Emani Outterbridge next to her first yarn vending machine in a barbershop at 16th and Cecil B. Moore

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A new vending machine was dropped into a North Philly barbershop Thursday night, and it officially opened for biz on Friday morning. But don’t show up looking for snacks.

Painted bright pink, this machine is stocked with nearly 500 balls of yarn.

The thread-peddling device was thought up by Emani Outterbridge, a 24-year-old Philly native who’s become famous all over the country for her crochet creations, which are worn by celebs like Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Baby.

Through her business Emani Milan, Outterbridge sells handmade crochet rompers, dresses, yarn and crochet lessons. She started the virtual shop in 2011 when she was just 15 as part of the entrepreneurship program at the Parkway West High School.

Her goal now is to control the entire supply chain required to keep it going. She started fabricating her own yarn, hooks and patterns in the last year.

“Everything is made directly from me,” Outterbridge said. “This is a one-woman show.”

The vending machine at 16th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue — her first foray into selling yarn in person versus online — is the next step in that process, and its debut has proved successful. During the first morning of operation, the barbershop owner texted her three times about how many customers it brought.

“He’s like, ‘Emani, this is crazy, people are really coming in,’” Outterbridge said. “He didn’t realize that this is going to be big. It’s really selling.”

This whole thing started when Outterbridge broke her foot at the end of May and was laid up for six weeks.

She’d already been working on her own yarn line, so she didn’t have to be frustrated by not being able to buy more when she ran out when working on a project late at night. Plus, she was sick of using the same old colors she’s found at big chain stores since she started crocheting at 12 years old.

On June 18, Outterbridge posted on Instagram that she wanted to make her own vending machines. She’d start with two, she proposed, in different Philly neighborhoods, so folks could buy yarn whenever they needed it. If people liked the idea, Outterbridge said, they should buy her yarn or donate directly to her CashApp to fund the project.

The whole thing happened fast. In just four days, she’d raised enough to buy two custom vending machines, valued at $1,800 each. She credits that to her sizable following — nearly 35,000 people on Instagram — and to the celebrities who’ve worn and posted her handmade merch.

“I’m really in tune with my followers,” Outterbridge said. “I’m clear about what I’m trying to do with my goals, and what I need to get me to my goals.”

An old friend had just opened his new barbershop at 16th and Cecil B. Called Elements of Grooming, the business is mostly for men, but the owner told her he aspires to expand into styling women’s hair, too.

Why not drop a pink vending machine there? “I was like, I can help you generate female traffic, with them stopping to get the yarn,” Outterbridge said. “We both helped each other out.”

If sales continue apace, all 480 skeins of yarn would sell out by Monday, she said.

The next one is slated to go up in South Philly, perhaps at a friend’s soon-to-open waxing salon. Then West Philly, then Atlanta — and then perhaps nationwide.

“I don’t think anybody really expected a vending machine to come out with yarn,” Outterbridge said. “But once I had the idea, I’m like, I gotta push it. And it worked. It really worked.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...