Paraphrasing William Shakespeare

To paraphrase Dick the Butcher in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 Act 4 Scene 2:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the MBAs

OK that may be a bit harsh. What’s prompted it is a bit convoluted; bear with me.

The story starts in the Shetland Islands, north-east of Scotland. A particular style of knitting has evolved there, called Fair Isle, which involves creating intricate patterns of colourwork — here’s a few examples:

uw_henry_viii_body.jpg
That’s the body of a Fair Isle sweater in the process of being knit — the pattern is, I believe, called Henry VIII.

uw_henry_viii_detail.jpg
This is a detail of Henry.

uw_reef_vest.jpg
This one’s a Fair Isle vest; the pattern is called Reef, I think.

In case you’re wondering, these were knit by my wife, K, and she’s the one who passed on a bit of information that led to me writing this.

You see, in order to knit Fair Isle, you need a huge palette of colours, in subtle gradations. What’s more, you may only need a small amount of some of the accent colours — possibly less than a full skein or ball for one pattern. You might use the leftovers of the colour for another pattern, perhaps not.

The results, I think, speak for themselves… the garments can be simply stunning.

What, you ask, does that have to do with paraphrasing Old Will and wishing harm to MBAs?

Well, there are principally two manufacturers of real Shetland yarn for Fair Isle knitting: Jamiesons of Shetland and Jamieson and Smith Shetland Wool Brokers. And it seems that the latter, known as J & S in the knitting community, has announced that they will be discontinuing about half of the their colour palette.

Apparently, the company has been bought by an English firm from the mainland. And they’ve decided that because the minimum economic production run for a colour is something like 1780 skeins, that the business can’t be run profitably with such a large range of colours — particularly when some of the accent colours do not sell in high volume (for the reason noted above).

Now, I’m all for running a business at a profit; that’s not what’s got me going here. It’s the stunningly shortsighted inability of some off-shore management group (likely composed at least in good measure of young MBAs hungry to make a name for themselves) to understand the fundamental nature of the business.

Dropping half the colours from the palette is not going to achieve the desired result, which I expect they believe will be increased inventory turns on the remaining colours. But it doesn’t work that way — you can’t knit Fair Isle properly without the subtle gradations of colour; removing half the palette will just destroy the beauty of the pattern. In fact it will make it un-knittable, as you can’t just say “Right, can’t get that accent colour anymore, I’ll just use a bit more of this other colour they still make”.

An analogy would be if Crayola were to decide that it’s really not cost effective to put 64 different colours in a jumbo box of crayons, and then eliminate a whole whack of them — maybe you’d get 4 crayons of each of just 16 colours instead.  I mean, really, who needs that many colours — MBAs seem to get along fine with just black and red ink, and the less of the red the better.  Surely kids will be just as happy to draw a less colourful, more homogenized world — won’t they?

So it’s quite likely, at least in my opinion, that in the end they’ll sell less yarn overall. Not a good way to increase your inventory turns and profits.  And, more’s the pity, there will be fewer Fair Isle garments knit; perhaps eventually the style will die out — what a loss that would be.

But I suppose they’ve run a case study, built an economic model based on some assumptions learned at MBA school and ran the numbers to determine that this, the conventional (business) wisdom, is The Answer To The Problem.

I suppose the point of all this, the Unconventional Wisdom on the matter, is that a business is more than a case study: it’s knowing how the product is really used, the history, the culture and — most of all — knowing your customers.  From what K has said, from reading between the lines it appears that the people working at the J & S mill in the Shetlands have been quietly encouraging knitters to bring this small fact to the attention of the new owners, before it’s too late — because they, not the MBAs, know what Fair Isle knitters want.

Oh, and once we’re done with the MBAs, we can resume Dick the Butcher‘s original plan and go after the lawyers… ;)

PS feel free to submit all your favourite MBA or lawyer jokes in the comments; here’s one to start:

Q: What’s brown and black and looks good on a lawyer?

A: A pack of Dobermans.  :D

6 Responses to Paraphrasing William Shakespeare

  1. Marina says:

    You should read this. They say one thing there and then do something that is going to hurt those of us who knit and promote Fair Isle knitting. What hasn’t really come out is that they’ve been experimenting with “other lines” including handpainted yarns and testing the market by taking it to wool and fiber festivals in England. These, according to them, are being introduced in April.

    Oh, by the way, the vest is Morning Glory ;-)

  2. Rob says:

    Mmm… interesting, Marina. Sounds like they’re working on “re-branding” Shetland yarn to sell to a wider market. The question is: will anyone in the knitting community really care about another handpaint, just because it’s made from Shetland sheep wool?

    Some will buy it just because it’s new, but once the initial flurry dies down, will there be enough differentiation to sustain sales over the long term — and if not, will the owners just pull the plug on the whole business? Not a good thing for Fair Isle knitters (although the folks at Jamiesons may end up benefiting from it if they end up being the lone source).

    And, yes, Herself pointed out to me that the vest is Morning Glory and not Reef (which she also has on the go) — after all, I did say “I think” :) that was what it was called.

  3. Ted says:

    I’m going to be watching this one, because I think it wil be interesting to see if they really do manage to keep Shetland wool as a separate entity, and not turn it into yet another line of handpainted yarns, for example. Much will depend on their pattern support for the yarns, which , I think, J&S itself has not done a good job of. A line of decent space dyed yarn with good pattern support that gives you a garment that looks like a true Fair Isle sweater would be very appealing to a lot of knitters.

  4. Thu says:

    I stumbled upon your blog when I was Google-ing for patterns for Fair Isle. Where did your wife get the Henry VIII pattern? I think it looks beautiful and was thinking of making a bag with a pattern like that.

  5. Rob says:

    Thu,

    The Henry VIII pattern is from the book Tudor Roses by Alice Starmore, which I believe is no longer in print — here’s a link to the listing on Amazon.com:

    http://www.amazon.com/Tudor-Roses-Alice-Starmore/dp/0962558680

  6. this doesnt help me at all… suuuuuuuuuckisssshhhhh!!!!

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