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#FairFiberWage was a trending topic on Twitter last week after fiber arts teacher Abby Franquemont published a piece on Medium entitled, What Does It Cost to Hire Top Talent in the Fiber Arts? I’m Glad You Asked. The conversation was spurred by the latest contract offered by F+W Media to Interweave Yarn Fest teachers.

Interweave Yarn Fest is a four-day fiber and yarn festival. The 2017 event will take place from March 30-April 2 in Loveland, Colorado. The event is in its third year.

For the past two years the teacher contract for the event had been fairly standard, according to the five instructors I spoke with. “I had always been very happy working with Interweave as they have taken designer compensation and teacher fees seriously, and were one of the most respectful shows to work for,” one veteran Yarn Fest teacher said. “The contract they had been using wasn’t the best I’d seen, but it wasn’t bad and I was happy with the compensation.”

The contract issued on August 1 for the 2017 show, however, looked very different and thus sparked the #FairFiberWage discussion.

Yarn Fest classes are either 3-hours or 6-hours in duration. At last year’s show the contract stipulated that teachers would be paid by the hour. The pay was as follows:

  • 1-8 students = $50 per hour of teaching
  • 9-16 students = $75 per hour of teaching
  • 17+ students = $100 per hour of teaching

With this formula a teacher was guaranteed to make at least $150 for a 3-hour class, and $300 for a 6-hour class no matter how small enrollment numbers were.

The new contract has a completely different formula for teacher compensation: instead of being paid by the hour teachers are paid by the student. The pay is as follows:

  • $25 per student for a 3-hour class
  • $60 per student for a 6-hour class.

This change removes the guaranteed baseline pay. Under the new contract it’s possible for a teacher to come away from 3-hours of teaching with only $25 and from 6-hours of teaching with just $60.

The contract contained one other significant change: the coverage of travel and lodging. In last year’s contract teachers received a $250 stipend per full day of teaching, or $125 per half day, to cover flights, meals, and shipping. They were also given up to four nights at the festival hotel based on their teaching schedules.

The new contract states, “Travel, meals, lodging, ground transportation, and all other fees (except materials fees) are the sole responsibility of the instructor and will not be reimbursed by F+W.”

I reached out to F+W for comment on the new contract, but they didn’t respond.

The new contract immediately caused concern among teachers. “It was a huge surprise compared to last year,” one instructor told me. “My mouth literally dropped open.” Another instructor noted, “Interweave has been so pro teachers up to now, and this contract is something totally out of the blue for them.”

Under the new terms teachers are pressed to fill their classes to the maximum or face losing money on the event. In an email to instructors Yarn Fest event manager Sarah Gagnon wrote that while F+W will promote the event, “…the new structure also encourages instructors to help promote themselves and their classes. F+W will provide marketing resources & tools in order to assist you with self-promotion through various outlets. This type of collaboration allows for accelerated success for both the instructor and the event.”

Teachers who’ve signed contracts for Yarn Fest are bound by non-disclosures stipulating that they can’t share the terms of their contracts. Yet when the new contract was sent out alarmed instructors began reaching out to past faculty to see if the terms had changed.

 

“I told many colleagues that I was paid and treated fairly in 2015,” Franquemont says. “So when some of those colleagues received contracts that were in no way fair or reasonable they (and others) asked me if that was what I’d meant by fair.”

 

Franquemont wanted to take a stand in a public way without violating her non-disclosure. “Any time bad contracts go around there is private chatter, and it always ends with people afraid to speak up,” she said. “So, since I could not simply say ‘here’s what they paid me in 2015,’…I thought that explicitly publishing my rates…was my best option for furthering a dialogue about reasonable compensation.” This led her to write the What Does it Cost to Hire Top Talent post.

Several instructors chose to withdraw from teaching at Yarn Fest rather than accept the new contract. Others pushed back, asking for better terms. Ten days later, on August 10, F+W issued a revised contract to those teachers who hadn’t yet withdrawn.

“F+W has experienced some recent changes, and as such, we’ve amended the attached contract in a few areas,” Gagnon wrote in an email to instructors with the new contract. “Our goal is to create and promote the most successful event we can, and that means we need outstanding teachers like you!”

The revised contract gives teachers a $500 stipend to cover expenses such as travel, food, lodging, and shipping, but reduces the per student pay rate by three dollars, from $25 to $22.

By way of explanation Gagnon wrote in the email to instructors, “The new contract is modeled after other successful events in the Interweave brand portfolio. Those events only pay per student; and cover no other costs. We recognize that the fiber community is used to a different pay structure; however, we feel that this formula will result in similar pay as last year and the opportunity to make more.”

Still, the revised terms force instructors to taking on more risk than they have in the past. “Even with the $500 stipend, the scenario can still be daunting for a teacher; hotel rooms at the venue are $170/night, $180 if you share, and if a teacher’s classes don’t sell well, they could end up taking all the risk,” one instructor explained.

In her email Gagnon points out that under this year’s terms instructors have the potential to earn more money than they have in the past if they fill their classes. Yet instructors who have taught at events like Yarn Fest know that many factors go into filling a class, some of which teachers have little control over.

 

One teacher explained, “At the end of the day F+W selects the classes out of the list the teacher submits, but in the case of 2016 my lowest selling classes were the classes F+W pressed me to teach…If picking classes is their responsibility, I don’t think I should assume 100% of the risk for them picking wrong. If they pick wrong and I have a guaranteed [pay rate], well they can do better next time. If they pick wrong without a guarantee, I am screwed.”

 

Another added that some classes simply can’t be completely filled. “Many of the spinning and weaving teachers have lower than the 26 usual class cap at this show because they can’t physically fit 26 in their rooms and get around to everyone.”

The day and time a class is scheduled also affects enrollment. “If the venue schedules a teacher’s classes on Friday afternoon, Saturday, or Sunday morning there’s a much better chance that their class will fill up quickly than if it’s scheduled on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday morning or late on Sunday,” one instructor explained, noting that those are travel days for many attendees and the vendor marketplace isn’t open. Another teacher added that if a popular lecture is scheduled for the same time as her class attendance could be compromised. “If Clara Parkes is speaking at the same time as my class? I’ll only have four students,” she laughed.

Teachers are the heart of a show like Yarn Fest and many instructors emphasized that even teachers who don’t fill large classes are valuable to the event. One teacher noted, “The tone in past years was ‘We’ll work together to make this happen’ and the tone this year is ‘You must do our bidding,’” pointing out that “there’s no way a show like this can work if we don’t all work together.” “Interweave benefits from offering a large roster of teachers which, even if a student doesn’t take a class with all of them, looks great and I believe encourages more folks to come,” one said.

“It was shortsighted for F+W to make teachers unhappy,” an instructor remarked. “The pool is not infinite and these are the same people they need to write for the magazines.” Another remarked, “Part of them hiring you is for your draw, like hiring an entertainer. But putting out bad contracts to professionals as if we don’t know better doesn’t make us want to do business with you again.”

The concern over teacher pay at Yarn Fest resulted in hundreds of #FairFiberWage tweets and several in-depth blog posts from instructors, vendors, yarn shop owners, and event organizers. Together these helped to raise awareness of the value of professional teachers of fiber arts both within the teaching community and among students. As one instructor pointed out, “Many of my loyal, repeat students scrimp and save to make attending my classes be their major hobby splurge for the year. They would be horrified to discover I was not making a living wage.”

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