In Response to Diane P. on Fair Fiber Wages

I got a long reply from someone who says she disagrees with almost everything I’ve said on the subject of #FairFiberWage. I’m responding point by point, here, because it’s too long for the original discussion where this comment was left.

Edited: 7 September to shorten the poster’s name in the title per suggestion of folks concerned about bullying risk.

So much conversation has happened this Labor Day weekend on the subject of fair wages in the fiber arts. You can find lots of them by following the hashtags #FairFiberWage and #FiberTeachersNeed on social media. I’m going to summarize reponses, but first… this one called for a longer reply than fit tidily into a Facebook comment, so here we are.

Original Facebook conversation here. It’s on my public share of my Medium piece in which I disclose and break down my baseline fee for what I do, and talk about ballpark numbers at the higher end of costs to bring a national stage teacher to a fiber conference. This discussion is entirely public, and I’ve advertised it widely to the exact same circles of people who hire me, take my classes, buy my content and other products, and are my colleagues and competitors. My objective is to take a stand for fair compensation in the field where I work and am considered by many to be a headliner and a leader. To further this objective, I’m attempting to open a dialogue in which everyone can be involved and aware.

First of all, the disclaimers: Diane, I don’t know you, or anything about you, your shop, or your body of work. This is not personal, and I’m replying to the points you raised.

Second of all, kudos for stepping up and engaging in the discussion. It’s very much needed if we’re all going to move forward constructively in our industry.

For transparency, I’ll start with screen shots of your comment on my public Facebook share. I have elided the name of our one mutual Facebook friend.

Now we’re going to go point by point.

I come from the background of doing the machine knitting circuit but am familiar with the handknitting one also. I’ve done numerous aspects in my fiber career: teacher on the circuit, sponsor of those “big conventions”, publisher, and finally a yarn shop owner.

That’s a great list, and it’s amazing how much room there is in the fiber world for people to simply never cross paths at all. I admit I’m entirely unfamiliar with your work as an author and we’ve plainly never been teaching at any of the same venues. You don’t name your shop, so I also don’t know if I’ve ever heard of it, and can’t say whether or not you’ve sponsored (as in bought advertising at) any of the shows where I’ve taught.

For what it’s worth, I personally am a fan of machine knitting, and it’s something I’ve wanted to spend time learning about. One major reason why I haven’t gone far down that road is a lack of readily accessible instructional content, a lack of classes, and nothing much in the way of events that I can find. When I’m offered an opportunity to tell event organizers what I’m interested in learning more about, I pretty much always include machine knitting. Yet, it’s clear there are some in the handknitting scene who think it somehow “doesn’t count.” And I think that sucks.

First off, when I look at the list of teachers for many of these show, very few of the names are recognizable anymore.

This is hard to speak to without having a sense of which shows you mean, and unfortunately, that’s a sticky wicket. I imagine that you’re almost as worried as I am about the possible consequences of naming names. If I name names, I’m outing organizations which have the potential to affect my income on an ongoing basis, organizations which employ people who are my friends, organizations which were built by people who have been family friends for decades, so even apart from the risk of being essentially blackballed for speaking up, and the financial risk, there’s the personal risk of losing lifelong relationships.

There is, and has always been, ebb and flow and a constant stream of change in terms of who the recognized names are. I’m going to say it’s possible that some of the folks you may remember from 20 years ago aren’t still teaching because they were not exactly spring chickens 20 years ago, and now they may be retired or more permanently unavailable to teach. And it’s true: new names come on the scene. And one of the things that is cool about the way things are now is that you can google the new names and find out lots about them, because if we’re working this scene now, in the contemporary era, we have strong web and social media presences. Here’s what it looks like when I google myself (sigh).

So, it’s not particularly hard to find out a lot about me. Just in the first page of google results, there’s plenty of professional information as well as personal information. I find that’s typically true of the folks teaching fiber arts topics on the national stage.

My reaction is to yawn and then not sign up for classes.

…so, you’re telling me you’re not my market, then telling me that even if you were my market, you’re not signing up for classes?

Successful people making a living in fiberarts create an excitement by having outlandish personalities or innovative classes.

Welp. Thanks, I guess? I’m sure I do seem outlandish to some folks. I’ve absolutely heard from my students that they find ,my classes innovative.

To [sic] much of what I see out there nowadays isn’t worth the price of a class at those shows because the local stores can have their employees do the same thing at a much lower cost to attendees.

I’d love some examples. Here are a few of my upcoming classes. I’d be interested in discussing how your local shop staff manage to teach these classes at a lower cost.

(excerpt of description: My father developed the original version of this class in the late 1970s after an immersive two years of studying the techniques directly in the town of Chinchero, where we lived. At the same time, I was growing up and learning them right along with all the other kids. Over the years, as his own understanding of Andean textiles grew, he tweaked and tuned the class to make it as close as possible to the experience I had, rather than the one he had. When he died, I decided to carry on the class and continue updating it, teaching it by special agreement for select audiences. You are that audience.)

(excerpt of description: You’ll spend two full days building a binder documenting your process in learning how to design the exact blended yarn you envision from the ground up, using handheld tools and a drum carder, working with wool, silk, and an assortment of animal and synthetic fibers. You’ll learn to sample meaningfully to fine tune your fiber blend and select the best yarn structure to highlight the characteristics you want. We will run through a range of drafting options, when and how to wet finish our dream yarns for which uses, how to document our work for repeatability, and how to calculate the requirements for making the project envisioned for our yarn.)

Sincerely, please tell me how local shop staff are able to teach these classes cheaper than I can. Where are they sourcing their tools for Andean backstrap weaving? Do you have a lot of local shop workers who have designed yarn to be spun by hand as well as by the mill, and who are able to translate this into classes that enable hobbyist spinners to do it for themselves? I’d love to hear how they manage to do it cheaper than I can. Sincerely.

No longer do we have names attached to books, etc.

That hasn’t been my experience at all — but then, this is me, via goodreads and amazon:

My name is very attached to that book, which has now been in print and selling strong for almost 7 years. Actually, my name is attached to everything I do. Heck, sometimes people publishing my work put it right on the cover of the magazine like they think people know it, or something.

XRX boosted the careers of many people by promoting them at their events and that is hard to put a price tag on. World has changed and that is not as common any more, hence the yawn and why I don’t know your name as a teacher.

This leads me to suspect you may have concentrated your experience in the fiber arts scene under a specific umbrella.

I have nothing to lose by telling the world that XRX is an organization from whose principals I have heard the line that they have advertisers who are yarn companies that are afraid of anybody learning to spin by hand because they think that if people do, nobody will buy yarn anymore. Which is quite frankly absurd — it’s like suggesting that if people learn to cook, they’ll never go out for dinner or pick up fast food. Anyway, XRX and their events are not likely to hire spinning teachers, so I personally have nothing to lose by saying that from what I’ve heard of their pay and contracts, they’re not likely to be on my list of places to apply even if they suddenly start hiring spinning teachers. Which they aren’t. Which is probably why you don’t know my name. Or potentially the names of other spinning teachers.

Hence why my customers don’t know your name so bring you in as a teacher for a private event has little draw to them. Where is the newness of Shadow Knitting, Mitered Squares, Brioche. I can buy a $20 book to learn 30 ways to cast on. Why take a $120 class?

It doesn’t sound like your audience is a fit for the classes I teach, personally. What instructors do you usually have in, teaching what topics?

The last time I had an opportunity to take a knitting class, it was Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s “Knitting For Speed and Efficiency.” I took that half-day class after having been knitting for like 35 years, and it changed my perspective on a million things. It has been 7 years, and I’m still thinking about things from that class. I got things in 3 hours in person that I would never have gotten from a book, a video, or a conversation online. So, for me, that’s a key reason to take classes even in a topic I already know.

I’d also say that while you, personally, may have seen it all, that’s probably not the case for every single person considering taking a class. I teach a lot of classes that are popular and well-received, but would be redundant for students at a level of skill or experience higher than that at which the class is aimed. Would I encourage a seasoned spinner with decades of experience to sign up for my most introductory class? Probably not — but when I do teach introductory classes, I often do have spinning teachers in there looking for tips and tricks on how to teach introductory spinning better. I consider that pretty high praise.

Next, when did all the teachers become divas.

Ah, yes. When did you last teach at an event, by the way? Let’s step through.

What is wrong with sharing a room with another teacher, or being in someone’s home overnight while at a private shop? Did it many times in my teaching career and most times I was treated royally. Worst case was more then tolerable.

The worst case stories out there now are by no means tolerable. At least one came close to resulting in kidnapping charges. I’m not even kidding a little bit.

Sometimes I will stay in someone’s home. For example, a few years back I taught for the Dallas Handweaver’s Guild, and my colleague Michael Cook, who I have known for many years, offered to host me. I was thrilled to accept. Similarly, when judging the skein and garment competition for the wool show at the Monterey Fair — which took place during Car Week so there were literally no hotels available — I stayed with volunteers who I had at least met, and in one case had met many times.

The flip side is the worst I’ve experienced so far: one time I stayed in a home where I didn’t have a bed, but a pullout sofa, and so could not go to bed until the homeowner was ready to call it a night. I also had nowhere I could work, make a phone call to my family, etc. as I had no cell signal and they didn’t have Internet I could use. I had to eat what they had planned, on their schedule. I had no transportation available to go anywhere else. I had to wait for the bathroom. They didn’t approve of coffee so there wasn’t any in the morning. They stood over me while I was trying to sort materials fees I had collected in cash, talked to me while I was trying to do paperwork and prep, wanted my feedback on about a dozen skeins of yarn they had spun, and wouldn’t leave for the venue to get me there with ample time to arrange the classroom before students began to arrive.

Not only were these things unpleasant for me as a human being, but they affected my performance as a teacher and the value the students got for their money.

At the Northeast Handspinner’s Association Gathering in 2014, I shared a room with Amy King, a fellow instructor who I’ve known for going on 20 years, and with whom I’ve shared rooms on any number of occasions, in fact. There are definitely people with whom it’s not hard to share a room, and believe me, after a decade working this circuit, I’ve got a pretty good list of colleagues where it’s not a big deal. But I can’t promise you I’m going to be able to do that and deliver students the quality of teaching they deserve.

On the flip side, one time I had a roommate who invited a group of students back to our hotel room and stayed up till 2 in the morning when I had to be up at 6 and teach at 8. Another time I had a roommate who went through my suitcase when I was in the bathroom. Another time, I unexpectedly got my period and it was super heavy and I had to handwash underwear and hang them in the bathroom I shared with someone who I had met 15 minutes prior. These things may be in your comfort zone. They are not really in mine, nor do I find it reasonable to assume them as a default for professional people doing professional work.

$75 per day for food? What are you eating, steak for breakfast?

I’m sure you noticed that I specified, multiple times, that I was using the high end numbers, and that your specific numbers might vary depending on the market you’re in. Let’s start with this link for what government rates are for travel meals. You will doubtless note that they put $74 as the high end. I did round that up by a dollar for ease of math.

Often, there is no food option to be had other than whatever can be purchased at the conference hotel. Been to a hotel lately? Eaten there? Is it typically cheap? Here’s a menu from an event venue where I once taught. A burger starts at $13, and that is actually comparable to every other dining option in any semblance of walking distance from that location.

Grassroots fair wage event PLY Away publishes their teacher compensation package. In Kansas City, I get $40 a day for food and incidentals. And it’s ample. But there are markets where it would not be. In general, nationwide, I find breakfast at a hotel runs $10–15 plus tip, lunch runs $10–20 possibly plus tip, and dinner runs $20–40 plus tip, and that comes to $40-$75.

When is the last time you traveled to teach? In the ten years I’ve been doing so full time, it has grown substantially more expensive than it was when I started.

This diva attitude is why teachers can’t make a living and let me give you an example of what I mean.

Say “diva” one more time. Please. Because I told myself I was going to maintain a neutral tone and not say things like “cheapskate shop owner,” but I think being called a diva three times might be the point when I’ll stop thinking it’s worth responding to you civilly.

Say you teach at the “big show” for 3 days, 6 hours a day. You have a travel day beforehand and a travel day afterwards. That is 5 days of “work” for $2250 ($125 per hr x 6 x3).

Oh actually, maybe it’s when you insinuate that what I’m doing isn’t work.

Now lets say a teacher is shop friendly.

I’d love it if you would expand on what makes a teacher “shop friendly” in your opinion. Sincerely. I can certainly tell you what I think makes a shop “teacher friendly.”

You set up a circuit of 3 stores you will teach at. Leave on Friday (assuming you are driving), teach at the first store Sat & Sun, drive to the second store Monday, teach Tues & Wed, drive to third store on Thurs, teach Fri & Sat, drive home on Sunday.

Now I definitely think you may serve a market with which I’m unfamiliar, because your market is apparently able to fill 6 hours of classes on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I find this isn’t viable because so many people have “day jobs,” meaning only the evening is really viable as a class time through the workweek. At my brick and mortar, I periodically had folks express an interest in doing things during the typical business day, but they’d usually lose interest as soon as anything wasn’t free, because these were folks who were unemployed or otherwise didn’t have an income. So not a market I could rely on from a financial perspective. If it’s different in your market, I’d love to know. Sincerely.

You set up a circuit of 3 stores you will teach at. Leave on Friday (assuming you are driving), teach at the first store Sat & Sun, drive to the second store Monday, teach Tues & Wed, drive to third store on Thurs, teach Fri & Sat, drive home on Sunday.

I’ve tried on many occasions over the past decade to book tours like you describe. Ten years ago, that was more likely than it is now — and it still didn’t tend to work out, and not for lack of effort or flexibility on anybody’s part. Where have you found that tours like you describe do work out?

You charge the first and third store $1000 per day, inclusive, and you accept sleeping in someone’s home.

What’s this number based on? What am I including in this $1000, as you see it? What does a hotel typically go for a night where you are? Nationwide, the average hit $137 in 2014. If you’re comfortable at $1000, and you have 14 students in a class, their price goes up by about $10 to cover the instructor hotel. You really think that’s excessive? Really?

The second store, being in the middle of the week where it will be harder to get students, pays $800 per day.

Do my costs for being out on the road also go down? It hasn’t been my experience that they do.

You would then make $5600, of the equivalent of booking 2 “big shows” back to back (10 days of work/travel), subtracting $4500 (2 fully booked shows of $2250) leaving $1100 to cover travel expenses and meals (which will be less since your host usually feeds you anyway).

Okay, wait. I hit the road on Friday and drive for, let’s say, 250 miles and 5 hours to get to the first venue. At the standard government mileage rate of $0.54 a mile, that’s $135. Now I get a hotel for $137, and I’m up to $272. I eat fast food lunch and dinner, spending $20, and I’m at $292. I haven’t made anything yet.

In the morning, I get up and have a $7 fast food breakfast, and arrive at the venue an hour before students are due to arrive, to set the classroom and be there to answer early questions and make sure the class starts on time and everyone’s ready to go. Then I teach for 3 hours, eat a sandwich (let’s say $10) in the classroom still talking with students, and teach 3 more hours, then stick around for the hour or so it takes after class ends for everything to be fully wrapped up. I agree to go out to a group dinner, which ends up costing me $20. I pay another $137 for the hotel that night. I’ve spent another $174, and now we’re at $466, and I subtract that from the $1000 you propose, and make $534. Let’s do it again Sunday, with another $174 in daily expenses (assuming fast food and cheap). That’s $640 in expenses. Let’s say I now go home, spending $17 on food and $135 on the mileage, and I’ve got $792 in total expenditures to gross $2000 and make my initial net $1208. That $1208 has to cover 2 days of driving, probably a minimum of 3 days of preparation time, a hard-to-figure amount of time on promoting the classes, and 2 days of teaching, so let’s call it 7 full days of work including an average of 10 hours each day, so 70 hours. That’s a per hour pay rate of $17.26 — and that’s before tax.

So, okay, let’s extend that out to where now, on Monday, I drive another 250 miles, so we’ll use that same $292 estimate that includes hotel, instead of the $152 of me going straight home. Now I’ve spent $932 on this trip so far, and I’ve taken in $2000. The next 2 days cost me $174 each, so we’re up to $1280 in expenses and I’ve taken in $3600. Now I have another $292 driving day to the third venue, and we’re at $1572 in expenses. Two more days at $174 each in expenses brings us to $1920, the drive home (let’s pretend it’s also 250 miles) is another $152, so I’ve spent $2072 and brought in $5600, meaning my initial takehome is $3528. If we go with that same low estimate of 2 days of classes actually being about 70 hours of time, 6 days of classes shakes out to 210 hours. $3528/210 = $16.80 / hour. Assuming it all works out, which is really a long shot, I’m sad to say.

This is a model that could potentially work, but which I still quite frankly feel underpays me for my level of expertise, and which makes it really hard to actually do this job for a whole lot of reasons. This tour basically takes my entire work month to plan and figure and execute, and gets me $3500/month before tax, and my taxes are higher than if it were an employment situation rather than contract.

The shop has a chance of making money because they can charge the students $75 per day (20 students $50 each covers the teachers $1000 fee+ lunch) and students will create a waiting list because they are getting 6 hours of good education for a very reasonable fee. The shop owner makes a profit on the sales of having 20–40 people in their store generate. This scenario helps both the teachers and the shops, which are being priced out of the market.

The biggest problem I see with trying to move towards a model like this is that I don’t have any reason to believe it’s possible to schedule a tour like this. I set 250 miles as the drive radius because that gives each shop on the tour a 125 mile radius to draw from for students. Where I’ve actually been able to do tours that share the load across multiple venues, they’ve been closer together and have been shops or events that worked together on things already.

From a store perspective, I would definitely sponsor someone in if the financial risk to me were half Abby’s chart.

So we may not be able to reach a point where this works for both of us, because the net result of your numbers shake out with me shouldering pretty much all of the up front expense, while you’re collecting student fees and whatnot. Think about it like this: I’m making $3500 a month, and I need to have $2000 available to float the cost of this tour until I get home and deposit the checks and hope they all clear. That leaves me $1500 a month to live on and cover the cost of things like having a web site. And dude, that’s hard.

I get that it looks like I’m counting the cost of doing the tour twice, but what I’m actually doing is using $2k of the $3500 I earned from the prior tour to float the next one. That $2k is basically always going to be tied up. From a cashflow perspective, this model is not very sustainable.

The other thing is that travel is exhausting. Really, it is — especially if someone’s asking you to eat fast food and crash on the sofa because they view it as a “diva attitude” to expect to be treated like a professional doing work.

And teaching is also grueling. Have you done a tour like this? I’ve done some hard tours. One October, I was home for 3 days, and they were not contiguous. I went to New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and then New York again, and I taught a total of 18 days of classes. I only did that once. It was too hard, and too exhausting, and it consumed two months of time leading up to it.

Don’t forget either that if we continue losing stores at the rate of the past few years, those events such as the DFW FiberFest will eventually suffer because no one is doing the basic teaching. Just a different perspective, let the arrows fly.

I appreciate all perspectives, and hope you’ll take this in that spirit.

I’m very concerned about the rate at which shops are closing. I spend a lot of time talking about how important our local shops are, and I put my money where my mouth is by pretty much always choosing to wholesale things I produce for sale. I work hard to make sure my classes at events use materials that drive sales for vendors who are there; I work hard to make sure people seek out their local shops and spend time and money there.

I fervently believe we’re all in this together. And the thing is, we’re not going to survive if we can’t stick together and agree that we ALL deserve a fair shake. And we’re not going to get there if we can’t listen to each other and believe our concerns are real.

You’re telling me what you feel like you can and can’t do. I’m telling you the same thing. And it boils down to this: I can’t do what I do and hope to survive on the $1500 a month I’d have for bills and expenses if I tried to use the model you’ve outlined. So just like you may have to make the tough call to close your shop if revenues aren’t what you need, I may have to make the tough call to stop teaching — as many fiber artists have already done.

So the question is this: do students want to take classes with teachers like me? If so, we need to be transparent and open about what it costs to make that possible — or we’re all going to go down: you, me, the whole scene. I don’t want to see that happen, so I’m speaking up in hopes of seeing serious dialogue on this front. Thank you very much for participating in it.


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, please click the little green heart, and join the discussion in progress on twitter with #FairFiberWage and #FiberTeachersNeed.