Copy-catting in Fiber Arts (FAQ)

Copy-catting in Fiber Arts (FAQ)

I thought I'd take some time to write about the issue of copy-catting in the fiber art world.  What is copying, how to avoid copying, how to infuse someone else's idea with your talent & aesthetic, and where I draw the line on this issue.

You must have the right attitude. Fiber Art has been around for 10,000+ years and a lot of these ideas and skills that we are taking credit for may be found carved into the walls of the tombs of egyptian pharoahs.  There are no "new" ideas, everything everyone is making has at least one idea from someone else in it.  All the skills we are using (knitting, crochet, spinning) have been around for longer than the fiber can survive. 


When I was doing some research on the history of spinning for Lexi Boeger, I was fascinated to learn that wool completely disintegrates after about 3,000 years.  The very first articles of woven/spun fabric that we can find (the oldest to survive) are so intricate, so delicate - all handcrafted with skill beyond what our commercial mills are doing today.  There is no possible way to research how the artisan behind that work of art got their idea from.  It's gone, wiped from history - the inspiration behind their work cannot be traced.

History has wiped the slate clean of who gets the credit.  And I think that is beautiful and should be respected by everyone in the fiber art world today.  None of us are "The originals".  Let's just take a moment to think about that.

We are all standing on the backs of those before us: our teachers, our mentors, our fellow artisans. The minute you start convincing yourself that an idea "belongs" to you or that you somehow came up with the entire thing all by yourself...that's creative poison.  Don't become arrogant or prideful about your talents, works, or expertise.

Consider music: Every pianist uses the same tools: a piano, notes, keys, tempos, pedals, and chords. The way you can tell if one piece of music is exactly the same as the other is by looking at the written music. If the music doesn't match, you have two completely different pieces of music.

Can a musician "own" a chord?
Do the notes themselves belong to him?
Can he copyright a tempo?

The same concepts belong to the skills of knitting, crochet, spinning, colorwork, and the entire realm of fiber art. The point where you can say something is your idea is when the pattern is completely finished and in writing. It is the pattern that you can take "credit" for, not the skills used to create that pattern, and not part of the pattern.  The only way you can tell if someone has copied your idea is by looking at the pattern stitch by stitch to see if it's indeed the exact same piece of work.

Now that the foundation for my thoughts have been laid, here is how I use other people's ideas & patterns as a springboard for my own:

1. I ask permission.  When I see a new idea, I always ask that person if I can use their idea on my blog.  I am not asking because I don't have the freedom to create it - I am asking to give honor to the person who has given me an idea.  I have even asked permission from an artist to start selling faux cashmere in my shop.  The look she gave me was hilarious, but if she was making a good living selling that fiber - I didn't want to tread on her profit margin or become her competition.  It's a matter of respect.  On the other hand, if you see dyed wool top on ETSY and decide that's what you want to do - there are hundreds of shops that sell it and no need for you to ask permission from each one.  I'm talking about in-person, in the moment, "Wow what you do is you mind if I try my hand at this as well?"  Wouldn't YOU rather someone ask you if they can try doing what you do - instead of finding out weeks/months later that they're "copying your idea"?

2. I give credit.  When I make something that has obviously been inspired by someone else's talent - I give that person credit to the best of my ability.  I do this to honor the artisan that has given me the idea.  Again this is for in-person moments of "I love what you have made, can I look at it more closely?  This is gorgeous, do you mind if I use this idea for a pattern on my blog?  Can I take a picture of you wearing it so I can show people where I got the idea?

3. I never read other people's patterns.  Oftentimes I will peruse ravelry to look for knit or crochet ideas for art yarn.  I scroll thru pages and pages of photographs of patterns and jot down a list of my ideas.  Hat, scarf, tablerunner, wall hanging, etc.  Not reading the pattern means that it will be impossible for me to copy. Instead I scribble sketches, shapes, and how I would build that idea from handspun art yarn. 

In short:

Copying: making an exact copy of someone else's pattern, stitch by stitch.  Or following a written recipe of exact shades/measurements of dye and temperature/amount of water and fiber/yarn as a dyelot.

Not Copying: using a picture of someone else's pattern to write your own pattern based on the shapes you will need (circle, square, rectangle, triangle) for the piece and the yarn you are working with.  Or seeing someone else's colors and saying, "I'm going to try red with green and yellow too!" without asking what color dye they are using or how much.

What if my idea is really, really close to that other person's idea?  I've heard the phrase, "When you see something you want to make, add/change 3 different elements to it and it's no longer the same idea" and have used that in my own work to differentiate and challenge myself to make a truly unique product.

What if I don't want someone to EVER copy my idea?  Then don't post any pictures of it online, and never wear it, and never show it to anyone.  Keep it to yourself and be as selfish as you want with it - and I guarantee you the more selfish and secretive you are the less likely someone will be to ever copy anything you make.

I love this quote:

"Always think that in any area of the arts, you get maybe ten percent of people who are creative, original... and the rest are generally following on, copying."
Hugh Hopper

Strive to be that 10%.
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