Designers behaving badly

Does your opinion of the designer influence whether you buy the pattern?  In my case, the answer is definitely yes. I have thought about this question a number of times over the last few years, and recent events have brought it to the forefront again.

A few years ago, I heard of a knitting retreat being organized in a lovely hotel in a beautiful coastal area of the UK.  Three days of knitting classes, plus good meals, in a resort hotel, with the added bonus of beach walks and other knitters; it sounded wonderful.  It was very expensive, however; the cost included board and all meals and also a not insubstantial fee for the knitting classes.  There was to be 15 hours of classes over two and a half days.  What clinched the deal for me was the fact that a very famous knitting designer and blogger was to be an instructor there, and I would have 6 hours of classes with her.  I was something of a fan girl.  I had read her blog for years and thought it clever and fun.  I thought her designs were pretty and well-engineered.  Quite a few of them were in my queue, just waiting for the right yarn or the right opportunity to knit.  I sent in my (hefty) check and signed up.

On the first morning of class with said designer (who we will call Designer X) she handed out a ball of yarn and one of her patterns to the class, and said “OK, let’s knit this.”  She talked for about ten minutes, and then we all sat and knit.  For three hours.  She provided no instruction, but said “Here is an empty seat beside me; if you have any problems, come sit here and I will sort you out.”  On the second morning, when we had another three hour long class with her, she said “Isn’t it nice to have a class where there is no teaching?  I always think we get a little tired of being taught at all the time.”  We were flabbergasted.  We were also all polite people, whose mothers had taught us manners, and none of us complained.  In retrospect, this was a big mistake.  We should have been more vocal (in a polite way, of course) about the class.  But, I must say we were all completely astounded  at her behavior and didn’t quite know how to act.  One woman had flown in from Canada just to attend this workshop; others had arrived from Ireland, and Belgium, and France, and from around the UK.  Each of us had paid a lot of money to be there.

Not only was her teaching non-existent, but Designer X also avoided socializing with the group.  We would all be sitting in the bar (a totally lovely bar overlooking the ocean) and gabbing and knitting and drinking, and she would sit across the room with her husband, generally avoiding us.  It was sad, and also perplexing.  There was another teacher at the workshop, and she was lovely.  She had prepared her classes, and was an interesting and engaging teacher.  I met many wonderful knitters there and had fun staying up with them late into the night, drinking wine and knitting away.  I enjoyed the hotel and the great food.  I walked on the beach.  But Designer X clearly cast a pall on the event.  I resented having paid money for her classes and thought she was an unpleasant person.

Afterwards, I tried in my head to come up with all sorts of excuses.  Maybe she was having a really bad week.  (We all have them.)  Maybe she wasn’t feeling well.  Maybe she was having family problems, or money problems, or legal problems.  After all, I had avidly read her blog for years, and thought she seemed like a great, amazingly cool person.  But, the truth is, I haven’t read her blog since that workshop, not even once.  And, I haven’t considered making any of her patterns.  I have occasionally wondered whether this makes me a petty person.  But really, I have only so much money to spend on patterns; I would rather that money goes to someone who I like than someone who  I don’t.

When discussing this with Doug, he said “There is no correlation between how nice someone is, and how good a designer they are.  They could be a brilliant designer and be a horrible person.”  But somehow, my image of their work is inextricably influenced by my image of them as a person.  Here is another example:  When I was a child I was a huge fan of musicals.  Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I loved them all.  My favorite of all time is Summer Stock, a completely ridiculous musical with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland that I love to bits.  Musical and dance devotees fell into two camps: Camp Fred Astaire and Camp Gene Kelly.  Oh, Fred was elegant, Fred was delightful, but he wasn’t Gene.  I was definitely a Gene fan girl.  As I got older, I read many accounts of how Fred Astaire was a completely lovely man, and also read many accounts of how Gene Kelly was a very difficult man, not well-liked by his co-stars.  Do I still like Gene Kelly musicals?  Yes.  But I find my opinion of them is always tempered by the fact that he wasn’t the dream boat I imagined.  Conversely, I love Fred’s musicals more now because he was such a nice guy.  Is this silly, or childish, or hypocritical?  Perhaps.   But I think it’s how people are.

A year after my knitting retreat fiasco, I enrolled for another half-day class with a knitting designer and blogger who I admired.  My first experience had made me apprehensive, but I needn’t have worried.  In retrospect I would have paid three times as much for this class.  Said blogger, who we will call Designer Y, was charming, erudite, respectful, a fabulous teacher, and nice as can be.  He was extremely knowledgeable, but also very humble.   I will buy Designer Y’s patterns, and in fact will even buy those that I have no intention of making, because he makes his living this way and I want to support designers whom I admire.

In my last post, I commented on Kate Davies, who felt that her Owls sweater had been copied by Debenhams, a major UK department store.  There was a huge amount of controversy regarding whether or not this constituted a case of copyright infringement or not.  I think the issue is very complicated and therefore am not at all surprised by the differing opinions on this case.  I was astonished however, by the vitriol of some of the comments made against Kate Davies on public forums, particularly on Ravelry.  One thread on Ravelry, devoted to this topic, was so nasty I could not believe it.  The amount of personal abuse flung at Kate was truly beyond belief.  One person, in particular,  really crossed the line, especially in reference to Kate’s disabilities following her stroke.  The moderators tried to black out a number of her responses to the thread, and eventually closed down and locked the entire thread.  This person, a young designer herself, who we shall call Designer Z, posted no fewer than 34 times to this thread (which was open less than two days), with each response becoming nastier and more personal.

Interestingly, I had first noticed  Designer Z a few months ago, when she posted a prototype of a gorgeous sweater on Ravelry.  It is a sweater that would look beautiful on Emma, and suit her very well, and it was interesting and different and stylish.  I was impressed.  I have been following the progress of this design as it has been put through the test knitting stage, and have discussed it at many points with Emma.  I certainly intended to knit it.  Not only that, but my eye was caught as well by two of her other designs.  She was clearly, in my estimation, a designer to watch.

But I can say unequivocably, that I will never knit anything she designs.  Not because she disagreed with Kate Davies on the issue of whether the Owls design was copied (because as I said, this was definitely a matter of interpretation, and a legal matter at that) but because of the sheer nastiness of her response.   Is this childish of me?  Perhaps.

I might add, that Kate Davies has reached an agreement with Debenhams (which entails them agreeing to disagree on the copying issue) but also entails Debenhams making a contribution to the charity Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland.  This group provides post-stroke recovery help, and was instrumental to Kate in her recovery. Kate’s report of the agreement can be found here; her polite and respectful discussion of this matter from start to finish is a definite contrast to that found elsewhere.

On that note, I think I shall make a bowl of popcorn and a gin and tonic and watch Top Hat.  Go, Team Fred!

Owl Theft

If I had to name my favorite knitting blog, I would without any hesitation pick needled, the blog by the many talented Kate Davies.  Kate stands above the crowd for any number of reasons.  First, her designs are absolutely beautiful; immaculately designed and crafted.  Second, Kate is articulate; it is an extremely well-written blog.  Third, Kate is an (ex-)academic, who brings her skills, focus and enthusiasm to bear on knitting; she is a fabulous scholar of  knitting history and textiles in general, and related issues, such as textile employment, gender, and industrialization.  (She also, incidentally, has wonderful posts on all sorts of other intellectually stimulating topics.  She once wrote a beautiful post on the many different available translations of a German poem.  My children, who grew up in Germany, spent hours discussing this post and the various translations she cited.) And fourth, Kate suffered a massive stroke two years ago, and has chronicled her stroke and on-going recovery in the most astonishingly honest and articulate fashion.  I work in a research neuroscience environment, where we frequently deal with people attempting to navigate through the mine field of post-stroke recovery; and I know that such an articulate first-person account is rare indeed.

Kate shot to fame in the knitting world with her fabulous Owls sweater, which has been knit by thousands of knitters around the world.  It comes in both adult and child versions.

I knit it myself, for my daughter Leah, a number of years ago. Here is a photo of Leah wearing it, taken in March 2009.

Kate is no longer able to work as an academic, as a result of her stroke, but has managed to make a name for herself, as well as an income, by selling her beautiful designs.  The Owls sweater, as her first and most famous piece, has helped to make this possible.  Yesterday, Kate wrote a post, which you can find here, detailing how the design has been copied and is now being marketed by Debenhams, a retail department store in the UK.  The Debenhams version is a cheap, poorly made second cousin to Kate’s but is clearly a  knockoff.   This brings up a lot of interesting questions about intellectual property and the design process.  I am not a lawyer and don’t know much about copyright law, but I tend to agree with Kate, that this is theft of her design.

I think it would be difficult to be a knitter with an online presence and not be able to instantly identify the Owls sweater as a Kate Davies design.  Kate argues very convincingly in her post that the design has become iconic.  There are well over 5000 of them documented on Ravelry, each of them hand knit using Kate’s pattern.  Even the BBC acknowledges her pattern, which will be worn later this year by a character on a TV crime drama (can’t wait to see that)!

Some may feel that fashion always borrows elements from other designs, and this is just how the industry works.  On Ravelry, for example, I have seen many examples of someone reverse engineering a design that they have seen somewhere (say, an Emilio Pucci design, or alternatively, something they have seen at the Gap or Anthropology).  Copying a design to knit something for yourself, is one thing, however; copying it and selling thousands of them on the High Street quite another.

When Kate first made the pattern for Owls, she didn’t sell it, but made it available as a free download.  Much later, when the design first began to be copied for financial gain (detailed in her post), she was advised by lawyers to start charging for the pattern.  It can now be purchased from Ravelry (and presumably directly from Kate) for £3.95.  I was one of thousands of people who downloaded the pattern for free and knit it.  Today,  I bought a copy of the Owls pattern.  (I already own many of her other lovely patterns, such as the fabulous Peerie Flooers hat I have blogged about here.)  I encourage knitters to show support for Kate in the best way possible, by purchasing a pattern from her; you can make a statement and knit a beautiful garment in one blow.

I also encourage each of you to read Kate’s post; it is of interest to anyone interested in design, in copyright issues and intellectual property law, and also in the story of knitting in the age of the internet.  I have no idea what the legalities of the issue are, and imagine they are rather complicated, but one thing that we can all agree on; the handknit versions of Kate’s sweater, using her lovely design, are infinitely more beautiful than the knockoff.