Nothing but your Name
It’s an odd place we put ourselves in, as designers of knitting patterns. Through our creative process, yarn becomes a media for expression–an object of fashion emerges from the bind-off row and creates a feeling of desire in other knitters, who then apply their own craft and skill towards an interpretation of their own. There is nothing quite like seeing a pattern you recognize on a knitter at an event: the form familiar but rendered in new colors, matched to the personality of each crafter. This thrill is amplified when the pattern you’re observing is your own–a walking endorsement that someone, somewhere, believes that you have great style.
In order to fund these creative pursuits, many knitwear designers are commissioned by companies to design individual patterns or collections. Designers are either hired as contractors, or work in-house for a yarn company directly. Contracted or freelance pattern design arrangements typically have contracts, but for in-house design talent, this is rare.
In the surprisingly fast paced world of yarn, it’s not uncommon for there to be a pinch-hit need for a pattern, and the in-house creative is just the person to help in such an emergency. You may assume this in-house creative is someone who was hired to be a designer. But at many yarn companies it is expected for employees to contribute design work, even when that is not the job they were hired to do. If this work was optional, there wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s not uncommon for this extra work to be understood as an unwritten job requirement: a trade off for having a ‘fun’ career. These employees are not usually offered special contracts for their designs, and only occasionally receive extra compensation–rather, the value comes from the relationship built within the company, built with the customer (establishing you as a part of the design vision of that company), and usually some amount of control about how the finished pattern is marketed, photographed and released. The assumption is that the legal ownership of the pattern is with the company and will never become a point of discussion. And eventually, the individual who created these designs will move on from the company, leaving them in the hands of the brand. But this may not be the case, especially when no formal arrangement has been made.
Setting aside the obvious issues with these expectations, if both parties feel compensation is adequate, where is the problem? What happens when the company you sold your work to is no longer the company you thought you were endorsing? When it comes out that a company has been taking advantage of employees and exploiting freelancers, suddenly the idea of your creative ideas being associated with that group and generating a continual revenue stream for them turns sour. Do you have any options to get your creative work back?
When you take on a creative role with a company, you are typically required to sign an agreement to give your employer total ownership over the work you create for them. But in absence of such an agreement, some states allow employees to hold on to their ideas. Be sure to always read over any documents you sign before beginning a new job, and keep up to date on the copyright laws in your area.
I took my first Creative Director job at a yarn company in 2010, working for a large company with overseas milling and product in every major hobby store in the country. Fresh faced, 23 years old, and saddled with college debt, I agreed to a salary of $48,000 a year and moved to a new city. Within months, I was overwhelmed by the fast pace and high stress of the position. Who knew a yarn job would be so exhausting? My assignments were varied and all on a tight time clock: design labels, select new yarns, choose colorways, prepare campaigns, schedule photoshoots, and manage design team members. On top of it all, there was an expectation to always be designing something useful; a pamphlet of designs that could be presented with each product rollout, a free pattern to add to the label, or the perfect item in case there was a last-minute chance to win a multi-million dollar order filling bargain bins. It was understood (although not outlined in any job duties list or contract) that design time was on your own time–not on company time. You took your design work home at night. There was no bonus for this added work. There was also no disability package when my colleague had to leave the industry for good due to chronic tendonitis caused by the constant, unending knitting: done to save the company money on hiring sample knitters.
My story is not unique or scandalous. I went on to work several more jobs similar in pace and style before I learned to be more selective, evaluate the contracts more thoroughly, and negotiate the terms of my employment. The advent of the internet, the rise of Ravelry, and the churn of new designers and free patterns, has created a gaping maw that designers pour ideas into: pasta thrown against a wall with the hope that it will stick and create a sensation for a few more moments and, sell a few more skeins of yarn. There are exceptions, of course–businesses not built on the fast fashion format–but coincidentally, these are not generally the companies able to hire full time, in-house design teams, and entry level positions are rare.
Over the last few years, cracks are showing in the facade at even the most beloved “wholesome and homemade” yarn companies. In a small industry, news travels fast about the personality quirks of owners and operators. The onus is on employees to watch out for ourselves and demand that design contracts and additional compensation be standard for employees contributing design ideas but not officially working in a design-specific position. We must advocate to protect our intellectual property and ideas. And employers need to show value for our creative voices and perspectives when hiring us by providing workers with fair terms and material support to complete their jobs safely and within a reasonable timeframe.
Working with yarn brands has to remain part of the business model for designers, but it’s time to begin to re-evaluate how these relationships are organized, compensated and shared. How we move forward and where we push the knitting industry to change its treatment of designers and the way designs are released now could determine the future of knitting design within our craft, but also reflect larger movements of change regarding the relationships between contractors, freelancers, and their intellectual property and identity as brand.