Four Purls Yarn Shop: Thriving Small Business Knit by Community
By Donna Kelly
Some things simply couldn’t wait for the economy to improve.
For Laura Dobratz, owner of Winter Haven’s Four Purls Yarn Shop, that something was having a place in which to indulge and share her love of knitting.
Shortly after moving to Winter Haven from Kalamazoo, MI, a little more than five years ago, she learned the closest specialty yarn shops were located in St. Petersburg to the west and Orlando to the east. Driving an hour on the interstate wasn’t something she wanted to do on a regular basis, even if it was to indulge her passion. But having worked in her aunt’s yarn shop in Kalamazoo, she was accustomed to having access to premium yarns, personalized service, and a warm atmosphere. An impersonal discount store or cold craft store wasn’t going to provide what she needed.
It didn’t take long for her to take care of the need.
In March 2010, despite an economy still in shock from the recession and no experience owning a business, she didn’t hesitate when friends offered her a corner of their 600-square foot tee-shirt shop inside an industrial building in which to sell quality yarn and the extras needed to knit or crochet, such as needles and hooks. Within a week after opening Four Purls Yarn Shop, a young woman drove 45 minutes to check out the merchandise. This was a turning point for the fledgling business.
“She bought a sweater’s worth of wool,” remembers Dobratz, who joyfully called her husband, J.D Dobratz, as soon as the woman left the shop. “It was the first time I really felt confident that I wasn’t alone in this state, people wanted wool, good wool. That customer stills drives an hour almost every week to be a part of our knit night.”
Four Purls Yarn Shop was born. Five years and two moves later, the shop’s not only a survivor of the struggling economy, but is going strong – turning a healthy profit each month, drawing customers from all over Polk County as well as Tampa and Orlando, and serving as a gathering place for knitters, crocheters, and fiber spinners to socialize, swap helpful hints, and work on their projects.
Customer Lisa Jensen, avid knitter, lobbyist, and Four Purls customer, believes Dobratz was courageous for opening the shop when she did. “She was enthusiastic and optimistic,” says Jensen. “She just closed her eyes and stepped off. And aren’t we lucky for that?”
Today the shop is located at 334 3rd St. NW, across the street from their last store front in Olde Towne Square. It features two classrooms, a colorful, well-stocked and organized showroom, and a cozy living room area.
Jensen isn’t surprised that the business flourished during the recession. “It was one of those difficult times that drove people inside themselves for those types of recreational activities,” she says. “It’s all about the way people are reflecting on our over-indulgent lives.”
Jensen refers to various studies indicating the health benefits the fiber arts offer men and women of all ages, particularly its tendency to relieve stress, a much needed quality these days.
“I’m a very mentally active person. I’m a very busy person. There’s a very zen-like quality about knitting that allows you to occupy your hands,” she explains. “There’s a satisfaction to pick the right pattern and the right fiber and you end up with a garment at the end. It’s challenging and it’s fun.”
While Four Purls has a comfortable, neighborhood atmosphere, it is very much a regional business. “We’re a regional yarn shop, not just a local yarn shop,” explains Jensen. “You can see that radius Laura’s spinning. From coast to coast, it’s about 150 miles.”
According to Jensen, tourists vacationing in Orlando from Norway, Sweden, and Italy have added trips to downtown Winter Haven to see Four Purls. “We’re finding that people are coming to Disney and the shop that’s closest and easiest to get to is Four Purls. Travelers come to Legoland and the mother comes to the yarn shop,” she says. “We’re definitely seeing a destination for tourists and we’re getting that traffic through the internet.”
Not only are tourists and out-of-area customers finding Four Purls on internet, but they’re spending time on the shop’s website, FourPurls.com, where they’re browsing in the online store, making purchases, and signing up for the shop’s weekly e-newsletter.
“She’s doing all the things all of the independent stores in NYC are doing,” Jensen says.
Four Purls Basics: Fun, Friendly, and Full-Service
Store manager Mona McKinley attributes the much of the store’s success to Dobratz’s insistence on taking the store’s slogan – A fun and friendly, full-service yarn shop – seriously.
The friendliness is evident from the moment a customer opens the door. Employees – called “yarnistas” – not only greet customers as they enter the shop, but offer assistance, suggestions, or conversation an average of three times per visitor.
“We’re everything from fiber to finished product,” McKinley, a retired sergeant from the Chicago-area Elgin Police Department, says, a hint of pride in her voice.
Knitters, crocheters, and weavers of varying experience and skill level may first be drawn to the shop for its sizable inventory of quality yarns from a variety of companies – more than half of the shop consists of stacked cubbies overflowing with yarn of varying hues – as well as books, patterns, needles and a large supply of notions – from T-pins and highlighter tape to locking stitch markers and thread bobbins.
The most popular gadget? The finger row counter with a $4.95 price tag. “Most of us have several,” says McKinley, Dobratz’s only full-time employee.
The emphasis is on value and quality, says Dobratz.
“We want to provide the nicest materials at the best value,” says Dobratz, who has put considerable time and effort into creating the shop’s inventory. “People spend a lot of time working on a project and when you use the right materials, it shows.”
Fiber work is, she says, a lot like cooking. “If you start with quality ingredients you get a quality dish. The nicer the yarn, the nicer the final project,” she says. “People in this area appreciate having the good stuff.”
Many dislike winding their skeins of yarn into center-pull balls. A purchase at Four Purls Yarn Shop means not having to wind yarn. The Four Purls yarnistas wind the skeins while customers continue browsing or sip a cup of coffee in the shop’s comfy living room, where other fiber enthusiasts are likely knitting or crocheting, and chatting. Yarn winding is a free service.
“I think what we’re trying to achieve is a studio space, a place where creativity can flourish,” says Jensen. “You learn from other people. You get to see what other people are knitting, the patterns they are putting together.”
But the shop’s service extends beyond its doorway. Dobratz and McKinley support their community by featuring work of local artisans who create yarn related items such as yarn bowls, bracelets made from knitting needles, handcrafted shawl pins, to hand-dyed yarn, handmade scarves and sweaters.
“We’re always willing to talk to local artisans who have things that pertain to what we do,” says McKinley.
Four Purls also provides the convenience of a yarn truck they’ve dubbed “Follow the Fiber,” a colorful vehicle that rolls out for festivals, farmer markets, special events, and private engagements. The yarn truck has the distinction of being the second one of its kind in the country. While there’s no fee to have the yarn truck visit, a minimum of 15 participants is required. The truck arrives with yarn, patterns, models to try on and get ideas from.
“It’s a hell of a business that’s happening in our community. It’s probably the biggest independent retail business in Winter Haven, and maybe in the top 15 in Polk County,” says Jensen.
A Yarn Family
The Four Purls Yarn Shop has a decidedly family feel to it for good reason. Dobratz has two families – the one comprised by her husband and four children, and another she calls her yarn family – and the two often overlap.
She refers to her children as her Four Purls, the inspiration for the shop’s name. Her oldest daughter, Aspen, worked at the shop until she left for college last year. Her sixteen-year-old son, Jon Paul, works at the shop one day a week. Her youngest two, Emma, 13, and Thomas, 6, are also connected to the business.
“Emma can’t wait to work in the shop and Thomas thinks he owns the shop,” says Dobratz, who homeschools her children, in addition to spending 30 to 50 hours per week on what she calls “back end business stuff” for Four Purls.
Then there’s Dobratz’s yarn family, which is comprised of her six employees and a multitude of customers of all backgrounds and experience levels who frequent the shop, often lingering to knit, crochet, or spin fiber into yarn while socializing in the cozy living room.
“We wanted to create a bright inspiring space, a place where people could come and feel like they could create anything, like they could try new things, and be supported,” says Dobratz. “We wanted people to feel comfortable to be the best versions of themselves. When you walk into the living room we want to invoke the feeling of being at your best friend’s home.”
“The community within the knit shop is the gift that Laura has given knitters through the yarn shop,” Jensen explains.
A recent Saturday afternoon found the living room fully occupied, buzzing with conversation and the clacking of needles.
“I come because it’s hangoutable,” says Tricia Spenser of Bartow, looking up from the needles and yarn in her hands. “They’re always friendly, always helpful. Anything you need, they make it work for you.”
A friend introduced her to the shop a year and a half ago. “It’s the best thing she’s ever done for me,” she quips.
She particularly enjoys Knit Night, held each Tuesday from 5 to 9 p.m.
“On Tuesday night it’s crazy busy. Everybody comes in here and brings food,” she says. “It’s like quilting bees in the old days. You discuss everything in the world.”
Former teacher and Haines City resident MaryAnne Saag also discovered the shop through a friend. Now she makes the drive to Winter Haven to purchase supplies and hang out with fellow knitters.
“This is a great place to come to learn how to knit,” she says. “I paid $5 for a class, learned how to knit and purl, cast on and cast off, and that’s all she wrote! I end up making things I have no business doing.”
She’s referring to what she calls her “infamous” wedding shawl she made for a family member.
“It took three patterns to make and I worked on it from September to February,” she said, digging through her bag to find photos to share.
If you’re picturing a bunch of gray-haired grannies with walking canes, think again, says Saag.
“It’s not your old lady knitting group,” she explains. “There are more young and middle-aged people.”
The knitters and crocheters aren’t only creating sweaters, shawls, slippers, and blankets while they chat and stitch; they’re also strengthening the bond between them. Recently, the regulars who frequent the Four Purls living room prepared and collected food to feed the family of a knitter whose husband had died.
“From 10 to 90 years old, we’re all different, but there are common elements in everyone’s lives that keep us going through the good times and the bad times,” says Jensen.
“We are committed to bringing people together, to making everyone who walks through the door feel welcome, like they are a part of our family; and to providing a creative outlet for fiber artists to shine and feel good about their creations,” she says.
Dobratz built this creative haven by taking chances and forging a new path – from opening in the midst of an economic downturn to amassing a huge inventory – with the best of intentions.
“I believe that by breaking all the rules of a specialty shop in our demographics and offering a large selection of the very finest materials available, we have created a reputation and people are willing to drive from great distances to shop here,” says Dobratz.
“As the largest shop in the Central Florida area, we have become the place to go when you are visiting from another state or country,” Dobratz continues. “And that is because of the commitment to a large, diverse inventory. Without that we would not be nearly as successful.”
For more info visit FourPurls.com.