This isn't the post I'd hoped to write today. I hoped I'd be yammering on about copyright and the value of women's work and how we should honor it with the same legal protections we give to men's work. But I'm going to have to save that for another day.
I learned to knit in 2001 or early 2002, when my country was reeling with fear and uncertainty over the terrorist attacks of September 11. I was fifteen years old.
My teacher was Mimi, another sort-of misfit at my ballet studio. As I remember it, she was homeschooled and I had come from another studio and felt out of place among girls who had been dancing together since they could walk. Besides the fact that Mimi took notes on every class, which I found annoying but would totally have done if it felt socially acceptable, Mimi knit.
I've been surrounded by and fascinated by textiles since I was a little kid. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother teaching me to sew on the sewing machine when I was about five years old. Also, Andy the cat and playing in piles of leaves taller than I was, but that's besides the point. My mother sews her own clothes, curtains, and sometimes upholstery, and so did her mother, and her mother, and so on. But I always found I lacked the precision needed for sewing clothes. I wanted to play and experiment, not cut a pattern perfectly.
But when I saw Mimi knitting, for some reason I thought it was cool and asked her to teach me how. She said yes, and told me to find some yarn that was mostly wool. I went to the craft store and found a ball of Lion's Brand Wool-Ease in a heathery shade of purple. Mimi said that was good enough, supplied the needles, and taught me how to knit.
Predictably, my first project was a garter stitch scarf, and it showed all the mistakes a new knitter could make. Dropped stitches, accidental yarnovers, inexplicable increases and decreases, and an exploration of tension throughout. In short, it was hideous.
But I found I loved knitting. It was calming and yet strangely addictive and a haven from the storm that was the post 9/11 world that coincided with my teenage years.
Mimi taught me how to purl, and how to read basic stitch patterns, and even how to knit in the round on double-pointed needles. I knit everywhere I could, whenever I could, to the point my ballet teacher thought I was more obsessed than Mimi had ever been and took to calling me Madame Defarge.
At some point, Mimi left the ballet studio. We kept in touch for a while as traditional pen pals, and even had a couple of tea and knitting parties, where I learned the joys of a good cucumber sandwich.
But keeping in touch has never been something I'm good at, and there was a war going on. My parents and church seemed to lean hawkish, so I did too. As a Quaker, Mimi was on the opposite side of the spectrum and wasn't afraid to say so. Shy, nonconfrontational, and not sure what to say in return, I drifted away from Mimi.
I was left to my own devices and and the fledgling Internet, where I had to fight my little brother for time on the computer and listen to those awful dial-up sounds. But mostly, I knit simple scarves that had no pattern other than the ones I un-vented.
I'm not quite sure where this fits into the story, but I think it bears saying: seasonal depression is something I've quietly dealt with since I was 15. Knitting helps, but any one thing can only help so much. This year has been different, and so much better than years past - I have my own family business that doesn't take too much of my time, and I'm no longer stuck in a miniature cubicle day after day. But just yesterday, it felt like everything came crashing down around my ears and I realized I might not escape the seasonal depression this year after all.
Until yesterday, the only time I've cried about our nation was in those days right after September 11. So much has changed for me in the last fifteen years, including my own political leanings. I believe that politics can coincide with love and compassion and hope and justice, and feel a pit in my stomach at the idea that the opposite of those things, hate and bigotry and fear and ignorance have won the day.
There are some things I can accept, and some I can't. I can accept the results of the election. But I will not accept hate, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, closed-mindedness, isolationism, bullying, ignorance or fear. Gone is the teenager who accepted that this is the way things are, or that this is the way things should be. Gone is the teenager who avoided confrontation above all else. If some people think that's nasty, then I'm prepared to be considered nasty.
I'm reminded of a quote from Elizabeth Zimmerman, "Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises." Though my confidence is feeling quite shattered today, I will knit on. And I suspect that if anything good comes out of this crisis, there will be a knitter involved, somewhere.
Though I’ve always had a basic understanding of sewing, mending has never been something I did much of. I remember that my mother had a mending basket, but the joke in our house was that the mending basket was where clothes went to die of neglect. It wasn’t that mending wasn’t a priority so much as there were so many other priorities that were more important. And I suspect that Mom didn’t want to spend her precious sewing time on what felt like drudgery. She’d rather sew something new and fun for herself.
I don’t particularly like shopping for clothes, so the Slow Fashion concept of “long worn” feels particularly relevant to me. I typically buy items that feel like “classics,’ and then proceed to wear the heck out of them. But when a shirt gets a hole or cloth wears too thin, I’ve had a tendency to give up on the garment. I’ve written before about giving my clothes new life as rag rugs, but I feel like I’ve had less success with mending.
The thing with clothes, though, is there's always another chance to improve your skills. If your mending job goes terribly awry and results in an unwearable garment, just wait a while and you'll eventually wind up with another worn out garment to practice on.
That's what happened to me, anyway.
Ironically, on the same day I intentionally cut a hole in my sweater to make a pocket, I ripped a 2-inch hole in a shirt. It's not an absolute favorite, but one that I wear frequently since it's so comfortable.
I put the shirt in my queue of things to do, and let it sit there for a week, not exactly sure how I would mend it. My last couple of mending projects had gone wrong in all sorts of different ways, I and wasn't feeling too confident about my skills.
Eventually, I turned to YouTube and found a few videos that were helpful, but not exactly enlightening. But they made me feel like the repair was something I could do, at least.
One of the hurdles I think we need to jump in mending our clothes is an idea of perfection, the idea that our clothes should always be fresh and new and perfect. When we mend our clothes, there are new stitches where before there were none. A shirt gains a ridge, a pucker, or texture that wasn't there before. No matter how we try to hide it, there's a scar.
I'm not advocating that we all become slobs or wear tattered clothing. My point is merely that mending clothes will never be brand new again, and they may no longer qualify as "Sunday best." But most of us have a place in our lives where mended clothes can - and should - serve a purpose.
I've long adored sashiko, boro, and other visible mending techniques, and yet I struggle to incorporate them into my life. So I knew that my mending job needed to be as invisible as possible. I sewed up the hole, being careful to pick up all the loops left open by the tear. The fabric was too fine to do a real Kitchener stitch, but that was what I attempted in order to make the repair less visible and to give the mend more structural integrity.
When I finished mending the hole, I ironed a piece of lightweight fusible interfacing over the repair, which will hopefully strengthen the area where the hole was. Though the tear was two inches long, it was near the armpit and not very visible. In fact, I had a hard time finding it when I went to do the repair. And of course, using thread that matched the print makes the repair itself less visible.
Hopefully as I continue to wear the shirt, the repair will hold up. But what I've really learned is the importance of practicing a new skill, and trying again and again until I get it right. And that the changing character of a worn and mended garment isn't a bad thing - just something different.
I'll admit it, I'm a bag lady. While I don't drool over the latest designer purses, I do find myself needing a bag for every occasion. And that especially includes knitting.
Of all the knitting bags I've ever had, the Fringe Field Bag is by far my favorite. I got mine almost as soon as they came out - I remember clicking "buy" as soon as I got the email they were back in stock, and hoping I'd beat out the other frantic knitters who wanted one too. These days, you can get a Fringe Field Bag in more colors, and I hear a larger size might be coming soon.
What I love about the bag is how much I can fit in it - and still fit my knitting projects, too! Because having the right tools on hand is pretty darn important.
So, what's in my bag? Over the years, I've honed it down to the essentials (clockwise from top):
I've included links to Amazon where I could. If you buy something I do get a tiny commission. I remember a lot of these items being a lot less expensive at my LYS and local craft stores, so be sure to check those out too!
What's in YOUR knitting bag?
Perhaps you’ve heard of "baablegate." A wonderfully talented designer, Donna Smith, created the Baa-ble Hat as part of a promotion for Shetland Wool Week 2015. The pattern was free for Shetland Wool Week, and the knitting world went crazy. Like, absolutely, positively, nuts. I couldn’t scroll through Instagram without seeing a dozen new Baa-ble hats a day. As I remember, I desperately wanted to cast one on for myself, but was so focused on other projects that I managed to restrain myself.
Anyways, the pattern stopped being free, and Donna Smith announced that she’d be publishing a cowl and mittens pattern to go with the original. All three patterns are now available, and can be purchased for less than ten dollars in U.S. currency.
All of that is fairly routine in the knitting world. Many designers offer a pattern for free to promote themselves or some other event, and unless they’ve entered into a contract that says otherwise, they have every right to charge money for the pattern later on.
What’s not routine is when another designer takes a substantial part of the original pattern, makes a small change, and publishes the “new” pattern under his or her own name. That smells strongly of copyright infringement.
In the instance of baablegate, a second designer published a cowl to celebrate Rhinebeck. The cowl contained all of the most recognizable parts of the Baa-ble Hat (and subsequently published cowl). The only recognizable differences were that the “snowflake” pattern was changed slightly and the second design added in a single alpaca motif among the original sheep. For ease of reference, this cowl will be called the “derivative work.”
The derivative work was intended to be worn by a group of knitters to the Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival. The pattern was free on Ravelry, but it’s key to note that the original Baa-ble Hat was a paid pattern at the time of the derivative work’s release. Additionally, the derivative work was included as part of a kit for sale at the designer’s local yarn store (LYS). So while the derivative work itself was “free,” someone did intend to make a profit from it.
Naturally, drama ensued. Someone noticed the derivative work and called out the issue of copyright infringement. Everyone took sides, insults were hurled back and forth, comments and posts were deleted by both moderators and the original authors, and things got ugly.
As of this writing, the derivative work is still listed for free on Ravelry, but does not seem to be available for download. The kit is no longer listed for sale on the LYS website, either.
In the aftermath, many knitters are left scratching their heads. What’s the big deal, and why should we care? And perhaps, more importantly, how can we avoid this kind of fiasco in the future?
I don’t broadcast this very much, but I’m a lawyer, and I've spent a large part of my legal career so far working on cases that involve intellectual property. The reason I don’t mention it very often is because I have to give the following disclaimer:
The content on this website is only for general informational and educational purposes and does not constitute solicitation or provision of legal advice. Nothing on this website is intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and the author. Blog posts may or may not be updated, and may not reflect changes in the law that occur after the initial posting. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.
I have to say all that to protect my license, but now that it’s out of the way, let’s talk about U.S. copyright law and how it relates to knitting.
What IS Copyright?
Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects creative work. Like other kinds of property, people can’t take or use copyrighted works without the owner’s permission.
Frequently, we get permission to use copyrighted works by buying copies of the original work, like by buying copies of knitting patterns or knitting books.
Why Does Copyright Exist?
Copyright exists to allow the creators of art, music, written works, and yes, even knitting patterns to control and profit from the distribution of their creative work. In short, it takes a lot of work to record a song, make a video, write a book, or develop a knitting pattern. Just like authors expect to be paid for writing a book, a designer of a knitting pattern has the right to charge people money for it.
In recent years, the music and film industries have cracked down on people who “pirate” their products by copying and redistributing them without permission (and without paying the copyright owners). Knitting patterns have equal levels of copyright permissions. Even though some knitting patterns are free, we are still required by law to pay for the ones that aren’t free.
Paying for a copyrighted work usually gives the buyer a license to use the work. When you buy a DVD, you get a license to watch it in your own home. But you don’t usually get a license to play the movie in a movie theater for a paying audience. If you wanted to do that, you’d have to secure permission from the copyright owner, which usually involves paying an extra fee for a new license. You also don’t get a license to distribute copies of the DVD to other people. (That’s the bare bone basics of those mean copyright warnings at the beginning of movies.)
Similarly, when we buy knitting patterns, the creator has the right to limit the license for personal use, as well as to limit the purchaser’s ability to distribute additional copies of the work. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for limiting distribution, even when the knitting pattern is provided for free. For example, Ravelry uses algorithms to track patterns’ popularity. If an unauthorized copy gets distributed, that will hurt the original designer’s ranking on Ravelry.
At its core, copyright lets creators receive payment for their work. If a designer can get paid for her/his work, the designer can then go on to create more work. For example, Donna Smith, the original creator of the Baa-ble hat pattern, saw success in the popularity of the hat pattern, and decided to publish additional related patterns. By paying for the additional patterns, knitters support Donna in other future creative endeavors. It’s that simple.
Note: An exception to paying for copyrighted work for sale would be anything that is available in a library. But know that libraries have their own special considerations in copyright law, and often pay more for their license to use copyrighted works. There’s enough to fill whole books on libraries and copyrights, so for now I’ll just mention that libraries are a little bit different.
When Does Copyright Apply?
For copyright protection to apply, the copyrighted work must be recorded. The phrase in the law is “tangible medium of expression.” But “recorded” essentially means the same thing and is easier to understand.
Things that are protected by copyright include: audio recordings, video recordings, text recorded on paper or digitally, and files stored on a computer. So to use the knitting world as an example, things that could be copyrighted include: knitting patterns, blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, books, magazines, and more.
The author or creator of a creative work owns the copyright, unless the author has transferred ownership to someone else. Common examples include a designer transferring ownership of the copyright to the magazine that publishes a knitting pattern, or if the original author has died, his/her heirs may gain the rights to the work.
Copyright protection exists as soon as the work is recorded. The work doesn’t have to be published for copyright protection to apply. So if a hacker stole a knitting pattern I’ve been working on but haven’t published yet, I still own the copyright.
Creators can register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, which gives a stronger protections in the case of a lawsuit. But a creator doesn’t have to register their work in order to assert their copyright.
What About Creativity? What If I Want to Use an Existing Pattern As Inspiration?
At its core, copyright protection is meant to encourage creativity by giving people the ability to make money from their creative works. To encourage even more creativity and education, copyright law has a few exceptions called fair use and transformative use, which will be covered in the next post.
Whether you’re a knitter who knits only free patterns, a knitter who loves to buy from independent designers, or a designer yourself, it’s important to understand and respect copyright rules. At the core, copyright is really about playing fair and respecting each other, which are values that most knitters share. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
P.S. Here are links to some of the sources I used in researching this article:
www.copyright.gov – This is the U.S Copyright Office’s official website. It has great Q&As, like whether you can copyright your Elvis sighting.
https://www.lib.umn.edu/copyright This is the University of Minnesota Libraries page explaining copyright laws and how they work.
www.nolo.com Nolo is a publisher of DIY legal guides. (Remember that disclaimer folks: educational purposes only!) Their website has a big section on patent, copyright, and trademark information.