Thursday, March 12, 2015

Pom Poms Ahoy!

Got a yarn winder? Like pom poms but hate the fuss of making them? Want to know how to get your finished pom poms nice and fluffy?

Check out this article: Make Perfect Pom Poms using your Yarn Winder.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Following my North Star

Polaris Mitts, photo from the Ravelry
project page (c) bewilderbeasst
Despite the promises of slightly warmer temperatures this week, I've cast on for another pair of stranded mittens. This time, I've paired up some souvenir yarn I bought in Montreal over the Christmas holidays with Polaris, a pattern by Rebecca Blair.

I have a lovely skein of Dragonfly Fibers Dragon Sock in "Karen's Blue". For the contrast color, I'm using an undyed skein of Dorset wool by Renaissance Dyeing.

I've modified the cuff a bit. The original pattern calls for knitting a stocking stitch hem for a few inches, which gets tucked under and tacked to the inside of the mitt. However, I quite liked the icord cast on I used for my Fiddlehead mittens, so I'm using that for my Polaris mitts.

I also have some lovely black baby alpaca yarn to use for the lining. Of course, by the time I'm done these, I'm hoping they won't be needed until next winter. But I'll still be able to admire how pretty they look.

In progress. A good bath will even out the stitches.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Made in Britain: Working for half minimum wage?

It was with great interest that I read an article which popped up in my Twitter feed about labour exploitation in Britain's textile industry.

Made in Britain: UK textile workers earning £3 per hour

It seemed a timely article after my blog post earlier this week about fair value for knitting patterns and books.

One quote really stood out for me, in the news article:

“If you get something cheap, there is a reason for that – what has made it so cheap? Ultimately, businesses need to cut their costs, and where do they cut their costs – it’s usually with labour,” says Patel.

The article talks about how immigrants are the most commonly exploited in this "race to the bottom" to produce goods cheaply. “Through talking to the workers we found out that many of them were paid less than £3 per hour,” she said. “This factory was one of the better ones, yet it had no contracts, paid less than the minimum wage, health and safety breaches were widespread and the workforce had little or no awareness of what they were entitled to as employees.”

I'm not trying to equate the fashion industry's exploitation of immigrant or even offshore labour to the debate over what a reasonable price is to pay for a knitting pattern or book. But what interests me is this drive to get something cheap.

Businesses naturally want to maximize their profits by reduces their expenses. And consumers want to pay the least amount possible. Or, perhaps perversely, pay the most amount possible for designer labels to show their affluence or to be "on trend".

But at what cost? At what point should we as consumers vote with our dollars by putting them in the cash registers of companies who source their products responsibly?

I'm not suggesting we all weave our own fabric from locally source, ethically tended animal/plant sources and then sew our own outfits or pay someone local to sew it for us. I'm just suggesting we think about what we buy and how the employees are treated. And perhaps, where we can and when we're financially able, to make a point of supporting companies who are local, or who run their businesses in a sustainable, earth-friendly and/or employee friendly manner.

I like buying from my local farmers' market when I can. I love the local festivals with food and craft vendors; browsing through the stalls is like an adventure, seeing what people are creating. I don't mind paying a bit more for a knitting tool made out of wood by a craftsman, because then I have something that is beautiful as well as functional, and I've supported someone who is doing something he or she loves.

Awareness is a good start:

“If you get something cheap, there is a reason for that – what has made it so cheap?


All photos (c) Invictus Yarns, taken from the Etsy shop.
An indie dyer I've been dying (pardon the pun) to try out has shown that she truly understands how to connect to potential customers.

I've been eyeing up the goodies in Invictus Yarns' Etsy shop for some time now, after having her yarns recommended to me by a friend. But a couple of things have kept me from taking the plunge.

First, the Canadian exchange rate. Right now, the Canadian dollar is really low. It's like adding 25% to any purchase from US shops. But that has nothing to do with the actual yarn.

Second, and I'm sure many of you can relate to this, it's hard to take the plunge and buy something based just on some photos on a website. Like most crafters, I like to see and touch the yarn before I buy to get a sense of how it will meet the requirements of the kinds of projects I like to work on.

I have some standard criteria for yarn I buy, requirements I've mentally compiled over the years based on my project successes and failures. I like softer yarns. I really won't wear the scratchier yarns, especially for sweaters - even with a shirt underneath. I like yarns with a tight twist, yarns that with great stitch definition for the twisted stitches and cables I adore. And I like rich colors, They don't have to be bright, just have depth.

Invictus Yarns, based in Sacramenta, California, has now given me just the push I need to try her yarns. Yes, I said yarns plural. You know why? Because she's just made available the perfect sampler kit.

Samplers, or mini skein kits, aren't a new idea. Go to any fiber festival and you'll see mini kits on a majority of vendors' tables, thanks to things like the sock yarn blanket, Beekeepers Quilt and color work projects.

But what makes Invictus Yarns' latest offering unique (in my experience) is that her sampler is a Yarn Base sampler. That is, she's offering 6 min skeins, each in a different base of her yarn. Most mini skein sets I've seen are all the same base. Invictus Yarns' sampler lets you touch and compare:

  1. Teal:  (80% SW merino/ 20% nylon sport weight)
  2. Lavender: (75% SW merino/ 25% nylon fingering- light fingering weight)
  3. Orange:  (80% SW merino/10% cashmere/10% nylon fingering weight)
  4. Yellow: (100% SW merino fingering weight)
  5. Green: (75% SW merino/20% nylon/ 5% stellina fingering weight)
  6. Burgundy: (80% SW merino/ 20% silk fingering weight)

The different bases are cleverly distinguished by color, so you won't get the bases mixed up. And I like that there's even a sport weight yarn in there. I prefer to make my cardigans and sweaters out of fingering or sport weight yarn. So I'm eager to get a sense of the different yarn weights too.

For $10, I'll get 4-5g of each base. That's 25-30g total over the 6 bases. That's plenty to do a mini swatch to see how the yarn knits up. Sure, it won't be a full swatch size. But I'll be able to get a sense of the yarn (is it a round, plump yarn, or a loosely plied one) and how it might knit up. Ten dollars is an enticingly low amount for everything those mini skeins will be able to tell me. And I'd rather spend $10 than $20-$30 for a full skein and find out it doesn't do what I need it to do. $10 will give me the confidence to place larger orders and know I'll get yarn that is perfectly suited to my project. That's a lot of peace of mind for $10.

What I also look forward to checking out, is how the different bases take the dye. Different fibers respond to dye differently. Most notorious is silk, which doesn't absorb dye as readily as wool. You can dye merino and silk with the exact same dye and the finished skeins will be different colors. Not every color in the sampler is one that I might pick out for myself, but I can look past the specific color to see what the yarn does with the dye.

Another interesting benefit of the sampler is that I can compare the yarn that arrives at my home with the photos of the yarn I see on my screen. This will give me a sense of how the two relate. This is particularly relevant to me given my recent experience with a shop that provides a lovely product, but what arrives at my home is always much, much darker than what I see on my screen. I no longer buy from that shop because I just can't trust that what catches my eye online will be something I'll like when it gets into my hands. I'll wait and buy from their booth when I see them at Maryland Sheep and Wool or Rhinebeck.

I've asked other dyers why they don't offer samplers like this and they say it's too much work. I totally get this. But with the mini skein craze sweeping the crafting world, and the sheer number of dyers out there competing for people's yarn budget, I think yarn base sampler kits are a great way of reaching potential new customers. I hope more dyers pick up on this great way of offering a low-risk introduction to their products.

So, one of the Invictus Yarns 'Yarn Base Sampler Kits' will be winging its way northward any day now. I can only hope it brings some warmer weather with it too!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Fair value

I hadn't really planned to talk about this, but after a Twitter exchange yesterday I felt I had to write down my thoughts on the matter.

All photos (c) Caro Sheridan ( )
This should really be two separate blog posts. One about my latest eBook purchase, Aurora Borealis Mittens by Shannon Okey. And a second about what I consider to be fair pricing for patterns or eBooks. But the two topics got tangled up on Twitter, so I'm going to talk about both here.

I bought Shannon Okey's book of mitten patterns yesterday on a bit of an impulse. Overwhelmed by the euphoria of successfully completing my Fiddlehead mittens, I immediately wanted more gorgeous color work mittens. The finished objects mind, not necessarily knitting them.

I'll admit I debated whether I should buy the eBook or not. I've only recently begun enjoying stranded knitting. But a few things persuaded me: I like having options, I have lots of stash to use up, I have money in my PayPal account, and frankly, I like supporting indie designers and small presses like Cooperative Press. I briefly met Shannon last year at MDSW, via a mutual friend and she seems like a good person doing good things. So I wanted to support that.

I also didn't want to blog about the book, because I've just recently reviewed the Spring 2015 Sockupied magazine and I don't want people to think that all I do is review products (with or without compensation). If I mention stuff it's because I've found it useful/helpful/interesting in some way to my own knitting life. I have no illusions that my sporadic blog posting is in any way influential!

But the Twitter conversation I mentioned earlier compels me to mention the book. I read the book cover to cover after buying it. I don't plan on knitting more mittens right now. I'm just casting on for a Catherine sweater by Glenna C, a fellow Canadian designer I met the other week. But I was curious about the contents.

About Aurora Borealis Mittens, the book

I have to say that I really enjoyed reading Shannon's Aurora Borealis Mittens. My expectations weren't that high going in, given my past with stranded knitting and the quality of some pattern books I've bought in the past. But Shannon hit all the sweet spots for me. She has a unique voice that comes through clearly and which is very engaging. She's conversational yet informative, almost like you're talking with someone from your knit night circle who just happens to be an expert about stranded mittens and Norse history.

Her section on techniques and tips hits all the main points. She covers gauge, needle types, yarn types,  the importance of finding what works for you given the materials you're using. Then she gives practical advice for how to hold the yarn (yarn dominance) and how that affects the end product. She acknowledges that you might want to share skeins of yarn with a knitting pal since stranded mitts don't usually use full skeins. There's solid descriptions of casting on/off techniques, cuffs, felting, and so on.


For each pattern Shannon offers a short introduction with bits of Norse mythology or personal anecdotes thrown in. (Bonus reference section at the end of book, pointing to more resources for Norse Mythology!) For me, this really creates a more meaningful connection to the pattern and to Shannon herself. You can tell she really knows what she's talking about. And this is reinforced throughout the patterns as she drops in bits of timely and real world suggestions. She doesn't just tell you do something. She tells you WHY you want to do it. A lot of writers forget this part. And in my opinion, it's the why that is important. Knowing the why creates an educated knitter who can deviate from the pattern to suit their own needs, resulting in a more successful finished object.

Eydis (An example of a pattern that I
would have chosen different colors for.)
To be balanced, and to avoid sounding like an infomercial for the book, there are a few "off" things about the book. But I don't like mentioning these because frankly they're not a big deal, mostly my personal opinion and/or completely normal for any book. Not all the color combinations impressed me. Which is entirely subjective and not a reflection on the actual patterns. I looked beyond the colors and focused on the charts, which are lovely. Except for 2 of the thumb chart patterns which are teeny tiny. I've exported graphics into patterns and I know what a pain in the but sizing graphics is. And I've dealt with tech editor revisions and test knitter revisions, so I know how easy it is to overlook something or inadvertently introduce an error. Especially when multiple people are touching the file: the writer, the tech editor, perhaps a graphic designer, etc. And in fact, Shannon is aware of the graphics issue, which means it will likely be rectified shortly. (Another great thing about eBooks; they can be updated more easily than print.)

Fair Value

Nordic Stars
This brings me to the "fair value" portion of my post. Someone on Twitter commented that the book seemed a bit pricey, and expected to pay more along the lines of $1/pattern for a hardcover book and 50 cents/pattern if the book is paperback.

 I couldn't let this pass by. Aurora Borealis Mittens is $16.95 US for the eBook and $26.95 for the print and eBook version. The book itself provides 16 patterns, plus the techniques section and the bonus Norse mythology info/resources, in a total of 108 pages.

Individual patterns tend to sell for an average of $5-6 US. Maybe less for accessories, maybe more for a sweater or complex lace shawl.

When you run the numbers, the eBook gives you 16 patterns for about $1.06 each. The print book, that's $1.58/pattern. And that doesn't take into account the pages of advice on technique and clear explanation Shannon also provides, along with links to further tutorials and resources. How do you put a price to that? I think those 6 pages of the book are worth more that $1.06. That's knowledge and power right there that you can use and apply to future projects.

Sure, $26.95 is pricey. That's why I love having the option to buy the eBook for $16.95. eBooks are my preferred method of buying books these days, since I find it easier to mark up PDFs as I knit. And if I need to print a chart for reference, then I have the option of just printing the page(s) I need instead of lugging a book around (woe, I don't have a tablet!).

In the Twitter conversation I've referenced, Shannon mentioned that prints costs are almost $5 per copy, plus tech editing and photography costs of around $2,000 for the overall book. So right away, take $5 off the price of the print book. That's $22. Hard costs like tech editing, photography and marketing and advertising have to be paid out of that. Plus a fair profit to Cooperative Press and a fair wage to the author. Plus a bunch of other costs I can't imagine because I'm not in publishing. For the PDF version, there's Ravelry fees and other expenses I imagine.

And that's for books bought direct from the publisher. If the books are sold wholesale, the publisher automatically loses 50-60% of the book price. So that $27 book costs the wholesale $10-14 (which goes to the publisher). From that $10-14, subtract the $5 printing cost, and another $1 for shipping the book to the wholesale purchaser. The publisher is now left with a max of $4-8/book to pay for tech editing, photography, marketing, pay themselves and pay the author.

Just by ball-parking the numbers like that, it's easy to see that Cooperative Press is setting reasonable prices for its books. They deliver quality content in smaller quantities. They're not selling thousands of copies of each book. They are a small press working with authors to pay them a fair wage for their intellectual property. They provide niche content that larger publishers would reject because it doesn't sell 10,000 copies.

And look at it from the author's point of view: they probably spend a good 6 months (or 12-18 months) working on a book and its patterns. Say they make a generous $1-3/copy sold. Again, I'm making up numbers on the generous side. And say 1,000 copies of a book are sold. That's $1-3,000 for 6 months to a year of their time. Time that they spent and didn't earn other money. These people aren't getting rich off these books! Sure, they may sell more copies over the years, but not 10's of thousands of copies.

Would I love to pay $5 for a PDF or $10 for a hard copy book of patterns? Sure, who wouldn't? Money is tight for everyone. But look at the people behind the product and you'll see that those kinds of prices aren't sustainable. They don't allow the authors or Cooperative Press to earn a living wage. The people writing these books, editing these books, photographing these patterns, and printing these books need to pay their mortgages/rent, their utilities, buy their groceries, clothe their kids and take their pets to the vet.

You can't do that if your profit per book is $1-5 and you're only selling 500 or even 1,000 books. (Note - I have no idea what the actual numbers are, but I'm making some guesses and assumptions. Maybe they do sell 5,000 copies of each book, but I doubt it.) And as Shannon Okey tweeted, "A lot of work/money goes into making books & you never know if you'll earn it back. It's nervewracking."

Since I've been knitting, and even more so since I started designing and selling knitting patterns, I've become more aware of the disparity between what things actually cost to produce and what people are willing to pay for them. The debates are all over the internet and assorted Ravelry forums. Everyone has their opinion. This is mine and I'm not guaranteeing that I'm presenting a cogent or comprehensive argument here.

We're used to buying cheap goods made overseas for pennies. Goods that are poorly made and that we are expected to throw away and replace seasonally (for clothes) or every few years when those items break or new upgrades are released.

Nordic Stars Tam
Me, I'm making the conscious decision to support designers whose work I appreciate and respect. I'd rather put my dollars into purchases which support organizations that offer living wages to their contributors. I'd rather spend my money on independent designers or yarn dyers than big box products. Sure I still buy certain things from big box stores.

But when I have a choice and when I can afford it, I'm happy to pay fair value for quality workmanship. I want those designers/dyers to be able to afford to stay in business. Because if they don't, our choices of patterns, yarns, fibers, etc will become severely restricted.

I don't want to work for $3.15 per hour, nor do I expect that anyone else should. Yet, if an author only earns $3,000 for a book they spent 6 months (24 wks, 960 hrs) working on, that's what they're earning hourly.

And because I'm Canadian, there's a little bit of "who am I to say that these artists should be forced to work for pennies just for my benefit?" Why should I think I am entitled to cheap patterns/yarn so I can get a good deal? How am I entitled to devalue someone else's artistic endeavors for the sake of a few dollars?

There are a few designers I choose not to purchase from for personal reasons. But that's my choice. And it's their choice about how they run their business. But before we talk about what's fair, I think we need to look at both sides of the coin and figure out what's fair for both sides, instead of just taking into account the face value of the side we're on.

$15-20 for knowledge and patterns I can use for the next 30 years and which will give me hundreds of hours of knitting pleasure? That's fair value in my book.

Disclaimer: I have not been compensated in any way by Cooperative Press or Shannon Okey for writing this. I asked permission from Shannon to use the photos and to quote her tweets. She also gave me some of the numbers I used re: wholesale costs. But I wrote this because I feel strongly about putting my money where my mouth is when it comes to supporting indie designers and small presses like CP.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fiddlehead Mittens

Yesterday I put the finishing touches on my first pair of Fiddlehead mittens, a pattern by Adrian Bizilia. This pattern has been around for ages (since 2008, to be exact) and I've been admiring it since it was released. Just one problem: I couldn't do color work.

Unblocked mitt
I've tried several times over the years to do color work. Intarsia was do-able, but finicky. Stranded work was nigh impossible for me. My floats were too tight, giving me fabric that bunched up and rippled. I couldn't figure out how to hold the yarn comfortably. It was a slow slog to make any progress on a project. Plus, frankly, I do not have an eye for matching colors. (Ask me how many times we repainted our old kitchen cabinets before giving in and buying new ones! 4 coats of paint in different color combos before accepting we couldn't pick colors that went together.)

But over the past 4-6 months, I've been practicing more with color work and getting more comfortable with it. So when I saw the Fiddlehead mitten kit at Needles in the Hay in Peterborough, I took the plunge.

I'm rather proud of the results (even though this is a dodgy cell phone picture).

Pattern: Fiddlehead mittens by Adrian Bizilia.
My project page: here (with actual yardage used)
Needles: 3.5mm (size 5US)
Size made: Medium
Yarn: From the kit: Berrocco Ulta Alpaca Light and Ultra Alpaca Fine (for the lining)

Tip that made all the difference:
A while back I found an article that described a simple way for weaving in ends as you knit. I can't find the original source at the moment, but it has made color work so much easier - less ends to weave in at the end! Wait - I just Googled and it might be from this website. Lots of pictures and explanation there.

What you do when joining a new yarn is knit 1 stitch as normal. Put your needle through the next stitch as if to knit. Then take the tail end that needs to be woven in, lay it over the needle from right to left. Take your working yarn and loop it around the needle as normal, catching the tail yarn. You only knit the working yarn, but the tail yarn is twisted around the working yarn. See the link about for photos and detailed explanation. You alternate the knit stitch and "looped" stitch for however long you think necessary. I usually do 12 stitches (6 pairs of knit/loop).  That's it. The yarn is woven in. You can snip the remaining tail off, although I usually leave .5" and check it out again after blocking.