With knitting, crocheting and other wool crafts regaining
popularity, Otago Daily Times reporter Sarah Marquet
talks to a Central Otago family running an artisan wool
business - Touch Yarns.
With beautifully soft merino based yarns dyed in colours
inspired by nature, Touch Yarns has carved out a niche market
in the wool industry.
The Central Otago business was born from an idea conceived in
the United States in 1989 and, with Alexandra woman Marnie
Kelly at the helm and son Glenn and daughter-in-law Kylie on
board, it is full steam ahead.
With the mostly hand-dyed yarns exported to Europe and the
US, sold in about 120 shops throughout New Zealand and
Australia, a dedicated retail shop in Clyde and a growing
online market, it is easy to imagine the business has a large
However, it is only the three family members, a part-time
factory worker, two part-time shop assistants, a few knitters
to test or submit patterns and a small amount of outsourcing
that keeps the business running.
Marnie, the brains behind the operation and the ideas woman,
is the general manager.
Glenn (39), who joined the team about 10 years ago, is the
''dedicated dyer'' and says though he is officially the
factory manager, it seems his wife Kylie Knapp (also 39)
''pretty much runs it''.
She joined the team about five years ago as office manager,
doing the accounting, payroll and other paperwork, sometimes
helping in the shop when needed.
Glenn admits there can be a bit of a crossover in their
roles, ''but it's not a big company ... we don't need someone
to manage staff. Maybe that's the beauty of it, you can give
and take a bit.''
Growing up on a family-run dairy farm in Whakatane, Marnie
had experience working with family. She used to ''escape''
out on the farm with her father.
When she married, she moved south - first to Oamaru, then
Christchurch and finally Alexandra. She worked as a school
nurse and then in the occupational therapy department of
Dunstan Hospital, in Clyde, before realising her love of the
In 1985, with a flock of merino and halfbred sheep and 250
mohair goats, and being keen on dying, spinning, knitting and
weaving, she began to make garments for her family.
In 1989, she attended a coloured sheep conference in the US.
She had taken some fleeces with her and walked away with the
top prize for mid-micron fleece. It was there she thought she
could make a business of her hobby.
''I thought maybe there's something in this, something I
could do with my wool.
''I came back to New Zealand and found nothing in the
mid-micron range [21-24micron] ... I started working with
some mills and then created Touch Yarns.''
That was in 1991.
She set up in Earnscleugh before moving the shop to Clyde
about five years ago. That shop, part of the Clyde Claim
development in the town's historic precinct, quickly became
The dying had been done off-site but the office and the
''winding'' machine were at the shop which also contained a
side business - Splurge, the all-year-round Christmas
decoration and gift shop.
During these early years, Marnie's two other sons also helped
out in their university holidays and Glenn and Kylie's
daughter Hannah (now 15) helped out after school or in her
In September 2011, the opportunity to take over a large
building in Alexandra's industrial area came up and they
jumped at it. Now, all the hand dying, labelling, packaging,
winding and office work is done there, leaving the shop
purely for retail.
The factory has that familiar pungent sheepy smell - the
nicer smell of a woolshed. The main room is almost full of
boxes, piled high, containing wool and fleeces in various
forms. To one side are several vats for dying the wool, a
machine to spin it, racks to air-dry it, buckets of dye
solutions and the dye ''recipe book'' without which they
would be out of business, Glenn says.
On the other side are hanks, skeins and balls of wool in
almost every imaginable colour hung on racks or stacked on
Out the back is a small room where wool is wound, labelled
and packaged and in the front is a modest office and kitchen
area. Merino is the core of the business, Kylie says, but
mohair and possum are also popular, especially overseas. She
said they were among
only a few companies in the world to produce mohair yarn.
The fleeces arrive at the factory ''raw'' and vacuum-packed
in large bags. It is mostly sourced locally, including the
mohair and possum, with the rabbit angora coming from the
With merino as a base, the wool is blended and spun at Bruce
Woollen Mill in Milton, before being sent back to the
Touch Yarns was one in a consortium of New Zealand wool
industry businesses that stepped in to keep the mill running
after QualitYarns NZ announced it would be closing its doors
in November 2011.
Marnie is now one of the directors of the mill but said at
the time, when the news broke, it was ''very nerve-racking''.
They had already faced a slight change of business when their
wool dyer, based in Northland, retired.
For six or seven years, Glenn had been helping to pack and
send orders, ''because Mum needed some help''.
When their dyer retired about four years ago, Glenn taught
himself how to dye the wool in order to keep the business
He says while it looks easy, it is anything but. Each dye
solution is made up to a recipe with precise measurements of
''If I put just 10ml of the wrong colour in, it could stuff
up thousands of dollars of wool.''
Any chemicals in the water and the temperature can also
affect how the finished product turns out.
Because of the specialised nature of the business, there are
not many options to fall back on in cases such as their
retired wool dyer or the mill closing down.
''And so, if the mill goes, we go ... we can get it done
overseas but then it's not New Zealand-made which is a big
thing for us,'' Glenn says.
Just as the economic downturn hampered those previously
running the mill, it has also hampered the Touch Yarn
business - although not to the same scale.
''We did have a good market in America ... but the downturn
in the economy has dropped that,'' Marnie said.
With about 41% of their product exported, she said they would
like to send a little more to America though ''it's a
difficult market to get into''.
But they do not want to expand the business too much - ''we
just want to keep it as a niche market''.
Sustaining that market means they have to be innovative.
''When I first started, we only had to change the stock about
every two years. Now, it is about every six months.''
With family as business partners, there is always a good
sounding board for ideas, she says.
''And if they don't answer me back, then I know it's not a
They say the secret to working together is to ''respect each
''The only down side is that if there's a family function on
or if the grandchildren are having a sports day ... usually
one of us has to stay here [at work].
''There's lots of positives, 'cause if you get on well in a
family group it's, you know ... loyalty is a big thing, it's
a huge plus.
''The best thing is that I get to see them every day,''
For Glen and Kylie though, things are a little different.
''I only occasionally get to ask my husband how his day was
... and occasionally you have to tell yourself 'No, I'm not
going to talk about this at home; leave work at work','' she
As for the future of the business, Glenn says they will keep
it going and Marnie says she is not sure if her
grandchildren, Hannah and Sam (9) will eventually take it
over, although Sam ''seems to be taking an interest in