. She replied “Yes, but not everyone is like you”. At that point, you know you must be doing something right!
(Yasmin at local Normandy yarn festival, Le fil de la manche)
What does being a “European” yarn store mean to you?
I suppose that to answer that question, I first have to think about what being European means to me on a personal level. I was born and brought up in the UK, and despite being of immigrant descent, I do identify very strongly as British (and/or British Asian). But my family ties (I have relatives in Austria, Germany and Italy), my studies (a degree in German and Italian) and then later my work (in export sales) mean that I’ve also always had a very strong connection to Europe. I never thought of being British as being something separate, but more as being one of many cultural identities that made a whole.
I barely remember a time before the European Union, and although it’s not a perfect beast by any means, as a postwar project for peace, it really has delivered. By bringing so many seemingly disparate groups and countries together in a spirit of friendship, we have seen the longest period of peace that Europe has ever known. As someone whose relatives were on the losing side of the last world war (my mother’s oldest brother was in the Wehrmacht and died on the Eastern front), I can’t describe how important that is for me. Europe for me means connection – to other cultures, to our fellow human beings.
(Yasmin in her Bedford sweater at St Briac)
And that is reflected in my shop. When researching the yarns for my shop, I was fascinated by all the relationships that I found between the regions and the breeds – even “pure” British breeds that may not seem to have much connection to any of the northern island breeds share common ancestors. And likewise with the history of knitting itself – no one place can lay claim to knitting as its own. Ideas, influences and patterns travelled across the seas. The obvious similarities between Latvian, Norwegian and Shetland colourwork for example, indicate that some exchange or bartering of ideas or goods gave rise to these motifs and techniques. In the end, we really are all connected, and that, for me, is something to celebrate.
On a much more mundane and practical level of course, being a European yarn store means that, thanks to free trade, it is extremely easy, even for a small business such as mine, to import and stock whatever I want. A no-deal Brexit will mean far more work and expense to stock British yarns, but of course I will continue to do so, as what range of island yarns would be complete without British wool?
So, what’s next for Laine des Iles?
I’m always trying to find interesting brands that fit in with the theme and the ethos of the shop, and already have an important new brand lined up for the shop for this autumn. But like any self-respecting yarn retailer, I’d also really love to have my own brand. I have several ideas, but what is currently really missing from my shop is a French yarn, so I’m currently on working on some plans for a French yarn (with some kind of island connection of course!) which hopefully will be launched in the shop next year. Watch this space!
Thankyou so much, Yasmin, for sharing your story and the story of Laine des Iles!