This season on Working, we took a trip to Baltimore to chat with some of the city’s residents about how they make a living there. We’re hoping to learn a little about the ways Baltimore shapes their work—and the ways they’re shaping Baltimore by working.
Listen to this episode of Working with special guest Karida Collins:
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If you spotted—or wore—one of the bright pink pussy hats that were ubiquitous during the Women’s March on Washington in January, there’s a good chance its raw materials came from the Neighborhood Fiber Co. in Baltimore. “There were days where all we did was dye pink yarn,” recalls Karida Collins, the business’s owner and operator. As she notes in this episode of Working, though, something about that yarn may have gone unnoticed by many of those who were knitting it into signifiers of resistance. The particular shade of pink was named for Mondawin, a Baltimore neighborhood that spawned some of the first protests after the death of Freddie Gray.
“I liked sending that color to a group of women who were knitting hats for a women’s march that was pretty white,” she says. “I’m like, Hey, let me introduce you to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
From the outside, the Neighborhood Fiber Co.’s home base might be easy to miss. It occupies an unassuming brick building in Baltimore’s Seton Hill, a space that once served as a firehouse and much later as a halfway home. Inside, however, you’ll find a dazzling array of yarns in dozens of distinct hues, each of them named—as the company’s own name suggests—for a neighborhood in Baltimore or one of the other cities Collins has called home. She tries to pair the hues to qualities that represent those communities: A particularly vibrant yellow that she showed us, for example, is named after Otterbein, which is a short walk from the stadium where the Orioles play.
At the back of her workspace, the tools of Collins’ trade are visible. Most notably, there’s a massive cast-iron stove that puts out 550,000 BTUs of heat. “It is literally the maximum amount of stove that we could have in this space,” Collins says. On its 10 burners, woolen fibers soak in 24-quart stock-pot dye baths. Already taking on their vibrant colors, they resemble nothing so much as long strands of alien spaghetti.
“It’s small batch. It has been referred to as artisan,” Collins says of her company’s work, hesitating slightly as she comes across that final word. If she’s uncomfortable with the term, it’s mostly because it “sounds a lot more pretentious and a lot less physically intensive” than the hard physical labor that it takes to bring those colors out.
These days, Collins focuses more on the commercial end of her business and less on the work of dyeing. Nevertheless, she has spent plenty of time standing over colorful vats. After grad school she worked as the manager of a yarn store in Washington. An avid knitter, she felt she had something to add to the hobby. “I wanted certain colors, and they weren’t there,” she says.
While she imagined going into business for herself, she couldn’t afford to do so in D.C. Baltimore wasn’t her first destination, though. She lived for a time in Columbus, Ohio, getting her start in the work of dyeing out of a friend’s basement: the first of what she describes as a series of “yarn dungeons.” At the time, her operation was relatively small, partly because practical realities—especially the high cost of the undyed yarn she buys from suppliers—prohibited her from operating at a larger scale.
Family obligations eventually brought her to Baltimore, where her grandparents had owned a grocery store. She moved back to the area to care for her grandmother, who had received a terminal cancer diagnosis. At the time, she was doing what she describes as “the bare minimum of dyeing.” After her grandmother’s death, she considered returning to Columbus, but she found a building set up for low- to moderate-income artists. Soon the space was piled floor-to-ceiling with yarn, and before long she and her business had outgrown the small space. It was then that she found her way to her current base of operations.
Though Baltimore itself is now central to what Collins does, her supply chain is global. Most of the wools come from Australia and New Zealand–based merino sheep, but before they arrive in the store, they pass through a mill in Canada. (Incidentally, she hasn’t always worked with that supplier: Her current mill has a minimum order of 600 pounds, which costs around $13,000, an amount that would have been prohibitively expensive when she was getting started.) The dyes, meanwhile, come from a supplier in New York City. And once Collins and her employees have assembled a final product, they ship it out to home knitters all around the world.
Even as conditions in Baltimore made her business possible, Collins acknowledges that there’s a slight disconnect between the commodity she sells and the economic disparities of the city. “We’re selling a luxury good. Our customers are not people who live in this neighborhood for the most part,” she tells us.
Despite that, she aspires to be part of the city—and not just its whiter affluent enclaves. After the Freddie Gray protests, she found herself struggling to respond. “We all felt like our city was broken, and it was out of our control to fix it,” she says. In an attempt to do something, the company developed a beautifully variegated yarn of rich purples and blue that it named for the neighborhood Gray grew up in. As she has with other yarns, she donated all the proceeds to charity—in this case a local nonprofit working to help rebuild the city.
“I feel a connection to this city in a way that’s completely removed from yarn but is still a part of my business,” Collins says.
You can listen to our full conversation with Collins via the player above. Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Collins gets into some of her own knitting projects and explains what makes someone “knit-worthy.” If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at slate.com/workingplus.