From Needle to Needle: One Year On

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When introducing the From Needle to Needle series in February 2021, I wrote that

It would be impossible to discuss anything about designing and producing patterns without mentioning other important people and processes that are part of bringing a design to life as a commercial pattern.

From Needle to Needle, Introducing a New Blog Series [emphasis added]

The first two posts – The Three Lions and The Case for Professional Grading – got the most attention, and interest in technical editing and grading courses shot up.  The brilliant Tech Tip Talks debuted on YouTube, having begun on Instagram Live, and they have also set up a community on Patreon to provide ongoing support for designers, technical editors, and graders.  Concern about quality control was predictable and notable, and I can’t deny that I hear far less about dodgy grading these days!  It’s still there – a year is not a long time, in the grand scheme of things – but it is a valuable step in the right direction, and such a collective effort is to be applauded.

However, I also can’t deny that the last two posts – Economies of Production and Towards a Caring Economy – were met with relatively less gusto, which was deeply disappointing.  Was it a mistake to dress up as a social economist?  I had hoped that enough eyes and minds were alert to the systemic injustices that characterise the global west.  It goes deep: as I write, reports indicate that there’s always time for humans to treat each other badly, even when you’re fleeing a war zone.

I don’t have the answers, and I don’t expect light bulbs to go off in anyone else’s head either – but I do think that it is important to keep talking. More demonstrable (read: public) engagement and acknowledgement of problems facing many designers would have been a positive step in the right direction.  It is painfully clear that change will happen from the bottom up; in this case:

  • Designers and small businesses placing a sustainable value on their work – financially, culturally, and artistically;
  • Publications valuing designers’ work in a way that does not undermine wider efforts at fair pricing and labour value;
  • Larger yarn companies fostering a culture of security and transparency when working with designers, especially those commissioned for special projects.

One positive outcome here has been The Fibre Company’s change in compensation structure.  Instead of a single flat fee – the norm for the vast majority of the industry – their most recent brief stated that designers will now earn up to 50% of commission on sales in perpetuity.  This kind of change makes me feel hopeful, but we need much more of it – and from other businesses.

Second, just last week (after this post had been scheduled) By Hand London announced that they were making drastic – but hopefully sustainable – changes to the way they produce paper patterns for home sewists, which is more reflective of their market position as a small business. The blog post by Elisalex de Castro Peake, the founder, is well worth reading in full – and I especially appreciate her transparency about the numbers involved. For those interested in reading more about running costs, I also recommend the annual income reports that Delphine of Just Patterns generously shares on her blog. However, I see a lot more of this openness from our sector in future as designers and businesses are forced to confront exactly what sustainability means for them, and the true cost of survival.

In short, handknitting and crochet – and the indie sewing pattern industry – need to get away from the wretched cycle of churning out design after design.  I have always been dumbstruck at how slow-moving crafts have been disgracefully forced into fast consumption, mass production, highly competitive business models, particularly when a hobby knitter or crocheter is doing well to make more than four adult-sized garments per year.  Nobody, apart from a handful of designers and Tian Connaughton with her excellent marketing advice, has had the front to say “We need to slow down”.  It is as though nobody is brave enough to imagine a system completely driven by quality and appropriate business practices instead of novelty – including creators themselves, who suffer the most. By Hand London have done me a huge and unexpected favour by covering production costs, so I’ll move on to two examples of business practices that I think have a limited shelf life – and why.

Fingerless gauntlet gloves with lace trims
Bitten gloves | Photo credit: @fleurinfocus

Subscription models, facilitated by Patreon among others, have been embraced by knitwear designers and other creators.  Such models generate regular income that supports creators directly, and the patrons know exactly where their money is going.  So far, so symbiotic.  And they’ve long been adopted by larger corporations too: Adobe moved to cloud-based software several years ago, so people like me using a hard copy of CS6 for design work are hanging on for dear life; media outlets like Netflix also do very well out of subscription models.  My problem with them is that they perpetuate the same old problem: a pressure to create constantly; something, anything.  This is fine if your industry is inherently compatible with novelty, e.g., news channels; but if not, as is the case for many designers, you can run into trouble.  If you don’t produce new content, what are your supporters paying for?  You can put some contingencies in place by choosing to update as frequently as you can manage, but it’s a LOT of effort and content creation over an indefinite period of time.  Creative energy needs to be managed, and patrons/subscribers need to feel that their money – investment – is worth it, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Another well-intentioned effort to redress systemic injustice is pay-what-you-can pricing, and I say the following in hopes of not upsetting any fellow designers; if I do, then I apologise sincerely.  I have always been sceptical of the pay-what-you-can model because it diverts attention away from inequitable salaries and employment conditions, ironically at the expense of creating unhealthy working practices for the designer utilising it.  Aja Barber did a brilliant job of pointing this out recently in relation to fair wages, and others need to do the same; the dots need to be connected with thick, indelible lines.  I completely understand why some designers have adopted pay-what-you-can pricing, but it’s yet another race to the bottom – albeit with a more scenic route.  It’s a gross misframing of the problem, which is why I suspect it doesn’t work: you cannot solve problems unless you have correctly identified them in the first place.

In this case, the question to ask is: Is the price too high? – or do people not have enough money?  As I demonstrated in Economies of Production, costs have to be met and people need to be paid; the professional expertise that goes into a high-quality knitting, crochet, or sewing pattern is not available for free.  The answer to the pricing question is more likely to be low income, and once that’s understood, we can begin to talk about what constitutes not having enough money.  We can begin to differentiate between a person being poor, a person temporarily unable to afford certain goods, and the pricing of goods themselves.  The demographic of the knitting public is another big clue (see also ‘Some Thoughts on Knitting and Accessibility’).  But in sum: pay-what-you-can is a dangerous diversion away from politicians and plutocrats perpetuating systemic injustice.  A crafter’s inability to afford patterns and yarn is a symptom of this, but designers, small businesses and yarn companies are NOT the cause.  Imperialist systems are, and we need to be MUCH better at recognising this.

However, professional practice and industry standards can go a long way towards creating a sustainable and nourishing culture or ecosystem.  Behaviours, pricing, production, and payment models that integrate longevity, move away from novelty, and so-called economies of scale as a driving force (another sign of imperialist exploitation) are the ones to aspire to.  I have mentioned two in By Hand London and The Fibre Company, and no doubt there will be more similar announcements in years – maybe months – to come. Survival has a way of forcing humans to look unflinchingly at what does and does not work, and the more that businesses do this, the better it will be for everyone – consumers included. It will not feel or look like that when price increases inevitably happen, but as more designers and businesses continue to be brave and honest, and are more transparent about the treatment of their colleagues and their operations, attention will inevitably turn to what’s happening behind other, grander sets of closed doors.

I am talking about a major change, and one that cannot be fully realised without government support and implementation.  This is another reason to use your vote, and pester your political representatives about what their parties aren’t doing about the 14.5 million people in poverty in the UK (42.5 million in the US), and why they can sleep so well at night knowing that they’re serving themselves, not the public they claim to fight for.  Are you looking at policies or personas? Do you read policies and manifestos, fully understanding how they will affect your life, and the lives of others, for years to come? There is no escaping the fact that political decisions affect every aspect of our lives, and the sooner that people connect the dots and ask the right people the right questions, the better. The public servants responsible for our standard of living have been hiding away for far too long, depending on the public’s misdirected attention…on knitting pattern designers trying to pay themselves a fair wage.

But until that picture comes into focus, a reverse dialectic or negative formulation of the problem will have to do.  We need to define what we want and what is possible by being clear on what we do not want, and simply cannot do. For now, it is important to recognise what is wrong with our industry practices, what should NOT be happening, and to make a sustained and concerted effort NOT TO DO IT ANYMORE.

This is especially important for designers and anyone else tasked with the responsibility of creating original work that drives the industry. Exploitation of resources and ideas is another hallmark of imperialism (capitalism also), and relies heavily on the resource/keeper of the resource – here, designers and their ideas – being at least partly unaware of their value and unaccepting of their limitations. Examples of these limitations include time available, rest needed, and not having contingencies in place. Garment designers are particularly vulnerable because of the rigorous and lengthy pattern production process (see The Three Lions of Knitting Patterns and The Case for Professional Pattern Grading). Many designers are either poor at recognising that they’re in a trap, or so conditioned to unhealthy working practices that they don’t think twice about what they’re doing until burnout hits. Reevaluating the culture, and being honest about the consequent pressures, allows new designers to start on the right foot and more established designers to save themselves by making better decisions. It will be an empowering and brave change of attitude, but it will perpetuate positive change.

When enough industry professionals start questioning current practices, telling the truth, and demonstrating that they are committed to doing the right thing – whether for their own wellbeing, or the sector at large – more answers will reveal themselves.  Solutions are only possible if people try.  We have to earn them.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. Miriana says:

    I really enjoy these sorts of articles on the economics of the sewing and knitting industry so please keep writing (good point re Pay What You Can). And I enjoy the ones Delphine writes too.

    Kate at Time to Sew writes some similarly thought provoking stuff, for example

    And this one by the magnificent Yarn Harlot is a classic.

    1. Thank you very much Mariana! I will read the articles you linked when I have a spare moment, and I’m very glad you enjoyed mine 🥰. There will probably be more in future, from time to time!

  2. Maryann Witalec Keyes says:

    Please skip the sermons and focus on needlework. I very much enjoy reading about your actual knitting or sewing projects; but I’m not interested in a lecture about how the extensive garment industry should be run. Regards, Maryann

    1. Dear Maryann, you are more than welcome – and encouraged – to ignore my “sermons” at your discretion if they don’t interest you. I won’t be skipping them because they interest, have helped, and are much appreciated by several thousand other people. That said, I hope you continue to enjoy blog posts about my knitting and sewing projects. Best wishes, Natalie

      1. carrenjstika says:

        It always amazes me when a reader of someone’s blog comments to the author regarding how to present the blog (i.e., what and what not to include). Your poised response was perfect! Those who don’t like aspects of a blog are free to just not read it! It’s not their blog! It’s like writing to an author and telling the author how the book must be written to satisfy that particular reader. I just don’t get this attitude. 🙂 Keep on writing Natalie! Your voice is important… and so articulate!!

      2. ❤️ thank you very much, especially for your moral support – and I will definitely keep on writing! ☺️

    2. Erika says:

      I so appreciate these posts, Natalie. I am a consumer not in the business so I really appreciate your information and insights. I have often thought the same re: pay as you can pricing. And wholeheartedly agree that we need to be activating for political change as you described.

      1. 💕 thank you very much, Erika! Especially glad to hear from your perspective as a consumer; just a few minutes ago I was talking to someone who’d fallen out of love with knitting and crochet because of the constant pressure to keep up with the new releases. We’re closer than we think 🙏🏾

  3. Katie B says:

    This series has been so helpful. I have been thinking a lot about how best to live my values, and your perspective has really helped me think through what that means in terms of what my family and I wear. Thank you for taking the time to share this information. I so appreciate the care you put into everything you do.

    1. ❤️ thank you very much Katie – your constant support means more than I can say here, and I’m glad to know that I’ve made a positive difference to you too! Long may both continue ☺️

  4. Natalie I love this post and it really resonates: thank you for writing it. The issues of speed and production/output are very much on my mind as well. I increasingly find that the pressures of trying to meet the perceived market pace vs. the quality and focus needed for what I want to produce are at odds; also, it is really hard to manage the actual human resources – my time, energy and availability for my work – and the job insecurity that goes with being completely freelance. I’m struggling to find the right words to respond because it’s such a big topic, but just wanted to acknowledge how important this post is and to offer solidarity and say I’m definitely in the throes of re-evaluating my own business practices too. I appreciate your focus on social inequity and structural injustice as the real issues that make knitting patterns, books, classes etc. unaffordable, rather than our attempts to fairly compensate ourselves for our creative labour. I second your shout-out of Tian; her Pattern-Partnership Programme is revolutionary for focusing on the wellbeing of the designer, on the lives we want to lead, and on building ease and joy into our work, rather than making everything be about sales and burnout.

    1. ❤️ thank you so much for commenting, Felix – and don’t worry about finding words. Sometimes solidarity and support go beyond words, and knowing that there are so many people seeking the same thing is what motivates me. We are bound to find solutions together.
      And I’m glad you reminded me about Tian’s Pattern Partnership…I won’t mention how long I’ve been meaning to get on board! Tian is a treasure 🌟

      1. Meredith MC says:

        ❤️thank you for your time, energy and expertise. I value your ideas and honesty. I’m a knitter, and I agree with all you’ve written here.

      2. You’re welcome, Meredith – and thank you for your kind words 🥰

  5. Jane McLellan says:

    Thanks Natalie. I’ve just bought 10kgs wool to spin and knit into socks for sale and know that pricing them won’t be easy. I appreciate your perspectives.

    1. Thank you Jane – and I wish you all the best with your socks. There is definitely a market for them, and please let me know if I can be helpful at any point.

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