- Daily & Weekly newsletters
- Buy & download The Bulletin
- Comment on our articles
The Knitty Gritty: the story of a Brussels knit shop
Today, we’re long past the days when knitting was seen as purely the domain of wrinkled grannies in rocking chairs by the fire. But when Kaleidoscope first opened, knitting was just emerging from two decades of dark ages for the craft, fuelled by a fashion industry that declared yarn work decidedly old-fashioned.
Then suddenly, a few years into the new century, knitting and crocheting were becoming cool again. Watching this trend, Rosalind Finlayson and her then-business partners seized their chance to open Brussels’ first shop dedicated to the selling and teaching of yarn work. “There was a gap in the market,” Finlayson explains, “We wanted to offer workshops to try to encourage people to make stuff themselves.”
Finlayson, a London native and adopted Belgian, as she says, comes from a long line of crafters. “I come from a family of people who have always made things. So I’m lucky, because I was born into the most phenomenal, creative family, everybody knows how to do something.”
When she opened the Saint Gilles shop in 2009, however, she herself was more of a sewer than a knitter. “I could knit, I knew the basics, but knitting didn’t have the immediate satisfaction you get from sewing – it’s a different kind of satisfaction. So I said I’m not quite sure if I’m the right person to open a wool shop. But I decided to give it a go and very quickly fell in love with knitting and crocheting.”
Unique yarns and courses à la carte
A few years on, Finlayson found herself running the business alone and decided to concentrate on bringing in unique products that couldn’t be found in Belgium. “Me being British, I know a lot of the British wools and products that others people in Belgium are not selling. We love family run enterprises. In the wool-making business in Britain, there are still a lot of those.”
But quality is key, she says. “Our priorities lie in furnishing good yarns to yarn lovers. Everything is 100 per cent natural and a lot of it is hand-dyed using berries and such.” They also specialise in rarer substances like materials made out of seaweed and nettles along with an assortiment of silks, linens and bamboo. “They’re interesting substances. Not always the softest, but if there’s a unique appearance and an interesting touch, we like to try it out and see how the clients like it.”
While today the focus of Kaleidscope is on the materials, they still have workshops. Every two or three months, Finlayson will offer courses in knitting or crocheting, while a collaborator holds regularly sewing classes in the basement.
Even if there isn’t a course planned, if you have four or more people, then she will create a special workshop just for your personal group. “That’s the number of people required for a workshop to run anyway, so I’ll organise one for them on the dates that work for them.”
The importance of brick-and-mortar
While handcrafts like knitting are booming, brick-and-mortar shops are still struggling to keep their head above water as customers more and more look online for products, rather than in shops.
Finlayson has rolled with the punches and started to sell products through her website as well. While the online option is more financially viable, Finlayson still finds prefers the real thing. “The more people who buy on the Internet, the fewer shops there are. It’s a sad thing to imagine that maybe in 10 or 20 years time, there won’t be any shops of these kinds for people to visit.”
But there are things a shop can give you that the Internet can’t, says Finlayson. “I spend a lot of time with each customer, which is often is necessary because you get people who are absolutely bewildered by the choice, bewildered by the fact that they’re not yet proficient at hand-making things – they need guidance.”
She says this is the most important part of her job, helping customers with the “how to”, from picking out products to choosing a project. “People will buy wool and needles for the first time and they’ve never cast on [tying your yarn to the needle], so I show them quickly how to cast on. Somebody who’s stuck in a pattern that they’ve bought here and they need me to show them how to do little different techniques, I can do that.”
Photo © Katy Faye Desmond