Karie Bookish Dot Net

Clutching My Gladioli – On Making It Work as an Indie

Currently BBC4 is showing a series about the independent music business in the UK. The series traces how record labels like Factory, Rough Trade, Mute, 4AD, and Beggars Banquet made it possible for less mainstream bands to release records. Many of the bands turned out to be hugely influential and enduring (Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Depeche ModeThe Stone Roses, Suede, Franz Ferdinand, and Arctic Monkeys to name but a few!) and today UK indie labels continue to champion new music that would never be signed by major labels.

As someone working as an independent knitting designer, I recognised a lot of what was being covered in the documentaries – from small record labels operating out of a bedsit in Sheffield via creatives forming loose partnerships to dealing with complex distribution problems/solutions and worries over intellectual properties. I love many of the bands covered by the documentaries, but it was eye-opening to see how much of the amazing music was being created in an environment that was in many, many ways similar to how the indie knitting industry works.

Everything I do is created at my kitchen table. I have a small nook with a desktop computer (which needs replacing) and some bookshelves where I keep all my designing resources. I create my own layouts, my partner does my photography & art, I model my own designs, and everything passes through my hands. I deal with emails, accounts, wholesale, distribution, workshop dates, social media, marketing (which is always my sore spot), and obviously pattern designing & writing. I hire in technical editors to work on my patterns, but what you see is what you get and you get me.

And most indie designers work like that. Some have pooled resources, others have grown to the stage where they have one or two people on staff. But we are all just very, very small independent ventures.

Why be independent? Is it that much fun to do accounts at 11am on a Friday night? I think most people understand the allure of having full creative control – and yes, being able to decide what to design in which yarn is amazing – but the allure of intellectual property is even stronger. Quite simply, indies choose to own the right to their work.

I learned a hard lesson when I first started out: I handed over the rights to a pattern for a pittance and saw somebody else make a lot of money from it when I could barely cover rent. And that got me thinking. I still work with mainstream publications on occasion (and some of them are incredibly indie-friendly and lovely!) but time & experience has taught me to be wary of Big Besuited Companies offering me deals too good to be true.

Indies pay the price by having to do all the things – including all the tough things mainstream publishing would normally have done for us – but I maintain it is worth it.

So, clutching my gladioli, I began thinking about where indie knitting businesses are heading.

The BBC4 documentaries on UK indie record labels traced the trajectory from bedsit record labels with rough DIY graphics to bands like The Smiths appearing on prime time TV and finally a world where indie labels are regularly outselling the big record companies.

Knitting is not the music business (there’s a big difference in gender make-up for one thing! It made me sad to see many female musicians simply disappear as indie music became bigger in the 1980s and 1990s) but maybe there are lessons to be learned there.

Here are some of the lessons I have gleaned from the documentaries:

  • Surround yourself with people who understand and support your ethos.
  • Don’t try to follow the crowd but embrace what sets you apart.
  • Take control of as much of your own operations as you possibly can.
  • Choose your collaborators with care and imagination.
  • “Indie”can become a very diluted term when Big Besuited Companies realise it is an untapped market – this will result in products that look, talk, and walk like indies but have big money and committees behind them.
  • Digital marketplaces mean that everybody can sell their products (music, books, knitting patterns) so quality control is difficult. Indies still need gatekeepers (or “curators” as I believe the Pinterest generation calls it!)
  • Don’t believe the hype lest you want to turn into Morrissey!!

There isn’t a right or wrong way of making it work  as a creative. Some people work best as part of a larger team with stylists, graphic artists, distribution centres, remote printing, and so forth. Then you have stubborn donkeys like me who enjoy having my fingers in every pie.

What about you as a knitter?

Some knitters love following a particular design house and yarn brand with big budgets and aspirational marketing; others find themselves more at ease at an indie show where they get to know the dyers and the designers. Some people prefer buying a magazine with glossy ads and a plethora of patterns; others like buying single patterns they have especially chosen for one particular yarn. And some prefer to just spin their own yarns and knit without a pattern.

The world is your oyster – you can to pick and choose as you like. And as an indie girl that really makes me happy.

18 Thoughts on “Clutching My Gladioli – On Making It Work as an Indie

  1. Charlotte on October 19, 2015 at 12:48 pm said:

    Interesting, because as a consumer of knitting patterns I agree there’s a lot of similarities. There’s the ability to make something your own, create your own communities and to feel that you’re not tied to something ‘manufactured’. I miss getting the Sarah Records catalogue!

    • Absolutely. There’s a real community/subculture aspect to indie knitting – from recognising a “tribe member” in the wild because she’s wearing a Woolly Wormhead hat to hanging out at shows; from sharing mods at knit nights to making some great friends through a shared love of tubular cast-on etc. Yep.

  2. I must admit I am trying to avoid the Big Besuited Companies at the moment, purely out of ethical reasons. I work for one (in another industry) and I see at first hand how they treat their employees and customers – from disdain and indifference to down-right exploitation. I just imagine it’s the same with most of them so I try and avoid them where I can.

    I don’t participate much in the community, a couple of comments to blogs and some posts on Rav, But I do read Twitter and Instagram and I’m always amazed at the cooperation and friendship that exists between people who are in effect rivals, be it designers, tech editiors, dyers, shop owners. It is truly astonishing, heartwarming and a true tonic to my work-day blues.

    I also love the personal touch you get, from a hand written note to a response to my question – not just a standard, corporate PR response.

    Indies are people for whom customer satisfaction is paramount. I was told today by a colleague that I care too much about my customers, we have just got into a culture where doing “just enough” or less is acceptable. There is no comeback if we don’t.
    It is reassuring to know that there are people out there who still care about doing a great job.

    • You definitely get a personal touch with indies – you get to know our faces and how we do things.

  3. What a wonderful inspiring post! I also think there is something special about indie patterns, so much work, passion and devotion is put into it!

  4. spinningsheepfeathers on October 19, 2015 at 4:09 pm said:

    Being in the “spin it, knit your own pattern” category includes shopping with the indie designers/dyers too. I used to be a knitting magazine junkie but have realized that each one is basically the same as the other one (but I still subscribe to Pom Pom and Amirisu because they are different!!).
    I notice a different look in your picture!! Too much work?

    • Different look? No, I’ve used this photo for about a year now :) Although I do work too much at the moment ..

  5. I’m just starting out as an indie dyer & trying to learn to be a designer. The possibilities are endless. I find myself looking at what other dyer/designer/knitters are doing and there is so much amazingness going on. I think that if we all tried to get in the the Big Guys a lot of that would be lost. It is also cool to see someone who started out small become really successful & to know I don’t have to be exactly like them to reach my own idea of success.

    • Our strengths as indies is that we can make exactly what we want and don’t have to sit through endless meetings to decide upon something! And you make such an important point: we all have our own individual definition of success!

  6. I learnt very quickly that I definitely work best when collaborating with other people. So much of the reason why I do my work is linked in with community, so it makes sense to connect with others in the process of that work. Otherwise it’s just me with a thousand ideas that rattle around in my head without being put in to action!

    I love how you post about the insights in to your working life as a freelance designer. That’s about as real and indie (and, er, authentic! had to say it! ) as it gets. Don’t change :)

    • I am glad you enjoy the posts :) Community is very central to the idea of being indie, I think. I need to ponder more but I think that is so true!

  7. I read an article on Amazon trying to launch a ‘handmade’ platform *rolls eyes* and it made me SO happy that I am part of an Indie Community, for it’s shared knowledge and support. Someone without that know-how might view the opportunity to trade via Amazon as a huge opportunity…
    I think one of the great things about being Indie is the value placed on you by the people you work alongside, and the people that buy from you. I love tracking a yarn through to finished object, knowing that I helped someone to make that awesome knitted item!
    Awesome blog post, Karie :)

    • Yep, Amazon is trying to do an Etsy and launch an artisan marketplace. Exactly what I was thinking of!

      ” I love tracking a yarn through to finished object, knowing that I helped someone to make that awesome knitted item!”

      Awesome comment, Sarah!

  8. This is a very inspiring and informative post.
    I would love to get into more pattern designing and take that further, but I find the workload involved after the designing process, is monumentous with very small reward. For a designer with a few published patterns, the competition is immense. The alternative is to devote more and more time to promoting the patterns and this is where I wonder if a podcast is the vehicle required to self promote my work.
    Thank you so much for an awesome post.
    Its definatly food for thought.

  9. Penny Jenkins on October 25, 2015 at 5:41 pm said:

    Very good post with lots of food for thought Karie. When I first took up knitting again as an adult I bought patterns from the big pattern houses (mainly Rowan), mainly because I didn’t know the difference between yarns or that, outside of my local knitting shop, there were lots of independent designers and dyers out there. This was just before Ravelry and the internet took off. Now I try to stick to British yarn and one-woman-band (they are usually women) designers. It’s wonderful buying from a knitting show and talking to the person who designed the pattern or dyed the yarn, knowing that I’m not buying from a faceless corporation. The same goes for buying online – it’s a good feeling to know I’m supporting a freelancer’s business. When I wear my Scollay cardigan I know it’s all because of you. With regards to the mainstream knitting magazines I think they do play a part in attracting people to start knitting and are useful for knitters who dip in and out. They do seem, however, to publish patterns from the same big pattern houses. Some patterns are from freelancers I think, but I’d be interested to know how much they pay for them.

  10. Penny Jenkins on October 25, 2015 at 5:44 pm said:

    Ps I boycotted Amazon years ago because my local bookshop started a petition that eventually went to No 10 Downing Street complaining that Amazon could sell books heavily discounted because they didn’t pay much tax in this country and that high street bookstores couldn’t compete fairly as they have to pay their way fairly. I hope other knitters do the same and don’t touch their ‘handmade pattern’ platform with a bargepole.

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