Emani Outterbridge is stocking up on yarn.
She’s looking at yarns in colors that pop and made from flexible materials such as acrylic that knitters and crocheters can use to create clothing. Outterbridge, 24, sells the yarn from a vending machine stationed at Elements of Grooming, a barbershop in North Philadelphia.
A crochet designer, influencer and entrepreneur who is approaching 40,000 followers on Instagram, Outterbridge had been selling yarn and crochet patterns online.
But, during the summer, Outterbridge broke her foot, and couldn’t manage her business the same way.
While recovering, Outterbridge used the time to consider ways to earn money. A vending machine wouldn’t require her to pack orders and deliver in a cast. So she set out to raise money to finance three vending machines. She spread word of her campaign on social media, inviting people to shop from her site or to donate. It worked. Outterbridge raised $10,000 and launched her first machine last week, selling about 100 skeins of multicolored yarns.
“I’ve seen, like, a broad range of people coming for the yarn,” said William Smith, the owner of Elements of Grooming, who goes by Siddiq. “I’ve just been surprised by the different demographics that come in … different races, young, old.”
Outerbridge is planning to add two more yarn vending machines in West and South Philadelphia, giving more crafters access to materials.
According to an April report from Textile World, a trade publication, there is high demand for yarn but coronavirus restrictions have disrupted manufacturing. Meanwhile, social distancing mandates have been challenging for brick-and-mortar yarn shops that would normally welcome customers to touch as they browsed.
Knitwear has been popular both in high-end fashion and crafting communities on social media. Outterbridge, who runs the online store Mani Wear, has been devoted to crocheting for half her life.
She first learned the craft when she was 12 after being placed at Gannondale, a now-closed facility in Erie for adolescent girls.
“We couldn’t do anything else besides crochet or watch the world news,” Outterbridge recalled, who learned to crochet from other kids. “At 12 years old, the news not really as interesting as this crochet.”
A couple years later, while a student at Parkway West High School, she continued to crochet. She crocheted during classes. “Crocheting is quiet, so teachers didn’t mind,” she said.
As a sophomore, she took an entrepreneurship class where she learned to create business plans. She drew one up for a shop that would sell crocheted headbands and accessories. By junior year, Outterbridge was wearing only the clothes she made. “Every day, I was a walking promotion.”
When she realized she could create more apparel beyond accessories, Outterbridge created a fashion line and sold fashion apparel while working part-time shampooing hair at a barbershop and beauty salon.
“People thought my job was shampooing,” said Outterbridge. “Shampooing was my side hustle. Crochet was my real job.”
She went to on to study hospitality at Cheyney University. In late 2017, while in an African American studies class, she got a request from Cardi B’s stylist Kollin Carter for a skirt set and bathing suit.
“And he was like, ‘I need this piece before Thursday.’ It was literally Tuesday,” she recalled. “I stayed up all night making them pieces.”
Cardi posted herself wearing one of the outfits, a three-piece cherry red ensemble with an off-the-shoulder tied crop top, miniskirt and matching head scarf, which Outterbridge called “Lemonade.” She was already gaining a following on Instagram, but that gave her a big boost. She says she gained 21,000 followers in a day.
“'Oh wait, you the girl who made [that] Cardi B?” she said, describing the type of reactions received. “'I started crocheting because I seen it on her.' And that’s really how it go.”
Outterbridge said her was inspired by her grandmother, Lorraine Outterbridge, who died when Emani was 15. Emani Outterbridge says she didn’t get to witness her grandmother’s creativity at work, but still inherited it.
“I think in a way it was passed down to me, unknowingly,” Outterbridge said.
Smith, the barbershop owner, credits her work ethic. The two worked alongside each other at 1617 Barbershop and Beauty Salon. He was impressed watching her fulfill orders in between clients while attending school.
“I’ve never seen her take a break,” he said.
Outterbridge hopes to expand to more retail locations, but also to centers like Gannondale because it is where she got her start.
“That’s my chance to give back," she said.