‘Everything that was meant to break me, made me’

Outterbridge creates first-of-its-kind vending machine to stock crochet yarn.

If you’ve been to the Cherry Hall Mall lately, maybe a bright pink vending machine caught your eye. And if you got a little closer, you’d see the contents of it are anything but typical: an array of colorful yarn.

The world’s first yard-vending machine was the brainchild of North Philadelphia native Emani Outterbridge, a business owner since she was 15. The 24-year-old is a crotchet designer who makes her own yarn, and whose designs have been worn by celebrities like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. 

Outterbridge learned to crochet at 12 and has been creating ever since. At the time, she was removed from her home and put in a residential placement facility, where she had two options for spending free time: watch the news or learn to crochet. She chose the latter.

Outterbridge said looking back, the traumatic experience could have broken her. But instead, crocheting changed her life. 

“Everything that was meant to break me, made me,” she recalled.

At 15, one of Outterbridge’s courses at Parkway West High School was an entrepreneurship class that inspired her to take her business model out of the classroom and into the real world.

She began crocheting headbands that she sold for $5 at school. They caught on so quickly, Outterbridge  decided to expand into leg warmers, sweaters and other pieces. She started wearing her own pieces as a form of advertising that would allow her to refer people who had seen her work to an Instagram page.

Outterbridge began taking her bag of yarn with her everywhere she went. She would finish her tests early and sit at her desk crocheting, something her teachers allowed because crocheting is silent and she was a good student.

After graduating high school, Outterbridge juggled being a college student with running her business. She was making something close to 100 pieces a month. 

Outterbridge said many people think of crochet as old-fashioned, but she wanted to show people that handmade pieces could be elevated. 

“My mission was to make sure it translated as fashion: dresses, skirts, short sets,” she explained. “This piece of string is more than a piece of string. It can be considered fashionable.”

Outterbridge’s business was originally named Mani Wear, but in 2019, she  changed it to Emani Milan. She gained a following on Instagram, and it just kept growing. Today, her page, @emani.milan, has more than 43,000 followers.

Outterbridge has leveraged that following to get herself noticed. Her followers helped her tag Cardi B’s stylist, who saw Outterbridge’s Instagram page and asked her to make a piece in one day for the rapper’s upcoming music video. Outterbridge stayed up all night making the pieces, and a friend drove her to New York, where she personally dropped the pieces off and got to meet Cardi B.

While the singer, ultimately, did not use the pieces in the video, her stylist was so impressed with Outterbridge’s dedication that he ensured a photo of Cardi if the pieces caught fire on Instagram. They did, with Outterbridge’s  page one day topping 40,000 followers. 

Eventually, she grew tired of seeing the same colors at the yarn store, or not having access to supplies when a store was closed. So Outterbridge created her own yarn line.

“I’m solution based,” she noted. “Everything is about finding a solution to the problem.”

When she broke her foot in 2020, Outterbridge, yet again, found a solution to her problems. She wanted to create a new experience with her brand because she couldn’t travel as much or reach her clients. So she asked her Instagram followers to help her raise capital to create the world’ first yarn vending machine, and they did. 

Outterbridge raised $10,000 in capital, and the first machine was placed at  a barber shop in North Philadelphia. The third one came to the Cherry Hill Mall in early April. 

The inventor said the timing is, in many ways, perfect. As a result of COVID, many people are stuck at home, and more people started crocheting in the last year than at any time in recent history. Outterbridge  said the machines offer people a safe, contact free way to get supplies.

Her next step is to get the machines into airports. Given that people are often stuck waiting there for long periods of time, it would be a perfect spot to offer her yarn.

And Outterbridge’s eye catching machines have even inspired people to take up crocheting. She’s been contacted by people who saw them, and it sparked an interest. It’s a passion Outterbridge said she is happy to share with others. 

“I think crochet itself changed my life.” 

To learn more, visit www.maniwear.com