Monday, March 3, 2014

Altering Patterns: A Debate of Art and Ethics

I finished the January and February squares of Frosted Pumpkin Stitchery's Once Upon a Time Sampler.

January--Snow White
February--The Frog Prince
I like the cleverness of the images.  Who would think to show Snow White during an ordinary laundry day?  It's like "A Day in the Life of a Fairy Tale Character."  These squares were, however, the beginning of a large debate among people following along with this pattern.

With the Woodland Sampler, the squares were all based on generic woodland creatures like racoons and hedgehogs.  They were not tied to any specific named woodland creatures or pop culture references.  Some people liked to alter the patterns to suit their tastes.  One woman replaced the rain in the April Jackelope square with a rainbow.  Another added a 2nd mushroom to the terrarium in the March square.  I made a few color changes, like making snow out of white thread instead of metallic thread because white "read" more like snow to me than silver and I was finding the metallic thread very difficult to work with.  When we shared our changes in the Facebook group, people complimented the changes.

Right away, it was clear that the Once Upon a Time sampler would be a different matter.  We've grown up with fairy tales as stories and movies, and many people have specific images come to mind when we think of these stories.  Overwhelmingly, people's images have been shaped by Disney movies, and that effect has been more pronounced since Disney has been promoting their "Disney Princess" line of merchandise.

As the speedy stitchers started finishing the January square, some of the finished products had changes that reflected these strong cultural ties.  Some women changed the coloring on Snow White's dress to be closer to the primary colors of the Disney character's outfit.  Some added poofy sleeves.  One enterprising woman added the Evil Queen's image in the mirror.  Quite a few women commented that they loved the changes, and the original stitchers posted charts and DMC thread colors so that others could make the same changes.

Unlike the Woodland Sampler, some people became extremely critical.  Long Facebook arguments erupted over whether whether it was acceptable, artistically or ethically, to change the images.

"If you are going to change the pattern so much, why did you bother buying it?  Get a Disney pattern or make your own."
"I'm making this for my granddaughter.  She loves the Disney princesses, so why can't I make it the way she likes?"
"This is really mean.  It's like you are saying you don't like the designer's ideas.  They probably aren't even allowed to make the characters look like Disney ones."
"I used to love sharing my photos here, but if it's going to cause so many complaints I'm just not going to do it anymore."

If you didn't agree with the changes, then you were stifling the creativity of others and clearly didn't want the children who receive the finished products to be happy.  (You don't hate children, do you?)  If you did agree with the changes, then you have bought into all of the cookie-cutter commercialism and questionable morals that Disney has come to embody.

Honestly, it was very disheartening to me to see all of this play out on Facebook.  Until this point, all of the crafters I have met in person and in this group have been so helpful and happy for the success of others.  When I discovered the world of crafting online, I was so excited to find other people who shared my interests and it provided validation for the things I made.  The Internet took what was once a solitary hobby and turned it into a social experience.  Once people started making changes reflecting Disney designs, things got downright nasty.  The whole experience made me realize that there is a downside to the online socialization of these hobbies.  Joining an online community means leaving yourself open to criticism, and feeling the obligation to justify your choices.  The lack of non-verbal queues and the anonymity of a large Facebook group makes it easier to make cutting remarks or misunderstand comments.  If someone speaks negatively about something you've made, it feels like they are speaking negatively about YOU.

The Frosted Pumpkin designers ended up stepping into the fray and laying down ground rules.
  1. Hair and skin color can always be considered suggestions, whether you want to make a princess look more like your daughter or just like the idea of multicultural princesses.  They are also accepting of color changes that are necessary to make the thread show up better against fabric of different colors.
  2. Feel free to post pictures of a finished square, but do not post charts of the changes you have made.
  3. When describing the changes, keep in mind that the designers worked very hard to create these patterns.  Would you want something you created to be described this way?
With most of the cross-stitch patterns I have made, I have made very few changes.  I buy these patterns because I love their quirky design and their ability to come up with images I would have never thought of on my own.  There will come a time, however, where I will want to make alterations to reflect my preferences.  In the Springtime Sampler, I would like to change an Easter egg to a seder plate.  The Winter Sampler has many Christmas-themed squares that I would like to alter to Chanukah designs, like changing a Christmas cookie to a latke and tree ornaments to dreidels.  Some people might see these changes as significant, and would say I should design my own patterns entirely.  I buy the Frosted Pumpkin patterns because I like their style, and I am not that good yet at designing.  (My attempt to create a "Kawaii Shabbat" pattern was . . . . dismal, to put it politely.)  I think the original patterns are very cute, and if I was making them for a non-Jewish friend I would not hesitate to stitch them as is.  I just want the embroidered art I display in my house to reflect the reality of my lifestyle.

The important lesson I took from this experience is that people will always put their own personal flair into the objects they make, even when it is something as uniform as a cross-stitch pattern.  When we make these changes, however, we need to respect the original designers--both as artists with intellectual property, and as people with feelings.  


  1. Well said. I agree that I like to alter patterns that I have purchased, particularly colorways. People can say very mean spirited things, but in all, I have found the craft community (like you said) very welcoming.

  2. I have changed almost every, if not every, pattern I've cross-stitched. Every one I can remember has had something I disagreed with-- and that's a key word there. I can disagree with something and it isn't wrong. Subversive Cross Stitch likes capitalized words and bilateral symmetry in the border; I like lowercase and rotational symmetry. With the Home Ec embroidery sampler with the bird and the banner I changed... um, a lot. The wings, the tail, the eye, the boots, the banner, every single chain-stitch flower, and also the leaves. I am a messing-with person.

    I think some of the debate is the 'rightness' issue. I don't approach embroidery as making something *right* but as making something *right for me*. I can't. Nothing is right for me, not out of the box, any more than any clothes fit perfectly off the rack vs hand-tailored. I can't get a custom-fit dress, but realistically, I can change French knot eyes to backstitch eyes, I can add my initials to the bottom, I can do stem stitch because I like it better than backstitch and backstitch because I like it better than split stitch. It's important to me that it be right for me and it's easy enough to achieve that. Anyone getting snotty and asking why I don't just design my own (oh, *just*! The word that invalidates all advice!) can bite me because all I'm doing is fine-tuning. I can have a pair of pants hemmed and not want to sew my own, too.

    On the charts, I am torn. That makes it less like customizing to one's own preferences and more like... something else. I wonder if people would do so much of that if the sampler itself had more options. Posting the charts feels so much more like broadcasting than like a friend coming up with something cool and helping another friend do the same. That's an issue with the scale and intimacy of the community, and I don't think it can be fixed easily.

    People getting snotty: oh, go make something.

  3. I ws surprised by the drama in that Facebook group too. I personally like people posting pictures of their changes, for some reason I hadn't thought of making any changes before I saw them. I've only changed Snow White's dress though.