Six Questions for Purlin’ J’s Joan Sharpe

Joan Sharpe, Purlin' J's Roving Yarn Co., Kingston, OntarioJoan Sharpe has lived in Kingston since 1998, when she began working at Queen’s University. She holds a geography degree from the University of Victoria as well as a diploma in Fashion Design from Sheridan College.

In 2013 she created Purlin’ J’s Roving Yarn Co., Kingston’s first and only mobile yarntruck. In 2014, Purlin’ J’s Roving Yarn Co. was named one of Canada’s “Top Ten Remarkable Small Businesses” in The Globe and Mail’s Report on Small Business. Purlin’ J’s has also been featured in The Ottawa Citizen, The Toronto Star, and Canadian Living and Vogue Knitting magazines.

She is a member of Kingston’s Fat Goose Craft Collective and is a great believer in the healing power of making.

1. Tell us about your background as it pertains to the arts, crafting and knitting. How did your past lead you to decide to open a mobile yarn shop?

I have a fashion design diploma from Sheridan College, and worked in a yarn shop as a teenager. I even worked for a brief time as a hand-knitting pattern designer, before there was Ravelry; the online place for knitters, crocheters, and spinners. Back then, we didn’t have the resources and the sense of community that Ravelry provides. It has led to a new generation of fibrecrafters and that is really exciting.

The idea of the yarntruck kept me up at night and so I was determined to launch Purlin’ J’s Roving Yarn Co., even though I was, and still am, working at Queen’s University. I like the small-scale factor of the venture; it’s manageable and quite a lot of fun!

As soon as I found the vehicle that became the yarntruck you see today, everything started to fall in to place and my first event was at the Wolfe Island Music Festival in August 2013.

2. When did your truck first open? Does it have a name? What are the specs of your truck and the shop itself? What’s special about your yarntruck?

I looked at only a couple of trucks before I won a tender to purchase the wonderfully vintage 1982 Ford firetruck that is now Lil Dorothy. I like that her original state is mostly preserved, right down to the (non-functional) “scene lights”, and safety stripes. The interior fittings are also original to the fire service. When I took delivery of the truck, the interior cubby holes were all labelled with each volunteer firefighter’s name. No siren though!

This year I’m proud to say that new this year, Lil Dorothy has gone solar. Now all her interior lights are powered by the sun!

When I was brainstorming about the design of the truck’s graphics, I remember sitting at my sister’s place, flipping through a coffetable book of old circus posters. The colour and excitement of those travelling show posters sparked the idea of creating an “ol’ timey travelling haberdashery”. I think the truck’s exterior graphics are a wonderful interpretation of the idea, and they attract curiosity.

I nicknamed the yarntruck “Lil Dorothy”, after my mother. My mother Dorothy taught me how to knit when I was little. She also taught me how to embroider, sew my own clothes, and create a budget, among many other things. She was kinda badass that way! She passed away in 2009 after a long illness.I know she’d love the yarntruck!

3. Regarding your business model, how do you connect with customers. Has this approach changed over time, and if so why? Finally, how does the bylaw restricting where you can setup shop affect your business?

The yarntruck is open from May to November, on average four days a month. So I really focus on appearances at fibre festivals in the Eastern Ontario area first and then fill in the schedule around those. I am in my fifth season and have learned lots of stuff over the years, including which festivals and events are a good fit for the yarntruck. While I have do have an online store, I focus on the truck and use the online store to sell exclusive merchandise and event tickets. Purlin’ J’s is happy to take special requests and orders via info@purlinjs.ca

I enjoy meeting all the different kinds of people who come aboard and get creative with all the colourful and fascinating fibre paraphernalia (as my tag line goes)! I use social media, especially Facebook, to share new products and project ideas with my customers and to let them know where the yarntruck will be next. Not being able to operate in downtown Kingston does not have much of an affect on my business as I’ve found success at other venues in Kingston and beyond.

4. What type of crafting do you specialize in? How many varieties of yarn are typically found in your truck, and how often do you change things up? Which offerings tend to sell out the fastest?

Personally, I love to knit. But I also meet a good number of crocheters, weavers, traditional rug-hookers, and spinners. While there is a handful of commercially-prepared yarns onboard, you can also expect to find a selection of hand-dyed fingering yarn from a number of small-batch dyers, based mostly in Ontario and Quebec. Each skein is unique; and because they are each hand-dyed, they are a piece of art in themselves. Such yarns are a joy to work with and because of this, my customers enjoy coming aboard time and again to see what unique yarns and fibres are to be had on a given day.

5. Kingston’s food truck scene is precarious in that traditional business models are increasingly shifting towards a heavy focus on catering. Based on your experience, what are the most significant challenges and changes you’ve faced as a mobile retail shop operator? In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about owning and operating a yarntruck?

“Do you sleep in here?” And “Do you just drive around like an ice cream truck selling yarn?”. These are the top-two questions I get! To answer the first, no, I don’t sleep in the yarntruck. First of all, I’d need to find a mattress to fit it! And no, i unfortunately can’t drive around like an ice cream truck unless I keep everything all stowed away, which is no fun at all! Part of the yarntruck’s charm is its colourful display.

I like being small-scale because I can be responsive to my customers’ needs. As a result, i often have more inventory than space to display it! So inventory management has been challenging for me.

6. Looking towards the 2017 season, what surprises do you have in store for customers? Where will people find you and how do they get in touch for special events?

In addition to operating the yarntruck, Purlin’ J’s also hosts day-trips to the Toronto Knitters Frolic and the Twist Festival in Quebec. Tickets are on sale now for the Twist trip on August 19. Passengers get to knit and chat while someone else drives, and each gets a goody bag filled with samples and discounts!

Last year I created a miniskein advent calendar that I shipped all over the world through my online store. It was featured online by Vogue Knitting magazine as well as via Canadian Living . This year, coming soon to the yarntruck and the online store, are Purlin’ J’s exclusively-designed holiday crackers filled with yarn! These are going to look stunning on your holiday table, and delight your dinner guests.

In 2017 you’ll find the yarntruck at the Kingston Sheep Dog Trials, two dates at the new Portsmouth Arts Market, as well as dates in Almonte and Prince Edward County. Check “yarntruck dates” on our website for upcoming event listings. Follow PurlinJs on Facebook as well to get inspiration and updates. Email: info@purlinjs.ca
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Photo to Liz Cooper

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