Knitting together nicely at Bristol's Wool Sanctuary
By Weston-super-Mare People | Tuesday, December 15, 2009, 09:00
Within seconds of entering the sitting room of Suzie Johnson's Victorian flat, and it becomes clear why she calls her home The Wool Sanctuary.
An entire wall is filled with shelves of wool in all sorts of colours and textures, and there is an array of knitted items on display.
Among them is a woollen house, and a draught excluder in the shape of a row of beach huts. They both look vaguely familiar, and Susie explains that they were featured on TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp's Channel 4 series Kirstie's Homemade Home.
"I knitted the house for the title sequence, and the draught excluder is one that Kirstie made when I taught her to knit as part of the series," she says.
"The credits had hardly started to roll at the end of the programme when the phone started ringing with people placing orders for kits so they could make their own.
"I hadn't put together many kits before the programme went out, because I wasn't sure if there would be much interest. I ended up sitting up until two or three in the morning for days putting kits together."
Susie, who lives in Weston-super-Mare, has now sold around 200 draught excluder knitting kits, which contain cashmere mix yarn, wool cotton yarn, and even sequins for the fish.
She has also sold kits for knitting a variety of other items, including scarves, egg cosies, mittens, and knitted letters, and a knitted house like those featured in Kirstie's Homemade Home.
"I'd only ever sold one thing on my website before the TV programme, and suddenly I was getting deluged with emails placing orders," she recalls.
"I've probably designed about 30 kits. I started doing it because I thought it would be a good way of giving people something to knit that isn't overwhelming.
"The best sellers are the knitted house and the draught excluder. People go mad about them."
Susie's passion for knitting is such that she had turned her home into a haven for knitters.
She has set up The Wool Sanctuary, and regularly hosts a knitting club in her sitting room, where wools, needles, patterns and kits that can be purchased are on display.
"There are about 70 people in the knitting club, about 30 or 40 people usually come along to meetings.
"I wouldn't want to do it if it was bitchy and competitive. I've been to other knitting clubs where I've felt really uncomfortable because I'm new, but at my group they love it when new people join.
"It's a really mixed group, with all levels of ability and ages ranging from teens to 60s. Everyone talks about what they're knitting, and if somebody is knitting something they don't think is very good everyone else is so encouraging.
"Sometimes people are really embarrassed to show me things, but I love the fact that they're learning to do it."
Susie holds a party for her knitting club members every year on the anniversary of when the club started, and even had a knitting club holiday this year.
"Twelve of us went up to St Andrews in Scotland for a weekend, because a friend of mine who is a designer does workshops there," she says.
It is all very different from when Susie, now 38, was a schoolgirl and used to knit mainly on her own.
"My mum taught me to knit when I was five and had chicken pox, and I've knitted every day since then. I find it so relaxing, and I love being able to create something that can be used as well. I knit everywhere: at home, on trains, on the beach.
"I knitted my first jumper when I was nine, and when I was about 14 or 15 I discovered Rowan knitting yarns – I loved all the bright colours and the variety of things you could make with them.
"My friends thought it was a bit odd that I was really into knitting, so I spent most of my early life knitting on my own in my bedroom, or with my mum."
Despite her passion for knitting, Susie did not contemplate pursuing it as a career, and instead did a degree in disaster engineering followed by a masters degree in safety engineering.
"I never really knew what I wanted to do, but I thought I wanted to keep knitting as a hobby. I saw it as an escape," she says.
However, she also did consultancy work for the yarn company Rowan, which included opened a knitting department in the House of Fraser store in Manchester in 2002.
"Lots of the girls in other departments would come over and make jokes about 'knit one, purl one', but by the time I left I'd taught about 14 of them to knit. They'd all come over to me one by one," she says.
Susie moved to Bristol because of her job, and also began doing some work for Rowan in John Lewis at Cribbs Causeway. While she was there, she came up with the idea of setting up a knitting club.
"There were so many ladies who would come in and they'd tell you what they were making, but you'd never catch up with them to see the finished product," she says.
"I decided to hold knitting events so that knitters could get together. About 30 ladies tuned up to the first one, and I talked to them about things I'd made, and afterwards they went downstairs and spent about £800 in the knitting department, and I hadn't even been trying to sell them anything.
"I had that knitting club for about a year. But about three years ago, I decided it would be easier to run it from my home, and started up The Wool Sanctuary.
"I also started designing knitting kits and going to craft fairs, and I found that people loved what I was doing."
Susie also runs knitting workshops and gives private tuition at The Wool Sanctuary.
Doesn't her boyfriend, Martin, mind having knitters turning up regularly at their home?
"He's brilliant. He's got no interest in knitting and won't even have a go, but he he's helped me so much and given me so much support," she says.
Susie has taught about 500 people to knit – including, of course, the television presenter Kirstie Allsopp, who learned a variety of skills for her television programme Kirstie's Homemade Home.
"One of the things that Kirstie did was a quilting workshop, and she asked the organiser if she knew anyone who knitted and she recommended me.
"In fact, Kirstie could knit a bit and she wasn't too bad for a beginner. I had to go to her house, which is a beautiful mansion in Devon. I got there quite early and ended up having breakfast with the family."
As well as working full-time as a safety consultant for the Ministry of Defence in Bristol, running The Wool Sanctuary, and attending craft fairs, Susie also does voluntary work in a hospice.
"I never have a spare moment, but I'm happy because I've fulfilled my dream of providing a place where people like me can come together to knit," she says.
"In the past few years, there's been a big change in attitudes towards knitting. Now people seem to want handmade things that are good quality.
"It's so easy to get mass produced goods, so when you give someone a present that you've made, people really do appreciate it."
For further information on The Wool Sanctuary, please go to www.thewoolsanctuary.com.