Stephanie Cullison was an admired independent yarn dyer in the niche world of knitting. But she fell from grace after accepting money for yarn she never sent. In an era when entrepreneurial artisans commonly attempt to turn hobbies into moneymaking ventures, hers is a cautionary tale.
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.
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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.”
Crashing and burning
Success can be daunting, admits Amy Lee, an independent yarn dyer based in Portland who has been selling her wares at Canon Hand Dyes on Etsy since 2010.
“As a small dyer with a pretty large following, it’s extremely difficult to keep up with demand without overextending myself,” Lee said. “Like most indie dyers, I am a solo act. It’s just me dyeing every single skein that I sell. When you are a one-woman show, what happens if you or a family member get sick, or a pipe bursts in your studio, or you have a death in the family, or all those skeins of yarn that you spent two weeks prepping don’t turn out how you wanted them to? You fall behind schedule, that’s what happens. And you let your customers know, and hope that they will understand, and then you work like hell to catch up and get back on track.”
But Cullison struggled to get out of bed, let alone keep up with her obligations. Even when she was able to dye orders, she did not have the money for postage and was afraid to own up to it.
She tried to sell individual skeins on her web store to raise money for postage, but club members — who’d forked out $120 apiece to join — complained. How dare she put up new yarn for sale when they hadn’t gotten their monthly shipment yet?
A 6,000-person group on Ravelry called the Ravelry Rubberneckers, which exists to share and mock internet drama in the crafting community and beyond, began documenting the tumult.
In August 2013, Cullison posted an explanation on her store blog that she hoped would buy her time, but it was so over-the-top that it fanned the flames instead.
“On the night of Feb 28th, 2012 I was medicated to the point that I have no memory of these happenings,” she wrote. “I took all my prescription medications and overdosed. I collapsed in my bedroom for over 10 hours on my left arm. When I was found, my pulse was at 30 beats a minute and when they pulled me out of the room, my heart stopped. I was dead for 10 minutes.”
The Rubberneckers sat up. Some posted pictures of popcorn, indicating they were settling in to enjoy the show.
Using the pseudonym “Captain Jack,” Cullison’s boyfriend, Jason Corey Harris, hopped onto the Ravelry discussion threads to defend her. But his attempt at damage-control only sparked more anger and spawned a new forum group called “Demon Trolls” after his nickname for her irate customers.
PayPal disputes were filed, with refunds granted to most customers, and Cullison’s account was shut down. Amid a flurry of angry emails and threatening phone calls that followed her attempt to sell her personal stash of yarn, Cullison said she was warned she’d “never sell yarn again.”
And she hasn’t. She closed the store and gave up dyeing yarn.
She and Harris today live with his three children, her two youngest (of whom she now has partial custody) and a roommate who has a child. They live on disability and state aid and their house is in foreclosure. All over the home are signs of neglect: clothes, blankets, video games and other belongings stacked on couches, trash on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink.
One thing that is missing: yarn.
“I can hardly look at it now,” she said. “ … I thought that I would be able to get things done and set dates where I really honestly felt that I could get things done by, and I obviously couldn’t. I was overestimating my own capacity.”
“What was once my therapy, my way of getting away from my terrible marriage, my way of feeling good about myself, became my absolute worst nightmare.”