Saturday, January 25, 2014

Making Samples for Retail Products: What's the Point?

Over the last month, I've been testing out samples I bought from wool suppliers in Japan who imported it from New Zealand. As with any new product in retail, it's important for the company to invest some measure of time and money to see if the new product fits with the company's mission, values, and quality. Really, this is the time to run the product through the ringer and not overlook glaring mistakes because you like the price. A price of $30/kg for 21 micron merino wool might sound amazing, but at what cost? Meh, so it has a slight odor. Well, the combs caused nepps to form. There's an occasional oil stain from the machine. Would you accept these flaws as a consumer? Unlikely. But this isn't a discussion about the types of problems to look for, but more of a list of things look for with a critical eye under normal circumstances.

I know many of you also sample your yarns before you begin projects, whether it's for knitting, crocheting, or weaving. But it also makes sense to sample your fibers before spinning. More importantly, it's wise to do your sampling before dyeing and after dyeing, just to see how well a fiber itself holds up to the dyeing process. Now, this isn't a task you must do before you sell everything, but if you're trying to narrow down products (like I am) and choose your suppliers wisely, this scrutiny will give you bountiful insight.

Assorted White Merino Wool: 19-20 micron, 20.6-22 micron, 23-24 micron
I'd like to say first off that most of the samples I purchased I love, though I don't hold each sample to the same criteria. For example, I love the 22 micron dark merino wool (pictured below) sample I bought because it has a deep rich color and is quite soft. But it isn't nearly as soft as the 19 micron white merino sample I bought. But I feel like I'm comparing apples to oranges here, and in reality, it'd be better to make relative comparisons and follow that up with what I need for my business.

Dark Colored Merino Wool: 22 micron
As you can see in the following picture, it's difficult to tell that this sample was dyed. The dark color, by nature, will prevent much of the absorbed dye color from being seen. However, the natural colored merino adds a deep richness to these yellows and reds that aren't visible on the light colored merino or the white merino samples. Both of these pictures were taken with the same lighting and approximately the same angle.

Dark Colored Merino Wool: 22 micron, dyed with food coloring
In each category of sample, I ordered 100g each for testing purposes. That would allow me to reserve a portion of the undyed material to keep some of it unspun (so I can refer to it later) and spin up some undyed fiber, and dye and spin the remainder. Why do you want to go the extra mile and spin up undyed fiber? Besides the fact that it provides instant gratification, it shows you how the wool comes directly from the manufacturer. How does it feel? What does it smell like? Is it sticky? Does it spin smoothly? If you go straight into dyeing, you may never know what the wool was like fresh off the machine.

Light Colored Merino Wool: 22 micron
In all cases of sampling, be aware that you are at best seeing a tiny fraction of the company's regular output. It's entirely possible that you were given a superb sample, or a not-so-good sample. Rarely are companies in the fiber arts industry malicious, so if you do receive poor samples, phone the company and explain what the problem is. Accidents happen. More than likely, if you're happy with the samples you have, you'll be happy with the full size amounts--afterall, buying a bump of 30 pounds of merino isn't something you should buy if you aren't happy!

Light Colored Merino Wool: 22 micron, dyed with food coloring
But what else does sampling tell you about the wool that you won't get from the company's website? If you're also a dyer, whether casually or professionally, there are some things you'll want to consider about a product. How thick is the wool top or roving? Is it particularly dense? If so, you may have difficulties getting dye to penetrate to the center of thick top if you plan to hand paint it. Dense top may appear felted after dyeing (which is alarming!), and may require an extra step to fluff it up again before you use it/sell it. These are important things to notice so you can make appropriate considerations before purchasing in bulk.

White Merino Wool: 23-24 micron, dyed with food coloring
Learn a little about the wool you'd like to test before you buy it, especially if it's a rare breed or a colored sheep. Did you know that colored merino sheep will sometimes have kemp fibers? I learned this trivial fact a few years ago when I was learning about the main 70-80 sheep breeds commonly used in the US. I had completely forgotten about it when I receive my colored merino wool samples. Every once in a while as I was spinning, I found a kemp fiber and had to remove it. If I hadn't realized that kemp hairs were occasionally present in colored merino wool, I would have thought that I was given a mixed sample or some other sheep fiber.

White Merino Wool: 20.6-22 micron, dyed with food coloring
There's no better way to become intimate with a future product than working with it personally. Sometimes the main point of sampling for retail products is to know the product inside and out. I can tell you after using the colored merino samples, I feel like they would make excellent sock yarn, but wouldn't make the best lace garments. Why? Well, since I haven't observed the scales of the fiber under a scanning electron microscope, I can only offer a feeling; the 22 micron colored merino feels ever-so-slightly coarser than the 22 micron white merino. I also spun a lace weight yarn from both categories, and the colored merino didn't bloom nearly as much as the white merino did after washing and setting. This suggests that the amount of crimp in the white merino wool is slightly higher than the crimp in the colored merino. It also indicates that the white merino is probably softer than the colored merino.

Medium Dark Colored Merino Wool: 22 micron, dyed with food coloring
At this point, I only have the start-up capital to fund equipment, dye, and one type of fiber. I decided to go with the 21 micron white merino wool first because it is more versatile for dyeing than the colored wools. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions like this, no matter which scale you're working on. If you're running a business, the plan is usually to grow and expand with new products. Since I've already done the testing phase of several fibers, I can add them into my business plan as I see fit. The same applies to hobbyists. Having already tested out various fibers from various companies, you know which one to go to to get exactly what you need for any project.

White Merino Wool: 19-20 micron, dyed with food coloring
My personal insights from this testing phase are similar to my previous testing phases (this is the third major testing phase I've done in 12 months). Most of the time, fiber is fiber--the New Zealand fiber I played with this time is very similar to the fiber I played with from US producers. It's good to know that I'm comfortable with this wool and know what it will handle, and I'm pleased with my buying experience and product quality. These four points are probably the most salient ones, and in my opinion, comprise the entire "point" of sampling for retail products.

White Merino Wool: 21-22 micron, dyed with food coloring