Interview: Allison Isaacs of ImagiKnit

A room filled with shelves of yarn at ImagiKnit.

How did you choose the name "ImagiKnit?"

When I decided to open the store, I asked my dad to help me with ideas for a name. He sat down and brainstormed for about 5-10 minutes. He showed me the list, and there it was! ImagiKnit was right in the middle. :) I love the name, and he is still proud to this day!

Could you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to open your yarn shop?

I have a degree in exercise physiology and a masters in physical therapy. I practiced for ten years before moving up to San Francisco. I loved health care, but I wasn’t totally happy or fulfilled. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to take a class. I asked a dear friend whether I should take a class about knitting, investing, or computers. Her answer: "Take the class you would like to take, not the one you think you should take.” So you can probably guess it was the knitting class.

I became addicted after that, and I went to my local shop to volunteer so I could get a discount on yarn. I would go in before the shop opened just to sit amongst the yarn and knit. I just knit anything that seemed interesting. I ended up working at the shop full time and then opened my shop not long after that. I had so many samples by then that it looked like I had ran my own shop for a long time. :) I ended up helping people again, but in a different way. I still do dispense a little physical therapy advice at the desk too, if asked.

Many describe ImagiKnit as a yarn library; what inspired your beautiful layout?

I'd like to take credit for the layout, but I saw a yarn store organized this way before I ever dreamed of having my own. With the sheer volume of product I have, there must be a system! Organization by color or brand would look nicer, but it wouldn’t work at ImagiKnit. 

When you opened the doors to ImagiKnit, did you envision a yarn selection as inclusive and extensive as you have now?

YES because I love to shop and want to have as many choices as possible in one place.

What is the most surprising thing you've learned about being a yarn shop owner?

The most surprising thing I’ve learned is how lucky I am. I somehow picked a great city, a great corner location, some fantastic employees, and I’m still doing well after 17 years. :)

The entrance to ImagiKnit.

Are you a knitter, crocheter, or bistitchual? 

I both knit and crochet; I just finished my first crochet project this week - it is a bathmat!

What do you most enjoy about stitching? 

I knit to relax and pass the time. I really enjoy it most when I’m in the groove. I’m not a great knitter. I knit fairly simple things. It’s the color and texture of the yarn I enjoy most.

What other arts/crafts do you enjoy?

I used to needlepoint, but knitting has taken priority for quite some time. I would eventually like to learn to weave. For non-fiber stuff, I would like to try glass blowing, ceramics, and beading/jewelry making.

What yarn(s) have your heart pitter-pattering lately?

Some of my favorites over the years have been Fibre Company Terra, Tosh Vintage, Malabrigo Chunky and Rasta, Berroco North Star/Lang Luna, Rowan Kid Classic, String Zurich and Oslo, Lana Grossa Insieme, Koigu KPPPM, Katia Air Lux, Woolfolk Sno, Shibui Pebble - just to name a few! I prefer animal fibers and love cashmere, of course, as well as merino, camel, and yak.

If you were to suggest a yarn base for a beginning stitcher, which base would you recommend? Why? 

For beginning knitters, I usually recommend a wool or acrylic that uses US 10.5 - 11 needles. For beginning crocheters, I usually recommend a cotton and an H or I hook. I think the knitters have an easier time with a non-plant fiber that has more give. For crochet, I find the cotton yarn works just fine.

How do you select the products you carry in your shop, such as books, yarn, patterns, etc.?

When selecting books, patterns, and yarns for the store, I try to look for value and variety. Since my customer base is as varied as possible, the products I sell need to be varied too. I want there to be something for everyone. I really just go by gut instinct. It has served me well, so there’s nothing scientific happening here!

What do you most enjoy about the fiber arts community? 

I think the fiber arts community gives us all a place for self expression and creativity. I think fiber arts can be very healing.

You host weekly knit nights; what do you enjoy about these gatherings? 

The weekly knit lab is a great place for people to learn individually and together. Since everybody has a different project, it allows for many learning opportunities as well as conversation and fun.

You also host Yarn Tastings; this sounds like fun! Can you tell us a little more about the Yarn Tasting experience? 

We offer free yarn and needle tastings at the shop. They allow customers to try out different yarns and needles without having to buy anything, so it’s affordable for all! The customers can get to know each other as well as compare opinions and share ideas. They can also meet my reps and find out more about them and the companies they represent. 

There are a lot of changes happening within the fiber arts industry right now. What positive change are you hoping to see in the fiber arts world? 

I don’t know how to answer this question. I feel like a lot of the things that are currently happening aren’t good for local yarn shops. Over the years I have been involved with fiber, I have seen a decrease in the number of LYSs. In addition to this, I have seen some big yarn companies close. Others have had to add retail sales in addition to wholesale in order to stay afloat. More online shops have popped up, and more customers are buying more yarn online every year. This is a worry because more than 50% of yarn stores aren’t profitable anyway, and I expect it’s only going to get tougher for the brick and mortar shops in the future. Hopefully all knitters, crocheters, weavers, spinners and felters keep on doing what they love and sharing it with the future generations. I also hope that all the health benefits of the fiber arts become more widely recognized. I hope that people keep knitting, customers keep shopping at ImagiKnit and, and that a lot of the yarn companies keep supporting LYSs. I also hope that the benefits of the fiber arts will be more widely recognized moving forward.

What advice would you give to others wanting to open a yarn shop?

The advice I give about opening a yarn shop is to look at it as a job instead of a fun hobby. The fun of knitting doesn’t need to be lost, but it is a business so one needs to always keep that in mind. I also think it’s important to have the best products at the best prices while providing the best customer service.

What differences do you see between running a yarn shop and having a yarn hobby?

The first thing I think of is more creative opportunities because I can just open an account and buy any yarn I want! I love to have lots of choices, and I don’t generally knit difficult things, so I’m pretty prolific in knitting samples. And it would be terrible to run out of choices!

I don’t knit many gifts for friends and loved ones like I would if it were a hobby. Almost everything I make needs to hang up at the shop.

How does running ImagiKnit add happiness to your daily life?

The biggest benefit of having ImagiKnit is the wonderful people I’ve met over the years: customers, employees, vendors, etc. My entire life revolves around ImagiKnit. My staff is part of my family. I am so lucky to have my own business, to be my own boss, and to be able to support myself in such an expensive city. And the best thing is that I shop for a living.

Allison Isaacs smiling for a photo.

What is one of your fondest ImagiKnit memories so far?

I don’t think I have a fondest memory. It’s actually a compilation of memories thanks to many different customers. The thing that I have found most gratifying is that I have created a place where people come to feel better. I have had so many customers come in and mention that something bad had happened earlier in the day (death of a loved one, fired or laid off from a job, devastating diagnosis, car accident, etc.) and they came over to ImagiKnit to feel better. I’ve just changed from healthcare to slinging yarn, but I’m still making people feel better.

What are your dreams for ImagiKnit going forward? Is there anything you'd love to incorporate or change?

I want ImagiKnit to be around forever. I actually would like someone to buy it in the future. SF needs a big yarn shop, and with the economy of SF like it is, it would be extremely difficult and expensive to start up a shop like ImagiKnit from scratch. I also want to make sure all of our great customers have lots of yarn available as well as a safe, creative, accepting and happy place to come for many, many years. When I retire, I think closing ImagiKnit would be the worst thing. I hope to find someone to take over for me and support our local fiber lovers as well as those who visit us from across the US and abroad.