After several years of knitting and scrapbooking, Katy Bowman was seeking a new crafting challenge. So she decided to teach herself how to make crochet dolls.
That decision would eventually result in a brief burst of internet fame for Bowman, a clamoring for the dolls that she modeled after her favorite singer, Beyoncé, and best of all, a letter from Beyoncé’s people.
Sure, it was a boilerplate cease and desist letter, but still.
Bowman, of The Dalles, taught herself the amigurumi style of crocheted doll by watching YouTube videos. She started making a Wonder Woman doll, and then Spider Girl. She got commissions right away, mostly from Facebook friends or from colleagues at Google, where she has worked since 2007.
Then she landed on the idea of creating Beyoncé dolls and adding some of the singer’s iconic costumes. “I have always appreciated the tiniest detail of the whole stage spectacle Beyoncé puts together, and it became kind of a challenge to recreate those outfits in miniature,” Bowman said.
She began scouring the aisles at Jo-Ann Fabric, sometimes with a clear idea of what she wanted, but sometimes just looking for inspiration. “I would be looking for embellishments that reminded me of the costumes,” she said, “ribbon, fringe, or lace.” Bowman has also incorporated leather, jewels, and wire into her creations.
When she first started making her dolls, they were “very cute and short and squat.” But her Beyoncé dolls became much more elongated, “and curvacious,” Bowman added with a giggle. She spends a good couple of weeks thinking through design ideas, but can crochet the doll’s body—made of four parts sewn together—in a few hours.
“The costumes are where I spend the majority of my time,” says Bowman.
Her biggest challenge to date was a billowing 25-foot Vivienne Westwood cape that had to be posable. Bowman put it out of her mind as being impossible, but then she got a commission for a doll with that costume and began scouring the trim aisle. “How do on earth do I turn a two-inch piece of trim into a gigantic cape?” she thought.
Luckily, inspiration struck with wired bridal trim, and hundreds of handstitches later, voila: her posable billowing cape.
Bowman showed a doll in cream lace to a reporter and said, “This is the one I got a copyright infringement notice on last week. Super excited about that.” The notice came from representatives of French designer Pierre Balmain, and was spurred by Bowman’s description on an Etsy listing describing the costume as “the Pierre Balmain outfit from the Formation World Tour.”
Bowman categorizes her interest in Beyoncé as “a fairly healthy obsession. I’ve seen her eight times live.” She even cashed in 20-plus years of air miles to take her son to a California show, “but he wasn’t as impressed as I was.”
She remembers viewing one Beyoncé performance at the American Music Awards in 2008. “That’s where it started,” she says. “I was really just blown away by the choreography, by the costumes, by the dancers, and the whole package. I spent a short time in musical theater, so I recognized the expertise and the dedication that it takes to showcase that kind of art. And the music’s pretty catchy too!”
But it was a concert a decade later that would lead to Bowman’s brush with internet fame.
In April 2018, she decided to share a photo of one of her creations to a private Beyoncé fan page online - a doll featuring the yellow outfit that Beyoncé had worn earlier that month at Coachella. “Beyoncé fans are known collectively as ‘The BeyHive,’” says Bowman. “And they’ve always been super supportive of my creations. But here was my rude awakening to the internet: Just because you post something intending for it to be private, doesn’t mean it will stay that way.”
Someone lifted the photo from the private BeyHive page, turned it into a meme with a bit of a bite, and posted it on Twitter. The meme was captioned, “My grandmother after she watched Beychella.”
The meme went viral, getting reshared almost 10,000 times and garnering 60,000 likes in four hours. One typical comment read: “How can [I] get this?”
“I woke up the next morning and my notifications had gone crazy,” Bowman said. “At that time I only had a fairly locked down Facebook. But so many people had sleuthed their way to me, that I had all these friend requests, instant messages, and people wanted to know where to get the dolls. I had had no intention of selling them! I was only attempting to stretch myself artistically.”
Within 24 hours, the social media novice had to set up accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and Etsy, as a way to manage the queries. All in all, Bowman estimates she has sold 20 dolls over the last year. But she also gives them away to mark special occasions, and celebrate deserving Beyhive members for their community service.
Such work led her to reach out to Beyoncé’s management company to ask about arranging an auction of the dolls to raise money for Beyoncé’s BeyGood foundation, “which I’m sure doesn’t need funds raised for it,” she chuckled. She didn’t hear anything back, so she contacted them again, “And got a very boilerplate cease and desist letter: ‘Parkwood has not retained any element of your submission. Your submission has, thus, been deleted from our email servers.’ But I surely kept the email! I might even frame it.”
Then, the fuss died down. “I have an Instagram page (@yarnbythepound) now where the dolls hang out, and it has a respectable amount of people following it.” There were 184 followers the last time she checked. “Which is not going to break records anytime soon, but it’s nice to know there’s 184 people out there who want to know what’s going on with the dolls.”
Bowman travels several times a year for her job at Google, and often crochets at airports, where interested travelers will start conversations. “The biggest comment I get outside of the Instagram community is that they’re voodoo dolls. That was funny the first couple of times I heard it, but everybody thinks it’s the biggest joke, and that they’re the first one to have thought of it.”
In those first viral days, Bowman did experience the darker side of the internet. “One person did inexplicably leave some vile personal abuse on a doll picture,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can choose how to respond to this.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry you’re hurting; I’m here if you need to talk,’ because I just wanted to put love out there.” The commenter responded that they had just been joking.
But the internet has also given Bowman lasting connections and friendships with people she never would have imagined meeting.
A Chicago-based Instagrammer (@stylebeyonce) shares Bowman’s love of Beyoncé’s costumes, and “within hours of a Beyoncé appearance she will have the designer, the cost, and where you can buy the outfit.”
The Atlanta-based “King of the Beyhive” (@iamderonjordan) is also due a doll as a belated housewarming gift.
“All these people from all walks of life that you would never dream of encountering, but you have this one joyful thing in common,” says Bowman. “It’s a wonderful sense of community. But I’ve certainly learned to be careful online.”