When Life Handed Her Yarn, Adella Colvin Spun a Bright Future
March 19, 2021
By RUTH TERRY
The founder of LolaBean Yarn Co. didn’t expect to move from New York City to rural Georgia, or to become obsessed with hand-dyeing yarn. But when opportunity knocked, Adella Colvin didn’t hesitate.
Back in her 20s, New York urbanite Adella Colvin would never have pictured her future self sweating over a steaming vat of cobalt dye with a hank of wool yarn swimming in it.
“My life was going to be ‘Sex in the City’… single, no kids, clubs, cocktails, high-end fashion,” says Colvin, who is now 40 and lives in Grovetown, Georgia, pop. 15,152. “Now I’m a mom, yarn dyer, [into] slow fashion, trying to make the world a better place, supporting small businesses, all that stuff.”
With a rainbow of her LolaBean Yarn Co. skeins displayed behind her, Colvin projects the confidence of an industry veteran. But she’s only been immersed in craft culture for a few years. She left New York in 2011 to join her husband, an Army veteran who worked for the U.S. Dept. of Defense, in Georgia. Soon after her arrival in Georgia, where her husband’s two children also lived, a new contract took him to Afghanistan. Suddenly, Colvin found herself alone, unemployed for the first time since her early teens, and bored.
An Unlikely Pairing
But the transition from New York City to a small suburb in the South was only the “first culture shock,” says Colvin, who is Black and Puerto Rican. The second: unexpectedly becoming besties with her elderly white neighbor, Bonnie Maricic, who invited Colvin over for coffee one day to cheer her up.
“Everything in me was like, ‘I’m not going over there for coffee. What do I have in common with an old white lady?’” Colvin says. “But I had nothing else to do… [so] I’m gonna go have a cup of coffee with Miss Bonnie. This should be interesting.”
Miss Bonnie’s beautiful, handmade home décor, from pillows to curtains whipped up on a 1922 Singer sewing machine, wowed Colvin. When a crocheted blanket caught her eye, Miss Bonnie gifted her a ball of “five-dollar craft store yarn,” a crochet hook, and a learn-to-crochet book, along with an open invitation for Colvin to come back with any questions.
“After that, me and Miss Bonnie were like Thelma and Louise,” Colvin continues. They went grocery shopping together. They had lunch at that Cracker Barrel. They even road-tripped to Michigan, visiting Fennville wineries and historic Mackinac Island. The scenic vacation also included a trip to a local yarn shop (known as an “L.Y.S.” among serious crafters) — an epiphanous moment for Colvin, who had only ever bought yarn from big-box craft stores like Michael’s.
Craft Culture’s Ugly Side
Colvin returned to Georgia eager to explore her nearest L.Y.S., 40 minutes away — but she went without Miss Bonnie.
“Here I am, this plus-size Black girl. My Afro was, like, three times the size it is now, and I had on an ‘I Love New York’ hoodie with jeans and Converse,” says Colvin. “[The owner] looks at me and she says, ‘Oh no, my bathroom is for customers only.’” Colvin, who hadn’t even gotten her foot in the door yet, turned around and drove home.
“You experience racism. I’ve experienced it my entire life. But you never get used to it,” she continues. “I sort of got complacent because I was always with Miss Bonnie.”
Racism is woven into the crafting community, where making has long been associated with white womanhood while the labor and intellectual property enslaved Africans contributed to textile history is largely erased. In reality, Black people were kidnapped from regions renowned for their textile knowledge, including the messy, labor-intensive process of indigo dyeing. Enslaved people were also highly skilled knitters, spinners, weavers, and sewists, who crafted items for their owners’ households, as well as their own. Centuries later, when white, third-wave feminists “reclaimed” the domestic arts, their visibility continued to marginalize Black and brown people within craft culture.
Colvin never went back to that yarn store (it has since closed). But she still craved the richly hued, natural-fiber skeins local yarn shops are known for. So, she plugged into an online community of indie dyers and started making her own. Like many novice dyers, she started with Kool-Aid. But when Colvin shared pictures of her creations online, people began asking her for prices. From that moment, Colvin was all in.
“A lightbulb went off,” says Colvin. “‘You would pay me for this?’ That’s all it took. She quickly stocked up on acid dyes and “brought in tabletop, restaurant-grade steaming trays so I could cook my yarn.”
Before long, she was making hundreds of skeins to sell online and to wholesale customers — a protracted and physically demanding process.
“It is a long process [and] very labor intensive. I liken it to being an athlete. There is a time limit on how long you will be able to do this, at least by yourself,” says Colvin, who has an upcoming wholesale order of around 1,000 skeins.
Craft Culture’s Reckoning
LolaBean Yarn Co. came of age at a time when crafters wanted their yarn to be just as “slow” as the garments they made with it. In the 2010s, a groundswell of indie pattern designers, spinners, and dyers exploded on social media sites like Instagram and Ravelry. In 2019, these online forums helped the craft community reckon with equity and inclusion. Ravelry banned patterns with right-wing slogans like “MAGA” or “Build the Wall”. Hashtags like #weknittoo and #diversknitty proliferated on Instagram and Twitter. Crafters called on industry titans like Interweave and Vogue Knitting to increase representation on their platforms.
Though she is normally “brutally honest,” Colvin opted out of racialized discussions and social media politics until recently. “I didn’t want to deal with all of the microaggressions and foolishness that come along with being one of the only Black people in a room full of white people,” she says. Things changed when she had her daughter, Lola, in 2016. “I’m like, ‘I have to start saying something. For her, for the other babies who are coming up… I have to start speaking out.”
Increased progressive actions among crafters, from the anti-Trump “Pussyhat Project” to prominent knitters’ racial reckonings, and, more recently, the global George Floyd protests, have helped spur support for Black-owned craft businesses. “Once I started speaking out, that’s when the people started coming,” says Colvin. “I started seeing the numbers rising, more followers and more emails, more purchases in my shop.”
Collaborations with pattern designers also increased LolaBean’s visibility. Working with Stephen West, a high-profile designer known for kaleidoscopic, gender-neutral patterns and eye-candy photo shoots, was another milestone. West approached Colvin about doing custom colorways for his Amsterdam L.Y.S., Stephen & Penelope. Getting that call may be every indie dyer’s dream — but having creative control over what she produced was Colvin’s.
West designed a pattern around a custom Colvin colorway, and Stephen & Penelope began carrying LolaBean yarns. What Colvin valued most about the experience was that the team at Stephen & Penelope didn’t just pay lip service to diversity and then micromanage her.
“I have always admired him and here he is, ‘Adella, can you do this?’” says Colvin, referring to West. “And what I love the most about that collaboration and working with him and Malia [Joseph, founder and co-owner of Stephen & Penelope], is that they didn’t speak for me. It was like… ‘We want your yarn in… we’re going to put it out into the world. Now, you have the world’s attention. Say whatever it is you need the world to hear.’ And those are the type of people I love.”
With everyone in lockdown, 2020 was LolaBean’s biggest sales year yet. But Colvin’s main ambition isn’t continued growth. Inspired by her mother’s lifelong humility and community service, Colvin is more concerned with helping other Black makers achieve her level of success.
“As many opportunities that I can provide for non-white folks and folks in marginalized groups, I’ll do it,” she says. “Because visibility, if it’s done the right way, translates into sales… they can support themselves and have a thriving business, and then they turn around and do for somebody else what I did for them. If we keep doing that, eventually we’ll have a stronger voice.”