A small-business idea that started as an online knitting club and quickly grew into a brick-and-mortar storefront in downtown Oak Park almost seemed too good to be true for its owner in early 2016.
“We thought it would slowly grow over time, but it sort of exploded, which was great; I’m still pinching myself because we are very blessed,” Jeffrey Hunter Couto, co-owner of Fiberista Club, 1107 Westgate St., told Wednesday Journal in February of 2016, a few months after the storefront opened.
But earlier this year, Couto’s story began to unravel as knitting designers from as far away as Germany, Ireland, France and Russia learned that the secret of Couto’s success, in part, was due to their unknowing and uncompensated help.
Word spread quickly in the tight-knit community of yarn enthusiasts, and now dozens of designers – by some estimates more than 100 – have learned that their meticulously constructed patterns allegedly were sold to hundreds of Couto’s club members over the last three years without their knowledge.
Selling and trading in knitting designs without payment or consent is a widespread problem in the knitting community, according industry experts, with websites trafficking in stolen designs on shadowy corners of the internet.
But what has allegedly occurred at Fiberista Club is different – a legitimate business, hiding in plain sight, included the designs as part of the monthly package to hundreds of members.
At a range of $3 to $8 per design, that could mean tens of thousands of dollars owed to pattern designers across the globe.
The scandal that has rocked the knitting community also has brought to light problems with the club that have existed since its inception, according to a former member.
Couto, who at first agreed to an interview with Wednesday Journal but later declined, has been paying designers since the news of the allegedly misappropriated patterns began to circulate, but many say they believe he is lying and low-balling them on the number of members to whom he sent the designs.
The story first came to light in June, when designers began to learn through the knitting social network site Ravelry.com – the world’s largest online knitting community, which claims more than 7 million users – that their patterns had been used without payment or permission.
Couto received assistance from a Fiberista Club fan to help better promote his store on Ravelry for the club. The moderator inadvertently made available all of the links to the designs that had been sent to club members over the course of the last several years, which were located on a server hosted by email marketing platform MailChimp.com.
When a Ravelry account lists a pattern, the designer receives a so-called “earburn” or message alerting them that their pattern was featured – that’s when things began to fall apart.
Enter the Demon Trolls, a group of vigilant Ravelry users who track and expose purveyors of stolen designs. A Demon Troll moderator known as TnyPirate declined to discuss the group for this story.
As word began to circulate on Ravelry about the designs, the Demon Trolls started an Excel spreadsheet identifying 115 designers who had their patterns used by Fiberista Club.
Within days, Couto published an apology on his Ravelry page, stating that he has “a multitude of ways” of paying designers and that all designers would receive full compensation.
Soon after he began compensating designers, paying some for 60 or so designs and others for as much as 230 designs.
Laura Patterson, who lives about an hour north of Vancouver, Washington, said Birdsfoot Fern, a lace shawl pattern, was made available to club members in June 2017.
She contacted Couto, who told her his members had downloaded her design approximately 60 times from the MailChimp server, and offered to pay her $7.50 each for that many designs. He upped the number to around 70 a few days later after the design had been download by more people.
“I invoiced him for 70 patterns at wholesale pricing and before he paid I heard from [another designer] in Russia that he paid for 230,” she said, noting that she later invoiced him for the difference and he paid it.
Patterson said it was not her first time to not receive payment for her work. Patterson said that she provided a special design only available to Fiberista Club members for the January 2016 mailing and was supposed to receive $300 for the design itself and $2 each per club member.
“He told me in early March  it had gone out to about 300 people and they got a good response,” she said.
Couto paid her $300 for the design but never compensated her the $2 each for the 300 club members, which would have put an additional $600 in her pocket. She provided emails showing that she requested the additional payment, but says she never received it.
Fiberista Club also used patterns from designers in Europe, Russia and elsewhere.
Aoibhe Ni, a designer in County Meath, Ireland, said the design for her Nova shawl was sent to Fiberista Club members in November of 2016. She contacted Couto who proposed paying her for 68 patterns sold. Ni later learned that others had received payment for more than 200 patterns.
“There’s no proof whatsoever,” she said of the numbers he’s provided designers.
Tanja Osswald, a designer in Hagen, Germany; Caroline Cochet, in Bordeaux, France; and others all said they contacted Couto and demanded payment.
They all told Wednesday Journal that although Couto appears to be trying to make good, they believe he still is misleading people on how many designs were distributed to the four monthly clubs he runs.
“He could have gotten an agreement with many of us and gotten a discount at wholesale,” Cochet said in a telephone interview.
Although the designers are front and center as the victims of the misappropriated patterns, club members also are now affected; the designs have been removed from the MailChimp server at the request of the aggrieved designers and are no longer available to club members.
Former Fiberista Club member Becky Bernard, who canceled her subscription earlier this year, was a charter member, joining Fiberista for its first shipment in 2015.
Bernard, who lives outside of Illinois, said packages were late more often than they were on time, and on several occasions yarns received through Fiberista could not be linked back to a company on the web.
Bernard said she believes yarns she received with titles like Cat’s Pajamas and Kitty Pride were dyed by Couto and his staff, which runs counter to his advertising that members would receive exclusive, luxury yarns from top designers.
Couto repeatedly has said on social media sites such as Ravelry and Facebook that the misappropriated designs were not intentionally stolen.
But Bernard and others say that’s hard to believe, since Couto has created and sold his own designs in the past.
“This is especially disturbing to me because he represents himself as a designer,” Bernard said. “There’s no way he doesn’t understand copyright himself.”
Couto said in an email to Wednesday Journal that Fiberista “received implicit permission to use many of these patterns” they provided club members over the years. And only recently learned “that others were distributed without the approval of the designers.”
“We apologize to all those affected, and we are working to remedy the situation as quickly, fairly and amicably as possible,” Couto wrote. “At this time, many of the designers affected have received payment and we are currently in conversation with all those remaining.”
“We want our entire community to know that in distributing these patterns, our intentions were never malicious,” Couto wrote. “As far as we were aware, instructions for assembling a design are not copyright protected. Moreover, our revenue comes from the distribution of yarns and fibers, not patterns, and our mistake in sharing some patterns was grounded in a simple desire to encourage our members to try new knitting techniques and ideas.”
A Ravelry representative did not respond to a request for an interview, but users have said that Fiberista Club’s page on the site has been partially suspended.
* This article was updated to correct the spelling of Couto’s name.