Emani Outterbridge remembers the moment she thought crocheting could be more than a hobby. She was 12 and had been placed temporarily in a residential facility for girls because of truancy.
"All we could do there was watch the world news or crochet," said Outterbridge, a native Philadelphian who had watched her great-grandmother crochet. While she didn't care for news, she remembers one day looking up and seeing President Barack Obama on the screen. "Just seeing him and his kids, I remember thinking, 'I'm in a predicament now, but my life can change.' I knew this crocheting would mean something."
She wasn't sure what the "something" was or how it would manifest itself.
But today, at 24 and known professionally as Emani Milan, she is a crochet designer with her own line of yarn, called Needles, and she has sold apparel to entertainers including Cardi B.
Most recently, however, she has turned to making her passion accessible to others with a yarn vending machine.
Outterbridge sold more than $25,000 in yarn in the first month from her bright pink vending machine installed at Elements of Grooming, a barbershop in North Philadelphia. Her goal is to provide everything a crocheter needs from a single machine.
Mikahla Anderson, who has a crochet apparel business called Kahla Kreates in New Orleans, loves the flexibility and texture of Outterbridge's yarn. "I've ordered plenty of her yarn," Anderson said. "Her yarn has the soft feel of cotton yarn, but it's acrylic yarn."
Cassandra Chase, who has taken a one-on-one virtual class from Outterbridge, said she's hoping Outterbridge can install a vending machine in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives. "I have the cow print and cheetah from Emani," she said. "I've never seen anything like it. It's got cotton in it, and it's stretchy."
Looking back, Outterbridge considers her four months at the Gannondale Residential Facility for Adolescent Girls in Erie, Pennsylvania, as a blessing. It's where some of the girls there taught her to crochet.
"I took my skill and turned it into my business," Outterbridge said.
In high school she took some entrepreneur classes. At 15, she started crocheting and selling headbands she called "head warmers" for $5 apiece at school. Business was steady.
"I was my own promotion," said Outterbridge, who wore the accessories she made.
She graduated in 2019 from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor of science degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management. Meanwhile, she began making more crocheted apparel: swimwear, miniskirts, crop tops and shorts. She used social media to build her brand, offering patterns and, for a fee, one-on-one consultations.
She said she has kept her followers close through her success.
"I'm transparent with them," she said. And in return, her fans have affirmed her talent. "I have people say 'I never saw crochet like yours' or 'You made crochet pretty to me.'"
Then Cardi B's stylist called to ask whether she could make some pieces for the rapper.
"It was a Tuesday night. I was in African American studies. He asked if I could make pieces by Thursday," she said.
She was up overnight crocheting what she calls her "Lemonade" set, a matching tiny crop top, a miniskirt with a hip split and a headscarf. Although Cardi B didn't wear the pieces as intended, she wore them later and tagged Outterbridge on Instagram.
"I had 18,000 followers before she tagged me. Once she tagged me, my page literally crashed," Outterbridge said. "After that, I was almost at 40,000."
Outterbridge has also made pieces for the rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Baby. Louise Chantál, an R&B singer and songwriter, was the first entertainer to wear Emani Milan designs, donning them for her 2018 tour and during a performance at New York Fashion Week.
"I think I was searching on Instagram and found her. I'm passionate about up-and-coming designers," Chantál said. "I love young women and specifically Black women. I loved her for all of those reasons, but also her designs are fresh, and she's doing things with crochet I hadn't seen before."
After she dressed Cardi B, Outterbridge felt her career begin to soar. She had been working on designing her own yarn for three years, trying out different manufacturers. She knew she could set her line apart with her eye for color and patterns.
"I started crocheting at 12," Outterbridge said. "Imagine going to the same store twice a week for 12 years — and you get the same colors. You start getting creative blocks because of the colors."
So she created yarn that glows in the dark and yarn in bright colors and unique patterns. Then, in May, just when everything had come together, she broke her left foot, which meant she couldn't take packages of her yarn to the post office to ship to customers.
"I told Instagram followers I was down a little emotionally," she said.
It gave her time to think about how to get Needles yarn to her customers. "I hate it when I need something and a store is closed," Outterbridge said.
That's when she came up with the idea of what she calls her "bright pink machines."
"I thought, 'You can put a vending machine outside on the street even when the store is closed,'" Outterbridge said.
It was the perfect idea for 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic has limited the ability to shop. She told her Instagram followers that she wanted to raise $10,000 to buy two machines and asked them to order yarn from her to help her raise the money or to donate if they could. Within four days, she had raised enough to buy three machines, she said.
Now she's searching for a location for her second vending machine and is thinking that after Philadelphia, she'll place machines in Atlanta and elsewhere to accommodate fans all over the country. She's also considering opening her own brick-and-mortar location with vending machines that are available 24/7.
Ultimately, she said, she wants to place her machines in neighborhoods where little girls "in those centers like the one I was in can look up to someone who has been there and see you can be in a predicament but you don't have to stay there."