Knitting & the Marketplace - Reflections 3

This post is one in a series of posts extending the talk I gave at Glasgow University as part of the Handknitted Textiles & the Economies of Craft in Scotland workshop series. It is no secret that I work in the knitting industry and that I wear a number of hats. When I was first approached to work within the industry, I was unsure what it would be like to turn my hobby into a job. Would I still enjoy knitting? Could I maintain a decent work/life balance? Would my knitting friends treat me differently? Would I treat knitting differently? Several years later I still do not have all the answers but right now I'd say "yes", "no", "a bit" and "somewhat".

I work in both sectors of the industry: the commercial and the independent sectors. Each sector have its own idiosyncrasies but having a firm grounding in how the commercial knitting sector works has helped me understand how I can carve out a space for myself within the independent sector and which pitfalls I should avoid. More on which later.

But first let me clarify what I mean when I talk about the "commercial" sector and the "independent" sector:

  • The "commercial" sector is mainly made up of big yarn companies with their own in-house designers, publishing houses, and established "name" designers who work extensively with subcontractors.
  • The "independent" sector is mainly made up of one-person businesses with personal creative control. This could be yarn dyers, pattern designers, yarn shop owners, workshop tutors etc.

Arguably the shift in the public perception of knitting has been led by the independent sector via social media but the ongoing success has been facilitated by the commercial sector offering easy and affordable access to patterns, yarns, workshops etc. I would actually say the two sectors are far more symbiotic than they may appear.

Furthermore, the division between the two sectors is often hard to see: is Fyberspates an indie dyer or a commercial yarn company? The lovely Sarah Hatton works as an independent but with close ties to Rowan Yarns. The sectors work together in a myriad of ways to ensure knitters a vast variety of products and experiences. I would suggest the dichotomy is illusory at best: we need to think of both sectors as being commercially viable in the marketplace. Despite what some people may think about independents (especially when it comes to our intellectual property!), we do like paying our bills as much as we love being passionate about yarn and knitting!

For me, the key point revolves around creative control. When I work within the commercial sector, I do have a small say in yarn development or pattern support but I will not see the result of my suggested changes for nearly 18 months because I am just a tiny part of a very big whole. The independent sector is much quicker to respond: I see the result of suggested changes within 18 hours - sometimes within 18 minutes.

What has the commercial sector taught me that I can apply in my indie work? Plenty of things.

  • I think in terms of "collections" now. A cohesive theme. A controlled colour palette. One underlying idea.
  • I think about the technical skill level needed to knit one of my pattern. I am probably guilty of "aiming low" when it comes to technical fireworks in my patterns but I am passionate (to the point of obsession) about the idea of accessibility.
  • Consistency in pattern writing. I've set up my own in-house style sheet so I can provide consistency in my own patterns (when writing for others, I'll use their style sheets when provided with one)
  • You are nothing without your network. Even as an indie designer with a tiny portfolio, I could not do what I do without a vast array of other people supporting me. This ranges from yarn support and test knitters to fellow designers being my sounding board and tech editors crunching my numbers.

Right now I am happy to be working within both sectors. I have had to learn on the job as I do not have a design or textile background, but I am never bored, new challenges/opportunities come knocking constantly, and I meet some incredibly interesting people. It's fair to say that people who work within this industry all have unique backgrounds and their own special stories - it's quite unlike any other industry I have ever worked in.

Addendum: I am indebted to my friend Esther Maccullum-Stewart (University of Chicester) for her definition(s)of "indie". Esther is a media reseacher with a particular interest in "indie gaming". During a conversation about online communities, we were intrigued by the many structural overlaps between the online gaming and knitting communities.