UPDATE (6/16/10): Jenny Hart of Sublime Stitching has retracted her accusations against us. Read her statement here.
For those of you connected to the interwebs of late, you might have noticed some not so nice things circulating about Urban Threads. There are a number of accusations that have come to light quite recently and I want to share my perspective on these issues.
I have known of Jenny Hart and Sublime Stitching for some time now, and have always been a fan of her work. You can't be in the embroidery world without knowing Jenny and appreciating the legacy of embroidery she has built. I've never been fortunate enough to meet her in person, but I hear that she's really inspirational.
It seems the foremost issue involves a handful of similar designs between Urban Threads and Sublime Stitching. Infringement is not an issue I take lightly, being a crafter, illustrator, and business owner, and I understand anyone's fury at the prospect of being ripped off.
When researching design trends, I pick up on common themes, ideas, and images in popular culture. Retro space designs, funky boutique style drawings, and anatomical hearts are not unique ideas but common threads used by designers of all types. Some styles date back to the 1800s, others from the 50s, and all have been done then and since. As this story was picked up, a number of blogs and websites posted side by side comparisons of our images. The most notable image was probably this one of a vintage rocket girl design:
Reprinted with permission from Dinosaurs and Robots. This image was reposted on BoingBoing, and a similar one appeared on Feeling Stitchy.
A misunderstanding here is that the image on the right is my design. It is not. Someone worked a little Photoshop magic to manipulate my designs - cutting out, combining, and rearranging them to make them look nearly identcal side-by-side. Not cool. Part comes from this design, with the text removed:
and then is combined with this design, our rocket scribble:
Designs and elements from both sites have been arranged and combined to maximize the effect of similarity.
Some similarities are quite clear, but to say that I took the idea from Jenny Hart would be to say she is the only one who has ever drawn it. It would be just as likely to say that we were influenced by this space girl or this gal, or perhaps this space cadet or that one. Perhaps my spaceship was inspired by this or maybe even this, or any of the dozens of sci-fi moves that came out in the '50s. My point is vintage space designs are not my idea, nor anyone else's. It is a reference to a past style that has become popular again. I know the stance and style are similar, but the hand on hip pose, ray gun, and retro body suit are hardly original and uncommon elements. Taking issue with the pose is one thing, but to additionally add another unrelated design and lay out the two designs in exactly the same formation is hardly a true representation of this issue. I did not copy the design, and the similarities are unintentional.
Here's another one. Take this pair of rather similar Christmas ornament designs:
Reposted with permission from Dinosaurs and Robots.
Here's my original Baubles in Scribbles design:
I drew retro Christmas designs I saw in old sixties interior design magazines. Without those iconic shapes and retro accents, the design would not reference the sixties vibe. The shapes are the whole point. The same can be said for the other examples raised. I drew popular vintage anatomy that was influenced by the old anatomy books I studied in art college. I drew ladies inspired by fashion illustration that always seem to have preppy dogs. For a true comparison, not a reworked, rearranged version comparison of the designs, look at the original machine embroidery versions of the designs on the site, and make the call for yourself. There is often a distinct visual difference between hand embroidery versions and machine ones, and in viewing the design the way it was originally drawn, the similarities between the hand embroidery designs are far less distinct.
With this in mind, perhaps the issue is not with the design itself, since these images appear on everything from posters to T-shirts without question, but the fact that it is a hand embroidery design. OK, you say, so the subject matter is going to give similar styling, but why on earth would the world need two versions of hand embroidery design rocket girls, or scooters, or anatomical hearts? Isn’t it still copying?
No... and for one very important reason. Many people, in viewing the comparisons online and in discussing the issue, may have forgotten or maybe not even realized one key issue between our businesses. Urban Threads is primarily a machine embroidery company. All these images first and foremost are machine embroidery designs, and that is how they are prominently displayed on the site. The reason I started this company to create “fun funky embroidery designs” for hip crafters was because these designs were seriously lacking ... in the machine embroidery world.
I did not mean to imply that there are not awesome fun embroidery companies out there offering hip new designs. Sublime Stitching, Pimp Stitch, and Subversive Cross Stitch are just a few of the cool hand needlework sites out there, but there is a difference in limitations between the two mediums. If you have any semblance of drawing skill or a talented friend, you can draw or trace a skull or rocket ship on a piece of fabric and embroider it to your little heart’s content. If, however, you are a machine embroiderer and you want skull designs or fancy something different than flowers or fluffy angels, you're kinda screwed, unless you want to drop hundreds on digitizing embroidery software and equipment and do it yourself. Machine embroidery designs are not so easy to “whip up”, and therefore alternative versions of them are not so readily available.
At the same time, I did not want to limit my audience to only those who had the cash to purchase an embroidery machine, so to make the designs accessible to everyone I offered them in every format that I could, including hand embroidery. I followed trends and elements of design I see as emerging as popular in the alternative world, and these trends not surprisingly often overlap between companies that love people who dig robots, monsters, pirates and all sorts of other nefarious goodies. So am I ripping off Jenny Hart? No. I am offering my own designs. Similarities in our designs are not an imitation, but instead a result of drawing from the same inspirational well. No one has exclusive rights to themes and trends that are not their own.
Urban Threads has a diverse collection of designs in many themes and styles. Each is hand-drawn by me or another artist, then translated into machine embroidery, hand embroidery, and digital stock art formats. Browse the designs to get a broader perspective on the Urban Threads catalog:
The discussion of who I am or what I represent is probably the other big issue brought into question. It is odd to me that I now seem to be representative of “The Man” keepin’ the little guy down, and that I have been disingenuous in my representation. If there is truly the belief that I drew, digitized, stitched, scanned, coded, wrote, edited, designed, sewed, blogged, and marketed everything on my own then you all must think me superwoman. Of course these things are not possible without help.
There have been misunderstandings about how Urban Threads functions and our relationship with Embroidery Library. Please check out this letter from Debra Mundinger (President of Embroidery Library) to Jenny Hart for a full explanation. Is Urban Threads "an 'indie' front for a bigger, machine/digitized embroidery stock art company"? No, it isn’t. I am a member of a group of people who work their butts off and own their own company. Think of it as a collective. There is a mutual and beneficial relationship between Embroidery Library and Urban Threads. We work together, but the sites are completely separate in their content, ideas, and artistic styles, and as such they are different businesses. The notion that because Urban Threads is associated with Embroidery Library it makes our claim as a creative, alternative business a fraud is ridiculous. Embroidery Library itself is an independent company. We worked hard to build it, we alone own it, and we love it.
Urban Threads is my dream, my baby, and my idea, but I have not built this dream up on my own. It has come with the support and hard work of other like-minded individuals. I have worked late hours, sewn and ripped many seams, sketched hundreds of designs, poured my heart and soul into this project, and invested myself in it. I will do the same day after day after day for it to grow.
Niamh O'Connor and the Urban Threads team
Edited to add ornament example and more images of Urban Threads designs.