Seattle's Other Urban Craft Uprising
Somewhere in New York City this weekend, a guy will tie up his girlfriend using hemp rope dyed a deep, dark red. Somewhere in Ohio, a woman will buckle her husband into his new Darlex straitjacket. And somewhere in San Francisco, a man will set his beer on a small tray snapped onto the gag that he buckled over the mouth of his kneeling slave.
What all these people have in common—besides being kinky motherfuckers—is that the sex toys they're using were all made by kinky craftspeople in Seattle.
A lot of Seattle's local kinky craftspeople got their start at vendor fairs hosted three times a year by the Center for Sex Positive Culture, which founded the Seattle Erotic Art Festival, the eighth annual installment of which goes down at Seattle Center this weekend.
"Seattle's a special place," says Allena Gabosch, executive director of the Center. "We're a strongly sex-positive and kink-positive community, and kinky people have social opportunities here and business opportunities. Seattle has everything from folks doing small-scale 'cottage industry' work to people who are making a living creating kinky toys and fetish wear."
Let's meet three of Seattle's best-known kinktrepreneurs.
"I did not set out to become a bondage-rope mogul," says Monk, 39, who lives in West Seattle.
Monk grew up on a farm outside Spokane. His family was conservative, evangelical Christian, and Monk got his nickname—now his professional name—at age 16, a time in his life when his future plans included entering a seminary and becoming a missionary. Instead, Monk moved to Seattle in 1991 with his wife—his high-school sweetheart, a girl Monk met when he was 14 and married the week after he turned 18—to go to the University of Washington. After getting his degree, Monk worked as a tech consultant for Microsoft, Boeing, and some of Seattle's first dot-com start-ups.
Monk says that he had always been weird, but never realized he was kinky until a family crisis. A member of Monk's extended family left her husband and came out as kinky about 10 years ago. To thank Monk and his wife for their support, and to help them better understand her, the relative gave them a book about bondage, The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage by Midori, the SF-based sex educator and writer.
Midori recommends hemp rope for bondage play, and there were instructions in the book for treating hemp rope. Hemp is the rope of choice for bondage enthusiasts, but in its raw form, hemp rope is rough and coarse. Monk got some hemp rope, followed Midori's instructions, and used it to tie up his wife. Her response, says Monk, was, "Make more of this!"
When Monk took his rope to a bondage class at the Center for Sex Positive Culture—then known as the Wet Spot—someone asked about buying some of Monk's rope. The Center hosts vendor fairs three times a year, and Monk decided to make a big batch of rope and booked himself a booth.
He sold every piece of rope he had.
Monk cashed in the 401(k) he'd built up working for tech firms and went into the rope business. Seven years later, Monk has six employees (four of them full-time) and last year sold a half a million feet of rope through his website, www.twistedmonk.com.
When I visit the large space in an industrial warehouse in Sodo, there are spools of rope sitting on pallets, rope dying in vats, rope being run through a large loomlike machine to "break" and soften it. In one corner of the space, rope dries on racks in a walk-in kiln that Monk constructed. One of Monk's employees is shipping orders to customers all over the world, while another uses a blowtorch to burn away the sharp plant stems that protrude from the raw hemp rope.
"Basically, before I came along, if you wanted hemp rope for bondage you had to process it in your basement by yourself, and it's very, very labor intensive, as you can see," Monk says during the tour. "So not a lot of people bothered to do it."
Monk's rope quickly became the rope of choice for fetish pornographers and models, who tend to gush when asked about it. "I need to be concerned about not only the look & feel of the ropes I put on my models but the quality & strength as well," Lochai Stine, a professional bondage-porn director/rigger, wrote in an e-mail. "I use Twisted Monk's jute & hemp rope exclusively."
Monk has had difficulties—like finding a bank willing to work with him. Most banks took one look at Monk's website, which is tame by sex-toy-merchant standards, and told Monk that they don't work with porn companies.
"We're selling fiber," says Monk. "I took a bundle of rope to every brick-and-mortar bank in Seattle—Wells Fargo, Chase Manhattan, Bank of America. I have a growing company, we're going to do well over $250K in sales this year, maybe $500K, and I need payroll services, merchant services, credit services. I said, 'This is what I sell. Tell me I'm running a porn site.'"
Monk eventually found a bank willing to do business with him. "But I got kicked out of a lot of banks first."
The other difficulty was his family back in Eastern Washington. "I don't hide who I am on my blog or marketing materials, and my conservative Christian family freaked and I was disowned by part of my family," says Monk. "It's one thing to sell rope, it's one thing to be kinky—it's another thing altogether to be an evangelist for kink."
But Monk has no regrets.
"I'm keeping roofs over my crew's heads and bringing a lot of people joy," says Monk. "Sometimes I can't quite believe it."
"I guess I'm breaking the rules," says Scott Paul of Scott Paul Designs. "I create all my designs in-house, and I hire people to help with the manufacturing. We do all our leatherwork here in Seattle, instead of doing it as cheaply as possible in China."
Paul has two signature lines—the Humiliator Gag System and the Click-a-Cuff Bondage System—but he also sells cages, cuffs and collars, sensation toys, spreader bars, and more, all designed by Paul and manufactured in his Seattle studio.
Paul is originally from the Midwest but moved to Seattle more than three decades ago. "When I was 18, I sold my car and half my drugs," says Paul, "got a lift to the on-ramp, and hitchhiked west." He would eventually go into construction. "I used to build custom homes, luxury bathrooms and kitchens," says Paul. "I was a good designer and a skilled craftsperson. But about eight years ago, I had a change-of-life situation. I got my heart broke, I was sick of my job, and I had some money in the bank. So I decided to build cages."
Paul booked a booth at a vendor fair at the Center and was randomly assigned to share a booth with this tall guy selling hemp rope. He brought a basic version of his Click-a-Cuff Bondage System (leather shackles and wrist restraints attached to metal tubes that can be "clicked," Snap-on-Tool-style, to each other; spreader bars; fixed mounts; etc.), a collapsible cage, and some bamboo spankers.
"I made some sales, less than I hoped," says Paul. "Monk and I have both come a long way since."
After that first vendor fair, Paul went on to create dozens of product lines. He primarily sells his products through his own online store—www.scottpauldesigns.com—but he wholesales to a select few online sites (Mr. S Leather, JT's Stockroom, eXtreme Restraints, and Leatherpost.com, a leather and bondage-gear website for gay men that's based in Seattle).
Paul's best-known product line is the Humiliator Gag System. It's a molded leather gag with a short metal tube that sticks straight out from the mouth. A number of attachments can be snapped onto the post, instantly transforming a submissive play partner into a serving tray or a feather duster or a toilet-paper dispenser.
"Scott makes absolutely fantastic toys," says John Reissenweber of Mr. S Leather in San Francisco. "He has this ability to get into the minds of the people who are using his toys with things like the Humiliator Gag System. That whole line is very distinct, found nowhere else. We hardly have to sell them. They have great word of mouth." (Can we pause here to contemplate the irony of a gag that has great word of mouth?)
"Seattle is unique," says Tonya Winter.
Winter makes latex, spandex, stretch PVC, and Darlex clothing, hoods, and bondage gear at a workshop in Sodo, not far from Monk's studio.
"There are a lot of people making kinky stuff in Portland, too, and pockets of kinky craftspeople in other cities," says Winter. "But there are more of us in Seattle because we've always had a really strong support network up here. When I first became kinky, there was C-Space, then SKIN [Seattle Kink Information Network], then Beyond the Edge Cafe. Now there's the Center for Sex Positive Culture. There's a real community here, a community that supports play, vendors, craftspeople."
Seattle didn't just make it possible for Winter to make a living creating kinky products for kinky people. Seattle helped Winter realize she was kinky in the first place.
"I wasn't even aware that I was kinky when I moved up here," says Winter. "Which is kind of crazy because I was tying up my boyfriends in my early high-school years."
Winter, born in San Diego, was 20 and living in San Jose in 1990, working as a graphic artist. A friend who had moved to Seattle kept calling Winter to tell her how cool it was up here, begging Winter to move up and join her. Winter remembers being impressed by one detail in particular: Seattle had a used bookstore with "cat highways" connecting the tops of the shelves.
"I turned 21 when I got here," Winter says. "And I opened The Stranger and read about this fetish night at a place called the Vogue. I went two or three weeks in row before I spoke to anyone. Then I fell in with the crowd that hung out at the back, spanking people, whipping people, doing electrical play. And that's all she wrote."
Winter first started creating fetish wear—dresses and corsets—because she wanted something to wear to the Vogue. But it wasn't until she made her first piece of bondage gear that Winter realized she had stumbled into a career.
"A friend came to me and said, 'Hey, I have this thing I bought years ago, but it's falling apart and you can't get them anymore.' I took a look at it and said, 'I can make you one of those.'"
Winter made her friend a new sleep sack. (Picture a skintight sleeping bag that someone else zips you into and that you can't get out of until they let you.) Her friend was so impressed by Winter's work that he showed his new sleep sack off to some other friends in San Francisco.
"His friends worked at Mr. S," one of the biggest bondage-gear stores in the country, "and they called me up and said, 'Hey, we want to carry this product that you've made.'"
By 1998, Winter was selling her own line of clothing and gear online. In addition to selling her work via her own website—www.winterfetish.com—her products are available online at Mr. S Leather (www.mr-s-leather.com) and eXtreme Restraints (www.extremerestraints.com). They're available locally at Wild at Heart, the woman-owned sex-toy shop in Ballard popular with the kink community, and Lovers Lair in Lynnwood.
Winter recently rebranded her website and moved into an expanded studio, and with the assistance of her boy and business partner, Jake Markow, she's hiring more stitchers.
And her boy? Just another good thing that came into her life thanks to a friend.
"A friend introduced us six years ago," Winter says. "We hit it off. He lived in California, on a tiger farm, basically a retirement home for performing cats, but we talked over the internet constantly. Finally, he just moved up."
Winter didn't know it at the time, but her new boy was also a customer.
"It turned out that before we even met, he bought a Darlex straitjacket from me and sent it back for some custom alterations," says Winter. "He had a couple of my hoods too."