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April 10, 2024

Episode 006:

Making the World Better One Stitch at a Time with Janet Avila, Owner of String Theory Yarn Company


Welcome back to Her Story So Far! I am so in awe of my guest this time. After a life-altering tragedy, Janey Avila listened to her heart, summoned her courage, and opened a yarn store. Over the last 20 years, she’s helped untold numbers of new knitters fall in love with the craft and learn new skills, and used her business as a channel to build community around causes she believes in. Janet speaks about guiding a brick and mortar store through challenging times, and why it’s so important to lead with your values when making business decisions. I can’t wait for you to meet her!

About My Guest

About My Guest

Janet Avila is an artist, knitter, community builder, teacher philanthropist, fair trade supporter, and the owner of String Theory Yarn Company as well as a Coffee Farm in Columbia.


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HSSF 006 – Janet S Avila

Lesley Whitehead: [00:00:00] Hi, beautiful. This is your host, Lesley Whitehead, and I am so excited to share this bold, brave, badass, creative woman with you. I hope our conversation inspires you not to let anything get in the way of your passion projects. I promise you, we need whatever is on your heart to create for this world. 

Hi, beautiful. I am happy to have Janet Avila in my studio today. She is the owner of String Theory Yarn Company, a community builder, a philanthropist, a fair trade supporter, and the list goes on and on and on, but we’re going to find out about her today. So, welcome Janet. 

Janet S. Avila: Thank you, it’s so fun to be here. 

Lesley Whitehead: I love your business so much. You are, you have a brick and mortar. It’s [00:01:00] located in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and I have so many questions about it, but first and foremost, will you tell us how this business was created, how, um, it’s evolved, but first how it’s, how it was created.

Janet S. Avila: So we’d have to go back a while. Um, it was September in, um, 2001. And, um, I had just been laid off. I was working for Arthur Anderson. And that’s its own debacle. But before they went under, um, I was doing training and development for them. And, um, they laid off all their part time people. 

So I was laid off and, um, that my first Monday or something, I don’t remember what I did. And then it was Tuesday and I was like, okay, I’m ready to start my new life, figure out what I’m doing next. Um, and that was September 11th. And, um, I remember my husband [00:02:00] calling me and saying, um, you know, something happened in the World Trade Center. You got to watch this. And I’m like, oh, I can’t stand watching live cable TV of disasters cause they know nothing.

Um, so I tried to tune it out, but then my sister in law called and said, do you know your brother’s in New York? And so he was, um, killed that day. He was at the Trade Center at a conference on one of the top floors. 

Lesley Whitehead: I’m so sorry. 

Janet S. Avila: So yeah, sorry. Um, all these years later, it still gets me. 

Yeah, so obviously I had no job, and no brother, and lots of grieving going on. Um, couldn’t figure out what I was going to do. And what I did to get through that was knit. I just picked up my knitting needles and I couldn’t, I couldn’t sit still. Um, and which is unusual for me because it’s my favorite thing to do. Um, but I just couldn’t, I felt twitchy. I just was, yeah, it was, it was a bad time. 

[00:03:00] So I picked up my needles and that really centered me. That calmed me down. That made me feel, um, productive in a way that I couldn’t produce anything. Um, and really helped me work through the grief and the trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life and all of that.

Um, and as I did that, I started talking to some friends and, and saying, you know, more people should knit, they just should. Like, this is really good for you. And this was more than 20 years ago when that wasn’t a thing. Um, now everybody, there’s all these studies and it says, yeah, knitting’s really good for, you know, lowering blood pressure and, um, keeping your brain active and on and on and on the list goes. But back then it was just something that intuitively I knew. Um, and so I wanted more people to knit. 

And then the other thing that wasn’t enough, I, I do believe everything’s connected. And so, me having [00:04:00] more personal peace does help the world have more world peace. 

Lesley Whitehead: Mm hmm. 

Janet S. Avila: one of the unusual things I suppose that I believe, but, um, that wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to do more. Um, it was really a line in the sand of, okay, now what are you going to do with your life? Like now it really matters. Before it was like, oh, how am I going to keep busy and earn a living? No, it’s like, okay, let’s do something that really matters. 

So part of it was getting more people to knit cause I felt that would help world peace. But the other thing that I wanted to do was, uh, there were so many poor, desperate people in the world because I thought anybody who’s going to, um, drive a plane into a building, um, is desperate. Like, their lives are bad in the first place. Um, if they’re going to sacrifice themselves that way. And so I thought, you know, there’s a [00:05:00] lot of horrible things happening in the world, and very poor people and what can I do to help that?

And so when we, um, as the idea for the store came about and wanting more people to knit and I thought, you know, I’m going to have a budget. I’m going to be able to spend money that like, I can’t out of my personal account, like we can give away money, but we have limited funds. Um, but in a store, I’ve got a budget. And if I spend that budget on groups that are helping people all around the world, then that has some impact. That is, you know, that’s going to make a difference.

Um, and so that was the premise with which we set up the store, teaching people to knit and then filling the shelves with, um, yarns and supplies that helped people. And it was really healing for me as well, because, [00:06:00] to learn about all these groups and all these incredible people who are doing things, um, just because they felt called to. They found an opportunity. They thought, well, you know, if we do this, it’s going to help this group of women. Often it’s women. Um, and so that just continues to just make my day because there’s a lot of still horrible things happening in the world. But if you can focus on the people who are really making a difference to even if it’s a small group, that lightens my mood.

Lesley Whitehead: That’s wonderful. I mean, that’s a gift for everyone. And I know that you have raised funds, um, through your business. Do you have a number right now? I can’t remember what the number is.

Janet S. Avila: Yeah, and I’m so bad at details. Um, But this is, this is the, I love the idea, the strategy, the big stuff. And then you ask me a detail question, I’m like no! Um, but [00:07:00] I would, I pretty sure, like, for example, the scarf market that we do every year. Um, that’s our biggest, fundraiser. And that came about because we were all sitting around the table one day knitting and talking about the, um, unhoused humans who were on the streets in Glen Ellyn and what could we do about that. And somebody who’s like, well, we could knit him a scarf, but none of us, we’re all into natural fibers and not wanting to use acrylics and acrylic is obviously easiest to care for if you’re living on the street.

So we kind of had that, I don’t know. And then we were like, you know what, we could make scarves for people who have money and get them to buy those scarves. And then we could take that money and give them to organizations that are helping these people on the street. So that’s how it started. That’s what we’ve done.

Um, and we, through that, we pick a [00:08:00] different charity every year. Um, always local, always to do with some aspect of being unhoused and, um, we’ve raised at least fifty thousand dollars that way. 

Lesley Whitehead: That’s fantastic. I love that. Let me go back for a minute though because I didn’t ask this question. how young are you?

Janet S. Avila: I just turned 63.

Lesley Whitehead: Congratulations, happy birthday. I saw that was just the other day. Yes.

Janet S. Avila: It was.

Lesley Whitehead: And also when and how did you start knitting? I don’t know that story either. 

Janet S. Avila: Well that’s an Interesting thing because I don’t really know either. I don’t remember. I don’t remember learning to knit. Um, I assumed, we come from a very crafty family. Uh, we grew up doing all the things and you just went from one thing to the next. And, you know, I was, in middle school I made macrame bracelets and sold them. Um, my dad made [00:09:00] jewelry and sold them. My mom did sewing and applique. And, that’s just how we amused ourselves in the summertime. It was just what we did. 

But I do remember somebody asking me that question when I first opened the store and I just assumed my grandmother knit a lot. And I thought my mom was more of a sewer,

Lesley Whitehead: mm

Janet S. Avila: she would make my school clothes and do all this stuff. And, um, but my grandmother knit a lot, so I just assumed that she had taught me. And so somebody asked me that question. I said, well, I think it was my grandmother. And my mom just spoke right up. She was sitting there. She goes, it was me. 

Oh, okay. I didn’t know you knew how to knit. Um, cause she just hadn’t, she did, she knits a lot now, but she just hadn’t for a long time. Um, she says that it was one day when I was home sick from school and she was trying to figure out, you know, something to do with me. 

Lesley Whitehead: Keep you busy. 

Janet S. Avila: She taught how to knit. 

Lesley Whitehead: That’s great. So you’ve been able to continue this business for 20 years. [00:10:00] What has kept you going? What has, you know, brick and mortar is very difficult, and certainly over COVID, um, what has been able to help you, you know, continue with the business and keep it so successful.

Janet S. Avila: There’s a lot of things, but I think basically we started out um, building a community. That was our, you know, goal. You can be knitting, it can be a very individual, isolated activity you can do by yourself. But we had a purpose that was greater than our just knitting. And so we really worked hard to build a community and that community has sustained us, um, through the years. 

I mean, a lot of things have changed. Um, our customers, I mean, customers come and go, um, yarn companies come and go. Um, so, but I just think it was that community. And when we had to close our doors during [00:11:00] COVID. That was very scary. But the community just rallied and was like, okay, what do you need? I’m like, uh, money, basically. 

Um, and so we figured out and, and it was during COVID that I did so many things that I swore I would never do. Because people kept saying, oh, you need a website. You need to sell stuff on your website. Um, people from our community would move away and then they’d be like, I want to buy stuff, how am I going to do that? Or people would hear our story and go, oh, I just want to support what you’re doing, but I can’t do that from California or wherever it was. And I’m like, you want me to take a picture of every single skein of yarn in store and put it online? Are you crazy? Like, where is the joy in that? 

Lesley Whitehead: And, and quite honestly, that’s a second business. I mean, that’s a brick and mortar’s one business, an online business, it’s like having two [00:12:00] businesses. It is.

Janet S. Avila: Exactly. But we had no choice. Like we couldn’t let people in the store. I was like, Oh, I guess we’re doing a website now. And I remember I worked with a guy in Pakistan and this was crazy because he also was in lockdown because of COVID. I mean, it really drove home how global this was. And he would be complaining because he’d be talking to me and his whole family was locked up with him, and his sister would be, you know, running the blender trying to make smoothies and then he couldn’t talk to me.

It’s just like, I just felt this connection to, you know, everybody. But we did end up putting a website together. We did end up doing online classes, which was another thing. I’d come from training. I was like, okay, we can keep people company. I read people’s stories. I was thinking this the other day, we did a, um, zoom call where all I did was read kids books, [00:13:00] about, you know, had something to do with yarn or knitting. And I was like, okay, all, all you adults out there, get out your knitting. I’m going to entertain your kids for 20 minutes.

Lesley Whitehead: That’s fantastic.

Janet S. Avila: It was crazy the things that we did just to keep a connection with somebody. But one of my instructors said, well, we can do classes. And I was like, yeah, no, we can keep people company, but we’re not gonna be able to teach them anything. And they’re like, you watch. Like, okay. And they did. 

And now our online classes are even more popular than our in person classes. Because we use two cameras. So we’ve got one camera on the hands and one on the face and you get a perspective that you wouldn’t get even, you know, being in the same room with somebody. Um, there’s a lot of disadvantages as well, but, um, it, there’s enough advantages that we have kept going with, um, the online classes as well. So it’s those things, those new, you know, in a way we were forced to.

Lesley Whitehead: Right.[00:14:00] 

Janet S. Avila: The innovations, the moving, the adjusting, the, okay, now, how, how, now how we build community online? Um, which my kids, you know, I’m of the generation. I’m like, really? You can make friends that you’ve never met in person. My kids are like, well, of course, like, really?

Lesley Whitehead: And then you can meet them in person. 

Janet S. Avila: Right. Exactly.

Lesley Whitehead: Right.

Janet S. Avila: Eventually they show up.

Lesley Whitehead: I love that. And I have to, I have to tell you, your website is beautiful. it is a beautiful reflection of your business. Um, it’s very user friendly and it has a lot of great information. I just saw one blog post about, um, how do you fix your drop stitches um blog post, because I’m a new knitter as you know and um my first knitting project it looks like I should add buttons to it, it has so many drop stitches. Just to make it a creative piece.

Janet S. Avila: Exactly. [00:15:00] Design elements all over. 

Lesley Whitehead: Design elements, exactly. That’s exactly it. So, the other question I have is, um, where do your teachers come from? Because I know you, obviously you have staff inside that teach, but you also have teachers from all over. Tell me about that.

Janet S. Avila: We do. So there’s, during COVID all the people that, um, would travel and teach knitting were no longer traveling and teaching knitting. They, some of them just stopped and others of them figured out how to use Zoom effectively for teaching. And so that opened up a whole new avenue of access, because prior to that, we would have instructors come into String Theory, but it was very expensive, you know, paying for their airfare and their time and their lodging and food while they’re here and all of that. And usually a space that’s big enough to hold a large group of people so that we could afford all that. 

And [00:16:00] you know, there’s magic in in person classes. I won’t deny it. There’s just definitely something about the creative spark that

Lesley Whitehead: Mm hmm.

Janet S. Avila: unites all these people in a room. But when we couldn’t do that, we were like, okay, well, let’s see what we can do online. And so now we can get a lot, we have a lot more access. So before maybe we’d get to what we would call celebrity instructors to come in a year, and that would be a big deal. And now, um, every month we have access to somebody who’s teaching us 

Lesley Whitehead: I love it. 

Janet S. Avila: something. 

And some people are better at it than others, as you can imagine. So we vet, we’re really, meticulous, I think, and vetting people and making sure that they can actually teach something. Cause as I said before, that’s really important to me, and people learn, you know, if they’re going to pay money we want them to learn things. Um, and so we’ve vetted. Cause there’s, yeah, there’s people who are very good at, at teaching and there’s people who are very good at teaching online and those are the people that we want. 

Lesley Whitehead: Right. [00:17:00] Right. I love that. One of your, um, teachers is listed as craftivism. That’s not, did I pronounce that correctly? Craftivism? Can you explain that to me? 

Janet S. Avila: We just had this class on Sunday and it was so cool. This was, we were reminiscing, so this was the first class that we did on Zoom in COVID. Um, she was supposed to come in personally and she couldn’t and we were like, okay, let’s try this. And her whole thing is craftivism. 

And she taught a little bit of the history of craftivism. So it could be anything from a lot of people have heard of yarn bombing. 

Lesley Whitehead: I don’t know what that is. 

Janet S. Avila: Oh, okay. Let me tell you then. So yarn bombing is, um, if you take something and you cover it with knitting. So it could be, um, a couple of years ago, we yarn bombed the tree out in front of our store. [00:18:00] with like a pride flag of, but it was all knitted. Um, another time, many years ago, there was a group, customers at the store who started something and they made these little birds and they put them all over town. They were in the flower boxes, they were hanging from light posts hanging from branches, um, and they had little signs that said, Make Art, Not War.

Um, it’s done, you know, in secrecy, overnight usually. Um, some, some of the things are bigger installations, but it could be that they’re protesting war or they’re um, it could be a million different things. There was one where, uh, where women knit uteruses and the pattern went out and they sent them to Congress.

Lesley Whitehead: I love that. I love that.

Janet S. Avila: Yeah, so there’s just different, like the pussy hats from the Women’s March. 

Lesley Whitehead: I was just thinking that. 

Janet S. Avila: [00:19:00] That was craftivism. Um, so it’s not all knitting. Obviously that’s where I’m in tune with, but it’s not all, there’s quilts, there’s all sorts of things that, one of the ones that we came up in class that I hadn’t heard about before was, I won’t remember the name of the group, but there is a group that is a counterprotest. 

Lesley Whitehead: Okay. 

Janet S. Avila: I can’t remember when she said it started, see, I’m bad on details, but she’s, she was talking about how, if there were going to be protesters, say anti gay protesters, and they, um, wanted to protect, um, The people who were being protested, they created these angel wings and they were giant angel wings and the counter protesters stood in front of the protesters to protect, the people who were being protested.

So they were, they were like, if they were walking into the courthouse or something, then the, counter protest would have these huge white [00:20:00] angel wings, you know, to shield the people so that they didn’t have to look at all the ugly signs and all the hate messages you know, here and whatever. And I just thought that is the coolest thing.

Lesley Whitehead: I love that. I love that. So one of the things that I wanted to talk about was, um, and I’ve mentioned you several times in the podcast, speaking to other women, because, um, what you created is what I’ve been talking to um, my clients about, which is your, um, fan membership, your VIP fan membership. And I’ve shared that with lots of brick and mortars who I know have contacted you. And you’ve been wonderfully generous sharing how that went, how that was created and, and, you know, why that’s been successful. Will you tell us about that? 

Janet S. Avila: So, um, of course in retail, you’re always trying to figure out it’s like, one of the things that’s kept me engaged all these years is that every year it’s a new puzzle. And, um, so it’s like, Oh, how are we going to figure this out? What’s this about? [00:21:00] 

Um, but one of the things, because this is, we are celebrating our 20th anniversary in May this year. And so I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and trying to figure out, okay, what does this mean? What have we done well, what should we do differently? And I thought, you know what? I want to spend the 20th year just doing stuff that I love. 

You know, as a business owner, you know, you have your mission, your goal, but you get distracted. There’s a lot of things going on, right? And so this really cool thing happened over here and you’re like, Oh, maybe I should do that. Oh, this yarn selling well, maybe I should, you know, bring that yarn in and, and you do get distracted. And I said, you know, this, my 20th year, I’m just focusing I’m going to do the stuff that I love. And then I thought, okay, um, do I have enough people in the store that are going to support that?

Lesley Whitehead: Right.

Janet S. Avila: So I decided to start a fan club. And the purpose [00:22:00] of the fan club was, okay, if you are a fan of String Theory, um, then you can pay, and it was either a lump sum or we’ll charge you by the month to be in our fan club. And, basically, this is the excuse for me to do all the things that are near and dear to me. And if you’re a fan, you are just going to lap this up and think this is the greatest thing. And if you’re not, then you’re not. Like, this is the way it is. Um, and so, yeah, so that’s been really fun. It’s been a great. just a little switch in mindset of like, okay, what are the things that I think are really, really fun?

And so in January, I went to Rwanda and took everybody in the fan club with me. Um, that was Handspun Hope, 

and that is an organization that was founded by, um, Diana Wiley. And her mission was to help these women that [00:23:00] had survived genocide and set up, um, you know, help them create a business that was entirely sustainable. So it’s got all these wonderful, slow fashion, um, environmentally friendly aspects of it as well. Um, just an incredible organization. And I’d been talking to her for years about wanting to go visit and finally, um, had the opportunity. And so that was something that I could do special videos for everybody, and I brought back a skein of yarn for everybody in the fan club. 

Um, what else have we done? Oh, the last one that we did this month was, um, interviewed Peggy Orenstein, who wrote Unraveling, 

which is an amazing book. Anybody, whether you’re interested in fiber or not, this is just incredible book. Um, she weaves in all these things about, um, the creative process and she, she went from shearing a sheep all the way to knitting a sweater with that wool and [00:24:00] everything that happened in between. But then she, she managed to stick in all these observations about family and women and, and history and craftivism and. 

Um, and so I knew she’s a very famous author. And, um, I was like, well, all she could do is say no, like all I have to, I could call her, see if she would do an interview with me. I mean, she could say no, but, um, it’s a sure no, if I don’t ask. So I contacted her and she was willing. And that was so much fun. I had to like pinch myself. Like I’m actually interviewing, 

Lesley Whitehead: Right. One of your heroes. 

Janet S. Avila: This incredible woman.

Lesley Whitehead: She-roes.

Janet S. Avila: Right. And it was. Yeah, it was so much fun. So much fun, um, to do that. So we’re just, so we’ve just planned out a year of exciting opportunities. 

Lesley Whitehead: In February, you sent us a gift. Do you want to talk about it? 

Janet S. Avila: A box, it [00:25:00] had swag in it. Um, so we put our logo, we did, one of the other things that we did in COVID was reinvest in upgrading our branding. And so, um, we’re kind of partial to our logo. So we wanted to put it on stuff because we love our logo. And we figured all our fans were going to love our logo. So we did that. Um, and then we also put in there a skein of yarn from Rwanda. That was really fun. And it’s going to be fun to see what everybody’s going 

Lesley Whitehead: I know, make 

Janet S. Avila: do with it. Gave you lots of suggestions, but,so it’ll be fun to see. 

Lesley Whitehead: I love that. I love that. It was such a special gift. 

Janet S. Avila: But it’s not, it’s more about the experience than it is about the material, what you’re going to get. So, so for the year, we’re not sending out, cause some people do like your own subscriptions they out boxes every month or whatever. So this is like your gift, you know, [00:26:00] for just being a fan, for the year. But most of it is, um, Zoom experiences or special videos or, um, discounts. 

Lesley Whitehead: Right. And behind the scenes. 

Janet S. Avila: We’re wanting to encourage 

Lesley Whitehead: Behind the scenes, getting to see, you know, what’s behind the curtain, how, how the, everything’s made, right? 

I am not as familiar, maybe you can talk to this about yarn and how, the difference between the yarns and where you’re getting them from and who’s creating them because I really haven’t been exposed to that as much. This is all very new for me and so that would be something if you could share a little bit about that. 

Janet S. Avila: One of the things that we wanted to do is, um, provide something that did not include acrylic. Um, acrylic is petroleum based. And so you’re, um, supporting the oil companies and I figured they got enough support. They don’t need ours. Um, and so we’re all [00:27:00] about using natural fibers. We have a little bit of nylon in sock yarn, because it makes the socks stronger. And I figure we’ll encourage more people to make, um, naturally fiber socks. 

So there’s a lot of compromise. I am not perfect. Like this is not the most eco friendly store, probably the most philanthropic at the most fair trade. Like I’m just figuring out what we can do and what seems interesting to me. And we’re all doing our best. You know, there’s no holier than thou. There’s no way I figure everybody’s well, I just figure everybody’s making a choice. And if you can make a couple extra choices in this direction, great. Nobody’s, it’s not up to us. I firmly believe climate change is a, um, corporate issue much larger than we are, but we can do our, we can do our little, little bit. 

Um, so I was searching for natural fibers. I [00:28:00] was searching for companies that were, um, women’s cooperatives or, um, I, I say that everything in the store is good for somebody somewhere, but I decide what’s good, cause I own the store. So in my case, you know, it might be that I just love this hand painted yarn that is dyed by, in the kitchen by a woman that I just really admire because she’s trying to find a creative way to bring income into her household and raise her kids and, you know, do whatever. And I think that’s worthy of supporting as well as the women who, you know, survived the genocide as well as people who are treating their sheep well. 

You know, and then there’s the big debate between if you naturally dye something, does that use more water than if you use commercial dyes and therefore, you know, is it better for the environment or worse for the environment? I mean, there’s so many questions, but I’m just [00:29:00] exploring all the time to see, you know, who’s got what. 

And when I first started, again, this was very new. And I had always felt, and I don’t know where, why this was a belief in me, but, 

Lesley Whitehead: Perhaps from your mother. 

Janet S. Avila: I had always felt that… maybe yes, but where you spend your dollars matters. Like that is your vote for the world that you want to create. And so that’s how you can tell people what you want more of. If you buy organic yarn, then they are going to create more organic yarn and therefore you’re going to save the world from a certain amount of pesticides or, you know, fertilizers or whatever it is. Or, um, you know, sheep being treated badly or whatever, whatever it happens to be. I have a business degree. I believe in the power of economics and, you know, supply and demand. And if you demand it, then there’ll be more supply of the things [00:30:00] you want. 

So yeah, so I was looking for all of that. Now, shopping your values is really common, but it was a lot of education. When I first opened, they were like, you want me to pay more for organic yarn? Shouldn’t you pay less? Cause they’re not using pesticides. Okay. If I had a nickel every time I heard that, um, so I was trying to like economies of scale and give it and nobody really cared. Um, but it was a lot of, yeah, it was just a lot of education on why you should care about these. But it also meant that the yarn had to be really good. Like you can’t just have a cause behind it, it has to be lovely to work with or I wasn’t gonna get anybody to buy it. 

So, yeah, and there’s like Manos del Uruguay 

is a, um, over 50 year old fair trade organization that was started in Uruguay, as a women’s cooperative, and it was trying to help these women that had no, means of supporting themselves [00:31:00] except for to leave their rural communities and go to the city and try and get some factory job or something. And so they set this up, they started the first kindergartens, they trained the women, you know, all through parts of this organization so they could ultimately manage and supervise and all without having to leave their communities and their families. 

So it’s just, you know, one group after another, if you dig enough. Um, and 20 years ago was not pre internet, but almost. Like it’s, it’s easier, you have easier access at this point to find these groups of people that are doing stuff. 

Lesley Whitehead: Do you have the opportunity now, to meet with them? I know you just went to Rwanda, but have you had the opportunity to go to the other communities and see them work in person or is that part of the goal this year?

Janet S. Avila: Um, I have not, but I have to say the Rwanda trip was so [00:32:00] exciting to me. It was so much fun for me personally. And it, my customers loved it, like loved that opportunity to see kind of behind the scenes to have that access that they don’t have to these stories and to be able to share that with people. So I am looking to do more of that in the future. 

I have met with like Manos del Uruguay, I have met with, um, several of the women from there that have come here, to meet with me. But yeah, there’s a lot still to be explored. 

Lesley Whitehead: That’s exciting. 

Janet S. Avila: A lot of international travel to be had.

Lesley Whitehead: That’s fantastic. One of the the other ways that you support is the Hello Hope gift package Can you talk about that?

Janet S. Avila: Hello Hope is, gifts from the Handspun Hope company. So this is connected to Rwanda as well. And I talked to Diana and I said, [00:33:00] you know, this is such a good story. And there’s a lot of women’s cooperatives in Rwanda, trying to help the women of Rwanda. And so not just the yarn, but these other things. And so I started talking to her about like, what could we put together as a package? That if people were moved by this story or moved by my trip to Rwanda and wanted kind of a souvenir, they could get, this Hello Hope package. And so we had a blast putting this together. 

There’s silk yarn that is actually hand spun from silkworm cocoons in Madagascar and then sent to Handspun Hope in Rwanda and they naturally dye it. It’s an incredible, incredible, 100 percent silk. And they hand dye it and skein it and, and sell it. So we put that as the yarn in the package. And then there’s also, I’m trying to say, okay, there’s also [00:34:00] stitch markers that are hand carved from cow bone. They’re just beautiful. 

There’s a little gorilla. So a lot of what Handspun Hope does is these needle felted sculptures. And they started it as a way to employ women who were in a school that was nearby that was training for, um, women who are deaf. And if it’s hard for women who are not deaf to get jobs, it’s really hard if you’re deaf to get a job. And so they started employing these women because they weren’t leaving school because, you know, they were 19, they had finished school, but they had nowhere to go because they had no employment. 

And so they started that as it since expanded. So they have lots of people making these, but they have all these different animals that they make. They’re needle felted sculptures. They take, they’re incredibly time intensive to make and they do just an incredibly beautiful job. And so I put, um, the gorilla, cause [00:35:00] Rwanda is known for their mountain gorillas. It’s one of the, the mountain that is in Rwanda, also in Uganda and also in, um, the DRC is the one place where these mountain gorillas live. So they do these little mountain gorilla sculptures. And so we put one of those in the bag.

And then another women’s cooperative uses the beautiful African fabrics. Every country in Africa has a different style to the fabric. So these are the Rwandan textiles and beautifully little created little craft, um, project bag that’s in there.

And then I think the last thing, if I’m remembering it all, is a, um, little bit of coffee from Question Coffee. 

And Question Coffee is an organization in Rwanda that is, they grow coffee and it is all women, owners of the farms.

Lesley Whitehead: That’s fantastic. I love that. 

Janet S. Avila: Yeah, so just a little, a little bit of everything in [00:36:00] that. 

Lesley Whitehead: Is it still available? 

Janet S. Avila: Yes, I think we maybe have three left. Yeah, but if people are interested, type in, you know, Hello Hope, um, on our website, stringtheoryyarncompany.com and grab it up. 

Lesley Whitehead: Fantastic. Where do you see your business going in the future?

Janet S. Avila: That’s such a good question. Um, for so long, I was like, I just want to get to 20. Now at 20. I’m like, Hmm. Hmm. What does that mean? And I think it’s an issue in that, you know, looking at my life and going, oh, okay, I’m 63. Um, my husband turned 70 this year. Do we want to, he’s not retired. I’m not retired, but we’d like to travel more. So it’s just, you know, it’s trying to figure out that next phase of your life that I think is really tricky. Wanting to do it just right. Um, I just lost my father last year and I’m working, you know, helping my mom a lot. [00:37:00] And, and so you see kind of what the end looks like like, okay, then I got a lot of living I need to do before that.

So it is, I’m trying, I’m looking at ways of streamlining the business so that maybe I can have more open spaces to be able to get away and still have it run the way I like it to run. Um, I like my fingers in it. So yeah, I just, it’s trying to figure it out. I would definitely like to do more of this yarn tourism thing. And a lot of people have done yarn trips where they take people places. And I’m kind of interested in going myself and kind of, I think it gives me a flexibility if I’m not taking a lot of people, to really dig, um, and go deep and bring that experience to people. So, that’s one of the things that I’m looking at.

Lesley Whitehead: I love that.

Janet S. Avila: Yeah. And then just taking whatever comes up because goodness sakes, retail changes, [00:38:00] every six months or 

Lesley Whitehead: It does. It really does. Do you have any advice for other brick and mortars who haven’t made it to 20 yet maybe and want to get there?

Janet S. Avila: Uh, yes. Okay. So the best advice that was ever given to me, um, I opened my store up. I had no idea what I was doing. None. Never. I had never worked retail. Not even in high school. Um, and so I, I was like, Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing. And, but everybody on the block was curious about this new store that had just opened up. 

And this one woman came down and she’d had her store for a long, long time. And she goes, I’m going to give you one piece of advice. I’m like, okay, good, good. She goes, don’t panic. And I have never forgotten that, there were so many times I’m like, Oh, don’t panic. Panic. Okay, because that would be the first go to, um, reaction to whatever the [00:39:00] situation was. So that’s my best advice. 

And then just keep looking for what’s new and what you can do that’s different and try a bunch of things. Cause yeah, over the 20 years, lots of things did not work. Um, or mistakes were made or, you know, whatever, but you just keep trying to figure out, okay, I guess we’re going to try this now, um, and see what happens. And make it fun for yourself. You’re the driver behind your business. So if you’re not having fun, nobody’s having fun. 

Lesley Whitehead: Right. What advice would you, for someone who hasn’t knit before, how would you get them to get interested in it? Or what would you recommend as far as them trying or, 

Janet S. Avila: So we do have classes and we have online classes. So if people can access it that way. If you would rather learn there’s a lot on YouTube a lot of people learn on YouTube. But my advice for people starting out is, one do [00:40:00] something small. People a lot of times people say oh, I’m gonna do a scarf. Scarves are long, and they take a long time, especially if you are new right? So we do fingerless mitts, we make, in our class, we make little squares and we sew them in half and we leave a little gap for your thumb and now you have a fingerless mitt. You know, and it’s quick and easy and you’ve got a little, um, instant gratification, from that. Woo! I did something! You know? Let’s, let’s move on and do the next one. 

I think it’s hard as an adult to learn something new. And so we try and use these tricks, like make something small. Or, um, we’re big fans, we have yarn that changes color by itself. We call it self striping yarn. And we call that potato chip knitting. Because you can’t stop. You’re like, Oh, the red’s coming up. Oh, what’s the red going to look like? Oh, look. Well, that’s cool. But now I see green is coming up. I want to see what the green’s going to look like. And [00:41:00] so that’s another thing that kind of keep you going. 

And then find a community. Because you’re going to make mistakes. And it’s going to take a while before you can identify your own mistakes and fix them. And so that’s what a local yarn shop is for. You know, get your yarn with us, take classes with us and you can come in every day and we’ll help you, you know, pick up a drop stitch or do whatever.

If you’re not near a local yarn store, then, you know, find a neighbor, find a friend, somebody else that knows how to knit, because knitters and crocheters, I don’t crochet as much, but it’s the same community, are really, excited about knitting and crocheting, and the more people they can convert, the happier they are.

So, you know, people come in and they’re like, so apologetical, I’m so sorry, you know, I was here yesterday, and here I am again today, and I’m like, this makes me so happy. A, you’re still knitting. B, I feel like a rockstar cause I can fix this in like two seconds. And it reminds me of [00:42:00] the time when, Oh yeah, I was just starting and I couldn’t do that either. Um, so yeah, we’re just happy to evangelize.

Lesley Whitehead: I love that. I love that. Then my last question is, um, what is something that people would be surprised to know about you? 

Janet S. Avila: I feel like I’ve talked about this a lot kind of recently, but, you might be surprised to know that I am a part owner of a coffee farm and, 

Lesley Whitehead: I didn’t. 

Janet S. Avila: Um, well, good. Cause I feel like you’re kind of, you know, I like to surprise you. So, um, my husband’s Colombian and many years ago, his, uh, father passed away. And his father had a bunch of different land, property, I guess. And so there were, it’s a big family and there was no will. And so they all kind of fought over who was going to get what. And my husband’s the only Colombian, the only person in his family that’s in the United States. Everybody else is in Colombia. So he’s kind of the [00:43:00] black sheep of the family. And so they, you know, fought over this for years and years and years.

And finally, we’re like, oh, we’re going to give Romero the coffee farm because it’s worth nothing now. It’s been abandoned for 15 years. Um, the guerillas, the military kind, had been there for a while, um, during some hard times in Colombia. And the brothers at different times had sold off parts of the farm machinery, and I mean, it was just a disaster. It’s in a jungle and so imagine if you hadn’t paid any attention to your backyard for 15 years. I mean just imagine that times 100 in the jungle. Anyway, so they were like, yeah, he can take it.

And so we took this property and it meant, it had sentimental value to us, and we just thought, well, this would be kind of a fun project. So, um, we took out some loans and poured a bunch of money into it and planted a bunch of coffee trees or bushes or whatever they are, and have been trying to build this back, have been trying to, we have a family that takes [00:44:00] care of it for us and we treat them very well. And we’re trying to have an impact in the community as well. And, um, yeah, it’s been really fun. 

And then a couple of years ago, um, a good friend, um, introduced me to the coffee lab at North Central College. And that is a coffee lab that was set up for as a project for students, uh, from the accounting to the business, the marketing to the engineers, to everybody has a little piece of it. And they got very excited and said, we’ll roast your coffee for you if you want to drink the coffee that you actually grow. 

Um, so for two years now, we brought back, um, 75 pounds of coffee beans in our suitcases and took them over to North Central and they roasted it up and we’ve, you know, sold some to cover the cost of the flight and, um, and drink the rest. And it’s been really, it’s been really fun. 

Lesley Whitehead: That’s fantastic. Is the coffee sold in Colombia 

Janet S. Avila: Yeah, [00:45:00] so in Colombia you can sell all your coffee, like the government will buy it all, if that’s what you want to do. And you can sell it at various, you can sell it when it’s just picked, you can sell it when it’s dried, the coffee bean is actually a pit, they call it a cherry first, so you pick the cherry, and the pit of that is the coffee bean, and you can sell it wet, you can wait till it dries, you know, there’s a gajillion steps along the way that you could sell it at, it just kind of depends on what’s easiest, basically. 

Lesley Whitehead: Is it sold in in String Theory now or?

Janet S. Avila: Um, we did, but literally we had, oh, no, this year we had 60 bags. And they went, you know, people who know, know.

Lesley Whitehead: Right.

Janet S. Avila: So as soon as it, as soon as it goes on sale, they’re like, Oh, gotta get one. So they’re gone now. And then we’ll, we’ll bring back more coffee in November, um, 

Lesley Whitehead: And increase your prices. 

Janet S. Avila: Well, we did, we did even this year. [00:46:00] It’s, it’s very expensive. A lot of people think it’s very expensive. I think it’s extremely cheap because I know that everything that went into it, but it also, we grow several different kinds of coffee on our farm, but this is the coffee that, um, one of them is Geisha. And that’s the most expensive coffee in the world right now. And the other one that we mix it with is Tabby, and Tabby won some coffee tasting or something. So it’s, it’s, we call it good coffee. It’s really good coffee.

Lesley Whitehead: That’s amazing. Okay. Well, I can’t wait to find out in November when it’s available.

Janet S. Avila: Well, we start selling it in January cause it takes a while to, it’s end of November. It’s Christmas, you know? Yeah. So look for it in January. 

Lesley Whitehead: Pre orders, pre orders.

Janet S. Avila: Exactly. That’s what we should do.

Lesley Whitehead: Janet, thank you so much for being with us today, for sharing this beautiful 20 year story you have with this wonderful [00:47:00] creation you’ve made in String Theory. I love it so much. And I am a new knitter and I’m enjoying myself so much. And I really appreciate all the help that you’re giving me. And I know that everyone out there who is a knitter would appreciate getting on your website, learning more about your business, and participating in the classes that you offer, and purchasing yarn off your beautiful online store. 

Thank you again for being here. You’re a beautiful human and we are lucky to have you. 

Janet S. Avila: Oh, thank you, thank you, I just, I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that you invited me, that you asked me, that you’d be interested in talking to me. So thank you.

Lesley Whitehead: Alright. Have a wonderful day.

Janet S. Avila: You too. 

Lesley Whitehead: Thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you found this episode inspiring as well as entertaining. If you want [00:48:00] more out of the box wisdom from boots on the ground, creative, brave women like this one, subscribe to Her Story So Far podcast wherever you listen, and please share this link with anyone who needs some inspiration. To receive more wisdom in your inbox, sign up for my weekly letter at Lesleywhiteheadphotography. com.

Her Story So Far podcast is produced in conjunction with mad talented executive producer K.O. Myers at Particulate Media. 

Thank you to all my beautiful bold guests, without them there would be no show.

Until next time, get out there and make yourself visible to the world. We need you and your creation. If no one has told you today, you are beautiful.

Her Story So Far

Her Story So Far focuses on outside-the-box conversations with badass female creatives. These women are birthing amazing passion projects in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of their lives. Host Lesley Whitehead is an artist, visual storyteller and multi-passionate marketer. She believes age shouldn’t stop you from achieving your dreams or make you invisible to the world. Join us to be inspired by the wit, wisdom and one-of-a-kind experiences of these amazing women.

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