In 2008 Michael Fulkerson was working as a sewing teacher at Spool Sewing, a fabric store in Philadephia. The store owners asked Fulkerson if he could create a pattern for the in-store classes that would help people learn to sew by hand.
He came up with a fairly simple pattern for a cat toy: a little three dimensional bird. The owners were pleased with it and asked if they might post it as a free pattern on the store’s blog. Michael agreed.
The original photos of the Spool bird.
Glimpses of the mobile Fulkerson made that hung in Spool Sewing's window.
Bird kits made and sold by Spool Sewing.
The bird’s design lent itself well to being part of a mobile so to help attract new students to the hand sewing class at the shop Michael made a mobile with several birds perched on sticks and the owners of Spool put it in the window. They took some photos of the mobile and used them to illustrate the pattern which they gave away for free on the Spool Sewing blog. The pattern had “designed by Michael Fulkerson” printed along the top, but otherwise stated no limitation on how it was to be used.
Michael recalls what happened next. “That photograph went viral and then so did the pattern.” The Spool bird was suddenly everywhere.
“I’ve made dozens of these birds,” Melissa Quaal told me when I posted about it on Instagram, and she’s not alone. Guilds made them. People sewed them for charity and made them into Christmas ornaments. There’s even a Flickr pool for the Spool bird where you can see hundreds of them made by people all over the world. The birds were featured in Philadelphia Home magazine, on Design*Sponge, and on Apartment Therapy. Fulkerson was nominated for a Martha Stewart American Made “Audience Choice” award for his design.
And then people started selling the Spool birds without crediting Fulkerson as the designer, or Spool as the originator. People sold them on Etsy, and they still do, in droves. Take a look here and here and here for just a taste.
“Back in the beginning I was upset that people were copying and using my pattern for their own Etsy shops,” Fulkerson says. “Spool used to regularly ask people to stop, but no one ever did. Myself, I used to keep a list of all the shops that were using the pattern, but after a few years I realized that I was only aggravating myself and getting frustrated so I stopped.”
Get a Spool mobile from the original designer right here.
Fulkerson left Spool for reasons unrelated to the bird pattern and Spool has subsequently closed. He now works as a buyer for a museum gift shop and sells his original birds and cats in his Etsy shop, Oh My Eye. The pattern was deleted along with the Spool blog when the store went out of business, although cached versions are still around on Pinterest (that's what you see above). Kind of a sudden end to what was perhaps the internet’s most popular free softie pattern.
“I consider the pattern kind of like my immortality,” says Fulkerson. “It's out on the web with my name on it and that'll never go away. In a weird way I'm being an inspiration to others to create. I like that idea. I also like that many have taken the pattern and mobile and made it their own. That they are making money on it? Eh, so what. Better to wish them luck than to harbor negative feelings.”
What is your experience with the Spool bird? Have you seen it around? Did you have a particular idea of its history before this? What strikes you as interesting about the trajectory of this pattern?