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A new project makes it easy for Philadelphians to put down their phones and get creative with their hands — for free.
Nailed to a brick wall on a busy section of Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy is a small cabinet with a clear door. Inside is a luscious bounty of color: piles and piles of yarn, plus complements like needles and patterns. On the front is a carefully lettered nameplate reading “Little Free Fiber Library.”
Each morning the wooden shelf fills up, and by the end of the day the supplies are gone, said Liz Sytsma, proprietor of Wild Hand yarn shop, to which the cabinet is attached.
“Every single day it empties,” Sytsma said, noting that attention has been steadily growing over its 3 to 4 weeks in existence. “People really seem to like it.”
There are more than 90,000 registered Little Free Library boxes across 91 countries, according to the global booksharing movement’s website, but Wild Hand’s is likely one of the first dedicated to fabric crafts. Sytsma can tell because of the response she got after posting on Instagram.
“I was surprised,” Sytsma said. “Yarn shops all over the country reached out. Also people from all over wanting to put yarn in it.”
She can’t recall exactly when the idea to create the give-and-take repository popped into her head, but she remembers thinking about it soon after her store’s launch in April 2019. After consulting designs provided by the national nonprofit, she enlisted her father, retired teacher Vic Schuster, to build a custom locker. It proved to be a huge hit.
“Does this come with free knitting lessons? I need a new hobby post PhD,” one person posted on Twitter.
“Oh this is pure magic!” commented another person on Instagram.
Knitting and other needlework has been experiencing a major resurgence over the past couple decades. The growing prevalence of Philly yarn bombers is local proof of its growing popularity. Another example: one of the industry’s biggest annual conferences, the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, drew about 12,000 people to its 2007 event. By 2016, attendance had more than tripled.
‘A way to invite folks in’
Wild Hand, which caters to people interested in knitting, stitching, crochet, weaving, macrame and rug hooking, among other fabric crafts, is a big career shift for Sytsma.
Now 38, the Kennett Square native previously spent a decade as executive director for CultureWorks Philadelphia. She views the shop as an opportunity to put into practice some of the community-building concepts she learned there.
With a population of 30,000 or so, West Mt. Airy is a very mixed-income neighborhood, Sytsma noted. The average household income is close to $90k, while the median household income is much lower, around $56k.
Supplies on her shelves run toward the high end cost-wise, Sytsma said, because she tries to source locally and from marginalized communities, and wants to offer people a fair price for their products. But inclusion is a huge goal — one that the Little Free Fiber Library helps achieve.
“It’s a way to have the community participate in the store, a way to offer supplies for free,” Sytsma said.
Anyone who takes supplies from the free library is welcome to come inside the shop and have their yarn wound, or ask advice, or just sit down at the tables and start working on a project.
Customers at Wild Hand run from kids just getting into the craft to octogenarians thrilled their knitting habit is now hip again, Sytsma said. They often come together, as grandparents look for hands-on activities to engage their grandchildren.
Sytsma also donates supplies to nearby Interim House, a recovery treatment center for women.
The emotional benefits of handcrafting have been studied, she noted. Knitting has been shown to help with anxiety, loneliness and other mental health issues. “Every day we have people that come in that say this is their therapy — making them feel calmer and happier and more satisfied.”
If her Little Free Fiber Library helps more people take advantage of this, it’ll have served a good purpose, she said.
“I’m very interested in getting new learners,” Sytsma said, “and this felt like a way to invite folks in.”