The League of Extraordinary Knitters

There’s been some very interesting chatter going on in the Designers group on Ravelry. It started off with someone asking if there were any active professional organizations for designers. There was once – the Association of Knitwear Designers – but it doesn’t exist anymore. The conversation that followed was fascinating. For those of you with Ravelry access and any interest in the knitting industry I would strongly encourage you to read the whole thread. Yes, all 17 (and counting) pages of it. I promise it will be worth your time. If you really want a quick and dirty peek at what’s happening there was a great summary in post 187 on page 8 that you could start with.

For those of you who don’t have Ravelry access, I will attempt to summarize/paraphrase/comment on the conversation and provide some context wherever I can. There isn’t an easy way to provide annotations on WordPress and I don’t want to call out particular people into the more public space of my blog by quoting them, so wherever I’m paraphrasing a particular post I will provide a link to it. If you don’t have Ravelry and see a link at the end of a sentence or paragraph, that just means it’s not my original thought, ok? I also feel the need to repeat that as always in this blog, and especially in this conversation, the word “knit” and all of its derivatives should be understood to include crochet as well. This is not a knit-specific conversation at all!

Here goes.

There is a need for some sort of professional organization/union/guild/thingy in the knitwear design industry. Why? Well, there are many problems that an organization like that could help address.

Fair Compensation

Designers earn peanuts compared to other creative professions. This is especially apparent in the traditional publishing world where magazines pay the same rate for designs today as they did in the 1980s. Publishers also tend to want to retain all rights to the designs, not allowing the designer to profit from their own work beyond the initial submission (post 15). Add to this the problem that there is no public resource to tell us what “fair pay” would be in this industry. No one wants to publicize what they are paid for their work for fear of appearing “unprofessional,” or worse – retribution from publishers (post 34). This is not just a paranoid fantasy either. A Cooperative Press author is working on a book right now that is described as “like Writer’s Market, but for fiber people.” Unfortunately there has been some trouble getting responses from publishers about even the simplest information (post 70). It appears publishers are resistant to allow any sort of discussion of their practices, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they secretly blacklisted any designers who openly discuss their experiences. Thankfully it is now relatively easy to self-publish knitting patterns, though that comes with its own pitfalls.

Isolation/Mentorship

Many people talked about feeling isolated in their profession. As a designer you don’t really have an office you can go to and be able to talk about work problems with your peers. For the most part you have to find people to talk to online. It can be difficult to form a trusting relationship with other designers online when you’re starting your contacts list from scratch. It would be nice to have an organization of peers to voice professional concerns with.

It would also be great to have some sort of mentorship program to help fledgling designers learn the ropes of the business – apparently that was one of the most successful aspects of the now defunct Association of Knitwear Designers that many would like to see repeated. You see, there isn’t any formal training for designing knitting patterns. You could get a degree in fashion design, but that barely scratches the surface of the body of knowledge required for knitwear design. Fashion school can teach you how to make a nice-looking garment, but the rest of it – learning how to hand-knit the garment and being able to communicate the instructions for repeating the process in the highly technical language of knitting – is pretty much self-taught (post 174). Usually the job of a designer doesn’t end there. Once you’ve made a pattern you still have to photograph the sample, apply some graphic design skills to make a pleasing layout for the pattern, then you have to figure out a way to sell it, either by pitching it to a publisher or by publishing it on your own. Some of those things can be hired out, but most designers perform some or all of those steps on their own. And we haven’t even gotten into the nitty-gritty of running a business like marketing and bookkeeping. The point is, knitwear designers utilize A LOT of skills in their work, and not all of those are skills that can be gained through schooling. I would kill to have a mentor who had been working in this business for a while guide me through some of the hurdles that I know are coming in my future career path, and help point out some of the potholes that I haven’t seen yet.

Quality Control/Professionalism

Then there’s the problem of free patterns clogging up the market. I mean, there isn’t anything wrong with having free patterns available and I think they’re a very valuable resource for newer knitters and a great way for designers to get some exposure, but there are just SO MANY of them. It can make it difficult to get the consumers to understand why they should pay for a pattern when they can just find another one for free. As was pointed out in the thread if we change pricing to better reflect what it costs to produce a pattern, you tend to get a lot of pushback from a knitters who have come to expect cheap or free patterns. Some will question whether your work is worth paying for (post 18). Well the short answer is “YES”. The long answer is “probably, as long as a well written pattern.”

Currently, the standards of both free and paid patterns are all over the place (post 95). Another thing that a professional organization could help with is to ensure certain standards of quality are met. That way you could be sure that any patterns from designers who are members of said organization are clearly written, tech edited, test knitted, professionally photographed, etc. (post 30). Why should knitters care about standards of quality in knitting patterns? Well, lets consider exactly what kind of service designers are providing.

For knitters, a knitting pattern is a form of entertainment. A well written error-free pattern with clear photographs provides more entertainment that a poorly written pattern full of mistakes and crappy photos. Many serious knitters are willing to pay for a more entertaining knitting experience. To put this into perspective, there are more knitters than there are golfers. Sure, there are free courses that golfers can use, but the paid courses are more challenging and more fun, so any serious golfer is going to be willing to shell out some cash in order to fully enjoy their sport (post 100). The same should be true for knitters.

Right now knitters really don’t have a reliable way if telling if patterns are well-written and error-free before they download them and start trying to work through it. If there was a professional organization of designers and the patterns produced by those designers were identified in some way, then at least knitters would know exactly what standard of work to expect before they invest their time and money into a project!

Legal Aid

This is not the first time the idea of a designers’ union has circulated, but usually it seems to come up during discussions about copyright. As always, I really do not want to get into copyright debate here, but one thing is certain: There is A LOT of misinformation circulating about the subject and there seems to be very little case law out there to clarify things. The reason for that is probably because copyright disputes in the knitting industry rarely seem to go to court, probably due to a lack of funds to hire lawyers. A professional organization might be able to provide two things to help out here:

  1. They might be able to contact some REAL copyright lawyers and find out some actual FACTS about copyright laws and how they apply within the knitting industry. Hopefully once armed with these facts there could be some sort of awareness campaign to spread this factual information around instead of just letting a bunch of armchair lawyers start flame wars all over the internet like they have been for years (post 420).
  2. Perhaps there could be some sort of legal aid fund so if a copyright dispute (or any other legal dispute really) comes up with one of the members they’ll actually have the ability to fight back instead of just having to grit their teeth and take it if they can’t afford a lawyer.

At this point those of you who have some knowledge of the knitting industry may be yelling at the computer screen “But what about The National Needle Arts Association (TNNA for short)? That’s a really big organization that helps shape the entire needle arts industry! Doesn’t that organization help designers with this stuff?” Apparently not. Many of the posters in the thread are members of TNNA and chimed in to detail how TNNA really doesn’t serve the interests of designers. In fact, it was stated that when TNNA reps are faced with issues raised by designers they tend to either ignore them or get really defensive (post 19). I don’t personally have any knowledge about TNNA’s responsiveness to designers’ concerns, but knowing that a member of the Board of Directors didn’t see a problem with hijacking someone else’s pattern to use for his own profit, this assessment is not exactly surprising. It seems their main purpose is to serve wholesalers, and designers really aren’t a big player in that arena.

Lastly, all this talk about a designers’ organizations is fantastic, but there are similar needs in some of the other knitting professions, such as tech editors, test knitters, and sample knitters (post 304). Since these professions all work directly with and are dependent on the patronage of designers it makes some sense for them to have some sort of representation in whatever happens, but until things get organized it’s hard to tell exactly where they would fit in.

That’s a long list of some very complex problems, and even if a professional organization does manifest it is likely not going to be able to address all of them. It’s possible that more than one organization would be needed, or maybe some of these things could be solved without the help of a guild/union/thingamabob.

ACTION!

Lest you think the whole thread was just a big whine-fest, let me get to the best part! As a result of this discussion, there are some plans coming together to address these problems!

For starters, there was a suggestion that starting up a designers’ conference could be very useful. That way designers could congregate, voice their concerns, and start plotting further action (post 19). Shannon Okey has some expertise in this area and seemed pretty willing to explore the idea of using her resources to start an “alternative trade show” for designers (post 37). Many people also suggested that a Google+ hangout would be a great way to hash out some of these ideas. This is where I start feeling a bit tech inadequate – I really don’t know what Google+ is. I mean, I’ve heard of it in passing, but I have no what it does or how it works or anything. I guess I should look into that, ’cause apparently it’s a tool that people are actually using to communicate with one another. There are probably quite a few other social media sites I should learn to get more comfortable with using too (tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, I’m looking at you).

Rohn Strong reported that he has been in contact with a labor attorney and is working towards starting an international knitwear designers union (post 49). The “international” part of that is especially important because the knitting industry is VERY international. Just check out some of the more popular designers on Ravelry and look at where they live. Designers are everywhere.

Amy Shelton is working on an anonymous Industry Compensation Survey and is collecting ideas for the types of questions to ask in this thread.

There are efforts in the works on a couple of fronts to help clear up some of the contradictory or just plain ridiculous information floating around about copyright laws as they apply to knitting patterns. Shannon Okey is working on arranging a conference call with an art/crafts copyright lawyer (post 148), and Amy Shelton has a private Facebook group compiling a list questions to ask a copyright lawyer (post 162).

There are currently two threads up in the Designers group organizing meetups at this summer’s TNNA trade show in Columbus: a general thread, and Sunday lunch thread. I can’t guarantee that a designer’s union/guild/thingy would be a topic of conversation at these gatherings, but it certainly wouldn’t be out-of-place. I wouldn’t be surprised if these ideas gain some serious momentum immediately following the TNNA trade show!

None of this is going to be easy, but just because something is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s not like things like this have never been done before. Other creative professionals such as actors, writers, and graphic designers have been able to affect change in their industries through unions or other types of organizations, so why shouldn’t knitwear designers do the same (post 169)?

So, things are happening. A League of Extraordinary Knitters is assembling. Change is coming.

 

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9 thoughts on “The League of Extraordinary Knitters

  1. Wow! The knitting industry is so full of intrigue and rabble-rousing! I had no idea things were so nuts for the serious professional yarn-types. I suppose that’s partially because to the average American, knitting is “just a hobby,” and not an industry that involves actual work. Very cool post, Nikki! I feel all educated. 🙂

    • RABBLE-ROUSING! Gah! I kept thinking “there’s an old-timey word for what we’re doing here, I just can’t quite remember what it is.” THAT’S IT! Thank you!

      I’m glad it was educational and not incomprehensible. 🙂

      • Lol! Yes. When in doubt of what old-timey word that no one under 30 uses anymore, ask Gitta. She’ll know. 😉
        And no, not at all incomprehensible. It was all very clear. Granted, compared to the Victorian poetry I’ve been reading lately for my summer class, most things are pretty clear.

  2. I had no idea this was going on, but very excited to hear that some folks are taking charge! It is pretty frustrating and I agree that developing standards/rules/regulations is quite a large elephant to have to eat. One piece at a time!

  3. I thought it was a really interesting thread to read, and this is a good summary. As a wannabe designer, I’m really interested to see what happens as a result of the discussion and hopeful that it will be something. There seem to be too many people who want the same things and are willing to work/pay for it for the status quo to prevail, but I’m an incurable optimist.

    • If you asked me a couple months ago I would have thought this type of action would be at least a decade away, but these ideas have been gaining so much momentum lately! I’m joining you in your optimism!

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