Meet the Maker: Oysters and Purls (Plus: Soft & Strong Socks are now available!)

You know how much we love collaborating with like-minded and like-spirited souls over here at HLH Designs, so it was an absolute pleasure to team up with Armenuhi ("Am") Khachatryan from the New York-based yarn company Oysters and Purls for our latest sock design and kit!

The Soft & Strong Kit was inspired by the friendship between Hanna Lisa and Am, and more generally friendships among women in general which we believe are often both soft and strong and nothing short of magical.

The Soft & Strong Socks are now available as an individual pattern on Ravelry, and should you wish to have a bit more of Oysters and Purls and HLH Designs in your life, there are also still a few kits up in the shop!

Could you share a little bit about your company and yourself? Who are you and what do you do?

Oysters and Purls is a small yarn label with a big dream, and I am the founder, dreamer, dyer, and knitwear designer behind this passion project!

My career has taken many turns: mathematician, management consultant, restaurateur, event manager, you name it! While I enjoyed all of these (except consulting!), I have taken the most joy in being a stay-at-home mom while running a small business out of our home in Astoria, NY! My days are usually filled with taking care of my daughter, cleaning, cooking, and, of course, working on everything related to Oysters and Purls. I love to knit every chance I get, which happens less often than I’d like! And I am obsessed with sustainability, so I do quite a bit of research and thinking on how to further reduce waste, where our food comes from, slow fashion, etc. One of my all time favorite activities is to plan trips! We love to travel, and I usually spend months doing research and planning our travel adventures.

I love hearing about how people came to their professions - how did you get to do what you do today?

A combination of major life events and some incredible sources of inspiration are what led me to where I am today!

I was taught to knit by my mom when I was a child, and even though I picked it up here and there throughout my life, it never really stuck until I was pregnant with my daughter. As a stay-at-home mom, knitting quickly became my creative outlet. It gave me the sense of comfort, purpose and fulfillment I was craving. The deeper I dove into knitting, the stronger my love of natural fibers grew.

Meanwhile, being a mom made me question the source and sustainability of everything we consumed. Right around this time is when I first stumbled upon @slowfashionoctober, hosted by Karen Templer, and also randomly purchased Kristine Vejar’s The Modern Natural Dyer, even though I had never dyed anything before. And then I listened to the episode of Woolful, where Ashley talks about the superwash process, and I’m pretty sure that was the turning point for me! I went from owning multiple closets full of clothes and shoes and handbags and still wanting more to not shopping for a single item of clothing for almost 2 years. And I vowed to never buy another skein of superwash yarn again!

It was right then, fuelled with my love of natural fibers and the desire to make a change, that I first dreamt of starting up my own yarn company. I wasn’t dreaming of a big, money-making, renowned business (not that I wouldn’t dare). I wanted personal and fulfilling instead - a small business with a big impact! I wanted to pour my heart and soul into doing something I loved in a space that allowed me the freedom to make choices that matter. What I envisioned was yarn that you could trace right down to the sheep that grew it, with a guarantee that no harmful chemicals had been used in the process of making or dyeing it, one that came from a flock of happy sheep that were very well tended for by farmers who were fairly compensated for all their hard work.

The rest is, as they say, history!

I wanted to pour my heart and soul into doing something I loved in a space that allowed me the freedom to make choices that matter.

Striving for sustainability in all aspects of life and business is something I’m extremely passionate about. What does sustainability mean for you and how does your work at Oysters and Purls reflect your definition of sustainability?

Oh gosh, I can probably talk about sustainability and what it means to me for days and over many interviews… but I’ll try to keep it short and focused!

Oysters and Purls 100% Corriedale

To me, sustainability means being extremely mindful in all aspects of life. Mindful of what we consume in our day-to-day, whether it be food or clothes or yarn. And mindful in how we use what we already have. Both in life and in business, I am always very conscious of where things come from and how they were made. But, even more importantly, perhaps, the leading question for me is always “do I really need this?”. More often than not the answer is “no”. Because I either don’t actually need that specific thing, or I can make do with what I have. If the answer happens to be “yes”, then I do my due diligence. I do a ton of research for pretty much anything I purchase, making sure the companies I support are guided by similar values and principals.  

Since I started this business fuelled from a desire to create a truly sustainable and ethical yarn, everything I do and everything I use to run my business has to maximize this. From the most obvious aspects, like the yarns I use and where I get my dye stuff, to the less obvious, like how I package my products. Even using reusable zip ties was a multi-year decision for me, because I couldn’t bring myself to use plastic in my production!

I also have moments of doubt, because I fully understand that with every skein of yarn I create, I am adding to the already existing overabundance in the world. I often question if more yarn is actually necessary in a world where there’s already so many others who create beautiful and naturally dyed yarns. I truly believe in what I do and the product I make, and I strive to do it as sustainably as possible, so, at times like these, I have to remind myself that a big part of running this business is also educating the larger public of the benefits of all-natural, local, non-superwash, naturally dyed yarns. I have to believe that I am doing the world a net good!

You decided a few months ago to focus only on US grown and processed yarn. Could you walk us through your thought process behind this decision, why it was important for you and how the transition process went?

When I first sat down to write my dream plan for where I wanted to take Oysters and Purls, I knew there were three stages involved.  

My first focus was on sustainably sourced and naturally hand dyed yarns. I wanted to start a yarn label that stood for the values I believed in, creating yarn that is truly a joy to work with, while being kind and respectful to the animals and our planet in the process. I had found a really lovely sustainable merino, produced in Australia, and sold worldwide through www.bareyarns.com, with an easy and reliable supply. So, I decided to test the waters with this yarn first.

But I also knew from day one that my goal was to eventually source all my yarn locally. This was a conscious choice, and a natural progression of my values. I wanted to do as little harm to Planet Earth as possible, so why would I continue using yarn that flew all the way from Australia to England to me? I knew I had to go local!

Plus, I wanted to make yarn that told a story: one where I knew the farmers and the spinners, and I could visit them if I wanted to, talk to them, pet the sheep, and have that human connection. So, I always knew I wanted to work with small local farms eventually.   

The transition did not go as smoothly as anticipated. I quickly found a farm grown and milled yarn that I absolutely fell in love with. Their values were aligned with ours, the yarn they made was beautiful, and they were a one stop shop, because they had a mill on their farm! Perfect! I started working with them right away, launching a summer collection and then a fall collection. I was super excited, as you can imagine! And I had multiple collaborations with designers, as well as a feature in an online publication, all of which were scheduled to launch at the same time as the yarn. To add to my excitement, the yarn was very well received, so everything seemed to be going according to plan.

However, my suppliers decided they were going to expand their mill, and stopped all production of yarn exactly at the moment when we had gathered all that momentum, with no certainty of when they would resume production again. Naturally, I panicked a little, but I am a strong believer in “everything happens for a reason”. So, I used this opportunity and looked for other possibilities!

And as much as I would love to still be carrying those yarns, I am so happy with the mill we currently work with! They are a driving distance from me, and they can make any yarn I want! The possibilities are endless and insanely exciting to me!

All of this transition drama has meant, however, that we haven’t had an update since early January, missing the opportunity to do business during the busiest knitting season. But that’s ok, because it’s all a learning process, and sometimes you have to work really hard and really long for things you truly believe in!

I’m also always curious about other maker’s work processes. How does yours look like, from gathering inspiration to sending off your yarns into the world?

Oysters and Purls 100% Corriedale

I have to say my work processes are a little bit all over the place. Since I am a full time stay-at-home mom, my days are quite unpredictable. A lot of it depends on how well my daughter cooperates and/or how long her naps are. This used to stress me out a lot, because I like order by nature, but I have long since accepted the way things are. So, I do what work I can get done whenever I get a chance (and, yes, sometimes that means staying up till the wee hours of the morning).

In terms of the actual dyeing, I do have a certain process I follow, just because naturally dyeing yarn comes in a multitude of steps: from ordering the yarn to preparing the skeins, scouring, mordanting, dyeing, drying, etc. But dyeing is about half the job. There’s usually an array of tasks that need to get done once the yarn is dyed, such as quality control, skeining, photographing, labeling, writing newsletters, and so on.

Putting my work out there, first virtually on social media and the website, and then by sending the physical yarn out to customers, is still always bittersweet and stressful. Bittersweet, because they are my form of expression, so it’s always a little hard to let go. And stressful, because there’s always that doubt in my head, that “what if they don’t like it?”, even though I am super proud of what I make and what my business stands for.

I gather inspiration mostly from my surroundings: primarily nature, the changing seasons, and also my travels abroad. I also find that some yarns and natural dye stuff dictate what they want to become, so I like to let them have their way! I have so far released updates in the form of collections, which I really enjoy. Since a lot of thought and work goes into each update, I like to center them around a certain theme, always trying to exude a specific emotion/feeling.

What else should we know about you and Oysters and Purls? Any exciting plans for the future?

Right now I want to focus on establishing a few core bases that we can reliably carry, and perhaps a few core colorways as well. The last year has been a whirlwind in terms of switching suppliers and finding the right fit for us, and I’m really happy with where we are now. I plan to visit the mill where all of our yarns are spun at the end of the month, and I have a few exciting ideas I’d like to discuss with them, so we’ll see what comes out of that.

I would also like to continue collaborating with designers and other fabulous makers in the community, because that’s possibly my favorite part! Feeding off of each other’s creative energies is incredible and always so inspiring.

Something else I have been meaning to do for a long time is a mini natural dyeing course or challenge. Now that it should be a little quieter around here, I can hopefully focus on putting that together as well!

What’s the best place for people to find you?

I’m most active on Instagram (@oystersandpurls)! I also write a bi-weekly newsletter, and have a website (www.oystersandpurls.com), where I write a blog every so often and where you can find all of our yarns! I do a little bit of knitwear design work as well, all of which can be found on Ravelry. I think that’s all?

All pictures by Hanna Lisa Haferkamp & Armenuhi Khachatryan.