We had recently heard from Alison Pacuska from The Spinning Loft a little while ago when she told us how she cured her cute doggie’s skin problem with Unicorn Power Scour. We were extremely pleased when she agreed to participate in the Unicorn Fibre Dealer Interview series. We love our dealers and we want you to get to know them the way we do.
Alison is the proprietor of the online store The Spinning Loft. If that name rings a bell, it could be because it was once a brick and mortar spinning shop in Howell, MI. Our friend Beth Smith closed it when she decided to concentrate more on spinning, family time, teaching, and writing, and it is everyone’s good fortune that Alison picked up the reins. Alison is obviously filled with passion for what she does: she is a super busy person, but seems to gain energy from her work with shepherds, sheep, fleece, and all of the fun tools and products that we spinners love. Talking with her made me want to process some of my fleece stash and get to carding and spinning!
Unicorn Fibre: Hi Alison, and thanks for agreeing to an interview. You are our first featured dealer in this series. Can you tell me a little about what sets you apart from other providers in the handspinning marketplace?
Alison Pacuska: We specialize in rare breeds and we enjoy working with teachers like Beth Smith and Deb Robson who teach about breed study. We will also work with Guilds to cater breed study samplers to their needs.
UF: Oh, I love their books, and I have had the pleasure of in-person time with Beth on several occasions. It’s hard not to want to straight up copy her clothes and hair. Please tell me the nuts and bolts of your business…how did you get started?
AP: I suppose it started during my trip abroad in Moscow where I was introduced to Orenburg lace. I decided had to learn to knit it. Then I discovered I couldn’t find just the right yarn for it so I had to learn to spin. Then I discovered there were hundreds and hundreds of breeds of sheep so I found someone with a breed study sampler – only I was terrified of what to do with it. Just at that moment I saw an ad for a breed study class not 2 hours from me and I signed myself and my husband up. It was all over after that. I fell in love with all the wools – even the scratchy “unfriendly” ones.
The moment I spun Scottish Blackface I said “This would make a fabulous drive band!” And I went shopping at The Spinning Loft. That weekend Beth Smith, who was giving the class, also mentioned that Deb Robson’s Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook would be coming out.
Two years later I learned she was signing copies at Maryland Sheep and Wool. I promptly got in line and spent the whole time squeeing and bouncing with joy. I think if you asked her, she’d say she never saw anyone so excited about a book about wool. That was an amazing day. We talked and the slope got slippier and steeper.
UF: I get that. Maryland is always a peak experience in one’s life. So, you were clearly addicted to fiber. How did it go from that to a business?
AP: A few years later, and 94 breeds sampled, I got this phone call from Beth, “Hey – I’m thinking of selling the store, do you want it?”
My palms got sweaty, my inner voices screamed YES YES YES and, shaking, I called my husband and IM’d my best friend. Should I buy it? The both yelled at me. My husband said if I didn’t I’d be miserable and impossible to live with and he’d have to kill me in my sleep. My friend said I had no choice because if I didn’t who else would love the sheep as much.
The next call was to my financial advisor to liquefy the purchase price. I had to wait for the end of Faire season but the weekend after it was over I had a truck and I was driving to Michigan to get everything and frantically emailing and calling shepherds, vendors and other contacts to introduce myself.
UF: I know many of the wholesale vendors from TNNA. They are really a nice group of small business owners and there is a lot of knowledge there. How nice that your husband and friend are so supportive! Sounds like they knew you “had to” make this move.
AP: I think this store is all about a passion for the wool – and for the sheep. You have to love the sheep and talk to the shepherds.
I obviously made the right decision because every day I feel desperate or sad or worried, I look at the wool or I talk to a shepherd or I talk to spinners and I feel reinvigorated and reinspired. Not a day passes when I don’t work with wool in some way and love every minute of it.
UF: How can people find your shop?
AP: Email through our site is the best way to contact us with questions, and here are all of my links:
Our blog is on our website: http://www.thespinningloft.com/blog/
UF: How do most people first learn about your business?
AP: A significant amount of our traffic comes from Ravelry, believe it or not. The next largest amount comes from word of mouth – from having our samples in breed study classes, from talking to people and shepherds – and from talking to shearers. We also get a good amount of traffic from Abbysyarns, PLY, Knitty and Spin Off.
UF: What are some of your favorite products that you sell? What is your bestselling item?
AP: My favorite products are the wool of course! I think the most unknown items are the knitting needles and notions, and also that we have looms and spinning wheels. Our bestselling items are our samplers, especially the Beth Smith Sampler.
UF: What is your favorite fleece to work with?
AP: My favorite wool – well, that’s whatever I’m working on right now. You make this SOOO HARD. How can you make me pick a favorite? It’s like
choosing among your children! If you insist though…. Right now, I think
my favorite fiber to spin is either Bond, Romney or Jacob. They have a special place in my heart. And Gulf Coast. And Warhill. And Deboiullet. And CVM. And Santa Cruz. And…..
UF: You just reminded me I have a lovely brown Romney/Bond fleece somewhere in my house. I think it is calling to me…What is the most surprising thing that has happened with your business?
AP: I have met such wonderful people! Shepherds, other fiber artists, shearers… it gives me such joy to talk with them. And it helps me stay focused on the goals to get out of that day job and into a world of doing what I love instead.
UF: Can you tell me a fun recent sheep or shepherd story?
AP: I think the funniest sheep story I have relates to the day I went to see a local Soay flock – I wanted to work with the shepherd to improve her fleece. Soay are feral sheep – very small, feral sheep. They are skittish. The shepherd asked us to help round them up by taking various positions and moving them into the barn. One particular sheep showed no interest whatsoever, and instead decided to make a break for it. He took a running leap OVER my husband’s head. My husband is 6’1″. Absolutely hysterical.
UF: Flying sheep, I love it! How did you learn about Unicorn products?
AP: Beth Smith used Unicorn Power Scour in a breed study class I took with her. After comparing it to so many others, I just loved it. I stock others, because people need options and have preferences, but my preference is Unicorn.
UF: When I worked with Beth, she also stocked many kinds of wool wash, and said that different ones were used for different purposes. What do most of your customers do with their Unicorn products (if you have a sense of this?) Are there certain kinds of wool that pair well with Unicorn products?
AP: I have a couple different wool washes (and rinses) and while I sell Unicorn Power Scour the most, I do get some decent traffic in Unicorn Fibre Wash and Unicorn Fibre Rinse. They are fantastic for caring for all manner of FO (finished objects) from handspun yarn, to woven fabric, to
knitted or crocheted textiles. And of course, the Fibre Rinse is a great product for making combing milk!
UF: What is your favorite thing to do outside of work?
AP: What is this outside of work thing to which you refer? Kidding – in a way. I have a day job that has a large amount of hours and stress associated with it, and the store takes up most of the rest. But when I can have some time to myself, and I do try to allocate an hour or so a day, it is consumed by spinning and knitting, by cooking and wine tasting with friends, with attending places like the Maryland Renaissance Festival, and by triathlon. I’m afraid I was cursed with an absolute inability to sit and be still or quiet for any length of time exceeding one minute 29 seconds.
UF: Wow, you are one busy woman! I’m afraid it will make me tired just thinking about it, but please describe your typical work day.
AP: I have to divide these by weekday and weekend – thanks to that day job.
A week day I’m up by 6, I take care of my aging and ailing Pup-supervisor, I spend an hour getting to work (it’s only 11 miles, but DC traffic is a thing to behold). I work all day supporting my legal team, then I get a training session in on the way home. Once I’m home in the evening, I take care of the dog and get dinner going with the husband/ IT/Web guy and head downstairs to the store to get any shipping or communications done. After that I eat and try to get some spinning or knitting in. I’m normally in bed around 11. Lather rinse and repeat.
On a weekend, I am up by 7. I try to save Saturdays for house stuff – cleaning up, yardwork (o,h my poor garden) and longer training sessions. In the spring it often includes visits to shepherds for shearing. Then Sunday I spend in the store shipping and packing and photographing new fleeces – and scheming for the plans for the coming year.
UF: What is your favorite craft and who taught you to do it?
AP: I am equally torn between spinning, knitting and cooking – and all but the spinning were taught to me by my mother. My mother is a talented craftswoman – and she refuses to admit it. She also makes the world’s best pickled beets (they pair perfectly with Zweigelt).
The spinning I learned to do at a little 30 minute presentation ‘class’ at the sadly now defunct (as far as I know) Potomac Celtic Festival ages and ages ago.
UF: Yum, beets. What is the yummiest thing you have cooked recently?
AP: We had a chinese food and wine pairing with some friends recently (Viognier was best) and I made a 5 spice goat leg that was so delicious and tender we had no leftovers at all. Our friends have lived in Africa and Central Asia where they ate a lot of goat. Both said it was the best goat they’d ever eaten. The leg bone recently became the stock base for an Italian Wedding soup I made and the leftover 5 spice was an oddly pleasant aromatic for the broth; a nice complement!
UF: Sounds super delicious, and very creative! What advice do you wish you could give yourself when you first got started?
AP: Don’t be so hesitant – you can do this.
UF: What is your favorite quote or saying?
AP: I have several. One that is fiber oriented: “Sample all the things.” (Beth Smith).
One that is something that has spoken to my heart since I was a child: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (Thomas Jefferson; it appears on the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial)
And one that is the best piece of advice I have ever received and that I could ever give: “Regret nothing; every mistake is an opportunity to learn.” (Wendy, a friend from high school)
UF: Those are all awesome. Anything else you would like to add?
AP: Don’t ever be afraid to stretch your limits, to try new things, to attempt and to fail. If you don’t try, you cannot succeed. If you don’t try, you don’t learn. Death and stagnation lie in monotony or doing the same things over and over. This holds true with fiber and craft as much as it holds for anything in life and I love putting a fiber into someone’s hands that they’ve never encountered before. I love when they handle it, test it, try to spin it. Sometimes it doesn’t get along with them and sometimes it does. But the expression they have – the joy, the fascination with exploration, even the frustration, it’s wonderful! Sometimes they get this look of peace and tranquility and you know Ghandi was right again. Sometimes they struggle and think you are crazy – but they go back to their standby and have a better time and you know they learned some new level of appreciation.
And sometimes …. Sometimes they buy a wool store.
UF: Wow! Thanks again for a terrific interview. I really enjoyed it and you have me thinking about fleece! Keep up the great work!