Creative Boss Interview No. 4: Ruta Sluskaite-Dittmann - Owner of beautiful LYS Wollen Berlin
Today I have a very special treat - especially for all the knitters among you! This Creative Boss Interview is a special conversation I had with Ruta, the owner of my very favorite LYS (local yarn store) here in Berlin, Wollen Berlin.
I loved sitting down with her and learning about the journey she took with her shop since she opened it five years ago, about all the hard work that went into it and what she thinks about the American made yarn trend - is it making its way over to Europe any time soon?
You can also listen to the interview and even download it if you like - excuse the background noise, we were sitting in a café while recording and sometimes you can hear the coffee machine 😉
Hi Ruta! I’m so happy to be talking to you today :) Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure! My name is Ruta, and I own a wool shop that’s called "Wollen Berlin". The name is a game with words - “Wolle” is “wool” and “wollen” is “want” - "I want wool all the time here in Berlin". I have to say thank you to my good friend Rike who had this idea! It is so clever.
I had a very good team before opening the shop - Rike did the texting and Marketing because I was busy ordering yarn and installing shelves and my other good friends Boris and Vicky helped with the interior. It was very crazy times, no sleep, just work, but it was so much fun and so exciting! And now it’s been almost five years - if I think back it’s just crazy because in those days I was only 25. I didn’t think about anything, I just did things. I think that’s why it worked, you know - I loved the work, I still love the work, and I think people see that. I tried to do new things - we try not to be like every yarn shop in the city. We’re planning events and we do knitting meetings and we organize stuff that might be interesting for people.
How did you get the idea of opening a wool shop?
It started seven years ago - knitting and handcrafting was my hobby, and after my studies I started doing handcrafts and sold them. When I moved from Lithuania to Berlin I started selling the products in Berlin, in some shops in Mitte, and it was very good. And then I was talking with my aunt - she lost her job, she’s 50 and it’s not easy to get a job in Lithuania with 50 - and she was a big knitter. Actually, I learned to knit from her! I asked her “Do you want to knit for me?” and we started this together.
When we started to knit I started looking for wholesale companies that sell wool in Lithuania and found this company named Midara whose wool I also sell in the shop. We started to work together - and I figured we’d start this shop “Wollen Berlin” together. Now I’m independent, but in the beginning they helped me with the wool and investments. It really was step by step. I never thought I would have a wool shop - it just happened.
I think that’s amazing. And I didn’t know you were 25 when you opened the shop!
Yeah, I was celebrating my 25th birthday with confetti and six months later I was working in the shop!
When you look back over the last 5 years, how has your business developed?
It’s growing every year better and better which makes me very happy because the situation in Germany is that knitting was very hip a few years ago and now this DIY movement is slowing down, but our shop is still growing. For me it’s important that me and my staff and the shop inspire customers and they come back. They want to see new project ideas or get some tips or find new wool or just get inspired. We also organize workshops from beginners to advanced. I think all this together makes the shop work!
I love it. I think I’ve seen every wool shop in Berlin - it’s not that many, and yours is by far the best. I think it’s not only the selection - I mean the selection is great...
The selection is good, but it could even be better. We’re working on it. When you own a business you can’t buy everything - you have to think about how to pay for it.
My first experiences when I started to knit again four years ago and I went into yarn shops was that people were incredibly unfriendly and it was just tiny shops packed with wool to the ceiling. It was just so uninspiring - I walked out backwards almost. Now, when I come into your shop, it’s just beautiful.
It’s so important for the shop to look nice. And if the staff is not friendly, why should I buy there? I can also buy my yarn online! My idea was to make a cool, new shop for both new knitters and old knitters.
I have the feeling that our knitters are growing with us - I remember the first year, every second customer was buying something like one skein for a hat and now, after four and a half years, these customers buy yarn for a pullover. This is the difference - how they grow with us and you can see this and you can be like “oh, cool”.
What’s your favorite yarn?
This is a very difficult question! I’m a big fan of old-fashioned scratchy yarn like Lettlopi or Scandinavian yarns. Great colors and very nice texture! But I have lots and lots of favorite yarns.
Do you still knit for yourself?
I do! A lot! Actually now I knit a lot more than in the first years - in the first years of the shop I was just working, working, working, working. I was alone so it meant the shelves had to be filled with yarn and I had to handle orders and clean and stuff like that - so many little details. But now I am very happy that I have very good staff and that I have a bit more time for me to knit.
When did you start hiring?
My first employee was after one and a half year, and then after two came Caro, and now we have four including me. They’re working part time in shifts.
No matter who you meet in your shop, first of all they’re always super friendly and they also have a very good intuition of not pressuring people, but being aware of if they need help of encouragement and I think that’s incredibly rare.
For me it’s very important that we don’t push people to buy stuff which is a feeling I have in other shops sometimes where they just follow you and watch what you’re doing. We want to help our customers, and if they need time we just let them spend as much time in the shop as they want. And we four are all so different - we have different tastes and different knitting ideas, which I think is very good because then we can know our customers better. I know what my employees are knitting and how and what their style is.
It’s also good to know on which day they work because every day come different people. After a few years you know that Fridays are like this and Saturdays are like that. It’s so different according to the weekday! Caro - she’s like an American knitter, she knows all the PurlSoHo stuff, and on Saturday those are our customers. On Friday, they are very mixed people - Verena, she’s a little bit older, she has more experience, is great on that day. It’s so interesting to see how it all works together, these little things.
What kind of people come into the shop?
In the beginning a lot of local people from Friedrichshain, a lot of moms, and of course knitters came - they were checking out the new shop. Now we have everything - from beginner to lace knitters who already knit everything.
We usually plan in three categories: Beginners who like to knit with thicker yarn, maybe a hat or a scarf; the 30+ group who are young moms who are knitting for themselves or their kids who knit with eco-friendly yarns; and then we have the Super Knitters. They want to try new yarns, different patterns, difficult patterns, they’re looking for inspiration in the shop. We work on these three levels. Beginners, nice yarns, interesting yarns.
Oh god, this brings me back to the novelty yarns, acrylic yarns from the 80s.
Yeah, these are customers we don’t have. They come in maybe once a month and they come and say “Do you have acrylic yarn?” - No. We don’t sell acrylic yarns. And then they go. And this is okay.
How do you curate your shop?
It’s always trends - I don’t like this because I think if yarn is nice it should stay longer for selling because then customers also have problems if they want to order more. So I prefer yarns that are staying longer in the market, of good quality and nice colors and good patterns. Does the company that sells the yarn have nice patterns? We also make our own patterns, but it’s easier now to knit something from the pattern with exactly the yarn the pattern calls for. We try to sell only local yarns or from small companies. I hope that in the future we can sell some American yarns as well. Now, we carry more German and Lithuanian / Baltic and Scandinavian yarns. British yarns are also super nice - Jamieson & Smith or baa ram ewe.
There’s something coming from the US? 😉
We will see…
I think it’s interesting to see this movement we see in the US with American made yarn. What do you think about it?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Three years ago no one knew about American yarns, but now there are so many good ones. They just have different tastes than the European yarn companies. And to be honest, once a year is this trade show for handcrafts in Cologne and you just think “oh my god, this is like two years ago”. Sometimes it’s very nice with inspiring new collections, but sometimes you just think “Oh my god, what is this?”
It’s going to be interesting seeing how that develops in the next couple of years because I feel the same. If you look at the American companies, they’re doing incredibly well, the yarn is so well made ...
… and nice patterns.
Super nice patterns, and also very popular designers, and in Europe, there’s nothing.
I think it’s beginning - there are some popular designers like Anke Strick, Isabell Krämer and Martina Behm. I think it’s coming, but it’s going to take a while. But in the end, also these designers are knitting from American yarns.
If you think back, what was the best day and what was the worst day of having the shop?
I know what the worst day was. It was maybe 35 degrees in summer and I remember very well, I had one customer that day and she spent 13 EUR and 6 cents. Well, maybe that was not the worst day, but it was like “oh my god, summer is so scary”.
And the best day? I don’t know, there are so many nice days in the shop! Well, we had this event Crochet & Cocktails with Marc and my friend Vicky. She was making colorful cocktails. That was very nice - we started making these parties like WW - Whiskey & Wollen, CC - Crochet & Cocktails. I think this was very, very nice. And birthday parties and Christmas parties - there were so many nice days!
It’s good if there are more nice days than bad days! What are some of the things you learned over the last years?
If I opened the shop now I would do some things a little bit differently. I was not very ready for this because I remember for our opening I was printing flyers on my printer and cutting them myself. And now I think “Oh my god, why did you do that? You could also just order stuff like that!” But these are small details. I think we did quite well, but I would try to do better PR and Marketing for the first six months.
Even the location - it was very hard to find something because when you’re coming to see the location they just think "okay, you’re so young and you’re from Lithuania, what are you doing here?" I was very lucky because the guy I’m renting the location from is a big fan of Baltic and Eastern Europe and so he came to the meeting with a Latvia t-shirt. I was like “Yessss, good!!!” It just happened and I was thinking “I’m not ready for this, no one wants to rent me a location”. I was 25 and I had the feeling that customers were also thinking “What are you doing here with 25? What are you doing in this location?” Five years ago it was not the best location there, there was one shop in the street.
But I think I’m okay with everything I did, just this Marketing thing I would do it different and better. You’re just learning this - you’re learning a lot.
I think the most important thing is you just go and do it.
Which I did, so yeah! I’m a person who just does stuff. My boyfriend is a person who thinks which is very good. I think now I became more of a thinker, combining doing and thinking. I had to learn this too - the first years was no thinking, just doing, doing, and that was fine. Then I had a conversation with a good friend who lives in Paris who asked me “Would you do it again?” and then I said “Well, five years ago, I did that. But now I would think about it.” This is a big decision, but five years ago I was more naive and I just thought “Everything is going to be fine, I don’t need a lot of food and money”. Now I would think more.
But it’s your chance. And when you get older, it’s going to be harder and harder to do stuff like that.
What kind of advice would you give someone who wants to open a physical shop, a retail space?
When you open your physical shop, also open an online shop. To sell yarn online is not that easy, and the competition is very big, so for us retail is about 85%, online 15% of our revenue. Online is growing though, a lot, so maybe this year it’s going up to 18% or 20%. Make a good presentation of your shop on the website because it’s like your shop window online. Do all Social Media, and just be nice and stay nice to the customers.
Which can be hard sometimes?
This is sometimes very hard because you’re there for your shop 24 hours a day and sometimes you don’t have a good day or something happens in your private life. In a shop, so much happens, and you’re just there all the time. Try to stay nice. Not try, just be nice. And love your customers.
The location where you open is also very important. I feel like Friedrichshain is very nice because it’s my kind of people.
What are you currently in love with?
Of course I’m in love with my boyfriend! I’d say knitting, but that’s just normal.
I think that’s good! That you’re still in love with knitting - imagine you fall out of love with it!
There are just so many nice patterns out there and you just want to knit more and more and more so I think it's a big love. And I’m in love with this city!
Where can people find you?
Thank you so much for the lovely interview, Ruta! If you are in Berlin or from Berlin, make sure to check out Ruta's shop - it's a gem! Also, knit nights have started again now so join us every first and third Tuesday of the month at 7pm for sitting, drinking tea and lots of knitting.