â€œThe big chains demand that they make so much money per square foot. For example, Sam Walton adored the needlework department and he always insisted on keeping it there. After Sam died it has shrunk every year since. Now they look at dollars, not sentiment.â€
Telephone interview with Jean Leinhauser
DORA: How many years have you been in the needlework industry?
JEAN: Professionally, since 1962, so that's forty-four years.
DORA: And before that you were a hobbyist?
JEAN: I learned to knit when I was a little girl. It was during World War II and my mother was an avid knitter for the Red Cross. I was fascinated by her knitting, and to get me out of her hair she taught me how to do it. The first thing I made was a pair of two-needle purple worsted weight knit mittens. I had silver twelve-inch knitting needs and purple yarn and I thought it was the most beautiful thing Iâ€™d ever seen.
DORA: I bet it was too.
DORA: And crochet, when did you learn it?
JEAN: I had a dear little aunt named Emma who was a beautiful crocheter and she started to teach me how to crochet. I made a hundred eighty-six thousand million miles of chains and she couldnâ€™t teach me to do anything else. She decided I was a total failure. Many years later when I was just starting to work in the needlework field, my first job was as Design Director for the Boye Needle Company. I was in PR and advertising with an agency, and they were one of my clients. They asked me to do a knitting program that could be used in inner city high schools, with lesson plans and books for teachers. It was an award-winning program that continued for four or five years. Then they decided they wanted the program in crochet. Of course I didnâ€™t know how to crochet, and I didnâ€™t want to tell my client that. I had a young assistant from England who said â€œDonâ€™t worry, I know how to crochet and I will write all the technical stuff.â€ It was due to Boye in finished form on the following Monday and this was a Wednesday. I went into the office and unfortunately sheâ€™d had a fight with her husband the night before and had flown back to London never to return. She left me absolutely nothing! I had this meeting with Boye on Monday and what was I going to say? â€œOops, Iâ€™m terribly sorry but I donâ€™t have a crochet program.â€ I was determined to teach myself crochet. This girl had left behind two English books on crochet, so I spent the next four days in my home learning to crochet. My fingers were literally bloody from holding the yarn too tight, and by golly, I taught myself. I learned the English method of holding the yarn, which is why anyone who has ever used my books uses the English method instead of the American method. From then on there was no stopping me.
[American method: Left hand holds fabric with thumb and middle finger, directs yarn with index finger. English method: Left hand holds fabric with thumb and index finger, directs yarn with middle finger.]
DORA: What year was this?
JEAN: This would have been 1964.
DORA: In Chicago?
DORA: Is this what got you so committed to education in this field?
JEAN: I was sure committed to learning how to crochet. I continued to work with Boye and discovered that the company was run entirely by men who didnâ€™t really know how to use any of their tools. I started working on their packaging and most of it was inadequate, so I started writing all the stuff on their packaging. Then I decided it would be fun to do a line of leaflets, because in this country at that time the only people producing patterns were the yarn companies, for their own yarns. I had just recently come back from a trip abroad and found that in England they did a one-fold leaflet with three or four patterns in them instead of these big books. So I thought, why donâ€™t we do these without any mention of specific yarns, just generic yarns. The first one I did for Boye was â€œHot Pants!â€ both knit and crocheted, they were hysterical.
DORA: Wow, Iâ€™d love to see them. Would they look cool today?
JEAN: The hot pants would. Then I realized how much Boye was making on these books, and I thought, this is pretty stupid, here I am sitting at the PR agency not making a great deal of money, why donâ€™t I do this for myself? That was the birth of the concept of Leisure Arts. At that time there was a young man who was the marketing directory at Boye, Ron, and I said to him, â€œWhy donâ€™t we start our own company?â€ He said OK and we started Leisure Arts with four little leaflets. One of them which still ranks as the best-selling leaflet of all time in the industry is called Baby Talk, a wardrobe for babies. I didnâ€™t design them, but a book I did design was a series of knitted sweaters for men and women, shrinks and tanks with horrible designs in them. Also a book of four afghans, and something with a great big red cape on the cover that we photographed dramatically in front of Lake Michigan. That was the start of Leisure Arts and from then on it became a phenomenon. Not everybody can be successful at everything they do, but that just happened to be it. The timing was right, the idea was right. It was the golden age of needlework right then. Needlework shops were all over the country. Knitting was hot, crewel embroidery was hot, latchwork hook was hot and needlepoint was hot. Those were the four most profitable skills in needlework, and all of them were in every shop.
DORA: When was this?
JEAN: I started Leisure Arts in 1971.
DORA: Tell me more about these needlework shops.
JEAN: They were independently owned by wives whose husbands didnâ€™t want them to make any money because they wanted the tax deduction. So the wives didnâ€™t care if they made money and most of them didnâ€™t. They were avid needleworkers themselves and they just had a good time. You might have three or four needlework shops in every town, even in little towns. Stores like Marshall Fields had huge yarn departments where they had a full-time yarn instructor who just sat there in the department teaching. Sears and Montgomery Ward and Penny's all had huge yarn departments. It was a whole different world then than the one we live in today. Thatâ€™s why I say, everything needed for it to be a success was there when we launched Leisure Arts.
DORA: I got into crochet around that time as a hippie, but I think your customers were coming from somewhere else entirely, right?
JEAN: That wasnâ€™t our customer. The hippies were doing their own thing, they wouldnâ€™t have bought a pattern. Our customer was the suburban housewife.
DORA: Did the hippies eventually affect what you were doing?
JEAN: No I donâ€™t think they did.
DORA: I was thinking about granny squares and that kind of thing.
JEAN: Granny squares greatly preceded the hippie movement. They appeared on the scene in about 1891 in England and were called American squares, so they must have originated here.
DORA: When did crochet become more design oriented?
JEAN: Knitting always was more design oriented. Crochet was never fashion design oriented until the last few years. Thereâ€™s a wonderful website called Stitchy Mcyarnpants. Her great joy in life is collecting the funniest patterns she can find from the sixties and seventies and putting them up with comments saying how funny and dreadful they are. Itâ€™s a hoot! Iâ€™ve watched it for years and by golly the other day she had one of my Leisure Arts books up there ! They are sleeveless sweaters, three for women and two for men, the worst things youâ€™ve ever seen! The reason they were sleeveless sweaters is because I didnâ€™t know how to design a sleeve cap yet, so I just left them off. If you want to see what was big during that period go to that site because she has the most wonderful bad designs in the world.
DORA: We are in the middle of a renaissance of needlecraft, and Iâ€™m wondering if you see any societal or economic trends that go hand in hand with this interest? Does it have something to do with times of plenty or the opposite?
JEAN: I donâ€™t think those things have any influence any more. For many years when the economy was slow needlework thrived, because women didnâ€™t have the money to do other things, to eat out or travel, so they stayed home and did needlecraft. This hasnâ€™t held true now for the last ten or fifteen years. The economy seems to have no effect on whatâ€™s going on. We have a much more sophisticated consumer today. She has, over many years now, raised her taste level way beyond what it was in the sixties and seventies. Sheâ€™s exposed to good design through her appliances, furniture, in magazines, everything.
DORA: Iâ€™m trying to get at some of the factors that makes people gain interest in these hobbies-- release from stress?
JEAN: Certainly itâ€™s a stress reliever, but there is an inherent creativity for both men and women. Unfortunately it doesnâ€™t get down to a lot of kids, because their parents and schools donâ€™t encourage them to be innovative and creative. But I think the act of creating is very satisfying, I know it is for me. To sit down and take a piece of string and create something somebody can wear out of it, itâ€™s more than just a stress buster. It is fulfilling a need I have to make something grow. It could be baking bread or gardening. People do it to release stress too. I get so many emails saying, â€œWorking on that afghan saved me while my husband was ill, I donâ€™t know what I would have done if I hadnâ€™t had that to work on.â€ Or it got me through that divorce. Thereâ€™s no doubt thereâ€™s an emotional component to knitting and crocheting and in all forms of needlework.
DORA: So true. Tell me about ASN.
JEAN: I left Leisure Arts in 1977. I had gotten very involved in advanced things like gold and silk embroidery and I wanted to start a school like the Royal School of Needlework of London in this country. I actually started the school, the American School of Needlework (ASN), which ran for about four years and I lost a great deal of money. We taught at the professional level, and everyone wanted to take classes but nobody wanted to pay for them. After I lost all this money I decided to go back to making books, which I knew how to do. We kept the ASN name but changed our slogan to say, â€œWe teach through the written word.â€ It was a sneaky way to get back into publishing.
DORA: Did you have a particular focus?
JEAN: No, we did everything, and thatâ€™s why were successful for so long. We werenâ€™t in one niche. We were very very big in cross stitch, we were very big for a while in plastic canvas and we did a lot with knitting and crocheting, more in crocheting because there were fewer publishers doing it, so that was a richer field for us. If one skill would go down and become less popular, and they always did, we had all the others. Thatâ€™s why we were able to hang on so long when others went out of business.
DORA: How many in the company?
JEAN: At our peak we had forty-five full time employees.
DORA: A major outfit. Who was buying, the same little shops, or were there now chain stores?
JEAN: The chains had started up and they made us. We were one of the main vendors to Walmart. By that time, when the chains entered the field, the little shops disappeared.
DORA: The yarn was not at the department store any more either, right?
JEAN: Thatâ€™s right. The women who had been running the little shops were now divorced, so the husbands didnâ€™t need the loss any more. They all went back to work.
DORA: What got the yarn out of the department stores? Competition from the chains?
JEAN: I think it was the profit margins. The big chains demanded that they make so much money per square foot. For example, Sam Walton adored the needlework department and he always insisted on keeping it there. After Sam died it has shrunk every year since. Now they look at dollars, not sentiment. K-mart was very big in the needlework field, but then they dropped it completely. This is true for a number of companies. The corporate giants of today are not the same companies they were back then, not as much run by the pencil pushers as they are today. Now they have to deliver a certain amount of dollars per square foot per day and if they donâ€™t theyâ€™re out of there.
DORA: How as all this affected the yarn companies?
JEAN: The yarn companies, unless they sell to the chains, donâ€™t make much money. Most yarn today is sold to the chains. There are a few smaller imported yarn companies that donâ€™t, and they do very well because they are not supporting a lot of people. And the bulk of books are sold in chains too.
DORA: What happened to ASN?
JEAN: I sold it to DRG, the owners of Annieâ€™s Needlecraft shop and then for two years I stayed with them as editor of their magazine, Crochet! Then my contract with them was fulfilled and I wanted to go off on my own and do hardcover books. And thatâ€™s what I did, and Rita and I are still doing.
DORA: About Annie's Attic, was Annie Potter doing something like what you were doing?
JEAN: She was a book publisher, yes. She started two years after I started ASN., selling by mail order through McCalls and other crafts magazines. There were a lot in those days, many more than there are today. Sheâ€™s an amazing talented woman and a friend for mine, and had a great deal of success. Then she sold it to DRG.
DORA: What were some of these craft magazines?
JEAN: Ladies Home Journal had one. Womanâ€™s Day and Family Circle had huge needlework departments within their magazines. There must be ten or eleven separate craft magazines of all types It was so popular, but then when they got less popular they all died.
DORA: When you were editor of Crochet! how did you like that job?
JEAN: Iâ€™d never done anything like that before and Iâ€™m glad I had the experience, but I donâ€™t think itâ€™s my thing. I much prefer doing books.
JEAN: You donâ€™t have a lot of space in a magazine to do things. Everything has to be shorter, more condensed, and I prefer to write longer patterns so people understand it better.
DORA: Why did a company like DRG get so interested and eat up all these needlework outfits?
JEAN: When they started they were not DRG. They started as a printing company in Indiana printing a group of magazines called Women's World or something like that. When the publisher decided to retire, this little printing company didn'tâ€™t want to lose the business, so they bought the magazines. Then they bought Annieâ€™s Attic, then the Needlecraft Shop, which was started by Annieâ€™s husband when they split. They became a publishing powerhouse and renamed the whole thing DRG, Dynamic Resource Group.
DORA: When you choose a design to publish, what are you looking for?
JEAN: Something that will make people buy my book. In other words, Iâ€™m looking for what people will want to make.
DORA: How do you know what that is?
JEAN: Thatâ€™s from years of experience, and Iâ€™m not always right. A lot of it is gut feeling, you have to be aware of whatâ€™s going on in the world, and in the fashion world. I read every magazine thatâ€™s printed in the English language. I spend a great deal of time on the internet reading the chat rooms for people who do all sorts of needlework.
DORA: What are some of the trends? Quick and simple?
JEAN: No, I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s a trend. When you think about the fact that in crochet, the things people make most are afghans, thatâ€™s a pretty big project. And in knitting, what people make most is sweaters, which is not the easiest thing in the world. I think people make what they want to make. What matters to them is whether itâ€™s within their skill level. If it looks like they can make it I donâ€™t think they worry about how much time it takes.
DORA: Itâ€™s interesting to hear you say that, because Iâ€™m always reading the opposite from editors.
JEAN: Well I donâ€™t agree with them.
DORA: Right now youâ€™re working on an afghan book, which means you think people want to make those.
JEAN: People never stop wanting to make more afghans, and it can drive you crazy when youâ€™ve already designed three billion of them. You look for different ways to do them. I recently did a book for Leisure Arts, Fifty Borders for Afghans, because I got tired of fringe on afghans, and I designed borders that go all the way around all four sides and may be tailored or lacy.
DORA: Do you have any explanation for the insatiability of the appetite for afghans?
JEAN: Yes, I do, because crocheters give away most of what they make, and knitters keep most of what they make, and thereâ€™s a good reason for that. Knitters spend a great deal of money on yarn, much more than crocheters do. If you spend $200 on yarn for a sweater, youâ€™re probably not going to give it away, but you can spend $25 or 30 for yarn for an afghan, and give that away. You may be right in that crocheters want quicker projects than knitters since theyâ€™re going to give it away, but if you look at some of the magnificent doilies that crocheters make, thatâ€™s sure not quick and itâ€™s sure not easy, and they turn out hundreds and thousands of them.
DORA: It's true, for a lot of people itâ€™s a real craft and they have a certain pride in what they can accomplish.
JEAN: Thatâ€™s right. Also, afghans make great gifts. They donâ€™t have to fit anybody. You could make a potholder, but thatâ€™s not a very wonderful gift. But a beautiful afghan as a wedding present, or as a baby present -- probably the most crocheted afghans are baby afghans. Everybody knows someone whoâ€™s having a baby, no matter what your age. If you're a grandmother youâ€™re having grandchildren, if youâ€™re twenty years old your friend is having her first baby. So thereâ€™s a logical reason for afghans being the biggest thing.
DORA: About these well-known differences between knitters and crocheters, do you think thatâ€™s changing?
DORA: Not at all?
JEAN: Not at all.
DORA: What about all these magazines trying to lure people into more fashion?
JEAN: I think theyâ€™re trying to lure crocheters into buying more magazines. Theyâ€™re not trying to change knitters into crocheters. Crocheters do not buy magazines the way knitters do. I see it a lot on the internet chat groups, theyâ€™ll say, â€œOh dear, I canâ€™t find the latest issue of Crochet! in my neighborhood newsstand,â€ Well thatâ€™s because most of them donâ€™t have it. And my thought is, â€œOK, subscribe to these magazines.â€ And they say, â€œNo, because I want to be sure I want to make everything thatâ€™s in the magazine.â€ Knitters donâ€™t do that, they subscribe to the magazine.
DORA: Is that an economic thing?
JEAN: Itâ€™s a different demographic.
DORA: Were there important designers from the recent past whoâ€™ve made a real impact on crochet? Like Barbara Walker or Elizabeth Zimmermann have on knitting?
JEAN: They were not designers. Barbara Walkerâ€™s fame came from her compendium of knitting stitches. And Zimmermann was not a high fashion designer, she was a technician. The majority of knitting is technique, much more than design. They were tremendously influential in their way, but not as designers. Horst Shulz and others like that have taken it to a much higher level.
DORA: Have there been people like that in crochet?
JEAN: No I really donâ€™t think so. People like Lily Chin have made an impact, but as popular and talented as she is, itâ€™s not the same thing. Walker and Zimmerman were teaching a generation how to do a craft.
DORA: Can you talk about what itâ€™s like to deal with a publisher?
JEAN: We never have any trouble with the publisher. Weâ€™ve been doing it so long, they just tell us what they want and we do it. And we mostly work with two or three different publishers.
DORA: Do you go to the publisher with an idea, or do they come to you?
JEAN: Rita goes to New York and talks to the publisher. She proposes ideas and they say yes or no.
DORA: Once they say yes, itâ€™s left entirely in your hands?
JEAN: I do the instruction writing and Rita does a lot of the production. She works with the photographer and the layout artist and things like that.
DORA: And the publisher is not involved in any of that?
JEAN: No, we just give them a disc.
DORA: Thatâ€™s because you are such trusted, known entities.
JEAN: Thatâ€™s why I say I shouldnâ€™t talk about it in terms of people getting started, because there is a whole science to putting together a proposal and working and building relationships which I donâ€™t know anything about because weâ€™ve been doing it so long.
DORA: Tell me about you and Rita and how it all started.
JEAN: Rita was head of the needlework department at Dover Publishing in New York. I was in Chicago. We each kept coming out with the exact same books at the exact same time. Hers always came out sooner and cheaper, I maintain mine were better, so we were bitter enemies, but we didnâ€™t know each other. One day we happened to meet at a trade show and absolutely adored each other. This was long before I left Leisure Arts and we swore that some day we would work together. And we did. She joined us at ASN in 1980 after a long and successful career at Dover. We worked together there till 2002, when I sold the company to DRG.
DORA: And now, you two are still going strong with hardcover books. Whatâ€™s on the horizon right now?
JEAN: That we donâ€™t talk about.
DORA: Judging from the crochet and knitting books youâ€™ve put out recently, sales are good.
JEAN: Sales are very good. Right now thereâ€™s such a demand for crochet books, because there are fewer people who can produce them than there are people who can do knitting books. But thatâ€™s going to stop, suddenly, boom, itâ€™s going to stop.
DORA: Whoâ€™s buying these books? The same people who are making the afghans, or is it a new audience?
JEAN: I think thereâ€™s a new audience because crochet has become a fashion trend. Thatâ€™s bringing back a lot of crocheters. Back in the day -- in the late eighties, crocheted collars were hot. That was the most recent fashion trend until now, and we sold over a million of our crocheted collar books. We know therefore that there were a million people out there who could crochet fashion. And then they disappeared when the collar disappeared. They didnâ€™t decide to make afghans or baby clothes, they just left the field. Those people could be coming back. But I really donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t really care who they are, as long as they buy the books.
DORA: What about the impact of the internet?
JEAN: The internet has had in many ways a very negative impact for those of us who are publishers. Number one, they are constantly ripping us off, putting out patterns on the internet for free. And there are so many legitimately free patterns on the internet that people donâ€™t want to spend money to buy them. Thatâ€™s had a major effect on pattern publishing.
DORA: What about creating communities and learning, do you see of that as positive?
JEAN: Rita and I own Crochet Partners, which is a group of 3,000 crocheters from all over the world. Every day I read every word, and there might be 300 messages a day. Ninety percent of them say, where can I get a free pattern, none of them ever say where can I buy a pattern. A woman came on the other day and said â€œI saw the most adorable top, it cost $5.95, does anyone know where I can get something like that for free?â€ I want to say dammit, spend the $5.95 and keep that designer designing. So no, I donâ€™t think these groups have helped, theyâ€™ve hurt pattern sales. Chat groups are fun for people and they help spread the word about new trends. Certainly I read them to see what people want to make. I had no idea how hot making dishcloths was, until I went on a few years ago and found that out. At ASN we did several dishcloth books and they sold like crazy, and I never would have known about that if it werenâ€™t for the chat groups.
DORA: What would you tell someone who is getting into the field today, do you have some advice for the new designer?
JEAN: (Lots of chuckling) Well . . . itâ€™s hard to tell, because we are in a peak right now, lots of knitting and crochet, and that peak is not going to last. So I would say be wary, get in quickly, do what you want to do and be prepared for it to drop. Thereâ€™s always going to be opportunity. Every day thereâ€™s a new book or new magazine coming out. Thereâ€™s always going to be a need for good designers, and out of any hundred designers, maybe one is really good.
DORA: Do you get a lot of submissions that you reject?
DORA: Whatâ€™s a typical number of submission you get when you put out a call?
JEAN: It depends what it is. If itâ€™s an afghan book, weâ€™d get a ton of entries. Out of thirty-five sent in we might take ten or fifteen. If itâ€™s a fashion book we get far fewer, and if we find a good designer we might ask her to design two or three more things. I find a lot of designers on the internet at their own sites, if their selling or even offering free patterns, and I might ask them to do something for us.
DORA: Well, I am so glad I am one of the people you liked! Thank you so much Jean, I think this exhausts my list of questions.
JEAN: Youâ€™re always welcome to call again if thereâ€™s something you want to know. I wish I could tell you where the industryâ€™s going but I canâ€™t.
DORA: We all know thatâ€™s a big question mark.
JEAN: A lot of people think they know where itâ€™s going, but I really donâ€™t.