Where Is the Line?

Last week I finished a Twirly, which is what I’m calling my newest obsession:

Twirly. Photo by Earl Zachery

(You can see more photos on my blog, here.)

It took forEVER to do: every stitch was done by hand, with what are surely miles of DMC embroidery floss. I have the holes in my finger to show for the hours of (let’s not say “clumsy”) stitching:

I’m really pleased with this, the result of an experiment into sewing on cotton knit. I’ve never really done much with knitted fabric, but I wanted to try. For years I’ve drooled over the sweater coats created by Kat O’Sullivan.

Kat O'Sullivan with one of her fabulous coats

and thought about making something in that style. (You can listen to our podcast here.) I can’t wear wool (although I would surely figure out a way if I had one of her coats; I would wear it constantly even if I had to wear layers and layers and layers of clothes between my skin and the wool. Oh, yeah, I would *definitely* find a way), and I don’t have a serger and don’t really like the effect they create. But that skirt–I love that! And when I interviewed Kat for the Designer Collection profile in Belle Armoire, she sent me the instructions she sells for making her coats. I hadn’t known how to get that swirliness until I read her instructions. Oh, so *that’s* how you do that! I didn’t do it exactly like she does it, of course, but I got the basic info for figuring out shape and how it works–I got that from reading her instructions.


And that brings us to a very interesting subject: when does inspiration cross the line into something else? I am completely comfortable saying that I was inspired by Kat’s coats. For the Twirlies, I was also inspired by Alabama Chanin and her work with t-shirts and cotton knit. The stuff I’m doing doesn’t look like theirs, and I have no intention of selling what I’m creating (the idea makes me laugh, literally: it takes so long to do all this hand stitching that, if I were to put a price on it, people would laugh hysterically. So would I).


But what if I were selling these, and what if the Twirly were made of recycled wool sweaters? What if I’d used one of the patterns Natalie Chanin provides in her books (I have all three of them–here, here and here) and wanted to sell or teach what I created? What if I’d taken a workshop from either of these women–or someone else–and learned how to do what they do and then decided to go out and teach it myself? Or make a whole bunch of whatever-it-is and open an Etsy shop?

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In short, where does inspiration end and Something Else begin? I know, I know: this is a topic many feel has been debated to death, but for me, it’s new again–as it is periodically–because I’ve had conversations with people about where they get inspiration and with other people who are saddened to see the work of someone who obviously “was inspired” by their own creations, and it’s something lots of artists have to think about pretty much all the time. They all wish they didn’t, but there it is.


There’s a company here in Texas that tells of getting their start when they found a coat made from a blanket, loved it, bought it, took it home and took it apart and made a pattern and started making and selling their own. This has always bothered me (and I notice the story is no longer part of their website), and I wondered why they thought this was an OK way to start a business. But that could be just me: maybe everyone else thinks it’s perfectly OK to do this.

So I’m asking: what do you think? Is that OK? What about seeing something someone else has made, figuring out how to do it, and then teaching a workshop? In short, where do you think one thing ends and something else begins? What is OK, and what is not? I’m OK with the inspiration I got from Kat’s coats. I would not be OK with creating coats like hers and selling them.


What I want to know is: where is the line?


Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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9 Responses to Where Is the Line?

  1. RelishedArtistry says:

    Ricë, this is indeed a deep can of worms… And I think it varies for everyone… Copyright law has tried to codify things for various different industries, but clothing doesn’t have anything like that… There are lots of debates on whether that’s good or bad all over the internet, as you say.

    I think, though, that things have to boil down to what’s in your heart as a creator and purchaser.

    As creators, we have to consider our personal integrity. Is it a priority for us to be original, to use our inspirational sources to launch us in different directions? Is it a priority for us to distinctly and clearly make something of our very own with no reference to our inspirational material? Is it important to clearly distinguish between our work and someone else’s? For some creators the answer is no. Copying outright is fine.

    But I think that is a missed opportunity as a creator, and a sign of an inability to think outside the box.

    And as purchasers, we have the same integrity quandary–do we value originality enough to restrain ourselves from monetarily supporting copiers? To what degree do we question a creator’s inspirations? Are we the kind of purchasers who consider a creator’s process as part of their product we’re buying, or are we just consumers who simply don’t care where anything came from?

    I think the line that you refer to will never be the same for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we personally have to condone or celebrate artisans/craftsman/consumers who have a different line than we do. We just have to be diligent in valuing the aspects of creativity and originality that we find important, and be ready to explain when asked, and put our money where our mouth is.

    There is the school of thought that “nothing is original,” but even with that comes a sense of appreciating how something is made differently or combined with something else, and the originality that is inherently a part of that process. The degree of how one defines originality is what is going to vary from person to person. And perhaps that is what we should celebrate.

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment. I agree that we have to figure out where our own priorities lie in all this. Where do you think teaching comes in–teaching a workshop for something someone else originated? Say you either bought a piece, studied it, duplicated it (more or less) and then came up with a proposal, or you too a workshop, learned to create the project, and then started teaching it yourself? What do you think about that?

      • RelishedArtistry says:

        I taught theatre and costume design classes at the University of San Diego for 10 years. When teaching classes, I think it’s important for the instructor to draw a distinction between the method they’re teaching and the end product. I think it’s a bad idea to teach classes around making specific “things”. Making different things using an open-ended technique is a much better idea–it takes the emphasis off the product and puts it on a theory, with which you can then take away and do much more of whatever you want. This ensures you aren’t teaching how to make a specific something that can be copied, and the originality must come from the student before they can create anything…

        Honestly, I avoid classes or workshops that teach a person how to make a “thing”. I think it’s much better to teach concepts of tool using, rather than pigeonhole a student into only learning how to do one thing.

        Ultimately, I think it has to do with your philosophy toward teaching and learning. Do you really want to take a class where you only learn how to make a widget, and then have to try to extrapolate what went into the making of the widget in order to make a bigger better widget that doesn’t look like the original widget? Or wouldn’t you rather take a class where they show you about an idea and you can decide if you want to use it to make widgets, wingdings, or thingamajiggers?

        True teachers don’t teach “Do What I Do”. True teachers teach “Here’s A Possibility”. Those are the classes I look for and strove to teach myself.

        • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

          This is absolutely true. Unfortunately, in the mixed media world of art retreats and workshops, those classes that teach a technique don’t fill nearly as well as those that teach a specific project. People want to make something that they can take home with them, something to show for the class they took. Here lately I’ve been seeing more technique workshops, though, so I’m heartened that there’s a growing demand for learning just what you’ve mentioned.

          • RelishedArtistry says:

            I hope you’re right. It’s a great class that you can learn about a concept and practice it at the same time by making a little something. I wonder if, as artisans and potential workshop teachers, we owe it to ourselves to further explore our techniques and methods so when we do get around to having that class we don’t feel like we’re “giving away the farm”. That way, if we do feel our work is ripped off or copied, we aren’t losing the depth of our creative exploration and feeling like we’ve had our livelihood taken away… And if someone is selling the project we taught them, we can smile knowing it’s just a small part of the possibilities, and they’re missing a much bigger picture that we’re already exploring.

  2. Jinx says:

    Your right Rice! I do think this has been debated to death. I do not sell anything that i create so i’am not hounded by it but still its getting rather old and rather ridiculous. Its getting to the point of what came first the chicken or the egg. It makes me afraid to create something for fear it may resemble someone elses work. Seriously in my opinion if it is not an EXACT replica line for line then relax. I’m sorry but if you draw a bird and i draw a bird they are gonna resemble each other…….sorry….a bird is a bird is a bird…….can you tell i’m at my wits end that this is still being debated. LOL. If someone is so worried about their stuff being stolen then you take precautions to prevent it and sad to say but that probably includes NOT posting it on the internet.

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      The thing is, though: it’s a problem for people who make their living selling their work and/or teaching workshops based on things they’ve created. For them, it’s a huge deal and means the difference between being able to support themselves doing what they do and having to get some other job to pay the bills, meaning they don’t have time to create work to sell, meaning we can’t buy it, meaning we *all* lose out. I know it’s old and tedious, but it’s a continuous problem for so many people I know. Don’t worry, though: I do *not* intend to keep on about this. XO

  3. CarolineA says:

    I’ve just done an online art workshop, along with several thousand other people, and there was a great deal of angst among some participants because they could not get the same “look” that the instructor achieved using the same materials. Much of the work exhibited in the forum was “in the style of”. Some of us went on to do the next workshop in the series, and despite only being a few hundred less of us in it, the atmosphere is totally different and no-one is trying to clone the teacher. Most of us are still trying to master the medium used, and the debate is on that and far more weighty subjects such as this. And at least half of us were in the first workshop.
    The only difference I can see is that the first class was teaching us how to do a particular “thing”, how to achieve a particular result; no matter how much we were encouraged to do our own take on the subject we referred back to the notes and samples and tried our best to achieve the same look. It was very hard to break away because of the distinctive signature style of the tutor. We were not “inspired” by it, we had the stroke by stroke instructions to give us the end result. And there-in lies the problem; step by step instructions for a narrow limited result.
    A swing skirt is a swing skirt and has been made for centuries, and pretty much the same way; many people who make or adapt their own clothes can come up with one, and despite the makers not having seen the others work the results would be similar. The only way to break copyright on that would be to take one to pieces and make another one up from it.
    But the first instance, where over 3,000 of us were painting almost identical paintings in a very similar style? who knows, but I think if I was wanting a long career in the fashion art area, I would NOT be planning on copying anyone’s style or technique, I would plan on being a leader and standing out from the herd because of the problems of copyright.
    Basically, if you think it looks like someone else’s fashionable and popular work, the chances are a stranger would think so too, so its best if you keep it at home for your own use and enjoyment. Big Brother has a long arm, and he with the biggest wallet and fattest attorney wins, even if its not fair. Or just.

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      That is really interesting about the difference between the two workshops, and I see that in classes at art retreats. Some are about projects, and some are about technique. There are people who love one and others who love the other and some who love both. The good thing about technique workshops is that they can provide a sound basis for experimentation. But there are people who will take workshops only if they can leave with a finished project that looks like the class sample. There is still a big demand for those.