A long-time passion for knitting has Wapta Knitting Co. owner Alexis Poirier seeing success in Calgary and across Canada. Spearheading her own Etsy store and selling goods to places as far as Japan, Alexis tells A Quarter Young about how creating handmade knits for customers has turned a family craft, with connections to her Cree roots, into a thriving business.
Read more below:
1. When were you first introduced to knitting? Does the craft hold a special significance to you/your family?
I first learned how to knit when I was about six, with my maternal grandmother, who I was very close to. My brother and I would sleep over at her house, we’d watch whatever program was on CBC (or the local hockey game) and we would knit. Years later, when I went to graduate school at the University of Saskatchewan, I met one of my good friends, Amy. We’d spend way too many nights knitting together, as she taught me the more intricate skills of the trade, procrastinating rather than doing our research. Amy and I both live in Calgary now and knit together on a regular basis. When I watch a hockey game or CBC, I often think of my grandmother and my first first introduction to knitting.
2. People always say that knitting is very therapeutic. Why is the craft so beneficial for our bodies and minds?
I work two jobs that require me to work with the public on a daily basis. As well, most of my friends would probably describe me as outgoing, extroverted and always busy, although I think I am fairly introverted and shy. Knitting relaxes me and gives me time to myself, where I can calm my mind and focus on something I enjoy. After a long day at work, my reprieve is always found in a few knit rows.
3. Did you always want to create your own brand?
Never. I worked in retail for many years and am aware of how much work goes into building a brand.
4. What lead you to launching Wapta Knitting Co.?
My boyfriend – he always said I knit nice items and should sell them to people who would appreciate a handknit product, such as a toque. He also insisted I only use good quality yarn, since I put a lot of time into knitting each item. I tend to agree with him.
5. What is the significance behind the brand’s name?
I hated the idea of coming up with a name. I don’t see myself as a creative person, so I really struggled with this. I knew I wanted something that was important to me. “Wapta” is the Cree word for “Running Water” and a lot of my ancestry is Cree, particularly on my mother’s side. Each year, my partner and I do a multi-day hike with another couple that we are good friends with. Together, we have hiked the Wapta Traverse, which is one of my favourite trips we’ve done. Each night, while sitting in a backcountry hut deep in the mountains, I would knit after dinner, as my way to disengage for the evening. The name reminds me of hard work and fun times on the traverse.
6. How old were you when you launched Wapta Knitting Co.? What do you know now that you wish you could have told yourself back when the brand was just starting to emerge?
I was 33. The one thing I wish I knew was that I don’t need to compete with every other knitter out there! It’s important to create your own brand, one that speaks to its own style and quality, rather than worrying about what other people are doing with their business.
7. How did you decide to launch Wapta Knitting Co.?
I decided to just go for it in October 2014. I ended up going with a soft launch, which was great, because it gave me time to gather feedback from customers and continue to work on improving my product line.
8. You’re originally from Winnipeg – what’s your favourite part about that city?
I love Winnipeg! There’s so much that’s great about it, but I’d have to say I miss the people, the beach and gelato the most.
9. Do you ever travel back home to visit?
Often. As much as people knock Winnipeg, and Manitoba, if you pull off of the TransCanada and explore both the city and the province, you’ll see there’s so much more to see.
10. Now, you’re living in Calgary. How long have you been here? Why did you make the move?
I moved to Calgary in 2008 for the summer between completing my M.A. degree in Saskatchewan and beginning a PhD in Ontario. Two weeks before I was to move to Guelph to begin my studies, I got a call from my supervisor that he was changing schools and would not be able to supervise my studies. Something about that phone call didn’t feel right, so I decided not start to a PhD and see if working for a bit would lead to good opportunities. Eight years later and I’m still here!
11. What’s the best part about Calgary? Do you have a favourite spot to visit?
My favourite part is that I can live in a Prairie city, with the open skies and flatter lands, but the mountains are just a short drive west. We spend a lot time hiking, fishing, camping and skiing in the mountains and I think I’d miss that the most. My favourite spot right now is Made by Marcus Ice Cream on 17th Ave SW, because they have the best ice cream in the city, hands down.
12. What has been the hardest part about getting your business to thrive in Calgary?
The hardest part for me has been social media. Knitting takes A LOT of time, so having time to take photos and create engaging posts has definitely been difficult.
13. What has been the most rewarding aspect?
When a customer buys an item as a gift, because they have a toque or cowl of their own that they love and want to give the same to a friend or family member. Every time this happens, I walk away with a giant smile.
14. You sell toques, cowls, headbands and more! What’s your favourite product to make?
Definitely the Unna Headband. I design all of my items myself, and this one took the most time and commitment to get right. I pulled it back over and over again until it was what I had envisioned. It’s also our most popular adult accessory, which certainly makes me proud.
15. What is the longest you usually spend on one item?
Generally, it takes me about four to five hours to make one item.
16. Will you be at any upcoming trade shows or festivals that you’d like our readers to know about?
Yes – I have a vendor spot at a new creative art studio in Okotoks, Alta. called StudioMe and will be there select days through October, November and December 2016. I’ll also be at the Christmas Market YYC in the Centennial Parkade on November 19th and 20th, 2016.
17. Where do most of your customers live? Do you ever sell items outside of Canada?
Most of my customers are local, as well as a few across Western Canada. Currently, I have an order headed for Europe, for a special partnership I’ll be announcing shortly.
Personally, I find Facebook easier to use for a larger demographic of people so I do most of my special requests on Facebook, although I still receive requests through Instagram, as well.
19. What’s been the most rewarding aspect about owning and operating a small business?
I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and everything I have learned. Owning a small business has forced me out of my normal comfort zone and has given me more confidence overall to continually tackle challenges head on.
20. Do you have anyone else on your team? Or, are you a one-person army?
I have a lot of support. My boyfriend, Hiroshi, always helps me out at markets because we often get too busy for only one person to handle. He also tidies up my yarn and works on demand forecasts for orders. Friends and family have helped me along the way, as well, by promoting my product, bringing things to a market I had forgotten or just coming to a market to show support.
21. On Instagram, you describe yourself as an Environmental Educator and Outdoor Enthusiast. What do you do when you’re not working on Wapta Knitting Co.?
I work as an Educator, teaching the general public and schools about environmental issues as well as a Program Coordinator, focused on environmental education. Additionally, I volunteer as an Adult Educator to teach about local environmental concerns to newcomers learning English.
22. With any job or project, there are good days and bad days! What is one thing you always go to cope with the stress of a bad day?
I always just sit down and work on my knitting. It helps me to clear my head and calm my emotions so I can think critically about the day rather than impulsively.
23. Assuming most of your customers wear your products when the weather is cooler, how do you find success during the warmer months?
I actually have no idea, but we are at the Inglewood Night Market each summer and are always selling items. I think Calgary’s unpredictable weather may play a role in it though… I have seen snow year round here, so you never know when you might just need your favourite toque!
24. If there’s one thing that our readers take from this feature, what do you want it to be?
I hope my products reflect what I think is important, to get a well-made item that is produced using only the highest quality yarns and attention to detail. I want people to walk away with a product they will love for a long time that is both practical and pretty.
Thank you Alexis for sharing the Wapta Knitting Co. story with us!