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.