Unraveling in fraud, Fiberista Club to close

Owner accused of stealing knitting designs faces Illinois Attorney General's office

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

It's been almost six months since knitting designers across the globe learned their creations had been sold by an Oak Park-based business without their consent or receiving any payment. Now it appears that the embattled Fiberista Club is closing its doors for good.

A Wednesday Journal investigation revealed that the business, located at 1107 Westgate in downtown Oak Park, had made the misappropriated designs available to hundreds of its mail-order club members since 2016.

The amount owed to the designers could not be determined by press time, but with 115 designers identified as having their knitting patterns included in the club mailings over the years, which typically would run $3 to $8 per design, the total amount owed could be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

And that's not where the problems end for Fiberista.

Fiberista owner Jeffrey "Hunter" Couto was accused by club members not only of selling them stolen goods, but also of running a shoddy business with monthly packages arriving late, among other problems.

Couto declined an interview in July and could not be reached for comment more recently, but the entrepreneur sent a letter to club members in October announcing he is closing the business.

"After three years of curating our various clubs, we've decided now is the time to bring things to an end," Couto wrote to club members. "Any shipments that have been paid for and not fulfilled will be refunded in full. We anticipate being complete with the refund process within the next two weeks – all refunds will be complete within the next ten business days."

Wednesday Journal reported in July that Couto had begun compensating some of the designers whose patterns were stolen, but many felt Couto hand short-changed them, providing higher payment to some designers than others.

Now, club members are taking their case to the Office of the Illinois Attorney General.

Eileen Boyce, senior press secretary for the state AG's office, said two complaints have been filed with the state on Fiberista Club. One of the complaints, filed in July, was dropped because the complainant did not follow up with additional requests for information from the AG.

But the state is currently mediating another club-member complaint filed in September, Boyce said.

That complainant notes in their letter to the AG's office that they were a club member from March 2015 to June 2017 and spent over $1,500 on monthly yarn-club memberships. Since Fiberista was discovered distributing patterns without paying designers, they were prevented from using an online server through the company MailChimp, where the patterns were made available.

That blocked club members from access to the patterns for which they'd paid.

The complaint to the AG's office states: "As of today the majority of the designers have not been paid for their work and no pattern access has been restored to customers."

The club member, whose name and address were not revealed, estimates that it would cost approximately $827.40 "to purchase all the patterns that I have lost access to."

They noted in the September complaint that they had contacted Couto multiple times and not received a response.

Boyce said the AG's office is in correspondence with Couto and working to resolve the issue with the club member.

"We cannot serve as anyone's individual lawyer, but we can mediate," Boyce wrote in an email to Wednesday Journal. "We mediate every single complaint we receive. The outcome largely depends on whether the business and/or consumer respond to our letters and phone calls."

It is uncertain how long Fiberista Club's doors will remain open, but two new owners are stepping in to take over the retail storefront.

Tracy Ricker said in a telephone interview that she and her business partner, Chastity Dunlap, a Fiberista Club employee, are buying the business and changing the name.

Couto will no longer have any association with the business, Ricker said.

She said in an email that "we are in talks to purchase Fiberista Club's inventory in order to open up our own yarn shop in that space."

"To be clear, the doors of the shop are staying open during this time," Ricker wrote in an email. "We are well aware that serious mistakes were made with the operation of Fiberista Club.

"We both have a sincere passion for fiber arts and are excited for the opportunity to run a shop in the right way and connect with others who love this craft as much as we do."

* This article was updated to correct the spelling of Couto's name.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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Kristin Albert  

Posted: November 10th, 2017 7:13 AM

Hmm buying a business that literally stole from so many people doesn't seem like a very smart idea. They probably ought to check with vendors to make sure they have been compensated before buying any inventory. Otherwise they could be in a position of buying stolen property as there are now rumors floating that he didn't pay for a lot of the inventory in the store either.

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