Written by Sasha Wirth and photographed by Paige Green
One might not expect to find a physical therapist, biotech consultant or lawyer helping customers in a cozy knit shop, but open the door to ImagiKnit and they’re all there, trading their prescriptions and case files for dye lots and skeins.
Having spent her early career days running a physical therapy practice and handful of surgery centers, Allison Isaacs never imagined she’d be the owner of a knitting store. Medicine seemed to be her calling, until one day she looked around and realized she wasn’t living the life she’d envisioned for herself.
Burned out and feeling unfulfilled, Isaacs quit her job, packed up her bags and moved to San Francisco to live with her sister.
‘So what are you going to do next?’ inquired a friend.
‘Take a computer class. Or maybe something in investing,’ replied Isaacs half-heartedly.
‘Those sound like things you think you should do. What is it you want to do?’
The answer came quickly and clearly.
‘Knit. I want to learn to knit.’
And so Isaacs picked up her first pair of knitting needles and hasn’t put them down since. ‘It took over my life,’ she says smiling. ‘I knit all day. I remember my first big project – a blanket for my sister. It was huge. We called it Big Red. She has it to this day.’
Wanting to learn as much as possible about the craft, Isaacs volunteered at a local knitting shop. “I went in wearing my corporate suit,’ she laughs. “At the time I just wanted to be around anything to do with knitting.” She began to amass basketfuls of yarn, which steadily filled the corners and surfaces of her apartment, until coming home began to feel like walking into a knitting store.
It became evident that her engaging hobby was nudging her in a new direction.
Tucked away from the thrum of the Castro district, ImagiKnit is a calm retreat from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. Vintage rugs, plush chairs and old spinning wheels beckon customers to browse the colorful skeins on display before settling in and casting on with their treasured finds. Two resident pups – a shy Italian Greyhound named Bode and cheeky Lulu, a Boston Terrier Mix – prod visitors with a chew toy or two before disappearing behind the counter. The vibe is comforting, inspiring and relaxing – all a result of Isaacs’ thoughtful hard work over the last decade.
When she first happened upon the space, it was half its current size and selling records and CDs. It turned out the music shop was one of several creative ventures housed in the early 1900’s space over the years –from an antiques dealer to a meeting spot for ringing bell ceremonies – and Isaacs’ vision for a knitting store fit perfectly with the quirky, artistic history of the property. The shop had its grand opening and ImagiKnit quickly brought in customers to the point of overcrowding.
“There wasn’t enough room for everyone! People were spilling out onto the street, waiting for the chance to come in. So when the opportunity came to expand to the space next door, we took it. We knocked down the wall and continued with business as usual. There was no time to close down and renovate.”
Hundreds of skeins grew into thousands, their cheery colors drawing avid knitters and interested passerby in from the street, including local clergyman Reverend John Takahashi. Enamored by the charming shop, he came in one day and asked:
‘Can I draw your store?”
He didn’t have to ask twice. Reverend Takahashi stood in the center of the room and sketched the heart of ImagiKnit – the shelves bursting with yarn; the wide, welcoming window; the plush chairs where one can sit and stay awhile – capturing the essence of a place that is simultaneously grounding and uplifting. Those with a keen eye can still find his original artwork on display, or pick up one of his bespoke illustrated note cards at the register.
But Reverend Takahashi isn’t the only artist to have his imagination ignited upon walking through the shop’s front door. Fiber artist Mary March, whose installations have garnered international attention, is a regular. As is sculptural artist Chris Motley, who knits and felts her work into impressive three-dimensional pieces. It’s common to see groups of design students browsing ImagiKnit’s vast selection of yarn for their collections, or local artisans with Etsy businesses stopping by for a batch of new supplies.
“We have something for everyone here,” says Isaacs. “Our customers are ages four to ninety nine. They’re all genders and nationalities. Some are beginners and others are experienced knitters. We welcome everyone.”
It’s no surprise, then, that ImagiKnit has become a destination stop for locals and visitors alike.
“We recently had customers from New Zealand, Argentina, France and Russia. There’s been a growing interest and desire for local fiber,” she says. “A real focus on geographical yarn. As soon as we get some, we sell out. Customers love taking it back home – as a gift or for themselves.”
One of the shop’s bestsellers from the Bay Area has been Twirl Yarn by Mary Pettis-Sarley. “The evident care Mary spins into each skein and the story of its production – from the names and history of the lambs, to whether the color of the yarn was enriched by eucalyptus growing in her pasture – has won us over.”
This considered approach is the same attitude ImagiKnit staffers take when assembling ‘Local Love’ mystery boxes. Each surprise box is custom-made and tailored for the individual customer, brimming with unique California-dyed wool.
Yet honoring a sense of place is a value that ImagiKnit weaves not only through the yarn it sells, but also in what it celebrates and supports. Placed above cabinets are hats knit by the staff cheering on the San Francisco Giants. There’s also a window display commemorating the upcoming Pride Parade. But the shop goes beyond the outward markers of community support. ImagiKnit is also a local drop-off location for Knitting Pals by the Bay, an organization that donates knit caps to chemotherapy patients and cancer groups. In addition, the store donates money and product to childhood education, AIDS and breast cancer causes, the latter of which has personal meaning to Isaacs.
“My grandma died from breast cancer,” she says. “And the biggest compliment I can receive now is if someone walks into the store and leaves feeling better. It doesn’t matter if they’ve purchased anything or not. We have terminally ill customers who come and share their stories – the good and the bad. But when they leave with a sense of comfort, it makes it all worth it. To be able to give them those moments of peace.”
In a city that sees businesses open and close in the blink of an eye, ImagiKnit has endured and created a true community and crafting haven. One can say it also provides a much-needed tactile experience for tech-driven San Franciscans, encouraging them to pry their fingers away from the keyboard and make a go at tying a slipknot instead.
“Knitting is a rewarding labor of love. Just give it a try. There’s joy in the process,” grins Isaacs. “It isn’t an exact science. There’s always room for flexibility. Our motto here is the same as Project Runway’s Tim Gunn – ‘Make it work.’ Everyone can learn to knit and make something fabulous.”
From purling a simple scarf to making a tent for two, imagine it and you can knit it.