“Piggybacking on Others’ Hard Work”

Earlier today, Deborah Jean Cohen (author of In the Loop) took to Facebook to complain that two of our earliest charts, dating from late 2020, had been created by looking at photographs of potholders that she and Bill West had posted to Facebook.

In each of those two cases, we had credited them by name as our inspiration, and neither of them had objected during the intervening years, but apparently she’s been carrying a grudge all this time, declaring in her post that we had “piggybacked on others’ hard work… Sure, it’s legal, but is it ethical? You’re on notice now.

I’m not sure what that last sentence means, and it seems I won’t ever get to ask her, because she’s now blocked me and banned me from the Facebook group she administers.

The two charts in question are not particularly complicated, and the designs they show are indubitably in the public domain — they don’t belong to anyone.

For thousands of years, weavers developed their repertoires by practicing techniques other people had developed, and then evolving their own variations on them. By the dawn of the nineteenth century these designs were being collected in pattern books, and later publishers aggregated those references into larger and larger collections, each with hundreds or thousand of charts. Hundreds of those books have been digitized, and tens of thousands of patterns from them have been posted online.

Uncountable millions of hours have gone into producing this body of techniques and patterns — the shared legacy of humanity’s ongoing love affair with string, stretching back a thousand generations — so literally everyone involved in fiber crafts today is “piggybacking on others’ hard work.”

All modern weavers have access to this incredible legacy of public domain material, allowing us to select elements that catch our eye, modifying and recombining and elaborating on them in innumerable ways, and then putting the results of our efforts back out into the world.

The idea that when Deborah looked at other people’s weaving and made her own variation of it, that effort had been meaningful creative work — but when we later looked at her weaving and made our own variation of it, this was now unethical, a form of cheating, and a shocking breach of norms — well, I don’t think it holds water.

That said, I figured I might as well rectify the perceived slight, so I have deleted the charts that we created in 2020 for “Square Spiral” and “Diamond Spiral,” and re-drawn them anew, referring to century-old sources that have been archived at handweaving.net (a genuinely amazing community resource): a square spiral found in Orimono Soshiki Hen by Kiju Yoshida (1903) now adapted for 27-peg and 18-peg looms, and a twill spiral found in Die färbige Gewebemusterung by 
Franz Donat (1907) likewise adapted for 27-peg and 18-peg looms.

I hope that Deborah will be able to rest easier now that our charts are no longer piggybacking on her proprietary hard work.

10 thoughts on ““Piggybacking on Others’ Hard Work””

  1. Thank you. I hope you have actually done the work, not relabeled the pattern, which in my book is properly credited to the handweaving.net draft that you took the trouble to look up.

    You modified my chart, changing only a few floats, and renamed it, without my permission. Though taken aback at the time, I let it lie until last week, when you implied that the draft posted on RPW for beginners to try chart conversion was not public domain, and asked how the originator might feel. Though identifying a public domain pattern is often murky, and people come up with the same pattern independently, you knew where mine came from (you kindly used my name, which appeased me somewhat) but never notified me, nor asked how *I* might feel. I often riff off of others’ patterns, but don’t publish without asking: this is a polite way of making designers and charters feel safe enough to share.

    Bottom line though, I didn’t ban you for pissing me off. I banned you essentially for your continuing habit of violating Atisha’s Lojong slogan #36. Not that I care much about you doing that, but because I’m tired of dealing with it.

    Finally, I do recognize that you and Piglet are talented designers and have generously contributed to the community of potholder weavers. (I trust your motive is generosity.)

    1. Deborah,

      I haven’t ever seen your book, so I didn’t know where you had taken the pattern from, but there are multiple instances of this spiral motif in public-domain sources, a couple of which turn up in handweaving.net searches for patterns with a maximum float length of two, which is where I re-discovered it more than a year ago.

      The incident you’re complaining about happened back in 2020, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but my recollection is that we developed our first few charts by looking at photographs of woven potholders, rather than looking at pattern diagrams. (The changes we made at the time were corrections for obvious errors in the outer turns of your spiral.)

      I’m not sure how different the new chart I’ve posted this week is from the prior one because I deleted the old one before drawing the new one, but you’re welcome to compare it to the one in your book if you’d like.

      And the “twist” in my question was actually making a straightforward point — you’ve drawn on centuries of public-domain work, all created and shared openly, but now you want to pull up the ladder behind you, and say that other people should ask for permission to use “your” patterns. I don’t think that’s how the public domain works, and I don’t think it’s the way a crafting community should work.

      Far from making people feel “safe,” the frequent chiding of people for “unethically copying” others’ work has created an environment filled with hidden landmines that routinely harm newcomers. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of people whose feelings were profoundly hurt after Bill West publicly humiliated them, some leaving the community or quitting the craft altogether — but rather than addressing that harm, you’ve consistently taken his side, leaving a missing stair that everyone else has to tiptoe around.

      Such an experience with you and Bill very nearly drove us away from this craft two years ago; I’m thankful we were eventually able to move past it and get back to contributing to the community with our enthusiasm mostly intact — and I hope that by making it clear that these designs are in the public domain, we can spare others from having that same painful experience.

      — Matthew

  2. Piglet and Matthew, the potholder community is grateful for your “free” pattern contributions! Please continue your great work.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, Dawn!

      We’ve added dozens of additional charts over the last month, and we don’t intend to stop any time soon.

      — Matthew

  3. Hi, I am a “newcomer” to potholder weaving (well I started in January). I just came upon this post and it sort of answers my questions about “remaking” designs that others have charted.

    Is there a place where one can find a modus operandi about this? Perhaps here on your generous website. It’s sort of like recipes. No one owns a recipe. Even the most exclusive chef.

    For now I plan to weave for me, family and friends. No plans to sell. But who knows. Greetings from France! Karen

    PS I look forward to discovering your website. And thanks for your answer.

    1. Karen — I think your recipe analogy is a good one. International law makes it clear that people can not “own” recipes and other techniques — indeed, our world is much richer thanks to this fact.

      However, people do put a lot of effort into working on recipes, and sometimes as a result they feel proprietary about the results — “I made it, so it’s mine, and other people can only use it on my terms” — despite the fact that the law is clear: nobody can own these kinds of ideas, because they’re the common wealth of all humanity.

      So, as far as I’m concerned, make whatever you want! There’s no shame in emulating a technique or motif or color combination you’ve picked up from someone else — this how all culture works, and it’s quintessentially human.

      And if someone does become upset about it, keep calm, tell them to take a deep breath, and spend a few minutes outside cooling off… there’s no need for drama!

  4. I agree! It would be impossible to create something new in such an ancient craft. One’s ego may want to believe otherwise.

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