This interview was conducted by my friend David Kaplan, a journalist and marketing editor for AdWeek. I've been neglecting this blog and David thought it could be fun to interview me for the purposes of telling my customers more about my brand and my hopes for the future. Thank you for taking the time to interview me, David! And if you're a customer or potential customer reading this, thanks for checking me out!
David Kaplan: What was the inspiration for yarn&whiskey?
Tammi Williams: I started knitting in the early 2000s and back then there were a few knitting cafes in the city, which sold coffee, pastries, and yarn. There was Knit New York, La Casita Yarn Shop & Cafe, and The Point. They’ve all gone out of business now, but I enjoyed meeting up with other crafty friends at these places or just popping in for some alone time. I dreamed of opening a similar place that I would call yarn&whiskey. I’d curate a gorgeous selection of yarns and I’d serve cocktails made with fresh ingredients, really good whiskeys, and pastries from some of my favorite bakeries and pastry chefs.
Is that still the dream?
The idea has expanded from a store front to an entire building! Inspired by the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn, I’d like to own a building that would not only include the bar and yarn shop, it would also include a teaching and learning space for people interested in learning textile arts (weaving, knitting, sewing, natural dyeing, etc), but also artists studios and my own textile design studio.
You were still working as an IT professional for a private school when you started this business. What were the first steps to making the dream of yarn&whiskey a reality?
In a way, I’ve been preparing for this all my life, only I didn’t realize it. I had built up quite the fabric collection during my travels over the past decade and a half. At one point, I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, only I realized I enjoyed curating and making fabric more than I enjoyed actually cutting and sewing the fabric. I had a pretty impressive fabric collection already and I used some of that fabric to make the first yarn&whiskey project bags. I also reached out to some clothing designers who were using African prints in their collections and asked to buy any fabric scraps they had. I wanted to make unique, one-of-a-kind pieces.
I started yarn&whiskey as a side-hustle ahead of my plans to go to grad school for Textile Design. After falling in love with the art of hand weaving, I decided I would rather spend my time making pretty fabric than managing IT infrastructure, so I applied and got into a grad program in textile design. My employer asks faculty and staff to give several months' notice if you’re not returning for the next school year, so I gave my notice in December 2019, promoted someone from within my department to replace me, and planned to be on my merry way to study textiles. Then COVID hit and I had to swerve. I decided not to enter the program, stayed on at work in a different capacity, kept my health insurance, and tried to keep making project bags in my spare time. I was unmotivated to make bags while a pandemic was raging and so I made masks. I gave them away at first but then people started asking to buy them. I refused for a while but when places like The Gap started selling masks, I decided it was ok for me to sell them, too.
Was the move to what some people might consider an “old technology” of knitting and working with textiles and fabrics from IT reflective of a wider disillusionment with working in tech?
Growing up, I wanted a job in fashion but at home, I was encouraged to do something more “practical” with my life. I think I changed majors three times in college and finally landed on Individualized Studies at NYU. I did not grow up with a lot of financial means and worked my way through college. At one point, I had 3 jobs and went to school in the evenings — it was exhausting. But I was always good at computers and when I graduated from college, I’d go to these employment agencies and they’d see this long list of computer skills on my resume and send me on interviews for IT jobs. The jobs were often in pretty fun and creative environments that paid well and afforded me the ability to pursue my own creativity as a hobby. But as I get older, I’m starting to realize how short life is and that I have good ideas and I want to share them. It took me a long time to get here, but I’m ready to take yarn&whiskey and grow with it.
Where did the interest in knitting and fabrics come from? How did you get started? Did you have any support from either friends or collaborators who inspired you?
In terms of materials, I've always collected fabric. Whenever my husband Clay and I traveled anywhere, I would always find the fabric district and bring back some souvenirs, so I had a pretty deep fabric stash when I started yarn&whiskey.
One of my earliest supporters was Felicia from String Thing Studio in Brooklyn. Felicia invited me along to a couple of Black History Month pop-ups just before I launched my website. I made 40 bags, but only sold 6 between the two pop-ups. I allowed myself a moment of doubt but kept at it. I hadn’t realized that people noticed my work on Instagram so when the site launched the day after that second pop up, I made sales and it was exciting and validating.
Have you considered doing direct sales via Instagram?
I also worry about my designs being stolen. It happens on the Amazon marketplace all the time. In fact, Peak Design has a great video calling out Amazon for copying their bag design, right down to the name of the bag.
Turning to your creative process, I know your online store designs change frequently. What's the process there in terms of choosing a design to work with? Do ideas happen spontaneously? Is there a different kind of process maybe in terms of your creative design process?
It starts with finding a fabric and finding the best way to show off the print. I make reversible project bags and finding patterns that work well together can take time. So I collect a lot of fabric and wait for inspiration to hit. I find that sometimes if I force a combination, it just doesn't happen. I also like to choose combinations that are a little unexpected, for example, I've got a bag called In Gear that has a dark blue and turquoise exterior and a bright orange with turquoise stars on the interior. I bought these fabrics at different times and one day while looking for something else, those fabrics ended up on the table next to each other and they were perfect together.
You recently stopped making face masks? Why?
There are so many places to get masks now and at this point in the pandemic, I think we all deserve higher quality and medical grade masks. yarn&whiskey masks are made with pretty good safety features — filter slot, nose wire, chin shaping, and adjustable ear loops — but I think America has the resources to provide masks to everyone that are higher grade or at the very least, impose health and safety standards for cloth masks. But also, making masks was not leaving me enough time to make bags or to come up with new designs, which is why I started yarn&whiskey. I'm not ruling out making masks again in the future, but I'm all about bags now.
I started making masks because I wanted to feel like I was controlling something in a time when everything was out of control. I also wanted to keep the people I love safe, but vaccines are rolling out and have become more readily available and I’m hopeful that we are heading toward the end of this pandemic, and thank goodness for that.