Interview: Kelsey Stephens of Primrose Yarn Co
What inspired you to create your yarn business, “Primrose Yarn Co"?
My dad. Hands down. He is an entrepreneur, and I grew up watching him work hard as hell for his family and be able to come home extremely satisfied and happy to be doing the work he was. I'm so excited to say now that I am grown and also own my own business, I get to work side by side with my dad. He helps us with our business cards and the labels for our yarn. I'm super close to my dad, and it seemed only natural to try to follow in his footsteps and his example. I hope he is proud and knows how much of an impact his example as a business owner has had on me. I still learn from him everyday. I grew up very blessed to have a family who supported me pursuing a career in the arts. Not many of my peers were able to say that when I was in college. But my parents always supported me by putting me in every extracurricular art class I wanted, sending me to summer art programs, helping me fill out college art school applications, driving me to any portfolio review I wanted, and attending EVERY SINGLE exhibition I was in (no matter how far it was). Looking back and writing this all out, I don't think Primrose would have ever happened if it weren't for my mom and dad. They both felt as strongly as I did about the arts and my passion for it. That's pretty amazing if you think about it.
How/why did you choose the name "Primrose Yarn Co?"
I really didn't choose the name. It kind of chose me. Primrose is a flower with a meaning of "unable to live without". I wasn't a knitter when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. But my mother-in-law was. She was super eager to assist me and help fulfill my pre-baby nesting needs. She handed me some needles and sock yarn. I spent a day on YouTube and taught myself to knit. I was immediately hooked. About a year after that, I booked us a hotel for NY Sheep and Wool after watching the podcast Let's Knit Together. I NEEDED to go to this festival. We went as a family and, let me tell you, it didn't disappoint. I've always known that I didn't want to work for anyone. I had always thought about owning my own business, but that trip to Rhinebeck sealed the deal. I wanted to be part of this community. I wanted to constantly surround myself with color and endless possibilities. I guess having a degree in Fibers and Materials Studies didn't hurt much either. I ordered some bare yarn and the same dyes we used in college and began working out of our tiny apartment kitchen. When the business originally started, I was using my (then) Ravelry username - SinsAndNeedles89. I wanted to find something that had meaning for me to create a brand with. I live in York, PA (White Rose). Our neighboring county is Lancaster, PA (Red Rose). It's called "the war of the roses" when you refer to both together. But neither rose meaning was something I felt fit my feelings toward knitting. Then I stumbled across the meaning of Primrose: "the inability to live without". And everything clicked. I can't live without my family (who inspired me to begin knitting), my home town of York, PA (where I grew up and eventually made my own business), color and the ability to create endless combinations, Rhinebeck (where I first fell head over heels in love with the knitting community and now where my company is extremely privileged to vend every third weekend in October), and without a doubt, knitting. I could never live a day without my knitting. I decided to name my company Primrose because of all that name would stand for moving forward.
What inspires your beautiful colorways?
My everyday life. I love all colors, from neutral to neon. I love looking at photos on Pinterest, and I take photos while I'm out or traveling with my family. They help provide me with inspiration when I am back in the studio and standing over the dye pots. When I lived in Philadelphia, PA and was going to Tyler School of Art at Temple University, I used to love walking around the city and photographing the graffiti. There was so much color that I was constantly surrounded by, and it really began inspiring me in many ways. Now that I'm married and a mom, I’m limited in my travels. I will even sometimes use my daughter’s drawings from school and home. For an almost six-year-old, the kid has some serious color theory skills.
How do you select the names for your colorways?
Brainstorming. Lots and lots of brainstorming. We typically dye the yarn first and then sit at our work table and decide on color names. We also listen to tons of music in the studio, and I am constantly finding myself inspired by songs. Some of them you might know: “Bird Set Free” (Sia), “Just a Girl” (No Doubt), “Havana” (Camila Cabello), “Brain Stew” (Green Day), and “Dreams” (The Cranberries). I sometimes also come into the studio with a name in mind and dye a colorway that I feel fits that name. Some days, color names happen by accident. Dirty Pool Toys happened the past spring when I brought home a freshly dyed color and was having my pool opened that same day. The toys for the pool were neon colors, but filthy; hence, Dirty Pool Toys was born. Another thing some people don't know is my daughter occasionally pays me visits at the studio; most of the visits are on her birthday in May, and it has become a tradition that we make a new colorway together. She has helped me dye a couple colors: “Squeaky” (one of my nicknames for her) and “Christmas Tree Pinkalicious” (she named this one; don't ask me). One of my favorite names is “When Legos Attack”. I'm pretty sure it is a name any parent can relate to when they walk across their floor, not paying attention, and their child has left their Legos lying out.
You offer many yarn clubs; what do you most enjoy about them?
I do. I love the creative freedom I get when I am not stressed about writing dye recipes down, and I can literally play "mad scientist" and allow the creative juices to just flow.
When learning how to dye yarn, what did you find most interesting? Any surprises?
I didn't have the same "dye training" as most indie dyers. I went to college for that, as well as many other fiber art related subjects. I will say, having the security and knowledge that my degree provided me with when I went to start my business definitely added an extra SUPER PADDED level of security. I knew what I needed, where to get it from, and how to make an end product. All I needed to do was brand and figure out a way to sell while letting people know who I am and what I am doing as a dyer. That took a minute to learn. I think the most “surprising” thing was finding out that just because you have a product and you know it is there… well, the rest of the world doesn't know. So as a start up, you must go to your customers or local yarn shops and beg and plead with them to give you a chance. My "chance" came in the form of Forever Yarn in Doylestown, PA. They were my first stockist and are still with us five years later. There is a bond you form that holds a special place in your heart with people who believe in you and are the first ones to say, "Yeah, okay. Let's have a go at this." Yan, the owner, has become a sort of "yarn mom" to me - and the girls at her shop, an extended family.
How does dyeing add happiness to your daily life?
It is absolutely a creative outlet. I start with bare yarn and the possibilities are endless. You can't get much closer to creative freedom than that. It also is a stress relief. Sometimes I feel like the rest of my life is so "boxed in", but when I have bare yarn, the box is gone.
Do you partner with a yarn shops to host trunk shows or as stockists of your yarn? What do you look for in a partnership with a yarn shop?
Unfortunately we do not do trunk shows, but I can speak about stockists. When we bring on a new stockist, there is really only one thing we look for: passion. Find passion, and everything else just falls into place. We have amazing stockists who love the knitting world and see the immense value in it as much as we do.
If you were to suggest a yarn base for a beginning stitcher who has fallen in love with your yarn like we have, which base would you recommend? Why?
Margaux! The versatility of that base is amazing! And it's a huge skein: almost 600 yards. Shawls - yep! Sweaters - of course (you probably only need 2 - 3 skeins)! The two-ply is fabulous, and did I mention it's an MCN?! Yeah, you absolutely can't go wrong with Margaux.
Do you ever experience creative blocks? If yes, how do you overcome this?
Oh my gosh yes! I typically lay out all of our colors and see what we don't have or what I could do different. There is no real "get out of the mental block" answer to that situation. Sometimes I quite literally throw my hands in the air and say, "NOPE! Not happening today! I'm going to knit something." Other days, I just flop on a new color idea, and it's a "moving on to the next" type of day - and I have success later.
What does a normal dye week look like for you?
Monday: meeting at 8:30 AM to plan the week, e.g., what we will post on the website, patterns we have coming out, kits we may want to put together, dye schedule for filling wholesale orders, if we will do a regular update at the end of the week and what we need for that, financial planning for the month, anything happening in the knitting community, emails that need responding to… and what we did with our families over the weekend.
Tuesday - Friday: simply put, absolute chaos. Literally trying to balance everything mentioned above.
Are you a knitter, crocheter, or bistitchual? What do you most enjoy about stitching?
Knitter, but I have a granny stripe blanket going. But definitely knitter. There is a magic in taking a long strand of yarn and creating something with what is essentially a pair of sticks. It's a very simple concept, but it can create extremely complex and intricate results. It's very mesmerizing to watch it unfold before your eyes, and the fact that you are the one making it happen is just icing on the cake.
What do you most enjoy about stitching? What do you love about your favorite projects?
Watching the colors work together. Skeins of yarn can look extremely different before they have been caked and worked with. You would think you know how something will turn out when it is knit or crocheted up, but the real fun happens when you actually cast on. Watching the transformation is my favorite part.
How do you find time to knit during your busy week?
Finding time to knit is something that I occasionally struggle with. I ALWAYS bring my knitting to work, and while I’m waiting for dye to set, I try to squeeze in a few rows here and there. In the evening is when I get most of my knitting done. My daughter goes to bed at 7:30 PM, so from around 8:00 PM to midnight you can probably find me on the couch with my yarn and needles. I am very much a homebody. On the weekends I enjoy spending time with my daughter and husband knitting on our back porch (when the weather is nice) or inside in our family room. Knitting has become a lifestyle for me; it’s no longer just a hobby. My husband likes to joke that I get cranky if I haven’t had a few moments with my knitting every day. I always try to get at least 15 minutes in a day, but it’s always nice when I get more.
What knitting pattern is on your needles right now?
Well, I currently have 14 projects on the needles. Some of my favorites to work on are my “Get Your Fade On” by Sosuknits, “Surino Symphony” by Westknits, and “Like a Cloud” by Joji Locatelli.
You recently celebrated your business' 5th birthday - Happy Birthday! What has been your most memorable moment from the past five years? What are you looking forward to in the years to come?
Well, there are two:
1) Getting into Rhinebeck. I attended Rhinebeck with my family the second year I was knitting, and the next year I was vending at it. Not many know that the wait list is around 15 years. I will never forget the phone call I got from the head of the NY Sheep and Wool Committee in late July of 2014 telling me I am in. I immediately called my mom, in tears, and screamed, "I DID IT! I'M IN!!!". The feeling was overwhelming, to say the least!
2) The day we returned from VKL 2019. My staff (Lauren, Tiff, and Sam) sat me down and told me that something just wasn't the same with me - and hadn't been in almost a year. That night, I went to my doctor and was diagnosed with depression. I don't think the three of them know it, but they absolutely saved and changed my life that day. As a business owner, especially when you are the face of a company, your staff gets socially ignored. They are not the ones people see, so no one knows them. They don't know the hard work your staff does. I want to say that I am extremely blessed to have three full-time women - who have become my family - not working for me, but working beside me to ensure that we succeed as a company. That is something that just doesn't happen every day. For them to not run when I was at my lowest takes some guts and dedication. They are more than I deserve and the best I could ever ask for. From that day in January after VKL, we started a "#normalizeit" movement. Three out of four of us in the studio suffer from either depression or anxiety. We are doing our part to assist in bettering the understanding of what it is like to live with depression or anxiety and throwing our full weight into making a change in how they are viewed in society (not limited to the knitting world). I'm proud of my team, and I can't wait to see what we accomplish next together.
As far as what we are looking forward to - you will just have to stay tuned and find out. ; ) I have a fantastic team, a great family and group of friends who support us, and a whole lot of bare yarn. The possibilities are endless.
How can others get involved in your #normalizeit movement?
We will be releasing a pattern collection where 100% of the profits from the patterns will be donated to a depression non-profit. Follow along on our Instagram for all the details.
Who's on your team? What do they do?
I have three team members: Lauren, Tiffany, and Sam.
Lauren is our studio manager. She handles day-to-day studio operations, as well as email correspondence and planning for the week. She keeps us organized and makes sure everything is running as smoothly as possible.
Tiffany is my second dyer. She helps dye yarn, package wholesale orders, and break down yarn for dyeing.
Sam is our in-house graphic designer and studio assistant. She skeins and labels yarn, as well as assisting in pulling and packaging orders placed on our website.
What advice would you give to others wanting to follow their creative dreams?
Do not, under any circumstances, let anyone say you can't do something. You can. The only limits you have are the ones you set for yourself. And if you don't set any, you don't have any. Write down the reasons you get out of bed in the morning, the things that drive you, your passions, and the people who have always supported you. Take all of that and wear it like armor. You will get rejected. You will feel like you can't. But the truth is, you can. Because there is only one you, and that will make all the difference.