|A rainbow arches promisingly above the Touch Yarns showroom nestled snuggly in the dry earthy landscape near Alexandra in Central Otago. Inside multicoloured skeins lie on shelves, streams of fluffy hanks cascade along display stands and cone upon cone of coloured wool lines a wall unit. On the tables there are long bobbins of shiny thread clustered in jars, packets of irregular shaped buttons, hats, jumpers, booties, a light fly-away whimsical wrap, and more. Everywhere a new discovery, another colour sensation and always a real soft-to-touch yarn.
Marnie Kelly is passionate about knitting, but she is no ordinary needle-clacking grandmother. She is the motivated, visionary creator of Touch Yarns, a successful niche market business highly regarded in New Zealand and overseas for its supreme quality soft yarns and exciting colours.
'The market has gone crazy,' declares Marnie from her kitchen where a suitcase lies unpacked following a recent return from yet another international trade show. 'It started with scarves, now they're making jumpers and socks. People are picking up needles now, that haven't knitted for years,' she says.
It is a resurgence that Touch Yarns is well placed to meet with established markets at home and in Australia, England and America; the later two being principally responsible for the 22 percent growth in sales last year. 'We are quite influential because a lot of other companies follow us. We consider ourselves leaders not followers in the industry,' says Marnie.
That leadership means being ready to meet changes in the industry and the market. In recent times a number of producers and outlets have ceased operation. Trends are changing too, with a swing toward plain colours and a growing demand for finer, lighter yarns. ‘That’s alright,’ says Marnie, who has plenty of innovations on offer like unconventional yarn sizes and specific patterns to match; top-of-the-line, specially classed Alpaca in boucle and 2-ply; and wool and possum mix yarn. “There’s so much out there for people to choose from, we have to change, change, change,’ says Marnie.
And there are big changes ahead for Touch Yarns. Next year Marnie will shift the store and dispatch into 210m2 of shop space at a new commercial historic-themed complex being built in nearby Clyde township. She will also open a commercial dye facility locally that will be managed by her son, who is already involved in the business. In the past, most of Touch Yarns’ dying was done in the North Island, but that person is now retiring.
Touch Yarns produces around 10 tons of fibre into yarns every year. 'That's just me playing around with things and wanting to have different yarns,' says Marnie. 'I do all these individual hand dye items and that's a very good item to sell because no one can copy them. It just depends what mood I'm in what colour I choose,' says Marnie who takes her inspiration from the environment around her.
'We get the four seasons that look so totally different, and the light is different,’ she says of Central Otago. ‘There's always something in nature that sparks.’
Marnie began producing her superfine kid mohair, merino and polwarth wools in 1991 when the market was going down. With a lifetime of knitting under her belt and 20 years of experience in breeding goats and coloured sheep, she successfully sought to eliminate the 'prickle' factor commonly found in other wools. 'Our brand is really, really well known now for being very, very soft in all our yarns,' she says.
There are two other unequivocal characteristics of the Touch Yarns brand: “We’re sticking with natural fibres and we’re sticking with Made in New Zealand,” says Marnie. It is a stance that is paying off. Dunedin department store Ballantynes, a major stockiest, no longer has a wool section and has transferred Touch Yarns to its New Zealand section.
Customers flock to the Touch Yarns showroom from summer to autumn. Many come from overseas and some come especially to experience Touch Yarns. 'We can get 40 a day,' she says, 'and probably 95 percent buy. Marnie expects the move to Clyde to bring in even more people with the store’s proximity to the Rail Trail being a bonus.
Whatever the location, Touch Yarns will continue to produce innovative yarns from gorgeous white 2ply to variegate dyed Merino double knit, 4 ply, and yarn with 'no stuff on it.' Even the imported artificial fibres are good for 'mixing and matching with our yarns,' she says.
'There's room for everything in fashion,' says Marnie who has a recommendation for anyone taking up the knitting craze:
'Throw the size of yarn out the door and experiment!'