The industry as seen by top designers.
Designers in the Ghetto
Fair pay for essential work.
Dora Ohrenstein (February 25, 2008)
Why are designers the lowest paid group in our industry? I have
been asking this question for some time now, and the main factors I
can discern are first, stiff competition for relatively few
opportunities, and second, pressures from within yarn companies and
publications to keep design fees low.
Design fees range from a low end of $50 for a project up to about
$600. The fee structure for designing has not changed since the
early 1980s; that is, there has been no raise for designers since
that time. In fact, some people report that fees are lower.
Twenty-five years ago, there was only a handful of working designers
who, given their relative scarcity, were able to earn a living,
though a meager one, by selling their work to magazines and yarn
As knitting and crochet have gained in popularity, many more
people are now designing. This vastly increases competition for the
limited number of slots in magazines, and also means there is no
incentive for the publishers to raise fees. There are always new
designers seeking exposure and willing to accept a low fee to get
their name in print.
It is commonly known that there are very few designers who make a
living from their work, and those who do are very well-known names.
But as I have come to know many designers personally, famous or not,
I learn that even the elite of the profession have a hard time
earning a living wage.
For example, one of the most revered designers in the industry,
for whom hundreds of avid knitters and crocheter line up at trade
shows, holds down a part time job as a legal proofreader in order to
obtain health insurance, which she otherwise could not afford, for
herself and two small children. This is not an atypical story, even
for those with many years and credits in the industry.
The process of selling a design usually begins with submission of
swatches and sketches to the yarn company or magazine editor:
typically, designers submit from 3 to 10 proposals at a time to any
one entity. In order for one to be accepted, the idea must have real
merit – a unique use of a yarn, stitch pattern, and/or great
styling. Each swatch submitted represents several hours of work for
the designer, with no gaurantee that the design will be accepted.
Once a proposal is accepted, the designer may be asked to rework
the idea in a different yarn. Since quite often the yarn chosen is
less suitable to the stitch pattern or project, this adds an
additional burden for the designer. One must then create the sample
and write the instructions according to the purchaser's template. If
the project is a garment, at least three and as many as five or six
sizes are required. Increasingly, designers are also expected to
provide stitch diagrams and schematics. A very rough estimate of the
time involved in all this, which necessarily varies depending on the
project and designer, would be forty hours. At the average pay of
$400, the designer is earning about $10/hour. Upper echelon fees
might be double that, yielding the hourly rate of $20.
Does anyone within the industry think this is a fair wage for the
I cannot speak with expertise about the economics of publishing
or yarn production, but have often been told by representatives from
these companies that their budget for designs is limited, and that
they are paying as much as they can. At the same time, companies
obviously invest enormous amounts of money in advertising,
promotion, and trade shows. None of these outlays have remained
static over the years, of course. One yarn company executive told me
that the expense for a single trade show was well into the hundreds
of thousands of dollars. For magazine production, the model and
photographer who work for one day on the shoot each earn more in a
single day than the designer's fee.
What are patterns actually worth to magazine and yarn companies?
We've all repeatedly heard that designs are needed to sell yarns.
When a particular design generates so much excitement that the yarn
company can't keep the colors in stock, does the designer get a
check from the yarn company? If that's an unrealistic scenario, is
there some way the industry could get together and calculate the
overall value of patterns? Surely the expenses yarn companies pay in
magazine ads suggests they understand the value of published
Wouldn't it be advantageous to the industry to have a real
professional class of designers? We've all heard limitless
complaints of poor pattern writing, shoddy designs, and missed
deadlines. What else can be expected when the work goes to the
lowest bidder? Are those who consistently produce great designs and
well-written patterns rewarded accordingly?
Here's a dream I envision for the industry: a realization emerges
that keeping designers in the ghetto may not be wise nor healthy for
the industry. Designers' guilds are invited to join discussions at
the highest levels of the industry on how to revise the current
system. Design fees rise significantly to reflect the
professionalism and labor required to do the job well. Perhaps
several scales of fees are developed to reflect different designers'
level of experience and expertise. As a result, a true class of
professional designers emerges who are standard bearers for the
industry, and who are able to devote themselves to their work in a
less harried way, producing even higher quality designs. People at
this level will be expert pattern writers, leading to fewer problems
for the consumer. It's no secret that consumers are disgruntled with
the number of errors in published patterns, and surely an improved
reputation for the quality of patterns would be an industry plus.
Raising designers' fees need not send any company into
bankruptcy. Like other costs of doing business, it would require
re-allocation of funds. On the plus side, rewarding this talented,
smart group of people would surely result in unforeseen benefits to
the industry. Fair practices and respectful treatment can only
result in positive outcomes.
(Note: Agree with Dora's comments? If so, what can be done
about it? If you agree or disagree, send your thoughts to email@example.com.
To read previous Designing Perspectives columns, click on the titles
in the right-hand column.)