Last month I attended the big summer TNNA convention for the first time. TNNA stands for The National Needlearts Association, which runs quarterly trade shows for the yarn industry. It’s where producers of knitting, crochet, and needlepoint goods go to ply their wares to yarn and craft store owners.
More and more these days, independent designers attend the meeting as well. While I went primarily as an exhibitor (as part of the Cooperative Press crew, I was helping to run that booth), I also got to spend some time wandering the floor as a knitwear designer.
Rather than tell you about all the great people I met and the great goodies I brought home, I thought I might share some lessons that I learned about how best to approach this convention when you’re a designer.
- Above all, learn the etiquette. To paraphrase a bad self-help book, the yarn companies are just not that into you. They love working with independent designers, but they did not spend thousands of dollars to come to Columbus, Ohio, primarily to give you free bags of yarn and talk about your latest design line. They came to sell yarn to store owners. It’s best to visit a booth when it’s not overrun with paying clients, which generally means it’s best to stay through Sunday and Monday of the show if you can; those are much less busy days. Do not interrupt any conversations and do not act like you are entitled to anything. It’s ridiculous in some ways to even have to say these things, but you would be amazed how sometimes designers act like they’re the gravitational center of the universe.
- Bring samples of your work. If you have received yarn support in the last year from any companies that are exhibiting at the show, contact them in advance and ask if they would like you to bring your knitted/crocheted sample for them to display in their booth. Ask, too, if you should bring some means of displaying the garment (e.g., a head form for a hat, or a hanger for a sweater). Label the garment clearly with your and the pattern’s name and your web site. And remember to go pick up your materials at the end of the show! (Ask me why I say this. No, no, I don’t have a hat sample hurtling its way to Uruguay with the folks from Malabrigo. No, silly, I would never be so forgetful.)
- Bring lots of well-designed business cards. I have never traded more business cards in my life than I did at this show. Have at least a couple hundred cards with you. And if you’re a designer, for pete’s sake have well-designed cards. The look of your cards say a lot about your aesthetic eye and your attention to detail. I ordered my cards from Moo; I put my logo and photos of my designs on one side of the card (Moo lets you get a mixed pack, so each card can have a different photo on the front) and on the back of the card, a photo of me and my contact information.
- Go with some planned designs in mind. Many yarn companies will gladly give you yarn to swatch and even design a complete project with, but they will generally do so only if you have a specific project in mind for it. Come prepared with some sketches of planned designs, as well as photographs or samples of past designs.
- Cultivate the underdog. Shibui and Malabrigo have no shortage of designers who want to work with them and they are lovely people to work with. But I found that I had the warmest, longest, most receptive conversations with companies that are more niche-oriented (Buffalo Wool Co.), newer (Juniper Moon Farms), or not as in vogue (Brown Sheep).
- Back off the hard sell and LISTEN. People who work in the yarn industry love to talk about yarn and design, but they also like having human conversations. Show some interest in what’s new with the company and what they want to promote. I got some great inspiration just by asking yarn company reps what they wanted to see designed in their yarns. The Buffalo Wool Company rep that I spoke to, for example, said that while she loved the shawls designed in their yarns, they also needed some utilitarian garments designed for people who work outdoors in the bitter cold (hunters, loggers, etc.). As a designer of men’s garments, my ears pricked right up. I couldn’t wait to get home to sketch.
If you have never visited TNNA or a similar trade show before, I would love to hear any questions that you have — or if you have attended, any further advice you might give.