Edited: Threadbias responded to this post and I published their response here.
The longer I’ve worked as an independent sewing pattern designer, the more it’s become apparent to me that those of us who sew are missing out on something amazing. We are missing out on Ravelry.
Ravelry is a free site for knitters and crocheters. Ravelry is an organizational tool, a yarn and pattern database, a social site, and a tool for small businesses, all in one. It currently has over 3 million users. Think about that number for a minute. It’s incredible.
Founded five years ago, in May of 2007, by husband and wife team, Jessica and Casey Forbes, Ravelry has become the central website for fiber artists. It’s a thriving social network and so much more. Users routinely say that once you see how Ravelry works it will ruin the rest of the internet for you. It’s that good.
When the site first began it functioned as a virtual binder for users to hold their patterns and supplies. Early users asked for a way to talk with one another. Casey researched forum sites, didn’t really like how any of them functioned, and set about creating one in his own style. Groups came next, allowing users to further gather around specific interests. Next came buttons, similar to but cooler than the Facebook “like” button, that allow you to love, agree, or disagree with a post, and mark it as funny, interesting, and educational. The majority of the site’s users participate in the discussion forums.
The social aspect doesn’t stop there. People use Ravelry to plan local meet-ups and events. They trade and sell parts of their stash to one another. Last year’s Ravellenic Games, a community craft-along that took place in tandem with the Olympics, had 10,000 participants creating 55,000 projects.
And perhaps most importantly, users feel strongly that they are working together to build this community right along with Jessica and Casey. Ravelry users spend their own time adding to and cleaning up the database and volunteering to help other users in the help chats. And Jessica and Casey have given users quite a bit of power to help form and maintain the site. Ravelry is generous and trusting the way an in-person community would be.
Ravelry truly shines as a research tool. It is full of useful information helpfully organized. Every pattern has detailed tags and attributes allowing for a very powerful search engine. While searching Ravelry for patterns, you can keep track of ones that look interesting, then go back and look at them more closely later. You can plug in a particular yardage of a particular yarn and find the perfect project. You can see finished projects other people have made from those patterns, and variations and notes. You can set up your own library in Ravelry, add books and magazines and PDF pattern that you own, and then search through them. Even if you don’t have interest in the site as a place to find community, if you knit or crochet you’ll quickly come to rely on its wealth of information about patterns and yarns.
How does Ravelry make money? Ravely took no venture capital and has no plans to go public. There are no membership fees. The plan all along was to make a profit through advertising. Casey and Jessica want Ravelry’s users with small businesses to be able to afford to advertise on the site so they created an advertising model to allow for this. The fees are low and they have many 100’s of advertisers with small budgets. In addition Ravely has a merchandise store and it allows designers to sell patterns as digital downloads, taking a small fee. As a pattern designer selling on Ravelry here is what you pay:
$0 to $30 in monthly sales: free
$30.01 to $100in monthly sales: 5% of total sales
$100.01 to $250 in monthly sales: $5
$250.01 to $1000: $10
$1000.01 to$2500.00: $20
$2500.01 and up: $50
As a designer you can use the Ravelry shopping cart on your own site. That in itself is amazing – you don’t need to pay for a separate ecommerce service! Imagine if Etsy allowed you to install their shopping cart on your blog and didn’t insist that customers log on in order to make a purchase.
Designers have embraced this model whole-heartedly. In 2012 1,114,909 patterns were sold on Ravelry resulting in $6,177,399.87 in sales. 98% went to the designers directly. Two words come to mind about this structure: generous and trusting.
Okay so I think I’ve made the case that Ravelry is amazing. But here’s the question on my mind. Is there something inherent to the fiber arts that makes a site like Ravelry possible? If not, then why isn’t there a sewing equivalent to Ravelry?
I put this question on Twitter this morning and here are some of the responses I got:
- Knitting had a resurgence earlier than sewing. Sewing is just now hitting its stride.
- Sewing is cliquey. There are quilters, garment sewers, embroiderers, and crafters. We are divided.
- Yarn is different from fabric. Matching yarn to a project is a more specific thing than matching fabric to a pattern. It’s helpful to see what others used.
- Yarn is in a more “raw” state than fabric. It’s more like solids than printed fabric. Seeing what others have used is more informative.
- It’s difficult to print sewing patterns from a home printer.
- Knitting and crochet are portable whereas sewing by machine isn’t.
- There’s already a tradition of community within knitting and crochet, while sewing is something you do alone.
Although I see each of these points as valid in some way, I’m not sure I buy the overall argument that this just isn’t possible.
There have been many starts: MySewingCircle, Kollabora, Threadbias, BurdaStyle, PatternReview, SeamedUp, and SewMamaSew’s new Sewing Room. Why are there seven? The more starts there are the more divided things become. Have we waited too long?
Let’s look for a minute at the longest standing and perhaps the largest of the seven: PatternReview. The site has some traction with over 300,000 members and 115,570 pattern reviews. Membership costs $30 for a year, though, and although members find the site to be helpful, they widely acknowledge that the user interface is clunky and badly in need of an update.
PatternReview is twice as old as Ravelry and not nearly as vibrant. Nobody is saying that once you see PatternReview it will ruin the rest of the internet for you. But it’s at least got active users and that’s perhaps the hardest part to build. What it needs is a visionary and a developer bring it into the modern age of the web.
Casey and Jessica are a rare team. They’ve got both the ability to describe a site people want and the skill to create it. I fail to believe that there’s something about sewing that makes it impossible for a Ravelry-like community to exist around it. We need this and I think with the right site created with vision and skill we will jump onboard.