Stephanie Lorraine Cullison was once the toast of yarn town.
The Kirkland woman’s hand-dyed, self-striping yarn, which was unique for arranging itself into bold black stripes as it was knitted, sold out instantly whenever she updated her web store. Her booths at yarn and fiber conventions — yes, that’s a thing — were mobbed by fans who lined up 10 deep for a chance to buy her colorful creations.
But all that came to a screeching halt three years ago when she failed to deliver already-paid-for skeins of her coveted yarn and claimed it was, in part, because she’d been “dead for 10 minutes.”
Oh sure, she’d been late before. But her devotees were generally patient. Artists, you know.
But this time was different.
The furor that followed became an “instant classic,” in the annals of internet crafting drama, according to Mary Fellman, a member of Ravelry, the online forum of 7 million knitters, crocheters and other fiber enthusiasts where Cullison’s reputation was fostered.
The spectacle had everything: a popular product, betrayed customers, a meddling boyfriend and a near-death experience.
While the story of the sock star’s rise and fall were dramatic, her tale is not the first in which an entrepreneurial artisan proved unable to turn a hobby into a successful moneymaking venture.
Crafting is a huge industry, according to the Craft Yarn Council, which estimates that $1 billion is spent on yarn in the United States alone each year. That amount is expected to grow along with the do-it-yourself Renaissance that has folks brewing, beekeeping, canning, spinning, gardening and knitting with vigor.
People are also seeking in unprecedented numbers to make a livelihood from their crafting passions, experts say. Last year, 1.6 million people sold $2.39 billion in goods on Etsy, the online market for handcrafted goods where Cullison got her start.
“It can get big all of a sudden,” Cullison said in a recent interview at her home. “There was so much pressure and so many expectations. All of a sudden I was like, ‘I can’t handle all this. What have I done?’ ”
“It was crazy”
Cullison was a married, stay-at-home mom when, in 2008, a friend taught her to dye self-striping yarn, which allows knitters to use one skein of yarn to knit striped socks instead of having to alternate colors. Back then, few dyers created self-striping yarn, and Cullison was a pioneer in using black for one of the stripes. She named her product Goth Socks, a nod to her goth-kid past and her love of all things dark and broody.
When Cullison rented her first little booth at the Madrona Fiber Arts festival in Tacoma in 2009, she sold out every day. Immediately after, her Etsy store began selling out instantly as well. Although dyeing yarn is solitary work, she was greeted like a star at events like the Sock Summit.
“After feeling like I was nothing my whole life, it was crazy to have people lining up to meet me,” she said.
The next step: a yarn club, in which customers agree to pay up front for a certain number of skeins, usually with the promise that the colors will be exclusive to the club for a year or so. Cullison’s club started with 25 members, grew to 75 and then 150.
During her best year, she brought in $200,000 and cleared $40,000 for herself, she said. She was raking in real money for the first time in her life.
With that stability, she sought in 2011 to free herself from an unhappy marriage. But the messy divorce left her stressed and depressed. In 2012, she was prescribed antidepressants, but they weren’t the right medications for her (she said she’s since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder). She overdosed on her medications twice, lost custody of her kids and struggled to pay her mortgage.
Though growing her yarn business might have eased the financial strain, Cullison’s illness made that harder.
“I could barely get out of bed, but I was expected to get up and dye 150 skeins that come out looking exactly the same,” she said.
Other dyers, business people, friends and some fans told her she had to just suck it up.
“ ‘This is business,’ ” she said they told her, “‘ You can’t afford to be sick.’ But I did everything I could do until I just couldn’t do it anymore.”