Negotiating Contracts & Living Wage

The following was posted on Ravelry on March 28, 2016 and was the impetus to create WhoPaysKnitters. You can follow the original discussion here and here.

This discussion topic has been a long time coming, still I find it difficult to broach. There is always the fear of retribution, either perceived or real, from yarn companies and publishers. However, after another demoralizing incident last week, I feel I must speak out.

I was contacted a couple months back by an established yarn company who told me I was at the top of their list of designers with whom they’d like to work. Vague terms were discussed in their initial email. I mentioned my typical going rate for work and was told I could negotiate terms if a design was selected. They sent me some mini-skein samples and I put together a proposal of a few designs, of which they selected one.

The yarn was shipped before the contract was sent. When the contract arrived, the terms were not equitable for the amount of time and talent that went into the work. Among other things, they wanted to purchase the sample for $0.15 a yard or $150 for approx. 40 hours of work (and I’m a fast knitter). Additionally, the contract was one-sided. The list of designer responsibilities was numerous, while those of the yarn company were sparse; they could nullify the contract, I could not.

My terms were not greedy and were in-line with previously agreed fees with other companies with which I’ve worked. I modified the contract to reflect my terms and sent it back. When a couple weeks had passed and I still hadn’t received a signed contract or counter offer, I contacted them. I was told that they hadn’t realized that I had modified the contract (apparently they hadn’t even opened it), would discuss it in their staff meeting, and get back to me. The next day I received a curt email that they had “decided to change directions, and will not be moving forward with your sweater design.” and “Could you return the yarn please?”

While disappointed that they decided to go this route, this is not what made me upset. I appreciate it is their decision to act in the best interest of their company; they have an established budget. As the designer, I act in my best interest by asking for fair compensation and terms and modifying a contract as necessary. What infuriated me was the fact that the contract that I returned to them WAS NOT EVEN OPENED. It made me wonder how many of us allow ourselves to be devalued because “that’s what they are willing to pay me.” This makes me both sad and angry. I think that it speaks to two larger problems in our society: 1. women’s work in general is undervalued and 2. women typically do not negotiate their contracts out of fear that they won’t be liked.

It is exasperating that people within our industry are willing to devalue the work of others and take advantage to the point of exploitation. The ultimate result is that we all lose. It is almost impossible to make a living wage as a designer in this industry (and I feel I’m one of the fortunate ones). Much of our work is treated like a hobby because we enjoy knitting. I do enjoy knitting, but I’m not a volunteer, I’m not working out of the ‘kindness of my heart’, or for ‘exposure.’ This is my livelihood. I’m a professional who possesses a unique and specialized set of skills that advance our industry and keep the machine running. My designs inspire others to buy your yarn. I earn my compensation.

I implore all of you reading this to not let others dictate your value, not to feel like you have to capitulate to the terms set by a publisher or yarn company, to have the courage to tell them what you are worth and ask for it in your contract. They may say no, but at least you know you stood up for you. And collectively, the more we do this, we can change the system. As for the design that this particular yarn company decided they weren’t moving forward with, it’s a strong design and I have no doubt that it will be published with another company who’s willing to equitably compensate me for it.

I am interested in how other designers have handled these issues, what your experiences have been, and what you think about how to address the systemic problem.

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