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the business rates saga – or ‘are we or are we not a small business?’

small business relief?

the story so far

When the wool shop open back in April 2011 we took over the premises previously occupied by Age UK (then Age Concern). As they are a registered charity they are exempt of paying business rates. However, as we are a business, we have to pay them, and that’s just fair. What is not fair is the passing from pillar to post to which we have been subjected when it came to obtaining small business relief on them.

For those of you who don’t know about the wool shop, we occupy a medium size retail unit in the High Street of Olney (Buckinghamshire). The wool shop is run by a sole trader (me) who works mainly on her own 7 days a week (Sundays only from 11h to 15h – and during the summer school holidays I close on Sundays).

The turnover in this type of independent, craft and community based business is not very high and the wool shop is no exception. By no stretch of the imagination would this be classed as a medium or large business. However when I received the invoice for the business rates (non domestic rates) I had the shock of my life. My first feeling was of sheer dismay as I thought I would have to close down my lovely shop. The bill was enormous!

Speaking to friends I was advised to seek assistance to lower this bill as I should be eligible for small business relief. My husband enlisted the help of a company that specialises in this type of thing but they were pretty useless: luckily it was  on a ‘no gain, no fee’ basis so we didn’t waste any money on them.

I then went on line to check the local council (Milton Keynes Council) website, and found out the limit of rateable value over which businesses are no longer eligible for small business relief – and mine was just above this limit. That was another surprise because the shop is not that large… I then  came across the VOA (Valuation Office) website, where I discovered the reason why our rateable value was so high: They had taken the whole storage area, the kitchen, boiler room, and the toilet of the premises and classed the whole lot as RETAIL area!!! (This area is valued at a high rate per m2).

When they valued the premises they had totally ignored the wall separating the actual shop from the store room and all the other smaller areas… So I called them again to make them aware of this fact. I filled all the required forms and re-applied for small business rates relief… I was told  to contact the VOA as they should come to have a look at the premises to make sure there was an actual wall and the storage area is a real storage area. I did. They came. And here comes the ‘technicality’: apparently it’s the ‘wrong’ sort of wall. If the wall is to be removed the whole building wouldn’t collapse, it is not a structural wall, so therefore the whole shop counts as retail area as I could theoretically remove this wall and have a large shop (albeit without storage space, kitchen, nor toilet, but a huge shop nonetheless)…

Except that the conditions on my lease specify I am NOT allowed to remove any of the existing walls.

Apart from the fact that a) I need a storage area, and b) I never wanted such a huge shop (plus I would need a small fortune to refit it!).

So far I have contacted Debbie Brock (Milton Keynes Councillor), who helped me getting the Council to ask me to contact the VOA (again).

I have also contacted Mark Lancaster, our local Conservative MP, first by e-mail to the Houses of Parliament address and  that didn’t bring any joy other than prompting yet another fruitless visit by the Valuation Agency Officer. I have also written him a letter making him aware of this issue. This letter was hand delivered to his home address here in Olney, on Sunday, a couple of weeks ago, and so far I haven’t heard anything.

Any ideas of how can a small business owner prove she is in fact running a small business, and obtain the due small business relief on her non domestic rates would be very welcome. I think I’m being passed from pillar to post and so far no-one has taken any action in helping us getting a FAIR tax relief for our independent, and very much loved, little wool shop.

Surely there must be something that can be done. I feel they are using this ‘non retaining wall’ issue as a stupid technicality, another excuse to get more money out of small business owners like me, whilst the high streets become full of either charity shops (tax exempt), chain stores void of any individuality, or multinational corporations who avoid paying million of pounds by exploiting fiscal loopholes.

Still, let’s hope Mr Lancaster comes back to us with a solution… watch this space!


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Happily hooking away

Ladies crocheting around the table
A bunch of new crocheters working away at the wool shop, in Olney.

Our first crochet course is in full swing. We’re having fun and for what I can see learning a lot too.

I must say that even a dyed-in-the-wool knitter as myself have managed to pick up a bit of the ‘hookers’ art’. In between serving customers and making teas and coffees I managed to learn how to loop around doubles and trebles, and even to make a little ‘granny square’ – well, that was with Sue’s help, and despite my inability to count… (I found out that 3 x 4 = 16 and that 16 – 4 = 10,  but that’s another story and I never boasted of being excellent at maths…)

What everyone did was progress at a fantastic pace. It is most encouraging to see the work that has been achieved after only a couple of sessions. Who knows what gorgeous things are going to turn out of those hooks after 4 classes – I’m really looking forward to see them.

On my part, I’ll continue ploughing through (at the moment making a little bag with the technique Carol taught me a while ago) and I’ll be posting some pictures of my work here in the blog.

So, we’ve decided to run this workshops again we’re now filling places for our second wave, due to start on Wednesday, 13th June (after half term). Obviously those of you on the waiting list will have priority, but there are still some places available at the moment of writing this blog. Please call us on 01234 910547 if you want to book a place in advance (recommended, as places are limited). The details are as before, 2-hour lesson, on Wednesdays from 14:00 to 16:00, materials included, plus tea/coffee, for £20 per session.

I look forward to meeting you.

Crochet lesson
Sue, one of our crochet tutors with some members of our first team of crocheters.
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Hooking up

Hello again.

Good news for wannabe hookers – of the yarn kind 🙂

Finally we’re resuming crochet lessons here at the wool shop. Our lovely Sue and Carol have devised some lessons and made themselves available on Wednesdays to teach us all to hook and loop yarn to gorgeous patterns, even to dyed-in-the wool knitters as myself!

Our tutors are expert at crochet AND knitting (you see? it’s actually possible!) and very patient – and the results are immediate: the day Carol taught me to do a simple crochet stitch I made myself a little mobile phone cover, and a couple of days later I had managed a shopping bag made out of sturdy craft cotton.

I love crochet – although I’m still at the ‘crawling’ stage I can already see many possibilities. At its simplest form it produces a denser fabric than knitting, it has less ‘give’ and that makes it ideal for projects where you want the material to keep its shape, such as bags, mobile phone/ipad/kindle covers, cushion covers, structured jackets… and when applied in a more ‘airy’ way you can make the most beautiful lacey effects, perfect for shawls, scarves, hair accessories, and other pretty things.

Whereas knitting is usually done in a linear way – because even circular knitting, entrelac and other techniques involve lines albeit shorter, crochet is more versatile in that one can create easily all sort of 2D and 3D shapes, probably that’s why so many yarn sculpture artists tend to use it for their work.

I’m inspired by extreme crochet, both the tiny and delicate lace work produced by Mediterranean artisans, and the super chunky colourful work in happy colours that’s so fresh and popular at the moment. In fact I’ve been playing around making big flowers in a simple chain stitch design (made up as I go along, as usual…) in Tierra, a very thick, felt-like yarn by Katia, that has some really nice colours – I’ve chosen fuchsia, red, lime green, purple, and stone colours to make up a scarf (or perhaps a summer shawl… see how it goes). As you can read it’s not an exact science, more like a bit of an experiment… photo will appear in this blog when it’s finished. Even though I’m very much of a ‘newbie’ I feel that learning to crochet I’ve acquired a valuable new tool to my yarn-playing kit.

Anyway, if you too fancy learning to crochet and live within a reasonable distance of the wool shop, our classes will take place on Wednesdays, from 14:00 to 16:00, and will start on 9th May. The groups are limited to a maximum of 8 people so it’s advisable to book in advance, you can do that by phoning us on 01234 910547. The classes cost £20 and will include some yarn to practice with during the lessons. Because the classes are designed for small groups, each participant will receive plenty of individual attention and will be able to work at her/his own pace, without pressure.

Happy ‘hooking’! 🙂

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New arrivals for Spring

We have received some extremely ‘squeeshy’ and soft Malabrigo yarn in the shop. So far there’s some super chunky Rasta; an aran weight, Rios; a double knitting, Arroyo; and a gorgeous buttery lace weight. Those of you familiar with Malabrigo won’t need to be told how gorgeous the colours are. If you’re new to this yarn think of paintings: soft watercolours, vibrant Van Gogh, Monet’s ponds and waterlilies, are all reflected on Malabrigo’s skeins.
Malabrigo colours
Some of the beautiful colours in the Malabrigo range
Shoppel sock yarn
Vibrant Zauberball and Lace Ball from Shoppel

We’re also welcoming to the wool shop Lang yarns (I couldn’t resist their Seta Tweed – 75% silk 25% cotton blend, and have already started knitting a summer sweater – I must say I’m thoroughly enjoying this natural luxurious yarn, and although it has a high silk content the price is very reasonable too!). But there’s not only silk, also tempting me from the shelves are the beautiful earthy and rich colours of Samea (a textured soft cotton) and the sophisticated elegance of Korfu (a linen based yarn that looks more like refined silk) – I particularly like the gold and orange (unusual for me who tend to gravitate towards the greens/blues/purples side of the spectrum).

From Lang we also have some chunky cottons for fast and natural knitting, both for the house and garments.

Korfu gold and orange yarn
Two of the vibrant hues of Korfu



Another yarn recently arrived and flying off the shelves is Shoppel Wolle. A lot of seriously funky socks are being knitted out of those yummy Shoppel balls. Fresh pink and green combinations, vibrant reds, purples and oranges, and harmonious blends of different colours are also competing to be knitted or crocheted – I can already see some super sexy lacy stockings, elegant shawls for those garden parties… if I only had a few more pairs of hands and more time!

Our good old favourites are also sending their spring and summer yarns: we have some lovely new scarf yarn from Katia (Bossa Nova, similar to Ondas and Rico’s Can Can, but wider and shinier with new colours).

Boss Nova scarf yarn
New Katia scarf yarn: Bossa Nova
Detail of Azahar, by Katia
Detail of Azahar, a new yarn from Katia


Another new comer is the beautiful Azahar – Spanish word meaning orange blossom – reminiscent of laceborders. …and more, including the new season’s magazines.

King Cole has also sent us an excellent range of colours in their Bamboo, a bamboo/cotton blend, well supported with patterns and we’re also waiting to receive their new cotton yarns, almost wool-like in softness but with the clean feel of cotton. The colours are light, mainly pastels and sweet pinks and purples, ideal for babies of all ages 😉

Looking to the very near future

We’re now in touch with Colinette and hope to be stocking some of their colourful and exciting range of yarn very soon, I’m crossing my fingers for April.

…so I’d better stop typing and start knitting! Those samples won’t make themselves – and that’s my excuse… 😉

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Pondering about fibres

on fibres

Although I enjoy knitting most types of yarn and love metallic and shinny fantasy yarns, when it comes to wearing the hand-knitted garments I feel more comfortable when enveloping my body with natural fibres. Nothing beats the feel of cool cotton and linen in the summer. Having grown up in a Mediterranean country, a clean cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans or linen loose trousers was my uniform when the hot weather struck.

But what I’ve realised lately is that wool also has its advantages all year round. I’ve been researching properties of protein-based fibres and here’s what I found so far:

Wool is very comfortable and is the only fibre that can absorb up to 1/3 of its weight in moisture without feeling wet or clammy as the moisture immediately starts to evaporate into the air.

Wool is thermodynamic, and therefore an amazing insulator – when the weather is hot, wool can keep the body cool and the heat out,  yet when the weather is cold, wool will keep the body warm and the cold out!

Other benefits of wool include resilience, as well as easy care. Wool maintains its shape virtually forever, and it’s very easy to clean – as long as you know the basic rules for cleaning wool: treat it gently, avoid excessive shaking and water that is too hot or too cold unless you want to turn your garment into a reduced, felted version of its former self.

Wool is one of the least flammable of fibres, having high fire resistance due to its unique composition (keratin) and high water absorption (it doesn’t melt if it comes into contact with flame) – great for sitting round a camp fire!

It is relatively free of static problems because its chemical structure and water-absorbing properties make it a good conductor.

Angora is an extraordinarily soft fibre produced from the fur of the Angora rabbit. Angora fibres are hollow, which gives them loft and a characteristic `floating’ feel. They’re exceptionally soft and possess the highest heat retention (two-and-a-half times warmer than sheep’s wool), and best moisture-wicking properties of any natural fiber.

Pure angora fibres are rarely spun on their own because they are so fine and fragile. Rather, they are blended with other wools to increase warmth and enhance softness. Angora wool can be worn outside in very cold conditions and then immediately worn inside without overheating.

Alpaca is extremely fine, compatible with wool, and the same as wool is thermodynamic, has excellent insulating or thermal qualities (remember? it keeps warm in the winter and cool in the summer).

It has a rich silky sheen and a higher tensile strength than wool.

Alpaca contains no grease, oil or lanolin and does not smell for this reason it is naturally hypoallergenic. It does not retain water. It is a filament like silk, and like silk, it is fine, silky, soft and lightweight as well as strong and durable.

Alpaca is resistant to rain and snow. It is naturally resistant to shrinking or stretching. It has a naturally elastic yarn, perfect for knitwear.

Silk. Because of its natural protein structure, silk is the most hypoallergenic of all fabrics

An all-climate fabric, silk is warm and cozy in winter and comfortably cool when temperatures rise. Its natural temperature-regulating properties give silk this paradoxical ability to cool and warm simultaneously. Silk garments thus outperform other fabrics in both summer and winter. Silk worn as a second layer warms without being bulky.

Silk is highly absorbent: it can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp. Silk will absorb perspiration while letting your skin breathe.

In spite of its delicate appearance, silk is relatively robust. Its smooth surface resists soil and odors well. Silk is wrinkle and tear resistant, and dries quickly.

While silk abrasion resistance is moderate, it is the strongest natural fiber and, surprisingly, it easily competes with steel yarn in tensile strength.

Silk takes color well; washes easily; and is easy to work with in spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing.

Silk mixes well with other animal and vegetable fibres.