Posted in Knitting
February 26, 2008

Free range, eco-friendly, fair trade knitting teachers

I have a question for you. Why do so many of us put so much thought and effort into buying free range chicken, eco-friendly yarn and fair trade coffee? (Insert your favorite product of choice into these, by the way, if you’re not a chicken or coffee person). I think the answer most people would give is that it’s the better choice, in the same way recycling bottles is better than throwing them on the side of the road. True?

Ok, then. How much thought do you give to where you spend your knitting dollars? Obviously, on the eco-friendly front and recycled front, we’ve got a lot to choose from yarnwise — yummy recycled sari silk yarns, anyone? But what about fair trade? Annie Modesitt’s recent post about changes in the Interweave online pattern sales situation and on teaching at big fiber shows has me thinking.

Personally, I don’t do a lot of design work for magazines, at least not right now. Tight deadlines generally preclude me from doing that and book work, too. Compared to Annie, the issue was not as high on my priority list, although I’m thrilled to death they’ve altered the rights and compensation structure to an even more designer-friendly model. It’s what I would expect from Interweave. They are wonderful to work with as an author. It’s just that the digital world is a whole new thing for many traditional media companies and I think a few missteps here and there are not entirely unexpected.

What does catch in my throat a little is what Annie’s said about teaching. I love teaching. I really do. But I’m not going to be able to do it anymore if the payment structures continue to devolve at the major shows. Call me crazy, but I think that if a small yarn store or fiber show can afford to pay me fairly to teach and cover my travel expenses, a large show should be able to as well. More so, even.

As the knitting teachers you know and love are choosing not to teach at big events, ask yourself why. What brought this boiling over with me today is this: I got the evaluation sheets back from the show I taught at in January where my luggage went missing…with all my class supplies in it. Although I got high marks across the board for the actual class itself, someone commented that I was frazzled from my luggage situation, and someone else commented I should’ve sent it all FedEx.

Harmless comments? Sure, I could just blow them off, but here’s the thing. There’s this assumption that we can afford to do something like that. I earned no pay from the cancelled class (that I crammed a quick-and-dirty version of into the half-hour before my next class for the people who came back), and a flat fee for the other one, the show only paid for half my travel expenses, and by the time you add it all up, I’ve either barely broken even or I’ve lost money. Add on shipping a bunch of boxes to the convention center or hotel (where, mind you, you’ll get charged a per-box fee for picking them up, too) when you could just put the items in your two free checked bags and…you do the math. I’d definitely have lost money on the teaching engagement as a whole.

Who cares?

If you care about quality teachers being able to earn a living — or at least not end up having to pay for the privilege of teaching you — then you should care. We all make choices for how we allocate our income, whether it’s on a can of Folger’s or a $5 latte. You can’t expect good teachers to keep teaching if they’re losing money doing it. I point you to all the comments on Annie’s post, but most particularly this one:

What would happen if a group of us got together and paid you your regular fee and had you come out to our city? Would something like that be possible? I have talked to several people about doing just that. Having designers that teach class come and teach a group of us. We would pay all of the expenses and then your fee.

Big shows? That’s your competition right there. One beautiful thing about the internet age is that it’s made it so easy to reach out and ask something like this, then get it done! All that commenter would have to do is round up fifteen or twenty of her friends and I can pretty much guarantee you they’d be able to afford just about any professional knitting teacher’s fee you can name, plus reasonable expenses.

I’m not railing against any particular shows here, but I do hear a lot behind the scenes from other knitting teachers all over the place and I’ll tell you this: many are fed up. And it’s sad, because we love teaching. We love getting out and seeing, hands-on, what you’re doing so we can design new projects you’ll like or write better instructional materials for you. We enjoy interacting with students who ask awesome questions and push us to be better as well. But unless you’re married to a lotto winner, it’s not possible to keep doing it if it’s going to cost us money. I suppose my very tricksy accountant could write it off as research and development fees, but that doesn’t pay the mortgage, you know?

I write this, of course, on the verge of leaving on a 10-day teaching trip (ah, irony). Discuss amongst yourselves, I’ll pop in as I’m able.

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  • Beth

    There are indy music artists that use sites like eventful.com to figure out what towns they’re going to have the best reception and work with places in that area to setup gigs. If advertised correctly, I see no reason why knitting instructors couldn’t use the same idea to establish demand and setup classes. And really, if the choice is a cool hip knitting teacher setting up at a convention where they’re getting slighted vs. that same teacher setting up in someone’s living room for full pay for an evening, I’m totally showing up at the house.

    Reply to Beth
  • Post authorShannon

    Good point, Beth. You’ll note that I’ve had an Eventful link in the sidebar for some time now — I first noticed it when Amy from Knitty had it on her blog. I think that just flat out encouraging guilds, knitting groups, stitch ‘n bitches, whatever to ASK is good. Using myself as an example, I make no differentiation between big events and small ones. Small ones tend to be more fun, anyway! (seconding you on the living room, there)

    Although you’d run into a problem with someone like the Yarn Harlot. Could you imagine trying to cram one of her audiences into your living room? 😉

    Reply to Shannon
  • Jennie

    I agree, I like the living room idea. I was a photographer for a while and taught photography too, but I couldn’t earn enough. And when I taught through other organizations I earned even less. I could earn more teaching on my own but then the impetus was on me to find students and do all the admin work. Same with selling my photos. I am back to keeping my creative work as a hobby.
    I would totally have someone teach a class in my livingroom, it is so much cozier and easier.

    Reply to Jennie
  • Emily

    It seems that commenter Beth and I are on similar wavelengths… Your quote of the woman asking if she and her friends could pool together on teacher’s fees reminded me of the “house concerts” than many indy/folk musicians have been using as a way to build venues while on tour for ages. If one person with a home plays host, and their friends of similar interests chip in a ‘cover’, then they all get to hear great music without paying a loud bar or Ticketmaster fees. It seems like this model could be (is being?) adopted by the high-quality knitting/spinning/crafting teachers out there, without the intermediaries of big shows or even LYSs. As you point out, the internet only helps facilitate the direct connections between teacher and student.

    Reply to Emily
  • Cathy

    I think it is awful to hear how badly teachers are treated…I’m prompted to mention something I am doing with a few friends. We’ve organised for a teacher to come from interstate, we’ve split her daily charge between four of us for two days, so we are paying $200 each and I figure we will get a lot out of this small group compared with a large class randomly collected together. If this works – it’s organised for July – we will certainly be doing it again! She is staying with friends and driving down, we’re going to give her some petrol money too though she didn’t ask for it. And presumably she can organise other work for while she is here if she likes…

    So, maybe teachers can make this sort of thing more obviously available. Surely we can’t be the only little group in the world who things this is good value!!

    Reply to Cathy
  • Pingback: Fair trade knitting teachers, part 2 — knitgrrl (Edit)

  • Pingback: Fair trade knitting designers, part III in a sad series — knitgrrl (Edit)

  • Joanne Balp

    I have been a fashion designer for many years. Knits. Had a business for 18 years. Now I only teach at the Adult and Community Education. Also at a well known Hobby shop.
    I have formed 2 very creative groups and even people that know how to knit well, come for the therapy. We all know much about everyone. We talk and laugh a lot! I recommend you read Friday Night Knitting Club.
    I sure hope you can make a group like this. And maybe take turns teaching each other new stitches or patterns. There is a lot of information on “you tube” and websites.
    Happy knitting.

    Reply to Joanne Balp

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