Monday, September 1, 2014

Knitters Gone Wild: Ravelry China Knitters Shanghai Meetup

For weeks, some of us on the Ravelry China Knitters Group had been planning a little meetup in Shanghai. It started when I mentioned I was keen to visit Shanghai again since I hadn't been there since 2004 or 2005 -- I wanted to see the changes the city had no doubt undergone in the past ten years. I knew some of the members of the group lived in Shanghai, and then another in Beijing chimed in that she could take the high-speed train down, and our little plan was hatched.

From one of the Chinese knitters in the group, we got word that there was a knitting festival (photos of the event in this link) on August 16 and 17 organized by China's main knitting social-networking site,, and initially planned to meet on that weekend and stop by the festival, but due to a scheduling conflict we postponed our meeting by a week.

By the time the weekend arrived we had a full two days of activities planned out. On Saturday, we met early to go on an adventure to the warehouses of some of my favorite Taobao shops. The first was MIC MIC, which is located in the outskirts of Shanghai, in the Zhujiajiao Old Town. Luckily, one of the Ravelers had access to a private van and driver, and so instead of an hours-long journey on the subway system and taxi ride in the hinterlands we had a comfortable ride with a driver who was determined to get us to our off-the-beaten-path destination. Until we were nearly there, he had presumed we were going out to look at the old town. When he learned of our true intentions, he was quite startled. "You're going all this way to buy yarn!?" he exclaimed incredulously. Yes, we replied. In fact, some of us have come from as far away as Chengdu and Beijing just for this. Most of us knit or crocheted the entire drive while chatting and getting acquainted.

When we arrived, only an employee was there, but she assured us the boss would come soon to open the warehouse. In the meantime we looked at the small leftover quantities of yarns in the office ...

There were some novelty yarns and a lot of glitter yarn on cones, the latter of which which excited the Ravelers. 

More pretty yarn ....

Then the employee brought over a basket full of swatches for us to look at. I recognized them immediately as the swatches used on the Taobao shop to show what the yarns will look like knit up. These swatches are one of the reasons MIC MIC is my favorite online retailer -- many of the others do not present swatches. These are all finished beautifully, blocked and ends woven in. When the boss arrived later, I asked who knits all the swatches. "I do," she said. In the foreground is a fine purple yarn being spun by Jaya.

Our little Ravelry group was five on Saturday, three Shanghai-based expats, one Beijing-based, and me from Chengdu.

Finally, the boss and her husband arrived and opened up the warehouse, looking bemused at this gang of rowdy, yarn-obsessed foreigners who made such a long trek. The warehouse looked underwhelming at first -- just a bunch of cardboard boxes with tons of cones of yarn in them. Considering that MIC MIC has never once made a mistake in my numerous orders with them (and nearly every other shop I order from regularly has), I guess I was expecting a system that looked a little more organized. But obviously this is working for them. The boss told me they get about 20 orders a day right now, during the low season, and during peak knitting season (the cold months) that number increases to about 60. I notice some of their yarns sell out very quickly.

Once we started pawing through the yarn, however, we realized what an overwhelming task making decisions would be. I started questioning whether I should buy any yarn at all there given that through Taobao they offer free shipping on orders over RMB100 and anything I bought in Shanghai I'd have to lug back on a plane to Chengdu by hand. Also, when I browse online I can see all the information about the yarn -- price, fiber content, suggested needle size -- in one place. In person it was more of a guessing game, or we could ask the boss for that information. Given that this was a warehouse rather than actual shop, none of that information was actually on the yarns in most cases.

However, of course I could not actually resist and came home with several 100g cones of top-notch stuff (cashmere!), a few sweater quantities of silk blends, and a massive 1kg cone of chunky weight black merino. See end of my previous post for photos of some of my purchases.

We each put our selections into a separate cardboard box and told the boss's husband how many grams we wanted of each and how many strands to wind together. Then the two employees got to work winding and weighing. Those machine winders are much faster than the hand-cranked swifts I'm used to seeing in yarn shops. In the meantime, we went to a nearby restaurant to have lunch -- much-needed after the yarn frenzy.

When we came back the boss's husband rang up our purchases. Somehow in the shuffle a small cone of pretty gray tweed I had wanted went missing from my box. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to order it online. Now that I've had the opportunity to touch every yarn in their warehouse I know what I still would like and what I don't need to bother with.

The boss and her husband humored us by posing for a photo before we left. Notice her lovely crocheted sweater! It's nice to put a face to the entity I've been purchasing from for so long, and it's also interesting to note that it's such a small operation. I thought there would be more people, at least on customer service. She seems to take care of all of marketing operations while her husband deals with the logistics, packaging, and shipping, and the employees do the winding.

I didn't take photos the second day because I didn't have the camera with me, but we met up again to go to the wholesale notions market where we bought lots of beads, buttons, and findings (see previous post) as well as the yarn shops on Ruijin Er Lu, where I bought some mink/cashmere fingering weight and some cashmere laceweight yarn (again, see previous post for haul). We also visited the studio/workspace of Infinite Twist dyer Cate, in her Belgian-built colonial-era apartment, and the spinners purchased lots of fiber from her. A few days later I met with Jaya again for another quick visit to the notions market for Chinese knotting cord, more chain and leather cording for necklaces, and a few other tools and notions.

All in all, the trip was great fun, and I'm glad I was able to meet some of the east coast Ravelers before I leave China. I used to have quite a few here in Chengdu, but one by one they all moved away. Knitting camaraderie seems unbeatable, as evidenced by the many stories on Ravelry!

Ravelry China Knitters Group Shanghai Meetup: The Haul and First FOs

As soon as I got home from Shanghai I started playing around with some of the materials I'd found at the notions market. The impetus for all this chain-buying was this DIY tutorial for a "multchain necklace." I more or less followed that idea for my first project, making some refinements along the way, such as using one single large jump ring to connect the chains and a much more subtle snap rather than the bulky carabiner.

Here's that one, closer up and in action.

I had also noticed that my favorite pair of earrings seemed to be remarkably DIYable. So I detached short lengths of a silver chain and used tiny split rings to attach them to the fish hook earring posts I had. Then I added beaded headpins to some of the loops of the chain. Finally I threaded a longer eyepin through the bottom part of the chain and bent it into a curve so that it would maintain the teardrop shape. Next time I think I would just use a teardrop frame, or a stiffer chain. This one was too droopy, and the eyepin was a quick-fix.


I combined the rest of the finer chains I had with some of the pink leather cord I'd picked up and added jump rings and beaded eyepins. This one might be a bit over the top, but I'm hoping it comes off more punk rock Hello Kitty/Betsey Johnson and less what were you thinking. 

At the notions market, in addition to the chains and findings shops, there was one wholesale beads and sequins shop. We pulled out all of the bags of large-sized seed beads they had (these look to be about 6/0 or 4mm) and rejected the colors we didn't like. Each bag was one pound (454g) of beads, so we asked if they would divide each bag into five smaller bags, so that each of use could take one of the smaller bags of each color. I imagine each of these is enough to bead a small shawl. We divvied up the loot over lunch at a small noodle shop, much to the interest of some of the waitresses. It did look a bit suspicious, I reckon.

Several people had bins of buttons lined up on the ground in front of the market. We all spent a good amount of time digging through these bins. Each pack sold for RMB1 -- there was a lot more variety here than I usually see in Chengdu.

And the Yarn ...

We spent all of Day 1 at the warehouse of MIC MIC, my favorite online yarn vendor. Here's one of MIC MIC's many silk blend offerings. This one is 75% silk, 20% cotton, and 5% cashmere. The blue is slightly heathered, and I'm planning to use it for Toujours, which I'm supposed to be working on for the Joji Locatelli Fall 2014 KAL.

My most pricey purchase of the trip was this brown tweed cashmere that MIC MIC was selling for RMB46/50g. I purchased 100g, enough for a hat or other small accessory. Super soft, super pretty. I'm not hugely into brown, but with the tweed I'm pretty keen on making myself a luxurious hat, probably in some kind of textural pattern, broken rib or some such. For instance, I like the Graham pattern on Ravelry very much.

On Day 2 we visited the often-mentioned-on-Ravelry Ruijin Er Lu shops. These sell more of the standard commercial handknitting yarns, mostly domestic brands but several varieties of imported yarns as well. I was charmed by the muted color palette of this Jiuselu cashmere laceweight and selected three colors that all the knitters agreed went well together. I was particularly pleased to see that this yarn is going for RMB40 on Taobao. We paid RMB30 per skein. Jiuselu is one of the major upscale-ish Chinese brands, and it's one I have never tried before. So far I'm quite pleased with the colors and feel of the yarn.

At another shop, a few of us got quite excited by this (apparently machine washable) chartreuse-colored mink/cashmere blend from E'erduosi/Erdos, another major Chinese yarn and knitwear manufacturer. Jaya had knit with it before and said it was good, so I picked out a nice charcoal that goes well with the chartreuse. Like I don't have these exact same colors already, e.g. in the in-progress shawl that these yarns are laying on top of (that's Madelinetosh Pashmina in Grasshopper). 

And a Bonus Day of Notions

A few days after our Ravelry weekend extravaganza, Jaya contacted me and said she wanted to go to the notions market again to pick up a few more things and did I want to meet her there. Well, yes, because the first time around I had failed to pick up knotting cord, which I was regretting.

For some time I'd been thinking about learning more about knotting, partly inspired by some of the Purl Bee's posts on friendship bracelets and using knotting cord in various knitting projects, so a couple months ago I bought a book on how to tie Chinese knots and how to make various ornamental projects with them. I tried out some of the knots using linen yarn, but it's really preferable to use a material that can be melted in order to fuse the ends together. So I was happy to pick up these colorful balls of heavy knotting cord. I think their heavier weight will make learning some of the more complicated knots more manageable.

At our final stop of the day I spotted these lovely looking scissors and thread clippers. I think they add a nice touch to my tool collection, even though it meant checking my bags to ensure they weren't confiscated at security (they're sharp -- I am fairly sure they wouldn't have made it through).

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Taobao Yarn Shop Review: Pangzi and Duoduo Ma

Mousseaux shawl in a tweedy angora blend.

The Taobao Yarn that Started It All
My first warm season as a full-fledged knitter -- that would be spring and summer 2010, I roamed the streets of Chengdu's wholesale yarn market looking for warm-weather-appropriate yarn. Many of the stalls had rolled over their inventory to various non-yarn items -- bedding, underwear, bamboo bed products, and the like. Where was all the silk China is known for? The best I could come up with was tubes of sportweight "milk cotton" in baby pastels that I found was prone to mildewing and disintegrating quickly, or cakes of thread-thin strands of rayon or cotton wound together. Eventually I found hanks of what the shopkeeper told me was worsted-weight cotton/linen, but her colors were limited (and I'm now fairly certain that was cotton/acrylic, anyway).

A year later, the China Knitters Group on Ravelry decided to hold a CAL of Doris Chan's Light and Lacy Top, and I decided that I'd better find some cotton that would be easy to work with for my first crochet garment. A friend had recently helped me order some items that I couldn't find in shops -- a yogurt machine, running tights -- on Taobao, and I suddenly realized, why not yarn, too?

After some searching I found a pound of white cotton yarn on a cone and asked my friend to order it for me. I was fairly skeptical about the whole thing -- I had no idea what kind of quality it would be or even if it would arrive at all. A few days later, it did arrive, a giant cone of yarn stuffed in a gray shipping bag. The cone said Emilcotoni, and after some online investigation I learned that's one of the Italian yarn mills that the Ravelry-revered sources mill ends from.

And thus began my romance with buying yarn on Taobao. I started placing progressively larger orders from the same shop and was satisfied each time. Eventually I branched out to other sellers as well, but as my first entry point into Taobao yarn shopping, Pangzi remains one of my perpetual favorites. 

Below are some of the items I've made with yarns from Pangzi over the years.

The result of the CAL.

Amiga cardigan from Knitty, in two colors of a mercerized cotton and a cotton-silk blend (light gray).
White Rabbit Hat in angora.

Lacy Cardigan by Doris Chan in Filpucci Earth, colorway Geranium.

Mellow Sweater by Pickles of Norway in chunky weight cashmere.

Pearl's Cardigan in cotton ribbon yarn.

Swatch of sparkly angora, destined to become an Easy Cardigan.
Pangzi Maodian - Waimao Weidan Rong (胖子毛店 外贸尾单绒) and its much newer sister shop, Duoduo Ma Tese Maoxian Dian (多多妈特色毛线店) specialize in mill ends from the foreign trade market, much like MIC MIC. I've ordered from both Pangzi and Duoduo Ma and found their stock, service, and prices are nearly identical, so I'm writing this as one review. 

A decent selection of both cold-weather and warm-weather fibers are usually on offer at any time of the year. Also in stock are a limited range of notions as well as Addi fixed circulars and the Tulip Rose Etimo crochet hooks set. Mostly, Pangzi/Duoduo Ma focuses on the mill ends, but they do carry a handful of imported commercial handknitting yarns, like BBB and Kingcole.

In addition to high-end cashmere, these shops stock alpaca, angora, and high-quality wool, and blends thereof. In contrast to MIC MIC, which offers a wide range of qualities, Pangzi generally seems to stick to the mid-level to luxury fibers; I don't see very many acrylic or synthetic novelty yarns on offer. That said, they do tend to have a nice selection of various textures, including boucle, chainette yarns, railroad yarns, and so on -- and I've purchased countless sparkly and shimmery yarns from them -- metallic yarns, sequin yarns, glitter thread, and the like.

My friend accidentally ordered 10 pounds of boucle. I was trying to get 10 liang (500g). Oops. I made a cozy blanket, a big shrug, another pullover ... and I still have three large cones left.

30% cashmere, 70% wool tweed sportweight. Destined to become a Clarity Cardigan. subtly striping 70% wool, 30% acrylic aran weight. Destined to become a Purple Storm cardigan.

Filpucci Loop, 80% cotton, 20% polyester. Great summer yarn, used for a couple of loose-knit tops.

Sequin thread! Carryalong yarn that will jazz up any project. I used it in my Skappelgenseren, and it looks fancy.

Silk chainette with a metallic thread in the core. 

Bling bling wool. Thinking about some kind of simple cabled pullover for this. 
Linen in various weights and colors can almost always be had here, as can cotton in various weights and textures, from fingering-weight ribbon yarns to smooth, round DK weight. I've also purchased a giant, 2kg cone of shiny rayon/linen, silk-wrapped cotton, and silk/cotton blends.

It used to be that order of 500g or more usually came on the original manufacturer's cone, but recently almost all of my yarns have come caked, regardless of the quantity I order. Occasionally they come in hanks like the silk yarn above.

With the exception of some of the higher-end cashmere and alpaca, most yarns are sold at a minimum of 500g (listed as 1 jin). The minimum order for most of the former is 150g (3 liang). Prices start as low as RMB4 per 50g, although RMB7 to 12 is a more typical mid-range, and go up to RMB50 per 50g for the Loro Piana cashmere yarns.

Navigation and Descriptions
The navigation bar is fairly simple, broken down according to season and fiber. However, the photos are not always top-notch, and swatches are only sometimes shown. Descriptions don't necessarily list the fiber content in detail, so I try to stick with those listings that do. A recommended needle size is usually provided to give an idea of the yarn weight, as is recommended quantities for a (size small) women's sweater.

I've had a few misses ordering with Pangzi, namely with this blue yarn that was described simply as a wool chainette. The description didn't state that a large percentage (I suspect more than 50 percent) was acrylic, but that's what my bleach test indicated. However, that was one of my earlier orders, and I've since learned to read the descriptions and reviews carefully, and if it's not described as a pure or 100 percent wool (or other natural fiber) I'll ask via Taobao's chat system. I've found the reps on the chat to be upfront about what the yarns will be appropriate for (for example, the seller told me that one yarn that was listed as an alpaca blend was not very soft and would be better for outerwear rather than a scarf).

Pangzi/Duoduo Ma will wind multiple strands together at no extra charge (I believe only up to three strands) if you make a note, and they offer free gifts of circular needles, stitch markers, stitch holders, point protectors, cable needles, and plastic darning needles with orders over RMB100. They frequently run free shipping deals as well (Duoduo Ma is offering free shipping for orders over RMB200 until October 10, 2014).

Shipping time seems relatively quick, and the shipping company that they use is generally good about notifying recipients that packages have been delivered. Of the numerous times I've ordered, only once has an item been missing from the package, and once I contacted customer service, the missing item was sent out immediately. The chat representatives are very professional and easy to communicate with (despite my non-native Chinese), as was the representative who called me once when I thought my package had never arrived (it was sitting in the mail room of my complex the whole time, but this time the delivery company had failed to notify me). This endears me more to the shop -- with other sellers, I've seen numerous responses to bad reviews by customers that shock me with their aggressive tone, and I've had a chat representative respond to one of my questions in a snarky, sarcastic manner.

Pangzi is currently a double-crown Taobao seller, and Duoduo Ma has quickly risen to multi-diamond status, so it's probably only a matter of time before it too hits crown status.

I'd describe Pangzi and Duoduo as very similar to MIC MIC, except with a smaller range of products focusing on the higher end fibers (and Addi and Tulip tools) and a lower product turnover rate (which can be frustrating if you want to see new products all the time, but can also be a blessing if you realize you don't have enough of a certain yarn -- there might still be time to get more, whereas with MIC MIC, chances of being able to reorder in time are low).

Overall, from the packaging (no receipts, caked rather than coned yarns) and the appearance of the listings (unprofessional photography and descriptions sometimes lacking in detail), Pangzi and Duoduo give off an impression of a smaller-scale operation. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Taobao Yarn Store Review: Lian Gongfang

I initially came across Lian Gongfang when I was interested in finding Shetland wool on Taobao. This shop had some, in the form of mill ends, in stock, so I bought quite a bit. Unfortunately they had only one color, a very warm green with flecks of gold and orange in it, which doesn't suit me at all, but darn it, I will make a sweater out of it anyway. I kept an eye on the shop and found they sell lots of Italian (and other) mill ends of various qualities, as well as commercial handknitting yarns from the UK (Rowan, Kingcole, Jaeger), U.S. (Knitpicks, and for a while they had a few skeins of Madelinetosh in stock), Europe (Lang, Lanas Stop, BBB), and Japan (Olympus, Puppy). Finally, they carry a small selection of domestic commercial yarns, namely, Li Shi, Jiuse Lu, and Pecore.

I did manage to make a hat with the Shetland. Striped with Noro and some other scraps.

I mostly stick with the mill ends and have purchased lovely wool/alpaca blends, pure alpaca, wool/cashmere blends, tweedy wools, pure silk (ironically, this is apparently a rare find in China), cotton ribbon yarns, cotton/linen blends, raimie, alpaca/linen blends, and so on. Some of the mill ends they sell are Cariaggi, Filpucci, Filati Cardati, Novetex, Nardi Filati, and so on. Occasionally the yarn label with the mill name will be pictured; other times it's just a mystery. If I can see a label I'll usually do some sleuthing on Google to see what additional information I can find out about the yarn.

One of my favorite pullovers was knit with this fingering weight 70/30 baby alpaca/wool blend from an Italian mill that sadly is no longer in stock. It is so soft and gets softer with wear.

I generally run a bleach test on all animal-protein yarns I purchase and only once have I found a description from this shop to be off, with the yarn below, actually -- it was listed as 100% wool, but further digging revealed it contains some nylon.

A bit steeper than comparable Taobao shops, but usually I don't mind paying the extra because I know that I'm getting something good. I was a bit irked when I bought the tweed yarn above for RMB9 per 50g and then spotted it at another one of my favorite shops for RMB5 per 50g. On the other hand, I also scored a deal during a holiday sale on the discontinued (and apparently much sought-after) Jaeger Chamonix for RMB26 per 50g (I bought sweater quantities in two colors, based on the words of wisdom of yarn whisperer Clara Parkes. And my sweater quantities cost about 1/3rd of her estimated $135).

Free shipping deals are rare. There is supposed to be some kind of token discount scheme, but it rarely seems to apply to my orders.

They did send me this synthetic blend once when I hit a certain RMB amount.
Navigation and Descriptions
One of the first things I noticed about this shop when I first discovered it, indeed, one of the things that very much attracted me to the shop, is that alongside the usual categories of fiber type, it also lists yarn weights in English -- lace, fingering, DK, aran, and bulky. I've not seen this on any other Taobao shop.

The yarn descriptions are usually very detailed, with fiber content, yarn weight, suggested needle size, suggested quantity for various types of projects, etc. all spelled out. The photographs are also generally excellent, with several clear shots of each yarn and quite often swatches with the number of plies and needle size indicated as well. Here's an example. I haven't had any drastic surprises with colors from this shop, either (and yes, I have had some pretty big surprises from other shops).

Summer pullover knit from the cotton linen yarn pictured above.

Just sufficient, no extras. For instance, unlike many sellers this shop never throws in trinkets like stitch markers for hitting a certain RMB amount, and they do not wind together plies -- all they will do is wind into separate cakes so that you can knit with multiple strands (knitting from four cakes isn't that much fun, though). I placed an order during the 11.11 shopping day madness to take advantage of the Chamonix promotion, and they forgot to send all of the imported yarns in my package. It took a bit of chatting back and forth between the seller and me to finally sort it out, and they sent the missing yarns out the next day (I was hoping they'd throw in some extra for the mishap but no such luck). Additionally, I was once charged shipping when they were advertising a free shipping promotion.

Alpaca/linen blend.
Shipping time is reasonable; I haven't noticed it being particularly faster or slower than average. The packing is fine, but unexceptional.

I've also noticed that in the year or so I've been shopping with Lian Gongfang, its Taobao rating status has increased from diamond to crown. I guess I'm not the only fan!

Filpucci Lhasa, a laceweight single ply blend of wool and cashmere.

  • Consistently high-quality products
  • Clear photos and detailed descriptions of products, frequently with swatches of the yarn
  • Very easy-to-navigate shop (products arranged by fiber, by weight, by country, and by type)
100% baby alpaca.

  • Pricier than most Taobao shops
  • Very infrequent discounts or free shipping offers
  • Very limited selection of notions (80cm bamboo and metal circulars, and some crochet hooks)
  • No extras thrown in
  • Unwilling to wind plies together

Dreaming by Novetex, a Macau mill. The colorway is called Chutney, which appeals to me. It's a wool/cashmere/nylon blend, worsted weight single ply.