From paper to pocket - knitwear designer Hannah Fettig gives us a behind the scenes look at the fiber industry’s development over the years.
My grandmother taught me to knit at some point in my childhood, the exact moment forgotten but her influence undeniable. She would happily knit from the same few pattern pamphlets over and over again, the same yoked sweater for every man, woman, and child in the family. Fast forward from these simpler making times to our day, where there is an overwhelming number of choices at our fingertips, both a blessing and a curse.
Over the past decade or so, I have witnessed rapid changes that allowed me to make a career out of making, something that certainly would not have been possible in my grandmother’s time.
When I was first working at a yarn store pre-Ravelry, knitting magazines such as Interweave Knits and Vogue Knitting were where you looked for trend-setting designs by new and popular designers. Roman’s magazine, more like a large format book, was always very exciting to look at, simultaneously high fashion and classic, with beautiful photography.
Books from publishing houses were also popular, and this is what kicked off my career. I was working at a trade show for The Fibre Company and was approached by an editor who was recruiting designers for craft books. At that time trade shows were great for networking in the industry. I was very hesitant to accept a book assignment but eventually signed on. It was the same publisher Stephanie Japel used, who was dazzling many young makers with her book, Fitted Knits. It proved to be an incredible amount of work, I had no control over the finished result and ultimately made no money from it. The story was the same for every other published knit designer I knew. However, the credibility of having a published book was what could put you on the map.
In 2008 the online knitting magazine, Twist Collective, launched. For the first time since Knitty, (the original online pattern source) you could access digital patterns. Knitty patterns had always been free and you could say a bit “nerdier”. Twist appealed to the modern maker looking to knit on-trend garments. It also aimed to fairly compensate designers. However, makers weren’t quite ready to make the switch to digital patterns, the grumble around the yarn shop was that it was “too expensive” and most designers I knew saw low sales from it.
In 2007 Ravelry beta-launched, and this was right when my book was published. At the time I didn’t appreciate how important this would be! As knitting magazines were popular, I submitted a design to Interweave Knits. The design I submitted was the Whisper Cardigan which was published in the Spring 2009 issue. This is where I first experienced the awesome power of the internet.
The Whisper Cardigan spread like wildfire online. Everyone was casting it on and it was there for all to see: it was popular. Prior to this, there was no way to quantify a design as “popular”. All you could look at were book or magazine sales, or get feedback from individual yarn shops. But still, how did you know what people were really knitting? Now you knew. And it could snowball quickly online.
Many early indie designers paved a path for all that followed. Ysolda comes to mind as one of the original designers who became popular thanks to technology. Following her and others’ lead, I set out to design a sweater that would appeal to knitters who were loving the Whisper Cardigan. This first design was the Featherweight Cardigan, and it was a huge success. Those early days of self-publishing were exciting times - I felt invincible! We really were making the rules up as we went. We paid attention to what others were doing and unwritten rules were established, for example, how much you should charge for a digital download. At that time the structure of the online knitting industry was being determined and we didn’t even know it.
After having some self-publishing success, yarn companies and publishers approached me to design for them. In the past, publishing houses and yarn companies had all the power, now suddenly the designer did. I didn’t need them to publish, and financially it made much more sense as a designer to self publish. Looking at the sales records from my first published book compared with what I was making self-publishing on Ravelry, a publishing house couldn’t compete. This fact quickly killed their industry. Yarn companies had to adapt the way they worked with designers, providing them with yarn support and allowing them to self publish. Ultimately I think this worked out best for the yarn companies, it spread the word about their yarns faster and farther than if they published the patterns themselves.
Digital patterns were great for the designer and the consumer, but there was still something very special about a pattern book. Some designers had started to self publish books, but to take something like that on seemed scary to me. I don’t think I personally would have if it weren’t for the confidence of my new friend (thanks to the internet!!), Alana Dakos. We pooled our resources and learned the hard way about how to publish a book all on our own, soup to nuts. This was an unbelievable amount of work and financial investment, but the education it gave was invaluable. In the end, we made significant money, an amount we wouldn’t have come close to with a publishing house.
After self-publishing multiple books, I think back to my original book which I had no control over and made next to no money on. Now a book could reflect my heart and soul, presented exactly as I wanted and pay my bills!
More and more designers and indie dyers came on the scene. Unlike those early days, it started to become harder to compete. So how to adapt? With so much focus on patterns, there had been less focus on education. ‘Love all these patterns...but how do you knit anyway?’ Knitting podcasts had become quite popular. Pam Allen and I, introverts though we were, decided to launch our own with a focus on education. Knit.fm proved very popular, letting us know that knitters were hungry for this type of information. How else could we use technology to help the modern knitter?
My husband is a software and app developer. (Side note: I have a theory that many knitters are partnered up with tech or photography nerds!) I had started thinking about the issue of stash. It’s so easy to buy without purpose, and then you’re staring at a closet full of yarn saying, “now what?” To help people buy more purposefully, we developed the app Stashbot. If you found yourself in a yarn store or at a fiber fair, the app tells you on average how much yarn you’ll need for any particular project in your size. We calculated all the yardage and meter averages ourselves, based on current popular knitting patterns. The app continues to be one of our most popular products!
Things have continued at a rapid pace in this industry, and now at the beginning of 2019, it is unbelievable the number of designers, indie dyers and other players working in our industry. Even with my history, it remains difficult to compete in today’s market. What has helped me to stay successful through everything is paying attention to the wave of change and putting myself in the right place as soon as things shift. I try to pay attention to what my audience wants and then deliver it, even if it’s completely different from what I’ve done before.
To be this adaptable, you have to be willing to take risks. Taking risks has absolutely paid off for me. I’ve been wondering for a while now where to go from here. PDF pattern sales have become so oversaturated that it is difficult to compete successfully anymore. The only place I focus my marketing now is on Instagram with some success, but even there my reach is limited to my personal following. It is possible to design for someone with a curated pattern selection such as Quince & Co. or Brooklyn Tweed but the compensation isn’t the same as self-publishing. And then here comes Making Things knocking on my door. I believe that this is what’s next, curated pattern content available using the latest smartphone technology. I feel fortunate to be, once again, here from the start.