I am so excited to share an interview with Vashti Braha today. I first learned about Vashti’s work because, as you know, I love Tunisian crochet, and she has designed some amazing Tunisian crochet patterns. I’m a devoted subscriber to her Crochet Inspirations newsletter. If you love to crochet, you should sign up, too. Vashti’s newsletter somehow simultaneously looks at crochet with the fresh and inspired eyes of a precocious newbie and the wisdom of an ancient master. Every time I read it, I am inspired to pick up my hook!
All pictures in this interview are used with Vashti’s permission.
Underground Crafter (UC): How did you first get started crocheting?
Vashti: My earliest memories are of my Mom crocheting, knitting, and embroidering. I would sit with her for hours and try to untangle the yarn in her yarn basket while she crocheted on the couch. It felt very natural to learn how to crochet from her one day when I was nine. This was 1973. I remember thinking “Aha! Now I have the power to make anything I need to survive.” I was thinking of Tarzan, Gilligan’s Island, and Hodge Podge Lodge at the time–I imagined crocheting myself a hammock, tether, sack, or other survival item.
The first things I made were clothes and accessories for my younger sister’s dolls. (Her passion at the time.)
UC: What inspired you to start designing?
Vashti: Until I was 30-something, somehow I never noticed that real people wrote patterns for crochet designs! I changed as a crocheter when my son was born in 1999. I set new challenges for myself, took on ambitious projects, and read new kinds of crochet books and patterns. I started noticing how each designer had a different style. That’s when I imagined what I might design some day.
Thanks to the new online crochet world that was developing at the time, I learned about the CGOAChain Link conferences. At a conference in 2004, I unexpectedly sold my first designs and was on my way.
UC: You originally started your crochet career selling your designs to other publishers. Now, you are almost entirely self-published. Can you talk about that shift – what inspired it and what are some of the challenges and rewards you see as your own publisher?
Vashti: I became an independent designer and publisher due to a combination of factors. Freelancing (selling designs to other publishers) was not a perfect fit for me. Then, as the industry changed, I reached a breaking point with it. I’m glad to see that more recently it has been improving in some ways for freelancers.
I’m going to rant a bit now, and I’m only speaking for myself. Every designer is unique, so I don’t pass judgment how any other designer goes about their business. Also, a few of the issues I list below have improved since I started publishing independently, and I do still freelance here and there.
For years, the print publishing industry in general has been battling rising print costs, a rigid and bloated hierarchy of middlemen, and new forms of digital competition. Crochet publishing has also been promoting outdated assumptions about crochet and about intellectual property rights. Until very recently, I think every new crochet designer started out freelancing. As far as I know, being published (in a print magazine or book, or by a yarn company) was the only game in town.
Unfortunately, some time after I began designing, the publishers’ rising costs were being passed along to the designers: in other words, pay rates for designs started stagnating. I’d like to know if the amount paid to the production staff, the printing presses, the postal services, etc., was also flattening and drifting downwards!
Not only that, we designers were also supposed to work harder for the same or lower pay: write the pattern for 4 to 6 sizes instead of 1 to 3; provide schematics and stitch diagrams; add special tips and swatches in alternate colors; etc. All this, and still keep the pattern short!
Do you know what kinds of designs meet these requirements the best? The ones made of a few big squares. For a designer, that’s a rudimentary way to design a fashion item! It also limits the development of crochet’s potential. For the rest of the industry, however, this kind of crochet pattern seems to be the favored way to sell yarn. Well, I don’t go to the trouble to design something, and write up the pattern for it as clearly and accurately as possible (in 5 sizes, with diagrams, etc.) so that I can sell someone else’s yarn and lose all rights to my intellectual property as a bonus LOL!
I’m hearing from designers that with a few exceptions, companies have been slow to take the edge off for a pretty essential part of the industry, the designers! Instead, to add insult to injury:
Sometimes contracts have not been provided even when requested; if so, nothing is negotiable;
It’s breezily mentioned that your projects were stolen or given away;
Big and obvious project photography notes from the designer are disregarded so that the project is photographed inside out or upside down;
The pattern is redesigned without permission from the designer, usually by the tech editor (who can be quite surly!).
Yarn companies need designs to sell yarn. What are pattern magazines, leaflets, and books without patterns? But not just any patterns! New ones, distinctive ones; yet some publishers recycle the same design with no additional compensation to the designer. What crocheter wants to pay for a design twice? Even if the publisher changes the yarn, crocheters still know it — this means that good design matters to crocheters.
There reached a point when it stopped making sense to me to pursue freelancing. More crochet was appearing on fashion runways, and I was teaching trendy crochet design. I couldn’t see submitting trendy design proposals, then waiting 6 months to find out if they would be published 6-12 months after that, when I could publish them myself online in as little as a few hours. Almost every day a new way to publish and go directly to fellow crocheters presented itself. I remember when Etsy happened, and free blogging, and then…Ravelry!
I keep the proposal deadlines in mind of some of the larger publishers. So far, I’ve been preoccupied with my own learning curve -learning how to produce my newsletter, use SEO and analytics, understand Facebook’s latest changes, etc. Before I know it, a freelance deadline has passed me by, so I look to the next ones. A design of mine is in a new book, Simply Crochet: 22 Stylish Designs for Everyday. Another one is in a forthcoming Tunisian crochet book by Dora Ohrenstein.
UC: I love the Designing Vashti newsletter, especially how you share your inspirations and explorations of different techniques. How did you decide upon using that format to share your adventures in crochet?
Vashti: Thanks so much! I feel honored when a crocheter is interested enough to say, “You may email me every two weeks.” It makes each issue a special occasion and I want to make the most of it. I have a sense of intimacy with my subscribers and this causes me to write about crochet in a contemplative way.
I chose the newsletter format for two main reasons:
It’s the easiest and best type of “headquarters” I could create for people who want to know when I come out with new designs, offer classes, and other news.
I made a commitment to my inner crocheter to do for crochet, and for fellow crocheters, what I wish were already being done. I like thinking about crochet. I get plenty of newsletters in my inbox about yarn, crochet, or knitting, and I always hope they’ll give me something to think about. My subscriber list has grown constantly since the first issue in October, 2010, so I’m not the only one out there who likes to think about crochet!
A great fringe benefit of the newsletter is that it disciplines me as a writer. I like finding out what newsletter topic inspires me every two weeks.
UC: In the last few months, you have talked a lot about slip stitch crochet. What do you enjoy about this stitch?
Vashti: It gives me a fresh new experience of crochet. I’m discovering a whole microcosm in the seemingly simple and limited slip stitch, sort of like the Horton Hears A Who! story, or like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My inner crocheter is startled and fascinated — and amused that crochet books are still being published that state authoritatively, “The slip stitch is not for making fabric”! The slip stitch results in some amazing fabrics, but aside from that, scratch its surface and it reveals a lot about crochet itself.
UC: What are your favorite crochet books in your collection?
UC: What are your favorite types of yarn to work with?
Vashti: I almost always like a z-twisted yarn (the plies of the yarn are twisted to the left) instead of s-twisted (twisted to the right). I crochet right handed, and my yarn overs don’t unwind a z-twisted yarn, so it doesn’t get “splitty” on me. I like how my really tall stitches look in smooth z-twisted yarns because the multiple yarn overs don’t make them look stringy. (UC comment: Doris Chan recently wrote a detailed blog post explaining the difference between z- and s- twisted yarns, if you’d like to know more.)
Lately I’ve been fascinated by alpaca. It’s hard for me to resist sparkly yarns, like silk and mohair spun with metallics and little sequins or beads. Handspun angora is a special kind of magical.
UC: You’ve had a variety of roles in the crochet industry – designer, teacher, writer, and now publisher. What advice do you have for aspiring professionals?
Vashti: Each of us is designing our business and crochet lifestyle, as well as designing crochet patterns. Thanks to the digital revolution and to the multifaceted nature of crochet, we have more choices than it first appeared back when I started designing. I continue to be inspired by how each designer makes her or his own path with it.
The three things I’d most like aspiring professionals to know are:
1) Join up with others and compare notes. It’s easy to miss opportunities, or to be taken advantage of, or to lose perspective, because this is a solitary job for most of us in this industry. Find a fellow professional you can call periodically, just to chat about the biz. In addition, meet up as a group online. Crochet designers need to meet up with each other, separately from tech editors who also need meet up with each other for example, or teachers. Ravelry groups help make this possible, but they are public. It’s better if you meet privately (I speak from experience).
2) The designer creates new intellectual property. The designer and only the designer starts out with all rights to the property, unless she or he chooses to let others have some. No one protects this property better than the originator of it.
It’s easy to lose sight of this simple fact.
I wish someone had made it clear and simple for me years ago. I still would have sold some or all rights to some freelanced designs, but with eyes open.
I’ve learned that a huge amount of people seem to prefer to profit from other people’s intellectual property instead of create their own, whether they can pay enough for it or not. I’ve wondered, why is it so many people, when they could create their own stuff and then do anything they want with it? After having designed a lot, I’ve concluded that it’s because it’s actually really hard work to create something out of nothing all the time. It’s much easier if someone else does it!
So, I’d say to aspiring professionals: don’t underestimate how eager people are to legally take your property off of your hands, even while discounting its value. I’ve heard this from several publishers: “It’s just one design. What’s the big deal? Why hold onto it forever? You’ll have plenty more.” If it’s such a burden, why dothey want it so much LOL?
3) Rather than feel flattered or important when given yarn to design with, I wish designers would expect it. Designers are already paid too little for a living wage. Yarn companies need designers much more than designers need any particular yarn. It should be the other way around: a yarn company is lucky when a designer chooses their yarn to design with, to blog about, or to recommend!
UC: What are you planning for 2012 and beyond?
Vashti: I’m looking forward to teaching several crochet classes both nationally and locally in 2012. I love teaching and getting to know students, and am very patient. Some crocheters who have had trouble learning in the past just need to find a calm and patient teacher.
I post updates in my newsletters as classes are scheduled. I can announce the classes I’ll be teaching at national conferences as soon as the schedule is posted for the summer and fall.
I want to try online classes too, though that might have to wait until 2013 or late 2012.
The Crochet Inspirations Newsletter has its own Facebook page that has been coming in handy. I originally set it up as an experiment with Facebook pages, but I go to it to scroll through the archived issues, to post follow-up info to an issue, and to answer questions.
For example, in the newest issue I talked a lot about my mannequin, Lindsay. Several readers emailed me to ask where I bought it, so I posted the link at the FB page. One week I forgot to include an important photo in the newsletter before I sent it out, so I posted it on the Facebook page for that issue. Come to think of it, I think I should remind my subscribers about the Facebook page.
Wow, Vashti, thank you for being so generous with your time, so detailed in your responses, and for offering some great advice for aspiring/emerging designers.