By KATHLEEN SHAW
Daily News-Record 11/19/20
When Amy Strunk had a cancer scare this summer, it chilled her to the bone. For anyone who’s had to sit in a starchy office and hear the dreaded words fall out of a doctor’s mouth, they know the feeling, but the news was an even harder pill for Strunk to swallow.
At 25, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, but the diagnosis came after eight months of symptoms and trips in and out of doctors’ offices. When the disease was identified, a minor procedure was out of the cards and she went through vicious rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to rid her body of the sickness. Thus, a recurrence of cancer would’ve been the end.
“I got a pretty strong dose of radiation, so they told me if I got it again, they couldn’t put me in radiation,” she said. “So, I got this idea I’d be dying soon.”
At 20 some years old, Strunk had dreams for what the future promised ahead. One such fantasy was opening a yarn shop after retiring because the business held fond memories in her heart.
Suddenly, the future was dark and felt limp and resigned. Fortunately, it was only a scare, but Strunk learned the hard lesson that everything could be snatched away at a moment’s notice, and she cast aside the idea of waiting for acting and living in the moment.
“I thought why am I waiting? Maybe I’ll never retire, maybe retirement isn’t in the cards for me. So, if I want to do it, I should just do it,” Strunk said. “Then I found there was a space in Agora, and it felt like all the stars were aligning.”
On Tuesday, Rocktown Yarn opened inside the Agora Downtown Market in Harrisonburg.
Threads Of Life
Strunk learned to knit and crochet when she was 7 years old, and her grandmother passed down her sewing skills when Strunk was 10. Whenever her family traveled growing up, Strunk said, her mother, Julie, would always stop and ask to find a yarn shop. What others might see as rows of knitting needles and bundles of cloth, her mother knew was a treasure trove of kind faces and welcoming characters, wherever they were going, regardless of where they were from.
“I was always going into yarn shops,” Strunk said of her early adventures.
When she moved away from home and tried to find her way in a new state, she turned once more to the place her mother taught her to look.
“I knew a lot of local yarn shops had cool stuff, but what I didn’t realize until 2017 was there was this really robust community that came along with yarn shops,” she said. “You make friends and make connections. It’s people of all trades. It’s not just people your age. It’s younger people. It’s older people. Ideally, it’s a good mix of men, women, different races.”
As the idea of establishing her own yarn shop began gaining focus in her mind this summer, Strunk knew creating that same welcoming feel for all people was essential.
“When I opened my own shop, I wanted to really emphasize this idea of inclusivity,” she said.
While there are supplies for nerdy and feminine crafters as well as novice to expert stitchers, Strunk is working to bridge her business with different communities and agencies across Harrisonburg to make the most of every thread.
“Whether that’s providing the right supplies or the space to work, we have a table and once COVID ends, people can come in and do their crafting,” she said. “People who knit and crochet small items like scarves, hats, gloves, and they’re easy to make, they’re pretty quick. So, if people are willing to donate those items, then we can give those items.”
Inside, Rocktown Yarn is lined with boxes of knitting kits to bring classic characters from franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars to life, as well as rows of threads and tools of all fashions. Amid the baskets and cubbies of glitter, neutral or bold style yarns are several brands, including Rockingham County’s own Simple Hill Farms.
Heidi Lantz-Trissel owns the local fiber farm on the outskirts of Harrisonburg and shares more than a professional relationship with Strunk. She ran a shop similar in name, Rocktown Yarns, from 2005 to 2008 near the wooden bridge on Water Street.
When she learned Strunk planned to open Rocktown Yarn in Agora, she said their meeting seemed inevitable, and she’s grown excited by the ideas Strunk has in store for Harrisonburg.
“There’s definitely a big community of people who are interested in knitting and crocheting and fiber. I think there’s possibly a resurgence in interest right now with people looking for ways to entertain themselves in their homes,” she said.
Shoppers can find Simple Hill Farms’ 100% fine, naturally colored merino yarn at Rocktown Yarn among other high-quality brands. Lantz-Trissel said it’s exciting her business is in its first year producing yarn in sync with Rocktown Yarn opening.
“It’ll be great to collaborate and promote fiber arts together in this area,” Lantz-Trissel said. “It’s hard to buy yarn online.
It’s not the same as being able to go in and see it and feel it and get expert advice from people in the store.”
Strunk said big- box craft stores carry affordable, entry-level supplies, but the quality is lesser and staff may not know what a beginning knitter needs.
“They have cheap, mass-produced yarn, and most of it is acrylic,” she said. “ You walk into Michaels, and they’ve got a ton of yarn, but if you’ve never done this before, where do you even start? ... That’s something that we want to be able to do.”
Rocktown Yarn is not the only new face in Agora Market. After Timeless Toys and Isles Candle Co. moved out of the market earlier this year, Shenandoah Hemp Supply joined the shopping center and Charlie Rose Boutique expanded to the vacant window front. New Creation will also be moving out at the end of the year and moving into nearby retailer WithSimplicity.
Agora Market manager Allie Motyka said the retail hub is somewhat always changing and welcoming new, unique offerings from local retailers, and Rocktown Yarn has already crafted a home to welcome and excite guests.
“We weren’t looking for a yarn store, and Amy reached out to us, and we think it’s a great fit. It’s something we don’t already have, which is great,” Motyka said. “Her space is really cozy. It just looks really inviting. ... I think it’ll be for a variety of people.”
During the pandemic, Strunk said, knitting can offer a resolution for mitigating the stresses of life, and the community associated can be as quiet or conversational as they’d like.
“I get stressed, and boy, it takes a lot out of me. It gets to the point where it feels like I can’t be around people,” she said. “There’s a really robust online knitting community, so it was a very good thing for me in a very lonely, depressed time in my life.”
Whether looking for a hand-dyed, locally sourced spool of yarn or simply a listening ear, Rocktown Yarn is open, offering curbside and online options during the pandemic, as well as virtual classes.
“My grandmother was a huge inspiration for this. … She passed away in February,” Strunk said of her mom’s mom, whose go-with-the-flow personality encouraged her. “Her last gift to me was making it all work out. … It’s been a weird, awful year, but there’s been beautiful things coming out of the chaos.”