On a crisp, fall morning in Granby, Connecticut, sixty-two-year-old Marji LaFreniere is just finishing her morning walk. Her silver hair brushes against a sweater bursting with bright, neon colors that rival the reds and oranges in the trees around the property. She has a strong, roman-shaped nose, warm brown eyes, and a thin but infectious smile. There are several structures on LaFreniere’s property; a shed-sized building that serves as a guest house with another little one behind it. Marji’s Yarncrafts is housed in a tall grey building with white trim, which doubles as LaFreniere’s home in the upper levels. She smiles and waves as she walks up to the store’s entrance and opens the white wooden door. “Come right in!” she welcomes, gesturing me inside.
LaFreniere bought and renamed Marji’s Yarncrafts thirty-two years ago, after experimenting with many professions but never finding one that truly piqued her interest. Buying the store was “really a fluke, because I was in there, and I heard the owner talking about, ‘Oh, I should just sell and move down south,’” LaFreniere explained. “And so, I sort of finagled around to come in and say, ‘Oh, I heard or that you were selling’ and I bought it!” Through a stroke of cosmic luck, it seems she stumbled into her true life’s calling that day.
It is warm and quiet inside. Small windows peek out behind displays, bathing the whole store in soft, cozy light. Products are arranged with the haphazard organization unique to arts-and-crafts shops. Yarn in every color, size, and material imaginable pops from white square shelving. Prices, knitting needle gauges, and finished projects line the sides. Groups of miniature woolen sheep guard the yarn from above. The weathered, red wooden floors creak as LaFreniere breezes through the space. Through a rectangular doorway leading from the main space into another room full of materials, LaFreniere, perched at a cluttered craft table, watches and beams with pride, as if she too is seeing this for the first time.
LaFreniere fell in love with knitting at an early age. “I was probably ten or eleven; you know, I was a preteen. My mom taught me, and then I forgot how to knit,” she says, adjusting herself in her chair. “And then I kind of taught [myself] later when I was maybe nineteen or twenty, and I’ve just really never stopped since then.” Her rediscovery of the hobby would later blossom into a flourishing business.
Marji’s Yarncrafts is more than just a knitting supply store; it offers classes taught by LaFreniere and other instructors. The content ranges from beginner activities, like basic purl and knit stitches, to more advanced instruction, such as full sweaters that require techniques like cabling or intricate edgework. Her favorite class to teach is called “Knit, Chat, and Get Help.”
“Those are the classes where you bring along something that you’re already working on, or that’s a little outside your comfort range. And you can get help on it,” She admits she is more comfortable in the background, allowing guest instructors to do their own thing in the space that she provides.
LaFreniere enjoys meeting the interesting people that come to share in the magic of her store. She feels knitting is more than just a craft; it is a connected network of people from all walks of life. “Even customers who haven’t been in for years and years, I sometimes still think about them and wonder what they’re doing.” She gazes out the window running perpendicular to the table across from her as she speaks, no doubt calling someone specific to mind.
She has made many connections through the store and its surrounding community. “I have a couple old friends that were before [the store], but almost everybody else that I know in this world, I met through my business … I have so many sweet and wonderful customers,” LaFreniere explains. “Because people come in and take more time than they would in a lot of places. They chat. I hear a lot of stories. They are kind people, who bring me goodies, you know, send me thank you notes. And that’s huge.” She confesses she saves some of these notes and trinkets. Some she reserves for herself, but others line displays as charming tributes to the store’s history.
Despite the hardships small businesses are facing during the coronavirus pandemic, Marji’s Yarncrafts has adapted. “I was closed entirely for about two months. And during those two months, I was very busy doing mail orders. And porch pickup.” She leaves orders on the store’s porch for customers to pick up safely. “Once I reopened, it has taken until now for it to feel busy during the hours I’m open. Shorter hours than I used to be.” She looks around the store wistfully, as if picturing the bustling environment it used to be.
LaFreniere believes it’s important to give back to the community whenever she can. “I always have garbage bags full of donation yarn. Right now, I don’t. I just gave a bunch away. But you know, upstairs in my attic, I’ve got piles of stuff so that I can do that,” she says, pointing up at the ceiling. Crafters with extra yarn can drop bags off at the shop for LaFreniere to donate to different groups in need.
One group LaFreniere enjoys working with is an organization called “Knitted Knockers,” which organizes volunteers to provide free, handmade breast prosthetics for women who have undergone mastectomies due to breast cancer. It began when one of the volunteers happened to come into the store.
“A customer got in touch with me. To ask me to kind of promote this, and I want to promote whatever I can promote, but I can’t do the groundwork for it, because I’m too busy doing so much other work. So I’m like, ‘Yes, if you can do the stuff for me, drop things off, whatever.’ So, she brought me a couple [flyers],” she says, sitting back in the plastic chair and gesturing at the counter where they once sat in stacks near the register.
Now, LaFreniere invites volunteers to knit in the shop’s workspace, as well as donating yarn they use to make the prosthetics. The process is simple. Volunteers use special, non-irritating yarn to knit different sized prosthetics that can be worn in bras and underneath shirts, providing survivors with an alternative to implants.
“There’s very specific yarns that they ask for if you want to do it through the organization,” LaFreniere explains, holding up examples; spools of worsted, the knitters medium, sized yarn in muted greys and blues with a soft-looking sheen. “So, I carried a few of those yarns and that just sort of got people interested.”
Before the coronavirus shortened service hours, the group would gather monthly to knit prosthetics to be donated to local clinics. “All the Knitted Knockers that they make are going to local people,” LaFreniere says.
The door’s bell jingles, signaling that our time has come to an end. LaFreniere stands to greet her employee.
“I’m a good problem solver,” LeFreniere said at the beginning of the interview. Her lighthearted demeanor changes to professionalism as her real day begins. The two women huddle over an order, scanning it intensely for mistakes.
LaFreniere has expertly weaved herself, and her shop, into the fabric of her community. Marji’s Yarncrafts offers an inviting and unique environment to Connecticut knitters. No matter how much yarn bought, or how many sweaters made, a return visit is never too far away.
Ava Couchon is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Headline Photo Credit: Ava Couchon