Sunday, November 2, 2014

Makers, Vintage Patterns, and Anonymous Designers

F&K's 1940's bag Butterfly and my version in pink
Makers: Women Who Make America is a brilliant documentary directed by Barak Goodman, and written by Goodman and Pamela Mason Wagner. The project was created and founded by Dyllan McGee of Kunhardt McGee Productions. Shown on PBS in 2013, the three part film deals with the struggle for equality by women in the United States over the course of the last fifty years. Full episodes of the the first series, and several of the second series, are available to stream on line here

The second series, Makers: Season 2, began airing in September of 2014.  It is a six part series with each installment focusing on a different career field, and features prominent women in that particular field. Topics include Women in Comedy, War, Space, Hollywood, Business, and Politics. 

It's easy to forget that the struggle for women to gain a foothold in the working world was really not that long ago.  Fifty years is nothing in the grand scheme of time. I am always sobered by the thought that when my grandmother was born in 1902 women did not have the right to vote in this country. That did not come until 1920. Women have only had the right to vote in the United States for 96 years. 

When women first started entering the world of business, advertising was one of the fields where they could not only be hired, but excel. The male marketing forces recognized that it was the women who controlled the consumer markets, making most, if not all, of the purchases for the family. Who better to target the motivations and desires of women in the retail environment than other women? 

Makers: Season 2, Women in Business features Mary Wells Lawrence, who was the first women to found her own advertising firm in 1966 and also the first female CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. She was the creative force behind several campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, Ford and Midas. Her company created the "I Love New York" campaign in 1977 that is still used to this day to promote tourism in the state of New York.  (For more on women in the history of advertising check out Malcolm Gladwell's 1999 New Yorker piece "True Colors" on his website, gladwell.com)

So if advertising was one venue open to women, what were the other options? The fashion industry was a consumer market driven by women, and one that allowed women into it's ranks, but very few female workers rose to prominence. Most women toiled away in fashion houses, or in sweatshops, or doing piecework out of their living rooms, making clothes and accessories that would be branded with someone else's name.  

What about the yarn industry and the books of patterns they created to sell their brands?

I have an extensive collection of vintage knitting and crochet pattern books. Most of them are from yarn companies that went out of business years ago. Jack Frost, Quaker, Dritz, Wonoco, Raphael Brand Gimp, Glossilla, and my personal favorite for handbags, F&K. 

The market for vintage patterns is a large one. There are several sites that offer free vintage patterns. You can find several dealers on Etsy, eBay and Amazon selling the original pattern books and digital copies available as downloads. Book publishers are still interested in books showcasing vintage patterns, and several books are scheduled to be published this fall featuring retro crochet and knitting patterns. Some of these patterns have been around for so long they have fallen into Public Domain status. 


My version of F & K's Sophistication
To make an item from one of the old pattern books is no easy task. Sometimes the most you get for instructions is a paragraph. The yarn is no longer available and trying to find the equivalent can be a monumental task. Usually, when I am trying to make a pattern from a vintage book, I tend to make an inspired piece using modern techniques and yarns to create an item similar to the picture in the pattern book. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail. Either way it's an interesting and challenging process and I usually end with something unique and usable. 

The clutch with the large blue bow is an example. I used Lion Brand Cotton Ease yarn and a G hook for my version. The original, Sophistication, used 1 large spool of Corde and 3-75 yard spools of multi-colored Corde. It was interchangeable with Soutache, Ribbonette or Straw (whatever those are/were). The required hook was a number 5 crochet bone hook. 

Bone hook? It's a struggle to even figure out where to start!

Most of the women who spent long hours designing and making these patterns are completely anonymous. Names rarely, if ever, appear alongside the patterns or anywhere in the pattern books. The one exception is K. Melina whose name is prominently featured on booklets published by the Hiawatha yarn company. She created gorgeous handbags, many of them were beaded crochet, as well as hats. Who she was, and how she managed to receive credit for her design work remains a mystery, like many of her contemporaries.  

Fan Bag, No, 519 by Melina for Hiawatha and my version in green
Designers now receive credit for their work but a few of the yarn companies still seem to have a hard time giving credit to the designers. Most of the larger companies have in house designers. That makes sense from a business viewpoint. If you sell yarn you want to offer people patterns as an incentive to buy your yarn. Some of the patterns are free. Some of them come with a price, usually anywhere from $3.95 to $6.95. The practice of charging for booklets with patterns is still practiced and that makes sense too. The yarn company needs to cover the cost of the printing associated with manufacturing the books. 

Some of the companies in business today, like the businesses in the past, do not give credit to their in house designers for their free patterns. Some will give credit once the pattern is downloaded, but not on their website. The large majority of yarn manufacturers do make sure that their designers are fully credited and promoted. The really forward thinking companies, like WEBS Valley Yarns and Cascade Yarns, showcase the Indie designers creating patterns with their products on their Facebook pages and blogs. (In the interest of full disclosure I have been the recipient of posts from both of them so I am slightly biased)

For the most part, women are no longer anonymous in today's society. Equality may still be out of reach in some areas, but we are no longer invisible, and we are learning to stand up for ourselves. Today a book publisher would never dream of publishing patterns without crediting the designer of the pattern.  Sites like Ravelry and Craftsy not only offer designers (male and female) the opportunity to showcase their work, they encourage and promote the artistry and talent of so many of them.  Any time art and creativity emerge from the shadows of obscurity it's an amazing thing. 

Kristina