To Karida Collins, “Mondawmin” is a bright pink.
“Oliver” is a warm yellow.
“Federal Hill” is grayish-beige.
And “Sandtown-Winchester” is a shade of periwinkle.
At least, those are the tones they take as yarn at her business, Neighborhood Fiber Co.
Collins, who has a master’s degree in American studies from George Washington University, started the business in 2006 and settled in 2015 in Seton Hill, where she has offered up brightly dyed yarns, classes and quarterly yarn-based subscriptions. If you ask Collins, the business — which dyes more than 100 pounds of yarn a week, delivers to 24 stores around the country, and makes a little more than $500,000 a year in sales — was bred out of her interest in yarn and a sincere love for city life, she said — a combination that resulted in her becoming more active in the community.
The idea to name the colors after neighborhoods started in Washington. Over 10 years there, she had moved nearly a dozen times — and had begun to dye yarn in the kitchen of a basement apartment.
“I wanted to really focus on the beauty of a city. … I think people expect people to see beautiful colors come out of things like the ocean or a flower garden. People think of the city, and they don't think of vibrant colors or beauty in the same way,” she said.
“Knitting has also traditionally [been] and it still is, it’s a hobby dominated mostly by white people, so I knew I was going to be the black yarn company anyway,” said Collins, who is African-American. “I decided to kind of go with it, and really kind of show people that you can look at a city and see something besides gray, concrete and all the sort of drab city things that people think of.”
When she moved to Baltimore with her yarn business in 2011, the yarn colors became almost political for her, she said.
“I wanted people to see Baltimore as a place that was beautiful and had real beauty and value,” in the same way that people valued Washington, said Collins, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., but spent summers in Baltimore as a child visiting her family. Since then, all colors — unless custom-ordered by a shop — have been named after Baltimore neighborhoods.
“I like being able to talk to [customers] about Baltimore and use the yarn to start that conversation.”
Mondawmin came about by accident — an intern had been rushing. Yet it has become a personal and political color. It reminded Collins of her grandmother taking her to Mondawmin Mall when she was younger, but also of the Baltimore uprising, where protesters, many of them students, clashed with police after the death of Freddie Gray.
The bright pink was also suited to the pussy hats during the Women’s March last year.
“That was the right pink for that, and it was a great way to start a conversation about protests and oppression and the way things might look a little different for different groups,” said Collins. A customer’s interest in Mondawmin might prompt a discussion about the students who were at the mall during the uprising, she said.
“This is a protest yarn. This was made for this. It was a chance for me to tell that story,” she said.
Collins’ affinity for neighborhoods and activism has made an impact on knitters.
“I’m really impressed with the community spirit, how much they’re involved in the community. Karida is not afraid to speak her mind and not afraid to take her business along with her path. Most people are too afraid to … make a political stand. And that’s important. She puts her business behind her beliefs,” said Sandra Woods, 64 of Cooksville,
who has been a customer of Neighborhood Fiber Co. for around a decade.
Woods, who has made a sweater in the shocking Mondawmin pink, said it’s the social aspect that keeps customers coming back. The welcoming staff care about knitters, what they think and what they’re working on, and incorporate gatherings, like custom dyeing events, to meet their needs, she said.
“They have such a good mix of business and social awareness, and they try to cater not just to the person who goes to knit a simple shawl,” Woods said.
Sandtown-Winchester, the periwinkle shade, was used to raise money for the Baltimore Community Foundation after the uprising. It was the business’ first fundraiser.
“We wanted to tell people, ’cause we have customers all over the world. The only information was coming from major news media, which wasn’t always a full complete picture. I wanted to be able to share the part of Baltimore that is angry, but is also hopeful,” she said, adding that the yarn gave people another avenue to give back to the city during a difficult time.
The business raised a little more than $10,000.
“We were just blown away by people’s response and how generous they were and also how interested they were and how much they wanted to be a part of this, and it made me feel like I could do something, because I didn't know what to do either,” she said, and she wasn’t protesting in the streets.
Collins also created a special edition, “1600 Penn. Avenue,” a purple ode to Barack Obama’s presidency, which discontinued after the end of his second term.
“It was a mix of blue and red, and it came out to this really beautiful purple that I always imagined for Michelle Obama,” Collins said, adding that the color was based on the idea that the presidency was bringing people together and that everyone was riding a wave of hope.
Neighborhood Fiber Co. also offers “sweater club” subscriptions for people who “are hardcore about what they make” or those who just want to make sweaters, said Collins. Quarterly, the participants are sent a new sweater pattern, curated by a hired designer, and enough yarn in their preferred colors to make a sweater in their size, Collins said.
“It’s a nice way to sort of pace yourself if you’re trying to make sure you finish things. … You can motivate each other and ask each other questions. You can end the year with four new sweaters,” Collins said.
Danielle Romanetti, owner of yarn shop fibre space in Alexandria, Va., has worked with Collins for around 13 years, purchasing yarn in bulk. She noted that Collins’ reputation for community interests and political opinions have been a boon to sales, proving that it’s possible to “be [tactful] as a business owner and assert your political views,” she said.
“I admire that [Collins] stands her ground and doesn’t hide who she is and what she wants to support, and it’s actually made it easier for us to sell her yarn,” she said.
“Customers know there’s a connection,” Romanetti said.
It also doesn’t hurt that her colors are more saturated than other brands, noted Romanetti.
“As [long] as I’ve been working in the industry, she was definitely the first to do really rich dark bright saturated colors. … It’s probably more rinsing and more washing to work with dye that dark, but it just wasn’t seen as much when she started dyeing yarn. The colors weren’t as vibrant,” Romanetti said.
Today, Collins’ bustling business features a production space where she and two staff members regularly dye more than 60 colors of yarn. Neighborhood Fiber Co. also offers classes on knitting, weaving, spinning and a variety methods of dyeing with both artificial and natural coloring,
This past summer, Neighborhood Fiber Co. dedicated its building’s upstairs level to a retail space where staffers sell merchandise and yarn that comes in a variety of colors, fibers and thickness, including wool, cashmere, silk and blends. People from all over the country come to shop, take classes or go on one of the shop’s many dyeing retreats, where they get more in-depth instruction, she said.
These days Collins, who learned how to knit as an adult (a friend taught her), said she spends more time in meetings and on the computer than she does dyeing yarn. It’s how you stay in business, she said, but “I still love color and the knitting community. I still love yarn and fabric, and just … seeing how colors interact. That’s still a lot of fun for me.”
And she’s looking forward to the future — to expanding her business, increasing class offerings, and dreaming up new colors inspired by the city.
“That’s the great thing about Baltimore. There are so many neighborhoods. I feel like we’re never going to run out,” she said.
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