Monday, October 3, 2016

How Much do Knitting Pros Make?

In September I linked to a series of articles on this topic. It's ended up generating a lot of questions to me from within the knitting community. I have a certain amount of discomfort with this topic because it can seem whiny. I stopped pursuing teaching and speaking opportunities when I figured out the compensation didn't make any sense for me. I can't speak for other teachers. I'm still open to accepting work but my expectations have shifted over time and my terms have changed accordingly. I don't believe any venues are purposely underpaying teachers but I know they look at the bottom dollar too and it's normal to assume teachers won't apply if they don't profit. I'd like to be totally transparent on this topic but unfortunately I can't because of the high level of secrecy in the industry. So here's some of the things I can tell you. 

The knitting community assumes we pros are all making money because why would anyone be dumb enough to do the work without adequate compensation? Knitting pros are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs need time to grow their business, find their niche in the knitting world and establish more than one income stream. We work in the same way freelancers work in other industries. We have to test things out and see where they go. That takes time, nothing in life is instantaneous. Those ongoing tests determine what work we continue to do and what we drop.

When I quit my full time job, initially, absolutely no one would give me any financial details. The best I could get was a few teachers on the national level who told me they weren't sure if those shows were profitable. They knew the events often weren't profitable on a show by show basis but they did seem to led to more teaching, speaking, and patterns sales after the fact. I taught at one Vogue Live early on. I was able to keep my expenses down and since three of my knitting friends joined me, we turned it into a road trip vacation. I continued to apply for a number of other shows hoping to up my profile but the ones who showed interest didn't offer compensation that made sense for me.

Eventually one pro who had been in the industry a long time did give me a ballpark figure on her annual income and it was very modest. As a comparison it would what a low level office admin would make in a big city. I track my income and expenses on a spreadsheet so I don't think in terms of individual payments. I looked to stay in the black. Initially I was happy with that as I was starting out and testing things. As I've been working longer, I started breaking things out more which is changing what I choose to do.

On the local teaching level I really screwed myself because the first person who would share rates was being paid at the low end of the scale. I moved forward quoting with that rate only to discover later on I was underselling myself compared to other teachers at the same venues. On the other hand one of those teachers getting a better hourly rate shared a speaking fee which was 50% of what the same venue paid me. I didn't speak up because... you already know why, I was told the fee was confidential and if I break that confidentiality I'm certainly not going to be invited back.

The big question I'm getting now is "how much money do I make at an event"? The "how much" question is very difficult to answer because it varies so much. Every event I've done has been different. I've taught at weekend retreats in Ontario, retail events with classes, guild workshops, private classes, shop classes and spoken at guilds. Some guilds were local to me, some required travel and overnight stays. I looked at the who pays knitters info and it would take hours for me to fill out that info with the variety of my experience, which may be why so few pros have. Some events break everything out in terms of travel, food, printing, teaching fees by class, teaching fees by student or as a flat fee for everything. I've done events where I've known exactly what I'm making up front and ones where I got class numbers and class cancellations the day before and had to recalculate to discover I was breaking even or working at a loss. Top payment amounts depend on every class running and filling every spot for you to make the highest amount. So it's apples and oranges trying to compare events.The larger the event, the more likely you are to be paid at least partially based on student numbers, so for a low profile person like me it means risking going to teach at a loss. 

When you teach at weekend events you are working the whole time you are there. Events organizers expect you to be available outside class time so the hourly class rate actually covers much more. You are working until you shut the door to go to bed. I love teaching but the events are exhausting. I'm a true extrovert but I struggled with maintaining my energy during those weekends, I don't know how the introverts manage to do it.

Headliner teachers make more at an event than the rest of the teachers. How much more, I have no idea. I think this is what capitalism is all about. You can charge what the market will bear. If I could have gotten more I would have charged more too.

Vendors are pressured by some venues to teach and can get discounts on the prices of their booths if they do so.

Book authors probably have contractual obligations to teach at the parent companies events. I'm guessing at this but I've noticed some of the authors disappear from teaching fairly quickly after publication.

If someone really wants you, they will pay you more. I know that, because it's happened to me twice. When I turned something down due to poor compensation, a better offer came back based on the question "what will it take to get you here"? Then I'm sworn to secrecy.

I'd like to point at that I'm relatively unknown, so I'm very surprised this has happened to me at all. 

Odd things pop up while you try to work out payment. Again this is because of the secrecy issue. In my case it was about printing costs. In my class bookings, either printing was done for me or I included in my fees. The offer to do my printing happened very early on so I always asked about it when I quoted rates. If they said I needed to do my own printing I did. In some cases I provided a receipt for reimbursement, in others I was instructed by the organizers to add the amount to my base fee. I assumed this was the norm, but since no one talks I didn't know it might not be until I was teaching at an event where it came up as a stumbling block. The organizers were insistent that printing is the teachers responsibility. I continued to ask for my printing costs to be covered at events after that and I was never turned down but I still don't know what other teachers are doing? 

And that is the big question. If I can only get one or two other pros to share info with me, is it actually representative of the whole knitting industry. My experience to date tells me no. I moved forward at times on faulty information.

Yarn shop owners, wholesalers and tech editors are completely different categories of pro knitter. I have heard various estimates but it it appears in North America some shops (maybe 25%) are hobby businesses. I've read that in Britain that doesn't happen. I don't know how this works anywhere else in the world. I do see shops opening and closing pretty quickly so it appears to be a tough industry. On the other hand, here in Ontario we have some which appear to be thriving. Tech editors have quoted rates which vary widely. Ultimately they are freelancers. They do know how much they are going to earn when they take on a project.

I don't know much about the wholesale end of the business at all. 

On the topic of hobby businesses I'm also an example of another problem. I have other income, which means I spent more time doing things at minimal profit than most entrepreneurs or free lancers could afford to. I suspect this situation depresses the rate of compensation for everyone. I'm not alone in this category. I have no idea how many of us there are. 

One of my early errors turned out to be very common. Many of us newbies create problems regarding the tracking of income as opposed to profit. Time and material costs invested in the work get lost somewhere. I've discussed this with friends in other industries and been told it's a common error for new entrepreneurs and free lancers in all industries.

I've done a little cyber sleuthing while this has been going on. Many pros post their teaching/speaking schedules and events post teacher bios so you can see who's where and when. Once I checked up on various events and teachers I noticed many of us lesser known pros disappear from  events after a varying number of appearances. Of course, some retire, get full time jobs in the industry or move onto other things. I can also share that when I send out interview requests it is becoming much more common for the answer to be no because the pro is no longer active in the industry. That never happened when I started doing the interviews.

The only growth area I've had since I started is pattern sales. The more I publish the more I sell. With pattern sales I am taking all of the risk of upfront costs. Most of my patterns are profitable, a few aren't, but there is no way to predict which ones will do well. I'm selling steadily but no one could support themselves on the profit I see after I pay for tech editing and advertising, etc. 

I can only speak for myself. If I don't see some positive cash flow from an income stream I move onto something else and this is the first time I've shared it publicly. 

I guess that means I'm part of the problem.


  1. Thanks for writing about this Robin, you have been one of my professional resources since I started writing patterns in 2011.

  2. Good post! A lot of this fiber industry business does not make sense. It is a gamble and you just have to do what is good for you.

  3. Sweetie, we're ALL part of the problem. It's a chicken versus egg versus dinosaur argument. No one talks about it for whatever reason (embarrassment, not wanting to toot their own horn, non-disclosure agreements, etc.) so no one knows what is truly's a mess, honestly.

  4. Robin, thank you so much for this insightful post. I love the "inside baseball" perspective you offer, and I'm glad that I managed to catch this post before it fell off of my feed reader. Pro compensation is definitely a multi-faceted and difficult subject. I wish there were more transparency -- a rising tide raises all ships.