Stitching · 2007-01-29

Open-source crafting

Bruce Sterling snarks a bit (at least, I think that’s snark — “How entirely 2007 of them”?) about BurdaStyle, which wants to be “an open-source hub of ideas, expertise, and amazing patterns” — sewing patterns, that is, not software design patterns.

It certainly does seem that craft patterns are yet another kind of information that wants to be free. By their nature, patterns are an open book; they have to tell you exactly how to make something, or they’re no good. In that sense, their algorithms are “open-source” already, if not necessarily free or available for anyone to enhance. And scanning and high-quality electronic copying are pretty much zero-cost at the margin, which presents a problem for commercial print publishers of patterns, copyright laws notwithstanding. You can even reverse-engineer some designs fairly handily. What will be the business model going forward for designers of sewing, knitting, crocheting, etc. patterns? Perhaps it will look more and more like the newer business models for software.

There’s already vertical integration (selling kits that include everything you need, such as those offered by the not-safe-for-work Subversive Cross Stitch), which tends to be attractive to beginners. There’s custom services (like designs for special-purpose stitched alphabets or incorporating a loved one’s name into a pattern; here’s a lovely example). And now maybe there’s, um, middleware — or should that be “middlewear”? — for end-product developers (BurdaStyle says it’s “the first established pattern publisher to release its designs under a creative commons license, allowing members of the public to market their BurdaStyle creations in limited editions”).

And of course there’s building a community (BurdaStyle has begun a “Sewpedia” which people will be able to contribute to) as a potential audience for advertising. I suppose there’s even DRM, sigh (a designer once supplied a read-only electronic file for a pattern I bought, but I think it was just because I only had the free “reader” version of the stitch design program).

Of course, often you only get what you pay for. Nth-generation photocopied patterns are hard to work with, and even the simplest of free patterns whipped up by nonprofessionals have sometimes led me badly astray. I gladly pay for excellent patterns that meet my use cases, and I do adhere to the designers’ wishes around copying. I wonder if voluntary payment is a model that could work for some. Perhaps community contributions to a pattern’s “reputation” (quality of instructions, accuracy of time and difficulty estimates, beauty of the finished work) could be factors in determining a price or suggested donation.

It appears that pattern delivery channels, at least, are getting more sophisticated. In poking around tonight, I found this Makezine article from last September about its sewing instructions (audio, video, and PDF) being delivered over iTunes. This really makes me wonder why the cryptic notation for knitting and crocheting sticks around; most applications don’t need such strong compression anymore!

And relatedly, I just came upon the Open Source Embroidery project, which invokes Ada Lovelace in:

…bring[ing] together programming for embroidery and computing. It’s based on the common characteristics of needlework crafts and open source computer programming: gendered obsessive attention to detail; shared social process of development; and a transparency of process and product.

If you’re interested in exploring the similarities between tech and craft, by all means do check out this one.

And now, I do believe I’m sufficiently fired up for the Stitch ‘n’ Bitch session I’m hosting on Friday.

(Thanks to Gunnar Peterson for the tip.)