Spotlight on Ethel & Em

In the coming weeks, Explore Morecambe Bay is shining the spotlight on some of the brilliant independent businesses in our Lancashire region.

This time, it’s Ethel & Em! Ethel & Em is an independent yarn shop in the heart of Lancaster selling yarn, needles, hooks and notions.

While wool, acrylic, yarn – string, has been a part of owner Melanie’s life since childhood, it is only in the last couple of years that the bug well and truly bit her – and she needed to find a way to still earn a living – and play with string all day.

We spoke with owner Melanie McKay and here’s what she has to share.


How would you describe Ethel & Em in a line or two?
Ethel & Em is a super friendly shop where even new customers are welcomed like long lost friends. In non-pandemic times we have 4 regular Knit, Knot and Natter sessions (Home School, two daytime session and an Evening session) plus monthly feature nights including an LGBTQ+, Student’s and Men’s nights – it is a place to come to take time out from the real world for many of our customers.


What was the inspiration behind starting Ethel & Em and when did your doors first open?
Ethel & Em is what a mid-life crisis looks like when you’re a non-driver and a Maserati is simply not an option. Having spent almost 20 years in head office retail and brand e-commerce, I was tired of a life of screens and had discovered crochet and rediscovered knitting as a relaxing past-time. As midlife set in and a desire to stay in the area but ideally not commuting to Manchester or the Lakes for work, I thought I might try my hand at running a brick & mortar wool shoppe where I could apply her commercial retail and brand experience to a business based on my hobby.

The shoppe is named after my mom, Ethel, and my bestie, Emily – they died at 46 and 40 respectively. As I entered my 40s, it felt like time to do something for me, but also, something to celebrate two amazing women who left an indelible imprint on my life.

We opened in February 2019 and have spent the majority of our second year open, but with the front door shut – thanks Covid!

Mel Bright Hair Series LR-8L

What is your shop like / who shops there?
There are a couple of really great yarn shoppes in Lancaster already, but it was a bit like Goldilocks, and as a North American, there was an allure to yarns from further afield like Peru, Germany or Italy that were simply not catered for by the local British yarn specialist. The other shoppe had a great selection of pocket-friendly yarns but I wanted a bigger selection of natural fibres.

At Ethel & Em we seem to have a balance of budget to premium yarns in a mix of synthetic, animal and natural vegan fibres, The number of yarn and craft shoppes in Lancaster actually makes it a great destination for crafty days out, and we look forward to seeing coach visits returnwhenever that may be possible – yes – we have actually had coach trips yarn-hopping here!!!

As an outsider myself, I am originally from NYC, the shop does feel particularly welcoming for visitors as they are always wondering how the heck I ended up in Lancaster. Totally by accident, I tell them, but I love it, and I am not leaving.

Our Knit Knot and Natter Zooms in lockdown have had people join from the US, Preston, Devon, The Wirral, Lincoln and more popping in to join us – we have actually decided to keep some sort of Zoom activity post lockdown to keep our wider community involved.

Our customers are as young as 7 or 8 years old and go up to full-on great-grandmas! We have more male customers than I expected. The makeup of our customers is effortlessly diverse, we often get people commenting on how welcoming the shoppe is.


What are you excited about in the months and years ahead / what are your plans (for the move to New St etc)?
Hopefully moving very soon. A smidge closer into town, next door to Fabrix and two doors down from our current neighbour, Journey Social. We are looking forward to welcoming people back into the shop and getting knit knot and natter sessions live again as well as get workshops back up and running.

I firmly believe that the High Street will be embraced post-pandemic but the focus will be on the experience and value adds of excellent customer service. Independents will thrive as customers seek the experiences and service levels that they are so much better equipped to deliver compared to large multiple retailers.


When the lockdown is over and you can once again return to our beloved high streets, please remember to support and shop local.


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