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Steal Like a Fiber Artist

Steal Like a Fiber Artist


I visited the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival with my mom last Sunday in search of art batts. (For those of you not immersed in fiber arts, they’re colorful combinations of fibers used for spinning into yarn.)

I wanted to take a few photos of the Festival to share with my aunt, another fiber arts enthusiast. But navigating the baby’s stroller through the huge crowds took all my focus. When Mom stopped to watch the border collie demonstration, I seized my chance. I left the baby with her so I could explore the surrounding vendors and snap a few pics.

I Hit the Art Batt Jackpot

The first booth I entered had a whole wall of art batts, exactly the kind I’d been searching for all afternoon. Spools of brightly-colored hand-spun yarn filled another wall. And next to them, open bins of fibers for making your own art batts.

I wanted to grab as many as I could carry. I wanted to buy everything. I wanted to come home with the vendor and live in her studio as her new apprentice.

After selecting a few batts, I snapped a picture. That’s when I heard the vendor’s voice behind me.

I could have used a sign

“Are you taking photos?”

I turned and saw her glaring at me.

“Um, yes. Is that not allowed?” I’d been to fine art shows that prohibited photography, but they’d all had signs.

“What are you going to use it for?”

I searched my mind for a reason she might find acceptable. I didn’t want her to think that I was stealing her intellectual property. Or that my aunt was a corporate spy, sourcing ideas for some budget-rate yarn manufacturer in China. “I’m not sure. Maybe Instagram?”

Her face hardened. “No. Absolutely not. If I see that on Instagram I will be very upset.”

I swallowed. “I completely understand. I’ll delete it from my phone right now.”

“I’ve had enough of people stealing my work. It’s unbelievable. Just last month I taught a class on how to make rolags, and then I saw some woman online passing them off as her own. That’s why I never post any of my work online. And I will be very upset if I see that on Instagram.”

“You don’t sell online?” I asked, disappointed. I’d been hoping to check out her store and maybe buy a few more batts.

“No, I certainly don’t. I don’t do Facebook, I don’t blog. Too many thieves out there. That’s why I will be very upset if I see that on Instagram.”

I reminded her that I’d already deleted the photo from my phone. I paid for the two art batts I’d selected. I listened to another story about someone who’d stolen the vendor’s ideas. Then I left, feeling shitty.

Can inspiration be stolen?

Part of me couldn’t blame the woman. I’ve had my writing stolen countless times, and it always sends me into a fury. But no internet presence at all? Wasn’t she hurting her own business?

And how could she claim that they were her ideas in the first place? Had she never been inspired by someone else’s color scheme? Did her ideas just pop from her head like Athena from Zeus?

She wasn’t even selling completed works of art. She was selling yarn and fibers—the raw materials that other people use to make things. If I posted a photo of the yarn I’d spun from her batts, was she going to be angry?

I spent the ride home rehashing the conversation in my head. I wondered if I would be able to spin the art batts at all without feeling annoyed that she’d soured an otherwise lovely experience.  

ideas are everywhere

But you know what? The batts are beautiful. Her work is beautiful. And it will undoubtedly inspire a plethora of other works that are just as beautiful and just as unique, which will go on to inspire other ideas and other works. Because that is how art works. Some people will steal your ideas without remorse. But the more energy you devote to protecting your work, the less energy you’ll have to create.

I’ll be reminded of that every time I spin with her art batts. For that I’m thankful. And if you want to see photos of her booth, which truly is fantastic, you can find them at Elysa’s blog 222 Handspun, where there’s a collection of photos from 2014’s Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Perhaps someone should warn Elysa about never posting those photos to Instagram.

If you agree with these sentiments, you will love Austin Kleon, whose book title "Steal Like an Artist" I have stolen borrowed for this blog post.

Image of art batt courtesy of Marajane Creations, licensed under Creative Commons.

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