Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Best Of The Rest Or Why You Should Read Somebody Else's Blog

When I started Domestic Miss a year ago or so, I thought I would use it as a place to rant about the tyranny of domesticity. So Domestic Miss isn't really another way of saying Miss Domestic but, in fact, a way to hint at what I've always perceived to be my lack in the domestic field. You know how some people relish taking on re-decorating projects of their domestic spaces? I dread it. And you know how some find weekends at IKEA and/or Habitat as inspirational as a trip to the Louvre? I am not one of those either, thank God.

For a while, this place was to be called Domestic Hiss, how ridiculous eh, because I felt like I would have been hissing like a snake about all that annoys me about life, mainly sourcing unreliable plumbers, dealing with a permanently over-grown (and over-growing) garden, finding good plasterers and so on and so forth. But no, Domestic Miss quickly turned into my journal, something I never kept before, as I always thought, what's the point in journalising life if nobody but you yourself reads it? Now I am satisfied that, while I only really write for my own pleasure derived from chronicling the happenings and the non- happenings of my life in a manner that is as self-indulgent as the evenings spent alone re-watching Hugh Grant movies I've seen a billion zillion times, I know that there is always somebody out there reading these pages. It's fun to share the self-indulgence and rather peculiar, believe me, to see that people come and go and so many return to keep on reading. Who would have thought it?! Isn't it fun?

But, for all of my love of my own online space, there is one place that I find much more exciting than this one, The Domestic Soundscape. This is the PhD blog of a student at Oxford Brooke University. Known as Felix, her research investigates ways of reproducing everyday sounds that stem from the domestic environment. She inspired me to try my hand at recording the everyday and I must admit that I am finding it even more fun than trying to take pics of running deer with my aging camera phone. Back to Felix though. A few days ago she wrote a fabulous piece which could be summarised, as she herself points out, as Why It Makes No Sense For You To Pay Me To Do Your Knitting. You can find this piece right here and I now urge you to go and read it, like, right now.

I was delighted to find this post because I have often discussed with my fellow writing friends how pissed off I am at supposed writers who give their services away for free (or very nearly). It is undermining the craft and it is undermining the work of all of those writers who are not prepared to write for free. And so I thought I would reply to Felix at her own place, except I then realised that, hey, I could reproduce my own piece here as I've thought about the issue on and off all day today. Here are my thoughts on why artists, crafters, writers and people who possess intangible skills should be paid.

In my opinion, this problem exists for a number of complementary reasons. First of all, the vast majority of people appears unable to comprehend the amount of detailed labour involved in creating something hand-made, even when it is explained to them. As they do not know (and seem unable to process when they do know), the complexity, depth and breadth of the steps involved, they cannot appreciate the reason why an appropriate price tag would make the commission of the work incredibly expensive, at least in their eyes.

Secondly, but not less importantly, many people are happy to bag free stuff, no matter the quality of this, but wouldn’t be prepared to pay 10p for the same if they had to. Have you ever noticed how people mob a stall that is giving something away for free (say, a biscuit and a spit of mulled wine) while the one that sells the same for 50p doesn’t have to fight the crowds? It’s really an example of anarchical retail, whereby people are only as objective in valuing the necessity and pleasure of owning items as they are allowed to be. Give some the opportunity to get something for free (however good or vile the quality of this something) and people will show interesting nuances of the colours that characterise their living style.

This problem is especially resonant with people that offer very specific services in isolation (say, just knitting a garment) or as part of some deal (the designer that first designs, then modifies, then purchases the yarn and then knits on commission). It is my firm belief that the far-and-wide availability of (machine) knitted garments in shops across the land, from Primark all the way to Harrods, has incredibly de-valued the items themselves. If you discount a knitted dress by Alexander McQueen which would retail at about £ 600 to £ 1200, depending on complexity, hand-detailing and fibre, your average Joe thinks that ‘if Primark sells this Aran cabled hooded top at £ 10 why on earth should I pay Steph £ 300 to knit the same?’.

Here’s the crux of course: it ain’t the same. It isn’t the same because what I knit I actually hand-knit, which is different from machine-knit. Then it can withstand far more than a couple of washes and is not made out of the cheapest of the cheapo acrylic out there. And these are just three points. But these people do not see it that way, for they effectively couldn’t tell Dom Perignon from the cheapest bottle of plonk off Tesco’s shelves. Finding crocheted string bags in IKEA retailing for a fiver reinforces the idea that these items are cheap and/or cheapo to make. And crochet cannot even be done by a machine!

I am myself a case in point. I am one of those knitters that offers her knitting services for relatively small projects, scarves, pets’ accessories, small pillows, that sort of stuff. Despite their relatively small size (unless you want me to knit a horse rug of course), I offer a reasonable expertise, for I can knit lace of medium difficulty for example.

I’ve been recently approached by seven people who required my knitting skills, the same people whom I never heard from again as soon as I said that a lace scarf between 90 cm and 120 cm long and 20 cm wide would cost them £ 70, labour only. As your table above shows, I am actually being rather generous in pricing intricate lace work at what would essentially work out to be just about minimum wage. I can get more than that by standing behind the Clarins counter at John Lewis.

My dad is a hairdresser and an exceptionally talented artist too. He spent the last three years carving little statues for a large nativity set in his spare time. He has over sixty now and he is currently painting them. If dad were to put these for sale, £ 2000 wouldn’t be enough to cover the work he has put into them (and please note, I am only talking of labour here, I am not talking of labour of love). In fact, I am actually even discounting the sourcing of the wood and the planning of the big picture; I am only thinking of the time employed sitting down and carving out of a shapeless lump. Nobody would pay that price, even though it is in fact very small when compared with the amount of work necessary to reach the (partly) finished stage.

And of course writing is the same; thanks to the hordes of pseudo-writers out there who offer their services for free or near-free (for a multitude of reasons, mainly, one would hope, because they are trying to break into writing, but there is more to, and than, that) the quality of what is out there has steadily declined over the years. How many websites seek ‘content writers’ required to churn out 500-word pieces 2 to 3 times a week for which they will be paid $ 5 to $ 10 a piece? Are you bloody kidding me?! And there are deluded people out there who think that’s a ‘job’. What’s happening is a Primark-isation of the writing craft, whereby more and more publications (online and in print) are pushing the boundaries of how far they can go and how little they can pay while going that far. It is up to us as writers, carvers, painters, knitters (and all the rest) not to bend to this demeaning exploitation. We must stand firm on ground where we do not write, carve, paint, knit (and all the rest of it) for free.
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