Handmade: Designer adds color to the yarn industry

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News
Toni of TL Yarn Crafts

Toni Lipsey is making history -- one stitch at a time. 

She's among the few African-Americans and persons of color with a thriving business in the multimillion dollar yarn crafting industry.

Less than two years ago, Lipsey quit her day job to pursue a career as a crochet pattern designer, selling her work under the name TL Yarn Crafts, a business she launched in 2013. That venturesome move is paying off!

"Business has been really good," she said in a recent phone interview. "I've been at this a little over a year and it's been an exciting ride. I feel like every day is a little different. I'm saying 'yes' to every opportunity, traveling a lot and making new friends. And, I didn't expect this when I decided to do crocheting full-time." 

Lipsey, 32, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, grew up in Michigan, where she graduated from Southfield Lathrup High School, and Grand Valley State University, earning an undergraduate degree in psychology and a graduate degree in nonprofit administration.

After getting married, she moved to Ohio in 2010 with her husband, Jenon, a packaging engineer in the pharmaceutical industry. She said, "It was at the low point of the recession, and that made it really hard for me to find a job. I was newly-married, and in a new state, so I wanted to find something to fill my time."

She rekindled her love of crocheting, a hobby she picked up when she was 13 at the talented hands of her mother, Gwen Jones of Southfield, the knitting and crocheting army veteran who was featured here last November.

sweater cardigan by TL Yarn Crafts

"From there, I just crocheted for fun. I made gifts and things for my home," recalled Lipsey, who relies on merino wool as her "go-to" yarn. "The crochet community was just starting to grow, so I was really on my own. I wasn't part of a community of crafters at that point. I eventually started making products for craft shows, and I still had a lot of free time on my hands, even after I found my first job in Ohio.

"I did craft shows for about a year, then I decided I wanted to try my hand at designing. My first (design) project was a crocheted hat, or beanie, called the 'Mega Pom Beanie.' I started selling that pattern, individually, on my website (TLYarnCrafts.com) and other pattern sales websites. That pattern was very, very popular with crocheters because it was easy, fast, and had a lot more character than some of the hat patterns that were currently available.

"From there, I came to understand that I could enjoy crocheting more by selling patterns, rather than selling my work at craft shows, so I started designing several more pieces -- a lot of beginner-friendly crochet patterns."

Patchwork kimono by TL Yarn Crafts

So far, Lipsey, has published nearly 60 crochet designs, independently, on her website, Ravelry, and Etsy. She's also designed a dozen for different yarn brands and publications. The patterns sell for either $5 or $7.50 each.

But what has her "yarn arts experience as a woman of color" been like? "I came to understand early on that the yarn arts community didn't look a lot like me," she said. "While I made friends with the knitters, crocheters and dyers I came across, I yearned to see other people of color who loved yarn as much as I did. Through social media and touring yarn stores, I was able to find very successful, talented and passionate makers of every skintone and background.

"Knowing my own experience with the lack of diversity in the knitting and crocheting community, I recognized how important it is for me to show up and work hard in my business. There are new people coming to this community every day, and I want to do my part to show that every person is welcome and celebrated."

Every few months, Lipsey comes back to visit, and since she crochets full-time, she said it's something she and her mother can "bond over" with visits to yarn shops and craft shows.

When she's not designing or visiting her hometown, Lipsey is busy blogging (TLYCBlog.com), doing crocheting tutorials, traveling across the country teaching at yarn shops, and fulfilling speaking engagements at yarn festivals and conventions, where she sometimes meets with yarn company representatives to "set up arrangements" to create a design just for them. 

Described by her mother as "an amazing inspiration to all women," Lipsey plans to write a book filled with her designs, and thoughts on being a person of color making a living in the yarn industry. She said, "I want to use the influences that I've built to open up this conversation even more!" 

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact TL Yarn Crafts at TLYarnCrafts.com, or Instagram: @TLYarnCrafts.