Contemplations of a knitter
Recently my staff and I have been talking about expectations. We all have expectations right? I expect coffee in the morning, I expect (despite the times we seem to be living in) people to be considerate, I expect my knitwear to turn out well, I expect my pup to be happy to see me.
Of course, expectations can be tricky things. The times in my life when I have felt most let down, upset, or betrayed have usually been when I had an expectation that was not met. Which may have meant that my expectation was not reasonable. In the LYS world, and in the world of knitwear design, there are some very specific expectations. Some of which are reasonable, and some that are not.
Ravelry and YouTube have brought us all new worlds of information, from patterns to instruction, not to mention nearly everything else under the sun (oh the hours I have spent watching Tiny Desk Concerts), these platforms provide access to material that was not readily available before. Moreover, much of it is free, free!
Now we all love FREE right? Right. The trouble is that there can be unintended consequences embedded in the expectation that something should be free. As a fledgling knitwear designer, and more so as the owner of a LYS, I struggle with the balance between free and paid material or instruction. In the yarn shop we firmly believe that fiber arts traditions must be passed down and that much of this happens in community, unpaid, and with an open heart. At the same time, many of us have spent years and invested time, and money to develop the advanced set of skills from which others hope to learn. It’s a balancing act.
Where is the line between a bit of assistance and a lot of teaching? When should the customer/student be willing to make the investment in their own continuing education? And how, as a business owner do you sort out the best use of staff time. Remembering all the while that these are payroll hours.
Collectively my staff and I have spent hours, at no charge, working with our community to answer questions, address problems, help fix mistakes, and unpack patterns. We do this gladly, and with the knowledge that we are part of an ancient and vibrant continuum of making. We are happy to dip in our needles. When some people balk at the suggestion of an actual lesson, we are at a bit of a loss.
It’s just those pesky expectations.
The world of knitwear design is much the same. It is a truly wonderful thing to open up Ravelry and find just the pattern you were looking for, especially if it is free. I was as guilty as anyone in the early days of Ravelry. I somehow thought that all the patterns should be free, and so I steered clear of patterns with a price tag. How embarrassing, to look back on that. As a micro-business owner, I really should have thought that through. Fortunately (and long before I did any official designing) I got to know several knitwear designers who educated me about their businesses, and the lightbulb went on!
Offering the occasional free pattern for a limited time may be a good marketing strategy, but “all free, all the time”, is not a sustainable business model. Where do these expectations come from? Should we look to YouTube, Ravelry, Amazon (free shipping, don’t even get me started)? Is it because most knitwear designers right now are women, and history has taught us to devalue the work of women? I am not sure, but I think these are questions worth asking.
These talented folks make their living working hard to create new designs that we, the knitting public want; and are willing to pay for. And that is a very good thing. The work these artists do is tangible, yet sustainable, fine, yet functional, local, yet global. It is a celebration of past and present that uses wool (happy face here) as its medium. Really what could be better than that?
Think about all of the intersections implicit in this one aspect of knitting. These designers give us recipes for our ingredients. They create the scaffolding from which we can create our own art, and be part of the great history of fiber art and making.
The wheel has turned, and we are living through a wonderful time in which locally sourced fibers are being celebrated. Wool itself, too long the victim of corporate campaigns against natural fibers, is finding a renewed appreciation across a much broader audience. If we did not have fantastic artists designing with this material, how many famers would suffer? How many more breeds of sheep might be lost? How might the lack of economic viability impact our landscape? And what are we still not seeing?
We knit, spin, crochet, felt, dye, design, for many reasons, but I think that at heart we do these things because we must. We do them because we could not be complete, be our fullest selves without the making. There is a unity in this which for me, answers the question: Why isn’t this free?