Everyone knows lamb meat and lamb’s wool come from the same little bleating being, but displaying the products together is about as common as stocking prenatal vitamins in a sex shop. Or so it was until Linda LaBelle broke through the taboo like a ram into a pasture of ewes.
“We’re a little different,” admits LaBelle, who for 10 years has owned and operated the Yarn Tree on Bedford Avenue. The one-room shop carries only natural fibers, from alpaca to yak, which LaBelle buys directly from small farms; distributors are not allowed in the door. (In fact her back-to-the-land approach has made her such an expert in ancient fiber arts that the U.S. Embassy to Kazakhstan fly her around the globe to lead natural dyeing workshops to reacquaint people with age-old customs lost over the last generation.)
The mindset means her shop has no place for synthetics or acrylics, but as browsers are often shocked to discover, meat is right at home here. It all began a year and a half ago when she was chatting with a New Jersey farmer named Linda Geren who keeps a flock of sheep for both ‘wool and meat, and also raises pigs. “And I went ‘son of a bitch!’” recalls LaBelle. “‘I could sell your lamb and pork!’”
After checking with the city to see if she needed a permit—so long as the meat is slaughtered in a USDA-certified facility and sold frozen, she doesn’t—and made room for a freezer among her displays of silky skeins.
It sells well. “We move, I would say, up to a thousand dollars a month worth of meat. I’m just doing taxes now. For a little yarn shop that’s a lot.”
LaBelle says her European clientele take right to it: “In this neighborhood we have a lot of British, Swedish, German and French people—they’re thrilled.” But others have mixed reactions.
“Some people don’t get it: ‘why would a yarn store carry meat?’ And I explain, ‘well, there’s a farm and it has sheep on it,’” says LaBelle with the sigh of someone who has to explain the facts of life to innocent adults daily.
A sign in the window advertises the meat, and people often burst out laughing when they read it. “They think it’s a joke,” says LaBelle with mild exasperation. “I don’t know why they think it’s funny.”
Are customers ever offended? “Oh yeah!” laughs LaBelle. “I’ve always had problems with vegans anyway.”
LaBelle invited Geren in to host cooking demonstrations—they’ve made breast of lamb, lamb liver, even scrapple—and loves explaining that the farm bears a seal from Animal Welfare Approved. Now some non-knitters come in just for the meat.
“One of the really fun things is when couples come in,” says LaBelle, “and the guy is reluctant to come in to a yarn store. But once he finds out that there’s meat he just thinks it’s the coolest thing and gets all excited and goes through the freezer.”
The industry experts over at Yarn Market News did a story on the marketing innovation. “They had never heard of anybody doing this,” laughs LaBelle. “But it just made sense to me. Like, why not?”
As of July 2015, the Yarn Tree is closed.
Photo credit: Lou Rouse.