Image created by Rumana Lasker.
In 2016 Rumana Lasker looked at 52 sewing magazines published in the UK that year and realized that every single one featured a white woman on the cover.
“One of the things that struck me the most…is the feeling of being undervalued- as a consumer, as a person,” says Lasker a British sewer who was a quarter-finalist on the Great British Sewing Bee. “Because it is no exaggeration to say that by failing to represent us, they are telling people of color that we don’t matter.”
Rumana Lasker wearing an Eloise Dress she sewed from a pattern from By Hand London.
Last month Lasker conducted the experiment again, broadening her scope to include 102 magazine covers. She found that six featured women of color, but three were from the same magazine and one had again gone a full year with only white women on the cover. “I feel that underlying it all there’s something more uncomfortable going on,” she says. “The assumption that people of color don’t sell magazines.”
Why are cover models white women?
According to Ruth Walker, Head of Soft Crafts at Practical Publishing, publisher of Love Sewing as well as Sew Now Magazine, the problem has to do with the supply of models their modeling agency provides. “Being a publisher in the North of England, our access to models can be more limited than in other parts of the country,” Walker says. “Although we try our best to employ as wide a range of models as we can, the lack of options can sometimes be a little frustrating.”
Walker argues that although the magazine covers may feature white women, each issue is packaged with a print pattern and the pattern covers often show more diverse models. “The cover is one part of the package, but the cover model is usually not visible when you buy the magazine,” she says. “All of our magazines come with at least one pattern on the front, which we believe is just as important as the cover. We are lucky enough to have an exclusive relationship with Butterick and McCall’s, whose pattern artwork regularly features models of color, and these patterns are front and foremost on the newsstand in our packaged magazines. Since September last year, five of the patterns we have chosen as gifts on the magazine have featured models of color.”
Burda Style and Immediate Media, publishers of the other UK-based sewing magazines, did not respond to interview requests. Aceville Publishing responded that they would discuss Lasker’s concerns with her directly, which they have done.
Threads magazine covers 2018
US sewing magazines are doing a somewhat better job at choosing a diverse set of cover models. Two of the four models shown on the covers of Threads Magazine this year were women of color. In 2017 it was one of six, and in 2016 it was two of five.
Do cover models matter?
For knitwear designer Olgalyn Jolly the challenge of finding models who are people of color is not an excuse she’s willing to accept. “At a time when any person of privilege can be on the other side of the globe in a day, not making an effort to hire cover models who represent an ethnically diverse population makes the publisher appear ignorant and provincial even if the covers aren’t seen until the shrink wrap is removed,” Jolly says. “Many people will eventually find that type of corporate behavior impossible to support. As a person of color, I certainly can’t support that.”
Sewist and magazine reader Kyle Burkhardt agrees. “To me, the main cover model is still important,” Burkhardt says. “Yes, on the newsstand, the model is ‘hidden’ behind the free patterns that come with the issue, but once the plastic is opened, the magazine cover is what we are seeing in our homes and on our nightstands, coffee tables, and kitchen counters.”
Gillian Whitcombe organizes the collaborative sewing blog, Sewcialists, which focuses on issues of diversity and inclusion. She followed Lasker’s post, and the #sewincolour hashtag on Instagram that emerged from it, with avid interest. “Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in the sewing community, regardless of age, size, gender, orientation, ability, ethnicity, or any other factor,” Whitcombe says. “We all need to see people like ourselves looking fabulous because it gives us confidence that we ourselves are valued and worthwhile.”
It’s Time to Make a Change
One editor at a UK sewing magazine explained that modeling agencies provide a range of models of varying ethnicities and looks. To her, it seems that selecting white women as cover models must be a conscious choice. “If you use an agency you get to see the pictures of women so you can choose the best ‘fit’ and every ethnicity is included. Also wherever the agency is based, the models come from across the country and will travel so based in London, or not, shouldn’t be a problem”.
Although the choice of cover models may seem insignificant to some, Whitcombe points out that even small choices can have a material impact over time. “We can all make a difference when it comes to representation,” she says. “It’s as simple as praising people who get it right, gently challenging companies and community members who haven’t consider the importance of diversity in crafting and being reflective in our own decisions. Inclusion is about little steps we take every day, not only grand gestures.”
When Lasker published her survey of magazine covers two years ago, she was hopeful that things would change. “When it went pretty much unnoticed, I was a bit disappointed,” she says. “This time, however, I want the industry to wake up to the fact that their covers aren’t reflective of the community that I sew in and the one that I see the wider industry being part of.”
Lasker is looking for a systemic change. “I don’t just want a blip on the radar where they put one person of color on the cover and that is it. And no, I don’t want to be the person that gets asked to be on the cover as that is the easy way out as I personally have already been part of the face of sewing,” she says. ‘The change needs to be persistent and consistent.”
Maeri moved to the UK from New York 25 years ago and now combines her degree in marketing, her role as a small business cheerleader, and her love of making to start a home-based craft business on a beautiful canal outside of Manchester, UK, called The Make and Do Studio. Maeri has spoken at various industry events about the changing face of creative businesses and how they can co-exist in a digital world. She also works with woman-owned small businesses to help them become more digitally confident. Find her at http://www.maerihoward.com/
The question IS, and the ONLY question IS, which cover models SELL THE MOST MAGAZINES? Nothing else matters, except magazine sales.
There are NO football players on the covers, either. No auto racers either. No soldiers, no construction workers, no dish washers. Dog breeders are missing, too.
Wow. Are you really suggesting that showing a black woman on the cover of a women’s sewing magazine which is bought by women of all races is in some way comparable to showing a dishwasher? How demeaning and racist.
Totally agree. What a pointless study.
Lol. Your privilege is showing. Might wanna get that fixed.
+1 to Sarah, what ignorance. Women of color are perfectly relevant to a sewing magazine, foot ball players are not. And why exactly do John and Rebecca think women of color can’t see magazines? Bigots make such obviously faulty arguments.
On a sewing magazine really? I’m not sure why any of those would be a thought. Please don’t deflect from the real issue here and that’s women of color not represented as they should be.
thank-you for John. That is what I was thinking. I stated the same thing about the sewing machine article. Enough is Enough. Please no more “what is wrong this is—” blog. Go to an event and truly see who is sewing and the % of them who are white or of color, and see why the magazines are doing what they are doing. Go to the companies and seek out a job. FYI: I am not racist. I live in the real world and buy magazines for projects/articles not for who is on the front.
Have you ever had a customer service person not understand why you were unsatisfied with a product?
Do you not go to fabric stores that stock things you don’t use? For example, I’m a garment sewer primarily, so I don’t go to quilt shops as often…they don’t represent me.
Do you go to quilt shows if you’re a garment sewer? Do you go to fashion shows if you’re a quilter? They don’t have mutual representation do they?
So, you can see why representation and participation are related, right?
You may not run around in a white hood, but what is demonstrated here IS systemic racism. Donna, I’m so white my name is Becky. I’m a white, 40-something, hetero, relatively affluent & educated female. If I can see there is problem with representation, I’m sure you can. Your argument is like saying schools should still be segregated because kids of color aren’t going to go to school anyway. We shouldn’t have mass transit because if poor people worked, they’d have cars. Do you see how tone deaf that is?
Food for thought.
I’d like to breakdown your comment if that’s ok. Firstly, some advice- if you ever find yourself about to say “I’m not racist” just stop talking. This also applies to “but I have Black/Muslim/LGBTQ+* friends” (*delete as appropriate). It just shows how little insight you have to your privilege and internal bias/prejudice.
Secondly, “Go to an event and truly see who is sewing and the % of them who are white or of color”- are you actually implying sewing is a “white thing”? It’s such a staple skill in so many cultures. You just need to step outside of this country to realise that. So many of the generation before me (I’m the brown hijab wearing gal in the photo above) sewed out of necessity- not being able to afford clothes meant making your own. It wasn’t a hobby, it was just life.
You’re right about one thing though- I’ve been to sewing events and been overwhelmed by how white the crowd is. But thats more reflective of the event than the population of people who sew. They tend to attract people who can spend money on and sew as a hobby. Socioeconomic factors means going to sewing events isn’t a ‘thing’ for POC. White people tend to be more wealthy therefore are more likely to have the spending power to attend/shop at events. (heres some data from the government to back that up: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/work-pay-and-benefits/pay-and-income/income-distribution/latest)
They also often don’t cater to the tastes or styles of different cultures. So why would they go to these events?
And then lastly there’s the classic- “well why dont you do something about it?” argument. “Go to the companies and seek out a job.” Firstly- we are. By talking about it and raising awareness, engaging in conversation. I don’t need to leave my job for my opinion to be valid. Secondly, its not so easy to ‘get a job’ in these companies. Did u see “Bias in Britain” by The Guardian ? We’re less likely to pass our driving tests, be Let a flat or be asked for a job interview in the first place just base on our names being too ethnic.
I sincerely hope you read this and reconsider your comment. It’s nice to know you “live in the real world”. Perhaps one day I can come visit.
Rumana! That was DOPE! Yasssss I’m a creative beautiful woman of color and I couldn’t agree more. I can’t stand people that say they are not racists when the words from their hearts paint a completely different narrative. You are amazing my dear. Please hit me up!
Love your spunk!
To follow this logic: How would you know what would sell better if you don’t test out different kinds of cover models?
In marketing it’s called an A/B test—you test two different kinds of content to see which one performs better. With this very clear lack of diversity in cover models, it’s impossible to know which would “sell better.” Personally, I think that magazines that reflect the world in which they’re sold—a world of different sizes, shapes and colors—would sell way better than some homogeneous offering of same old, same old.
Excellent work! Thank you for covering this Abby! As a side note, I just interviewed Sarai/Colette/Seamwork for Sewcialists, and it will go up this month, but she had an interesting response regarding the modeling agency they use. She said they just keep on asking for more diverse models. This pushes the agency to find what the client wants. I’m not saying the person quoted above isn’t pushing hard enough, oh, wait, yes I am! hahaha! They’re the client. They’re paying for the model. They’re using an agent aka broker. If I went to a real estate agent and asked for a house, and they only showed me condos, I’d find another broker.
Writing this article was an eye-opener from the point of view that none of the magazines wanted to put their hands up and say “yes, we are doing it wrong, let’s open a discussion on how we can fix this problem”. Surely, we as the magazine reading public would be more open to this as a way of moving forward than just blaming the problem on the modeling agencies who supply the models?
Maeri, do you feel current politics embolden systemic exclusion? The whole “if it doesn’t effect me and I say I don’t see a problem, that means there isn’t one” attitude? I prefer discussion over passing the buck any day, and abhor spineless companies.
Related: an old colleague of mine in PR in NYC, Bryce Gruber, was recently fired from a bridal publication for being too Jewish and, the final straw, becoming pregnant. They told her her suggestions were too Jewish, and didn’t want to include any Jewish wedding traditions in the magazine.
I prefer buying magazines that show me a diverse group of people wearing the patterns I consider buying. Preferable diversity in colour, shape, age and ability, but at this point I’ll take any form of more diversity. I might be a white woman, but I do not look like the cover models and neither do most people in the sewing community. I haven’t bought any edition of British sewing magazines this year.
Going to an event and seeing who is sewing is not really representative of the actual market. Regardless of the hobby or interest, white people aren’t great at creating safe and welcoming spaces for everyone and can push others to create their own events and safe spaces. I’m in several sewing-related Facebook groups where people of color are much more vocal and visible than they are in any of my local classes, shops, or events. Providing an entry to anyone can be improved through use of models. Perhaps the reason people of color don’t buy magazines is because they don’t speak to them, not because they aren’t interested in sewing. If they’re saying they feel excluded, their feelings are true and should be valued. Have any of these marketing people considered that expanding the market through inclusivity would mean more business?
Thank you for shining more light on this subject. I am a white woman and the oldest of 9 ethnically diverse kids in my family. My mother was born in Scotland and is the only child of her parents who immigrated to the United States when she was 8 years old after World War II. My grandparents were definitely racist. My parents went on to have two biological children, adopted 3 children from Korean , adopted 2 children from Mexico, and folded into our family a teenager from Mexico and my white best friend who needed homes. 4 girls and 5 boys. It was an amazing childhood and we all learned to sew at some level and 2 of us continue to sew on a regular basis.
In 1974 when I was 14 I wrote to Mattel toys to ask them to make an Asian Barbie doll for my sister and other races that weren’t represented. Mattel wrote back that it was an interesting idea that they were looking into but that they had no plans at that time to produce anything other than black and white Barbie’s. It was disappointing but I hoped I had planted a seed.
We moved to a new house, we grew up, and my parents now have an even wider variety of ethnically diverse grandchildren. One day years later the woman who bought our former home came to the door with a letter addressed to me from Mattel. The letter stated that they were pleased to inform me that they were releasing the first Asian Barbie doll. It was surprising to receive that letter so many years later but I was also pleasantly surprised that they had kept my information and took the time to let me know. It was too late for my sister to have a Barbie that looked like her, but it was in perfect timing for her daughter to have one. Now Barbie’s and other dolls are made that represent children of all races. I am also happy to say that over time my grandparents racist ideals slowly but surely faded.
In this day and age it shouldn’t be an issue, and it shouldn’t take so long. We have instant results at our fingertips with the internet and models are readily available anywhere so excuses about availability are ridiculous. I hope to see more articles on this subject and real changes taking place soon.
What a fantastic story Catherine and thank you for taking the time to write it. I can’t believe that after Mattel got in touch with you all those years later and that your new house owner thought to bring it over!
Catherine, this brought tears to my eyes! Change can take so long, but better late than never.
What an incredible story, Catherine! Thank you for sharing. I wonder if you saw this story recently about another little girl willing to call out (very politely) a big company. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/steph-curry-responded-to-a-little-girl-who-asked-why-his-shoes-dont-come-in-girls-sizes_us_5c003f75e4b027f1097bd5e5
As the author of this article, I wanted to talk a bit about the post from John about the idea that magazine covers only put on the front what sells. As he put it “There are NO football players on the covers, either. No auto racers either. No soldiers, no construction workers, no dishwashers. Dog breeders are missing, too.”
When I did the research for this article (which by the way, could have been twice as long as there was so much more that could have been included) I looked at one of the magazine editor’s profile on LinkedIn to help me get more information about the magazine’s target market.
The target reader for this particular magazine was women, aged 53. This will be based on solid research – not just a finger in the air guess.
So if we break down the analogy put forth by John, that magazines only put on the cover what is representative (and therefore pleasing) to those that buy the magazine – 53-year-old sewers would only buy magazines that show 53-year-old women on the cover- right?
When was the last time you saw a 53-year-old woman on the cover of ANY sewing or craft magazine?
Magazine covers aren’t binary. They aren’t just sewers or football players. Dressmakers or dog trainers. They aren’t just young, thin, white women……and then everyone else. There is room for “more” on the cover than what is presently being put out there. The “more” is the bit that the editorial people of each individual magazine have discussions about and decide the way to do it.
Another post asked if the “current politics embolden systemic exclusion” and I think – I don’t know. The closest I came to being excluded from anything was when I wasn’t picked for the basketball team in high school because I was too short. Hardly a right of passage when it comes to being able to talk about exclusion. But the more I read about the topic, the more I realize that it is something I will never really be able to understand fully because of my own personal (lack of ) experiences.
But I do know that what we say, read and write are three of the most powerful tools that we have to try and figure out this exclusion and diversity issue. So politics aside (which is a big ask, I know) let’s keep reading, writing and speaking about the diversity issue – it matters.
Such a great article! I also noticed on Instagram that I had to go and specifically search out sewers of color. It worked, and I now get people of all colors in my feed. I’ve also really appreciated the #pocwhosews hashtag and use it regularly.
What can be also frustrating is how appreciative we’re supposed to be for simply being noticed. “People of color” are all sorts of colors! I thank Rumana for being such a voice of sewists of color.
I’d like to just add my voice in support of magazines demanding different models: if they truly care to have diverse cover models and requesting this from agencies doesn’t work, simply take a look at the diverse group of sewing influencers. There are plenty sewists – of all genders and colors – that are amazingly beautiful and photogenic. Seriously, it’s not that hard.
Thank you for this article Maeri. I note that you said that the US was marginally better than the UK in terms of cover model diversity, but what about other markets that sell sewing magazines? I imagine that its not much better elsewhere in the western world, is the UK being singled out for any particular reason except that Rumana did her blog post based on UK magazines?
In any case, the lack of model availability I think is an inadequate reason for lack of diversity. There are so many people in the UK to say that being based in the north of England is a lame excuse – if you wanted someone to get on a train to do a photoshoot you would find someone. Just take a look at the all the home sewers out there as Meghann Halfmoon pointed out.
I wonder whether the conscious choice of model is simply what the magazines think the 53 year olds want to see. Would be interesting to do a survey of the 53 year olds to see how they feel about this issue. If its not an issue for them then we have a chicken and egg situation – persons of colour for example who don’t subscribe to the magazines due to lack of representation, and failure of magazines to be a bit more diverse given the supposed lack of demand. Sounds to me that for now we just have to keep pushing and shouting louder.
PS. I family is Chinese but I am born and bred in the western world #pocwhosews 😉
Hi Kate – I covered the article from a UK perspective as I was made aware of the topic when it was made by Rumana’s post, I live in the UK and have a general knowledge of the crafting and sewing market as I write about the industry as well as have a few businesses that are craft related.
The bit about the American market was added by Abby as we worked back and forth on the final version so perhaps you might want to tag her and see what her thoughts are?
I’ve been also noticing that most magazines that include free patterns rarely include larger size women. I’ve wasted so much money on magazine subscriptions, which I won’t any longer.
I stumbled upon this article asking myself why WoC are so underrepresented in the home sewing industry. I bought patterns today and was just stunned to see a girl of colour with her natural hair as a model for a girls Vogue pattern and it made me realize that most of the artwork and models today in 2019 in the big pattern companies still use primarily white thin models. There’s now the odd exception but I think non-white appearing people are still woefully underrepresented.