Why Indies Matter
How is a sewing pattern like a comic book?
Back in the 90s, the comic book industry faced huge problems.
Large publishers had gotten increasingly commercial, and changes in the industry had led to the near-collapse of distribution channels. By the mid-90s, there was only one main distributor left, and every comic shop in the US was tied to them.
This is the scene that artist and independent publisher C. Spike Trotman relayed in a talk I attended this weekend.
Spike runs what’s currently the largest independent comic publisher in Chicago, Iron Circus Comics. But she created her press against what she calls the constant dull roar of voices telling her, “this is not how it’s done.”
Back in the 90s, with only one distributor left, comic book stores all sold the same stuff: men in spandex. There was little incentive for the large distributor to carry anything else. It wasn’t worth the trouble.
For readers, the result was a comic book monoculture.
People like Spike were dissatisfied. They wanted interesting stories and different genres. They wanted to see women and people of color and LGBT characters and… characters that looked like them.
So what changed? It was the web.
The internet completely changed the ways comics could be distributed and lowered the barriers to entry, first by introducing the concept of web comics (which were derided by the existing industry), and later by new ways of funding like kickstarter.
(image of Spike via Rachel Lovinger from the talk I attended)
Spike created her company by bypassing the existing distribution channels and appealing directly to her customers. She found that there were many, many people like her who wanted something new and completely different. They’ve formed a community and proven a market (which of course the large publishers are now courting). The web made this possible.
The evolution of a community
Something similar has happened with sewing. In the last 10 years, we have seen an explosion in options for sewists, and a community that has taken root and thrived.
Yes, there were definitely trailblazers before this, just like there were tons of extraordinary independent comics before. But the web allowed this small niche to expand in unexpected ways.
The web is what made this possible. Not because of digital patterns or crowdfunding (though those have been helpful to some), but because the web allows small businesses to have direct relationships with people, to actually create community in a grassroots way. You don’t need a lot of money, but you do need to really care. Caring is our currency.
And when I say “we,” I don’t just mean independent pattern companies. I also mean the network of small local and online fabric stores that support us. And I also mean the small fabric companies and the designers who are pushing for more garment fabric options. And then there are the bloggers who support small businesses and spread sewing with their infectious enthusiasm. All of these people work together, creating an ecosystem that welcomes new ideas and includes a wider variety of customers than before.
(Image: Hart’s Fabric in Santa Cruz)
At the heart of this is a diverse group of people who genuinely care about the community they’re serving.
But I don’t think you should support small companies just because it gives you warm fuzzies, or because you like the intention. I think you should do it for yourself.
Why you should care
Here’s why I think you should actually care:
- Small businesses create diversity. Just like the story of the comics industry, without small players you get a monoculture focused only on the biggest and most established market. There’s not much interest in change or fresh ideas or serving smaller groups or interests.
- Small businesses listen. Our businesses are built on this. We feel a part of the community and are invested in what people have to say. That doesn’t mean we always get things right, but we want to.
- Small businesses shake things up. It often takes a small business to prove that people really want something different. Now we’re seeing large fabric companies (finally!) starting to recognize that garment sewists exist.
I want to be clear. I don’t think all small businesses are fantastic and all big ones are evil. I’ve worked at large companies with people who care deeply about what they’re doing. But on the whole, it is small businesses that have the agility and heart to make something new, and it’s often the little guys who inspire the big ones.
(image: Modern Domestic here in Portland)
This is why you should support your local fabric store, those small fabric companies, indie designers, and anyone else working to build something new and different. Don’t do it out of the kindness of your heart (though that’s cool too). Do it because you want to see more diversity, because you like new ideas, and because you want to see a community flourish.