An old acquaintance of mine has recently opened a yarn shop. She approached a couple of local-to-her designers, offering them yarn support to design some patterns for the shop. To her surprise, both designers declined, and she asked for my insight as to why they might have done so. Surely designers would be delighted at the opportunity to receive free yarn, as that covers their expenses?
Oomph. This is a tricky one to explain, as it involves frank discussions of money, which tends to make people uncomfortable. But I think this is an important topic, so I will try to at least explain it from my own perspective.
At the heart of the matter is the belief that yarn is an independent designer’s biggest expense. I can understand why it might seem logical to assume this. But for myself and most other designers I know, that is actually not the case. My biggest out of pocket expense as a designer, by far, is tech editing. Followed by overhead costs. Followed by modeling fees. And as far as yarn… well, like most designers, I have stashes of it, purchased wholesale - so really I would very rarely need to spend money on new yarn in order to design. So, while yarn support is a kind and generous gesture, it offers me something I do not, strictly speaking, need. And it doesn’t cover my actual out of pocket costs.
Much like the designers the new yarn shop owner approached, my own policy is generally to decline offers of yarn support. This is not because I do not love the yarn, and not because I do not appreciate the offer. It is simply because I cannot afford to design in exchange for yarn support.
For anyone curious what exactly I mean by that, I can elaborate further:
Pattern design is my main source of income. When I make a decision to design a pattern, I must therefore be fairly confident that the income that pattern generates will not only cover the expenses incurred in the process creating it, but make a sufficient profit on top of that to compensate for my time at a rate that at least approximates minimum wage. If I cannot make this happen, then let’s be honest: pattern design is not a job, but a hobby - and an expensive one at that.
If I am serious about making pattern design my job, I must be very careful in committing to publishing patterns independently - which is why I do so very infrequently. If you’ve ever purchased my patterns, you will have probably noticed that most of them say something like ‘designed by Ailbíona McLochlainn for [Insert Yarn Company Name]’. This is because most of the patterns I design are originally commissioned by one of several yarn companies I work with. Typically, the yarn company pays me a fixed modest fee for creating the pattern, purchases rights to print and sell paper patterns in booklet form, and often purchases the original design sample as well, for display in their shop and at festivals - while I retain rights to self-publish the digital version of the pattern on ravelry. This system works well for me. The fixed payment from the yarn company covers my out of pocket costs, and compensates for at least some of the time spent on creating the pattern and knitting the sample. Then any ravelry proceeds are income. In agreeing to create a commissioned pattern, I can therefore relax knowing that at the very least my expenses are covered and I will not be out of pocket, whether or not the pattern sells well on ravelry.
An offer of yarn support, on the other hand, provides none of these financial safety nets, while still requiring a commitment on my end to publish. So essentially, when I am invited to design and self-publish a pattern in exchange for yarn support, I am invited to spend an average of 150 Euro out of pocket (assuming this is a garment design), and about a week’s worth of work hours, on making that design happen - without any guarantee of compensation.
Now, if I were confident that the pattern would generate sufficient sales to make this all worthwhile, agreeing to this would not be a problem. But the realty is, I am a small-volume, relatively unknown designer. A few of my patterns have done very well. But most of them do okay. And some patterns, sadly, fail to justify their production costs. This is why I cannot risk having a business model that relies solely on self-publishing, and why instead I opt to work with yarn companies who commission patterns, giving me the financial security I need.
To be sure, my experience is not universal. Being a knitting pattern designer can imply any number of arrangements, from working under contract for one yarn company exclusively, to only publishing independently. And within the realm of independent publishing, there are likewise many possibilities. At one end of the spectrum is that handful of designers who are so popular, that publishing a pattern - any pattern - guarantees them sufficient sales to earn a very comfortable income. On the other end of the spectrum are hobby designers, who do not count on their pattern sales for income at all and design for the fun of it. It is very possible that designers at either of these extremes are likely to benefit from, and agree to, yarn support. But for many of us who fall somewhere in between, it might simply not be feasible.
I have a great deal of love and respect for independent yarn producers, dyers, and vendors. I try to support my favourite ones by buying yarn from them whenever I can. But yarn support is a different kettle of fish entirely, and I hope I’ve explained clearly why a yarn designer might not be in a position to accept this type of offer.
As for my acquaintance, the new yarn shop owner: My suggestion to her, was to commission a pattern and set up a mutually agreeable profit sharing arrangement (for example: The designer sells on ravelry and the yarn shop sells paper patterns). This will support a local designer and ensure they can commit to the work, while being likewise profitable for the yarn shop.