Thursday, May 15, 2014

On the cost of patterns

I recently hit what I feel is a major milestone as a knitwear designer: I got a negative comment on one of my Ravelry pattern pages. The pattern is my March hat design, and the meat of the comment was that I was charging too much.


My reaction to this was two-fold: on the one hand, anyone is more then welcome to think whatever they like about my patterns, my pricing, and anything else I publicly put out there into the ether. That is entirely your right as a knitting pattern consumer, and I certainly want to hear what you think and get your feedback.

But on the other hand, it occurred to me while trying to craft a response to the comment that there are a number of underlying issues here that I'm feeling particularly motivated to address at the moment (cue eerie mid-life crisis music). Ehem.

1) It's just a simple hat pattern - I could do that myself!

Good for you! No, seriously. Feel free to recreate, reverse engineer or come up with something similar however you would like. It's how I started the process of figuring out how to write my own patterns, and I don't think I'm the only one. I'll even go out on a limb and say that many, if not most designs are reworkings of techniques and stitch patterns and garment types that have been around forever and ever, amen. If you can do it yourself, you have my blessing to do just that. Just please don't then post that recreation as a free version of my pattern, or anything along those lines*.

2) Your pattern is too expensive and you are pricing yourself out of the market.

My first response to this portion of the comment was: bwah? *simple dog head tilt* The pattern is priced at $5.00, which is the same as the vast majority of my hat patterns, and is pretty similar to prices for other hat patterns. So my first thought was maybe the commentator thought it said £5.00? And I would absolutely agree - that would be a bit much for a simple hat pattern.

But the more I thought about it, the more bothered I got. Other events in my life have been forcing me to take a good hard look at how I value my time and what I produce. This is all caught up in the tension that exists for me between having a "real career" and being basically a stay-at-home mom, but I've come to the realisation that I am a bit sheepish and embarrassed telling people about my knitting/spinning/dyeing/designing "hobby" because, deep down, I undervalue what I'm doing. It's too easy to minimise my designing and the time I spend on it, and I'm only now beginning to realise how much I discount the energy and work and skill that it takes. Which is really not cool at all. If I undervalue what I'm doing, how do I expect other people to value it?

This leads in to what I think is a vastly bigger topic then I am able (or feel comfortable) to cover in a single blog post, and that is the general undervaluation of the arts. More central to this discussion, the discounting or undervaluing of those things that are considered "women's crafts" - knitting, crochet, tatting, quilting, sewing, etc. Why am I reluctant to tell people that I knit? I don't have any trouble knitting in public, yet it isn't something that comes up in conversation with most of my acquaintances. Maybe that's ok, and maybe I'd talk about it as a natural extension of the conversation if we spent more time together, but I'm not always sure that I would. And that bothers me.

Not only do I feel like I personally undervalue my work, but I feel like this happens in the fiber arts community in general, perhaps because most people don't really understand what goes in to producing a knitting pattern. It's not as simple as think of an idea, knit it up, write the pattern, hit "export to pdf" and voila!

For illustration, here's a semi-theoretical rundown of my process and the time involved.
  1. I am hit by a bolt of inspiration and see a vision of the world's most glorious hat, fully formed, like Athena popping out of Zeus's skull, while angels sing from the heavens and everything is bathed in golden light.... Actually, usually I see something that makes me think "Hunh, I wonder what that would look like translated to knitting?..." Or I'm cold and I think, "Gee, I really wish I had a sweater like this...." Being of Puritan descent and upbringing, my next step is to figure out how to create it myself**. This phase can last anywhere from 30 seconds to weeks, so I'll discount it for the purposes of this exercise.
  2. I swatch. Sometimes I sketch first, particularly if I'm putting together a proposal for a submission, but I'm a shitastic artist so swatching comes first. For a small project like this hat, that means a couple evenings' worth of puttering around with yarn and needles in front of the TV, occasionally swearing. Let's say ~4 hrs.
  3. Then there is The Math. I look at the swatch, figure out the gauge, decide what size I'm going to knit, figure out the cast on numbers and get started. These days, I usually write out at least a vague pattern before I start, so that I can get the sample knitted quickly. For Echinoid, the knitting was probably ~4 hrs, and the vague pattern took maybe 30 min, so we're now up to 8.5 hrs of solid time invested so far.
  4. Sample is knit and works, so now it's back to the grading drawing board, otherwise known as The Spreadsheet of Doom. Most of my hats have four sizes, so figuring out the numbers, the spacing of the ribs, the length of the crown decreases and the rest of the schematic numbers is let's say another 1.5 hrs, getting us up to 10 hrs.
  5. The next step is tech editing and photos. I have a wonderful tech editor who is super attentive to every little screw up I make (of which there are many) - the tech editing of the hat in question in total came in at just under 2 hours. For the photos, I drag Allison and her awesome camera out to take pictures for me. Since she's an absolutely fabulous BKFF, she spent about an hour taking fantastic photos for me (I think I had to buy her a coffee) (oh yeah, and help her organise a Yarn Crawl). 
  6. Finally, the part that is the biggest pain in the ass for me: the layout. I always feel like I need to channel Bones from Star Trek when I do this, and scream at the top of my lungs: Goddamit Jim, I'm a doctor, not a !!! ....(in this case, a graphic designer/copy editor). Let's say that layout, in a best case scenario, plus last minute back and forth with the TE, is another two hours of work before the pattern is finalised and ready to be set free into the world.
So from those six steps, we're up to (conservatively) 12 hours of my time, plus 3 hrs from other people, to put together a simple hat pattern. If I paid myself the Texas minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, I'd need to sell twenty patterns to break even (which accounts for the fees that PayPal takes out of each pattern sale, but doesn't account for any US Federal Income tax). Let's be honest: $7.25 in London will buy you a coffee and a croissant at the nearest Starbucks, and not much else. If I were going to pay myself what I charge for private knitting/spinning lessons, I'd need to sell 53 patterns to break even. Break even. Not make any profit, but break even. That calculation does not include paying my TE and what I would have to pay a photographer if Alli or Himself weren't filling that role. It also doesn't include the cost of yarn, needles and tools, computers, software - this list goes on and on. Of my 38 designs on Ravelry, 34 of them have been knitted with yarn I bought, so you can add on a few more patterns to sell to cover the materials used.

So those numbers are not too terrifying, right? But let's think about this in regards to selling patterns on Ravelry specifically: there are 164,623 patterns available as downloads via Ravelry as of right now***. There are 31,667 knitting designers. We are all competing for the same pool of Ravelry pattern buyers (all 4 million+ of you). Clearly some designers are better at marketing themselves then I am, and there are plenty of designers for whom selling 53 patterns would be a walk in the park. I'm not sure how many there are, but I know I'm not one of them (yet).

The site of yesterday's fabulous photoshoot with Alli  - the Thames Barrier Park

All of this is a very long, perhaps tedious, and roundabout way of trying to clarify exactly what goes into my process of creating a self-published knitting pattern, and what that actually means from a numbers perspective. It's also, in part, an attempt to clarify to myself exactly what is the value of my design work, and an attempt to start the process of revaluing my own creative endeavours****.

I'm sure other designers's processes and experiences are different, but I think the critical thing is that a huge amount of work goes into producing the patterns that are easily available online, and that fact is not always obvious or acknowledged by the consumers of those patterns. That is why I think this particular, somewhat offhand, comment on my pattern page has stuck with me: my time and efforts and skills and creativity should not be undervalued in the community that I participate in and am a part of. There is a reason that patterns cost money, and designers shouldn't feel guilty or awkward or ashamed about wanting to be paid fairly for the work that they do. Full stop.

This is a bigger problem then me and my self-valuation of my design work, and it's a bigger issue then knitting and Ravelry. I guess I'm hoping to get some thoughts from those of you reading this about the topic, whatever they might be. Because the most important thing is having the conversation, right?

* Please don't link or attribute your reverse engineered whatever to me/any other designer, because many of us spend time and money making sure our patterns are as error-free and clear as possible. Saying your interpretation is the same as a pattern that has been carefully written and tech edited and laid out is just...not okay.
** Because, as a Puritan, I am pathologically opposed to spending money on "frivolities", recent occurrences at Wonderwool Wales not withstanding.
*** Right now being when I'm writing this post. Which was at 9:00 pm last night, so those numbers have probably gone up.
**** Of all the things to be having a midlife crisis about, amirite? 

6 comments:

Lisa said...

Well said!

Alicia Landi said...

This is very well-written, and I agree with you whole-heartedly!

I think there are other costs you may have even missed. For instance, I paid (a lot of money!) for a graphic designer to design a logo for my blog and my pattern layout. I've been spending considerable time re-formatting old patterns so that they look more professional and cohesive, instead of designing new ones. Tech editing patterns costs around $25 per hr for a simple pattern. Paying a photographer, if you don't have the skills/equipment yourself, adds on even more. Even the time to maintain a blog -- which yes, is fun -- is a form of marketing and developing a presence... I probably spend at least 3 hours a week working on blog posts. And then creating and paying for Ravelry ads takes additional time and money.

Patterns are absolutely undervalued. At the same time, when I was a new knitter, I hated paying $6 for a 'simple hat' too. That's when I knew it was time to start making up my own. You aren't forcing anyone to buy your pattern, if it is out of the range of what they're comfortable paying for, they can find another hat. For every knitter who thinks your pattern is too simple to pay for, there's probably another who is a newer knitter and willing to pay. What's old hat to one knitter, could be entirely new to another.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I feel I need to say one thing though, if your tech editor took two hours for that particular hat it might be worth looking around for someone who works more efficiently. A fairly simple hat (even in four sizes) really shouldn't take that long.

porpoise said...

Alicia - you are 100% right. There are a whole bunch of other costs that I didn't discuss, and it all takes time and energy and money that isn't necessarily recouped in pattern sales. And as someone also in the process of reformatting old patterns to fit in with my newer ones, I completely understand how frustrating it can be to revisit old ground instead of creating new things.

And I also agree that it's very hard to pay $5 or $6 for what looks like a simple pattern when you're a newer knitter, or you're used to free patterns. However, like a lot of other things, in many cases you get what you pay for!

Honestly, someone saying they don't want to buy my pattern because it's too expensive for something simple doesn't both me nearly as much as the underlying assumption that a well written, tech edited and carefully photographed piece of work isn't worth $5.

crystaldiva said...

Hi Rachel,

First off, I enjoyed this post. I liked the breakdown of how long these things take. I was aware, because I have several designer friends and this subject has been raised before in other circles, but you can be sure that lots of other knitters would not be aware. I sure wasn't until these things were explained to me!

I also agree with you on the undervaluing of crafts, and patterns in particular. If I had a dollar for every time someone said "Oh, I should get you to knit me {insert item here}! Oh don't worry! I'll pay for the yarn!". Like because I enjoy it, my time is worth nothing. Patterns are "worse", as far as devaluing crafts because there are no visible materials involved.

I would add just one piece of feedback on your Echinoid pattern listing on Ravelry. I think $5 is perfectly reasonable for a hat pattern. Why would I'd be unlikely to buy it? Because there are no projects attached. I have made the mistake of purchasing patterns before that had no (or very few) projects attached. These, of course, had not been test knit, and as a result, I ended up being the test knitter, and paid money for the privilege. I am much more careful now.

My two cents only, of course!

porpoise said...

crystaldiva - thanks very much for your comment. And for pointing out that there aren't any projects associated with Echinoid. I can honestly say it hadn't occurred to me to think that would be a barrier to entry for some people, but you're absolutely right: there should be some projects. I'm off to rectify that straight away...:-)