Portland’s ‘fiber mecca’


Think knitting is just something your grandma used to do?

Not so, says Jackie Howard Kraybill, owner of Northwest Wools in Portland. She believes a resurgence in knitting may be due to the unsettling times in which we live.

“I have people coming into the shop and declaring, ‘I need yarn now, the news is so bad,’” she says.

It may be that working with fiber arts brings a sense of calmness and satisfaction by making something yourself.

“People are loving the do-it-yourself aspect of crafting,” Kraybill says. “Portland is a huge fiber mecca. Two families (I know of) moved from New York City to Portland last year because of it. It’s like ‘fiber central’ here.”

Kraybill, 66, had a 31-year career in banking and high-tech, followed by several years of extensive traveling. She’s also an accomplished flamenco dancer who studied at the Flamenco Academy in Madrid and produced three shows.

She’s always loved handmade textiles of any kind, remembering that her grandmother taught her to crochet when Kraybill was about 5 years old.

Since then, she has been collecting textiles from her travels around the world, including Turkey, India, Nepal, Spain, Tunisia, Morocco, China, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Her home is filled with the intensity and beauty of their color and design.

About five years ago, she saw an opportunity to further her interest in knitting.

“I always wanted to knit, but I never had time for it, and when I heard the shop was for sale, I told my husband I was tempted to buy it,” Kraybill says. “But I had no retail experience and I am not an expert in knitting.” He encouraged her to buy the business, and told her he would help with the bookkeeping.

The store, located in historic Multnomah Village, is the oldest knitting shop in Portland. It’s more than a retail store, though. Kraybill says it’s a hangout for anyone interested in knitting, spinning, crochet, weaving and felt. The store also offers roving, a long narrow roll of fiber.

Her customers range from 6-year-olds to a 104-year-old woman. Contrary to popular stereotypes, only about half of the customers are older than 50 years.

“It’s a real community,” Kraybill says of her customer base. “It’s a supportive environment.”

She brings to the business her strong marketing skills, including knowledge of social media. When she bought the store, she retained the longtime staff, added new employees, and tripled the inventory.

She describes her employees as kind, helpful and knowledgeable. Some do pattern design and other projects, mostly for pleasure.

Like many of her customers, Kraybill continues to study weaving and knitting from trained professionals in the store.

“Teaching is a skill and I would say those who think they can’t learn, give it a shot,” she says. “It might take you longer than someone else, but you can do it. Nothing can replace sitting side-by-side and learning together.”

Working with yarn can have practical applications, and Kraybill notes many of her customers make useful things for themselves and others. Some knitters have started online businesses to sell their creations.

Kraybill spends time each morning posting photos of her customers and their handiwork.

“People love to see,” she says. “There is pride of accomplishment.”

Kraybill, who continues to travel and study other cultures, believes owning the wool store has been the perfect retirement opportunity.

“There is no one way to do anything,” she says, especially of her travels. “It helps you be open-minded and you learn that the basic nature of people is kindness. In many of these countries, people are happy to help you, if you need it. They will invite you into their home, serve you tea, and send a son or husband to take you where you need to go. They ask nothing in return.”

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