In Defense of Commercial Patterns: Let's Lay Off the Studio Bashing in Rug Hooking
Those who have been following my social media know that I just made the announcement that I will be closing most of my retail operation at the end of 2022. This includes easy access to a pattern line that I have created over the past decade and sold all over the United States and sometimes beyond. While these patterns will still be available on a limited basis under limited circumstances, they will no longer be online - click it and we ship - as they are right now. The pattern line has been a major part of our overall revenue, along with the rug hooking kits that we often prepare with them. I am proud of my pattern and kit line and my exit from retail is not about any philosophical aversion to commercial patterns and kits. It is, rather, about my wanting to allocate more time to teaching, writing, and making art.
My teaching includes - and has for a long time included - encouraging rug hookers to create their own designs. I have talked people out of my own patterns in order to encourage their own design journey; I am *all* about hookers designing for themselves. What I am not about is taking a baseball bat to the knees of studios that also sell patterns and kits.
I am noticing a false dichotomy developing in the rug hooking community that is damaging to those small studios who are still making a go of it with patterns and kits and I want to address it right now. The owners of those studios are, in some cases, people I know well and love. Having run a retail operation for the past decade-plus, I know how tight their margins are, how many hours they work, how difficult some customers can be, and how absolutely devoted to rug hooking these studio owners are. I also know a few people who have sold their pattern and kit lines to larger studios and who appreciate the revenue that is coming from the continued sales of their designs. That revenue helps underpin what these same artists are able to do on the strictly creative side, which is often teaching, making art, writing, and more.
Can we stop bashing commercial patterns and kits, which pretty much only serves to eat our own colleagues alive? Can we understand that we are smart enough to walk and chew gum at the same time, that we can preach the gospel of individual expression and design while also not disparaging studios that also offer their own creative designs to the public? I think we can.
Those within this community who are advancing this false dichotomy between self-design and commercial patterns have often never run a retail studio. I have. I have had the quiet, personal, no-one-else-is-in-the-shop-right-now private conversations with other studio owners about how tough this niche is, how wholesale costs keep going up, what the import costs are for our Canadian colleagues, how upside down the margins can be, how difficult some customers are, how we literally get shoplifted, how we answer customer inquiries at midnight, and more. I - and they - have often offered non-shopkeeping teachers and artists wholesale pricing on the materials they needed for their own work and for classes they've been teaching because we maintain resale certificates and they don't and we want to help as much as we can because we know how hard every single aspect of this niche is. When, in return, we see semi-viral social media posts crapping on one of our product lines, it stings.
Here's the deal: not everyone in rug hooking wants to design their own. I SO very much wish they did. As I said earlier, I spend a lot of time designing workshops and teaching students all about self-expression and personal design, from the journaling and sketching forward. Each year a colleague of mine, who also sells a beautiful line of patterns, and I organize a trip aboard a 1927 schooner here in Maine for our guests that pushes their boundaries and results in - guess what? - their creation of their own deeply felt designs. I just taught for four days at Fiber College opening up the world of self-expression and design to more students. I get it. I'm 100%-f**king-here-for-it. But I can do all of that AND support my friends and colleagues who put painstaking care and creativity into their commercial pattern lines.
In my own hooking life, I have hooked exactly four designs that were not my own. I had a reason each time, mostly because I knew the recipient of the piece would really dig the pattern that I purchased from another artist. I honestly don't love hooking designs that aren't my own, which is why I've designed all the others myself, for me. There is a singular joy and sense of deep expression when we design our own work. On the other hand, I had one customer who never designed her own. She really loved the traditional primitive aesthetic and while I custom designed several pieces based on her specifications, I could never persuade her to sit down with the pencil herself. She hooked my and other artist's designs all the way through a life-threatening illness and pulling those loops brought her a centering peace. Who am I to say that's wrong? Who am I to say that she - or for that matter I - should be shamed about the creation or use of purchased patterns?
I'm here to tell you that the reality in the small rug hooking studio world is that a lot of owners are on the struggle bus, financially, from a morale standpoint, and more. A lot of studios suffer several existential crises per year. It's difficult enough that the market is dominated by a few large studios that many of our customers treat as destinations akin to Disney. We don't need also to heap shame on customers and/or studios that deal in commercial patterns and kits, many of which are inspired and beautiful. And shame is certainly not warranted considering that patterns and kits are hand-crafted pieces of artisanship. Not even all of our customers know that these patterns are hand-traced each time they are made, carefully drawn on the grain of the foundation, sometimes flipped for our punch customers, and sometimes customized on request. In our studio, materials for kits are hand-picked with careful consideration, measured carefully with extra added in always, and then, if requested, cut to the size the customer prefers to hook with. These are not mass-produced products. Every single one is hand produced with a lot of thought and care.
Commercial pattern and kit lines are sometimes the gateway to hooking for people who have never seen it before. These lines also employ people in our craft, especially in the larger studios but even in the smaller ones too. I've had more than one beginner tell me that she wants to work with a pattern, just this first time, to focus on the flow of loop pulling without any other task in front of her.
I could go on, but you get my point. False dichotomies have no place in rug hooking. We're better than that and hey, even if we aren't, our niche is too small and fragile right now for us to be beating up our own. Haven't we had enough false dichotomies tossed our way in politics and advertising, hoping to impact our behavior or shame us in some way? I'm not for shame, but I am for rug hooking surviving and thriving into future generations, along with healthy and profitable studios available the world over to supply the things we need, whether we design for ourselves or not.
About the featured image: This is my kitten, Tesla, back over a decade ago and the subject of one of the first commercial patterns I ever offered, "Tesla's First Snow." It's sold many iterations, both in its original and customized form, and I'm proud of it.
- Elizabeth Miller