On pattern pricing, and privilege

When did Instagram Stories become the place to hold forth on complicated topics? Phew, not exactly user friendly. But apparently that’s where things are happening now and here’s the thing, I haven’t been following very closely. And yet that’s not going to stop me sticking my oar in now, because I have Things to Say.

As far as I can tell – and please, really, do jump into the comments and catch me up if I’m missing something – this is an offshoot of the conversation about inclusivity and accessibility that started on Insta in January, with racism in the fibre world, then spread to (among other things) size inclusivity in pattern writing, and financial accessibility. It seems that with the topic of broader sizing, the question of costs to designers was raised, and it was pointed out that designers already don’t really charge “enough”, so maybe it’s time to raise pattern prices – maybe to a point in line with those of sewing patterns, around $15-20.

Then it was pointed out, quite reasonably, that a lot of people can’t afford those prices.

And then things got hairy. Because in at least one post, it was claimed that designing was “a privilege”. “It is expensive, time-intensive, and usually loss-making. If you do it anyway, it's because you can AFFORD to.” (I’m not linking to that post because I don’t want to send anyone over there to start a fight. Trying to respect her space.)

This pushed more than a few buttons.

I actually understand where that idea comes from. A lot of designers (myself included) are indeed hobbyists.* We do it primarily for creative satisfaction, and while we need to cover our costs and would love to turn it into a real income stream, it’s not exactly a cornerstone of the family budget. Also true: a lot of prominent, visible designers are noticeably privileged. White, pretty, in possession of ample time to play around with yarn and photography. But to extrapolate from this to the idea that basically all designers are doing this for funsies? That’s… a little odd. And to a lot of people, extremely hurtful.

That same post started off making the point that many crafters are on a low income, and/or dealing with mental health and/or other disabilities. “Increased pattern prices should not be a source of financial anxiety for them.”

So my immediate question is: what about the designers dealing with those exact problems? Which, believe me, is a lot of designers. Some of whom have spoken quite openly about their challenges. Others haven’t, and nor should they need to. The fact is that there is no great divide between “crafters” and “designers” – we’re literally the same people. How can you pick sides and say that only one side “should not” have to deal with financial anxiety?

Throwing the word “privilege” into this mix is not, I think, helpful. I say this in full awareness of my own privilege. I’m also very aware that when people have a kneejerk reaction against being called “privileged”, that usually means (a) they don’t understand the term in its political sense (one can suffer, be poor and disempowered, and still hold privilege) and (b) they are actively avoiding considering their own power. But in this case it’s just flat out wrong. Some designers and yarnies may of course be coming from a position of privilege (myself included), but calling the work a privilege in itself? No. Really. Look closer.

Look at the people who have struggled to carve out a business in this industry because they were flat out of options. Because they were invalided out of more conventional (and lucrative) careers, or because they couldn’t access childcare, or for any number of reasons. Doing creative work may be very rewarding, but it is not in any sense a “privilege” to do work at below minimum wage when it’s the only path open to you. And using the known fact that it’s incredibly hard to make a living in this industry as an argument that working in the industry somehow disqualifies you from deserving financial support? That’s… well, it’s interesting.

Let’s be absolutely blunt. Crafting itself is a luxury. Patterns are luxury goods, in the sense that nobody actually needs a pattern. Firstly, a hobby is not a necessity (though I would strongly argue for its importance!). Secondly, there are very many ways to access patterns for free – from free downloads to library copies of books and magazines. And thirdly, it’s always possible to knit without a pattern. (Says the person who always did exactly that for years, because patterns were so hard to come by where I grew up. I know – having the confidence to do that is a privilege in itself. But it is an option.) So if you’re arguing that the work of designing is a privilege… why separate that from the privilege inherent in crafting itself? Having created this false divide between crafters and designers, why position one side as the oppressed (poor, disabled, vulnerable) and the other as privileged? How is that helpful? We’re all struggling equally under capitalism. We need structural analysis and structural solutions. Not wildly unspecific, unhelpful calls to “relinquish your privilege”.

As I argued on Instagram, it’s not really possible to determine objectively the “right” pricing level; everyone needs to figure out what works for them. I do think that in general, patterns are undervalued. I think that customers deserve to have access to great patterns at a price they can afford, but I don’t think that right trumps designers’ right to earn a living – or indeed just to earn a fair reward for their work, even if, like me, they don’t “need” those earnings to pay the rent.

I mean: haven’t we been talking about how the knitting industry (read: designers, yarnies, professionals in positions of visibility) needs to be more inclusive, more representative, less dominated by rich white women? Tell me how that can be achieved if we start from the assumption that designers don’t deserve to make a decent return on their work, because the work itself is a “privilege”?

You’ll notice I’m not taking a stand on the way forward for fairer pricing. I am interested in the tiered pricing approach that some designers are trying out – allowing customers to choose the price they pay. I worry though that this approach makes nonsense of my usual launch discount strategy. (Which is problematic in itself; there’s a strong argument that discounts contribute to devaluing patterns, but for me, they are by far the most effective way of driving sales. I’ve tried other ways. This is what works.) Still, seeing Francoise Danoy telling Ysolda about how she set up a “pay what works” structure for her newest release on Ravelry was a bit of a lightbulb moment. I’d actually wanted to do something like that for Mokita, on fundraising grounds (enabling supporters to donate more than the standard price if they wanted to) but couldn’t see a neat way to do it. Fortunately Frenchie could, and did, and explained it, so I’ve shamelessly stolen her idea. Mokita is now listed at €10, but you can choose to pay just €4 (or options in between). I might apply this approach to some of my back catalogue later. We’ll see.

Oh, one other thing. Taking this back to the starting point of size inclusivity – if you’re a designer, do go read Kim’s great post on why it makes excellent business sense to grade for more sizes. (I mean, duh.) And also check out @fattestknits for help connecting with plus-size testers.

* I may regret saying this, because my working situation keeps changing. If I had more time to work on designing and marketing, I might well see it as a more serious potential business. But for now, this is a fair description.