An unlikely business – hand-dyeing wool – is proving to be a Main Street success, even without a storefront

  • Lexie Hodgkins (left) and owner Sonya Brazell look for the sparkle patterns in the drying wool in the front window of Woolen Boon on South Main Street. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Sonya Brazell drys out the wool after adding sparkles to the product. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • What once was an in-home business has grown so much, Ryan and Sonya Brazell moved to a South Main Street location for Woolen Boon. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Lexie Hodgkins squeezes out newly-dyed wool at Wooen Boon on South Main Street. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Stay-at-home parent pursues a passion, decides to create a business, the family buys equipment and rents some space, the other parent quits the day job, they hire help and then …

Then what? Usually, then everything goes bust because it was more of a money-sucking hobby than a profitable business.

So when the news came that a Concord family had rented a South Main Street storefront to hand-color wool and sell it to knitters as part of the “indie dye” movement – the fabric world’s version of the local-food movement – it seemed the old pattern was set to be repeated. Fun hobby, lousy business.

Well, maybe not.

“We’re on track to gross $300,000, $325,000 this year. … We hit our five-year goal in the first year,” said Ryan Brazell, who runs the business side of Woolen Boon at 59 S. Main St., in the former home of Spank Alley skate shop. This summer, he quit his management job at Whole Foods after 12 years to work full-time at Woolen Boon.

“This is not a hobby business,” said his wife, Sonya, who does the dyeing and started Woolen Boon. “I can’t believe how fast this has grown.”

In May, the couple moved the business out of their home, where it had taken over the living room, kitchen and even the shower rod (useful to hang drying wool). There are weeks, they said, when they produce 1,000 skeins of colored wool, each between 250 and 450 yards long, depending on weight and type of wool, to meet wholesale demand from shops throughout the U.S. and even one in Australia. Oddly, they have only one wholesale customer in New Hampshire, and they would like to fix that.

Woolen Boon started in the spring of 2016, as Sonya’s latest experiment looking for some extra income while raising their three children, now 11, 10 and 4.

“I don’t mind just trying things,” said the Pennsylvania native, pointing to her stint in the Navy as an example.

An effort selling knitted garments didn’t pan out – “people don’t want to spend $80 on a hand-knitted sweater” – so Sonya decided to move one step back on the production chain.

“I didn’t know anything about dyeing,” she admitted. Fortunately, the internet has created a terrific at-home instruction system: “I learned everything from YouTube videos.”

She soon found that she had fit into a niche of folks who are willing to pay for quality wool – Woolen Boon’s products are at least twice the price of roughly similar skeins from commercial firms, although palettes and designs differ – which is made by hand from a specific source.

Ryan, 35, and Sonya, 32, know this demographic because they seem to fit the “hipster” stereotype, complete with colorful tattoos, Ryan’s ear gauges – large plugs in his earlobes – and their recently purchased cargo bicycle, which they use to commute to and from their home near White Park.

Their one regret is that they buy their Merino wool from overseas – it is purchased by a U.S. wholesaler from sheep farms in Peru and Ecuador – because there isn’t enough dependable production anywhere in the Northeast.

“We’d like to buy local but just can’t get it,” Sonya said. 

They say business has grown right from the beginning, without the need to take out any loans. It has almost grown too much.

“Our summer was rough. Seven day weeks, 12 hours a day,” said Sonya. Fortunately, growth was fast enough that they could hire Lexie Hodgkins and return to a normal work schedule.

Growth is a relative term, of course. Woolen Boon has just one non-family employee and they do everything by hand.

During an interview, Sonya and Lexie, a 2011 Concord High School graduate, prepared a dozen trays of wool skeins, in different colors of dyed liquid that use a citric acid fixer, and put the trays into three steam cabinets, a relatively recent purchase. There, they bake at 180 degrees for at least an hour, as the first step in the roughly two-day process of creating each skein, which retails for close to $30.

Ryan’s dozen years at Whole Foods, including time as a produce manager, are vital, he said, because Whole Foods makes managers responsible for everything in their department, including such vital business details as meeting payroll and maintaining a proper sales-to-purchase ratio. That experience is one reason that Woolen Boon is bucking the tiny-startup failure trend.

The business is still definitely bare-bones. The 1,200 square-foot space on South Main Street hasn’t really been decorated, has no sign, and holds a diverse selection of furniture to allow so their children can play, chill out or help out as necessary. On sunny days, they dry the wool by hanging it in the window, which draws an occasional curious visitor.

Visitors are fine, they say, but they have no plans to open a retail store because of the need for staffing. They do sell directly to knitters through their website, having moved away from Etsy to boost their profit, and are toying with taking supplies to fiber fairs, large events where they can sell directly to knitting enthusiasts.

One thing that they will guide their future decisions, they say, is family life. One of the best things about the success of Woolen Boon is that it let them hire Hodgkins so they can have dinner together, and weekends and holidays regardless of the pressures of retail.

For example, Sonya noted: “This is the first Thanksgiving we’re going to have it with my family.” Previously, Ryan always had to work.

“You don’t have to get burnt out to succeed,” she added.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)