Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, stated in "Sam Walton: Made in America" that he would tour the competition and take elements of what they were doing to adopt in his own business. Beth Casey uses the opposite approach, keeping the integrity of her product while doing so. "I have never been to anyone else's dye house," she says.
Lorna's Laces, the yarn company famous for its unique colorways, high-quality bases, and complete array of yarn weights, feels more like a family-run business from the inside, even though its customers will attest that it appears to run like a Fortune 500 company from the outside. Nestled inside the Ravenswood Corridor, a six-block-long neighborhood in Andersonville and Uptown that house many of Chicago's brightest in the art scene, Casey, owner of Lorna's Laces Yarns for the last ten years, seems pleased with the neighborhood-feel of her business.
Purchased in 2003 from owner and founder Lorna Miser, Casey and her six employees run their business from an incredibly well-lit space rented from a non-profit organization. With Casey learning her dyeing techniques from Miser, who owned the company for ten years herself before selling it, Casey and her employees infuse their personality into the business while keeping the end-product at the high level of quality the customer expects.
Personality is what the passerby in the hallway can feel just by walking past a cracked-open door at Lorna's Laces. Sam, Casey's boxer puppy and honorary mascot, can regularly be seen playing with his ball throughout the facility. The radio plays loudly enough to be heard in both the original space, and the expansion space, added eighteen months after Casey took over the company. A tin pig acquired at a trade show hangs over a work table in one of the spaces. Names of the yarns may come about from a conversation at the lunch table or in passing throughout the day, with everyone's opinion taken into consideration. Their newest upcoming line, for instance, a 100% blue-faced Leicester, will have colors named after past Chicago mayors.
Despite the fun, however, business is taken quite seriously. With many boutique agencies, employees often have several overlapping jobs, or a jack-of-all-trades feel in their role. At Lorna's Laces Yarns, the roles are well-defined. The dyers strictly dye the yarn and take an inventory once a week, one person ships the orders, and no task is left to someone raising a hand and volunteering.
A typical life of a yarn order involves a store sending in an order, and the order going onto the dye list. The dyeing process may involve dyeing more than one order of the same colorway at once, and once the order is dried and complete, it ships to the customer. Lorna's Laces has local customers such as Wool and Company in St. Charles and Windy Knitty in Chicago, but they also have shipped to far-away lands such as Tokyo, New Zealand, Latvia, and Taiwan. Their reach is outstretched further with their monthly exclusive colorway dyed and sold exclusively through Jimmy Beans Wool online.
Because all of the yarn is dyed by hand, it may be six to eight weeks before an order arrives at a store from the date it is placed. Yarn stores appreciate this attention to quality, as do customers. "If this is the only skein of Lorna's Laces yarn a customer sees, we want to make sure the one they see is good," says Casey, showing a skein with a missed spot of color, called a "holiday." The skein can be touched up, re-dyed, or turned into a mill end.
About six times per year, Lorna's Laces opens its doors to specific groups such as the Windy City Knitting Guild, and the annual Ravenswood Art Walk is one of very few times the company opens its doors to the public. On these occasions, Casey will allow sale of mill ends, or imperfect skeins deemed unfit to ship to retail customers. Some mill ends are imperfect in color, and some have more knots than is typically acceptable on a retail shelf, for example.
At the end of the day, the seven individuals who comprise the Lorna's Laces team get something that many other larger companies do not get: heartfelt compliments. "We get emails from customers that say, 'Your yarn came today, and it's so pretty. Thank you.' I am sure the plumbing guy does not get that." While large corporations are doing what they can to get a leg up on the competition, Lorna's Laces yarns uses the methods that work to just stay on top.
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