April 30, 2009
P.O. Box 15130
Austin, TX 78761
Yesterday I came across Tiny Haus’s flickr page, where she reprinted your letter regarding your concerns with UrbanThreads.com. I’ve included a link and relevant sections from that page in this letter for your reference.
I am sorry that we must “meet” under such a cloud of negativity and contention. I’d like to take this opportunity to let you know of the history of Urban Threads, the history of the Embroidery Library, and the relationship between the two companies.
Embroidery Library, Inc. was incorporated in 1998, and its goal was to serve the machine embroidery design community. In preceding years, the options for machine embroiderers were limited, overpriced, and based almost entirely on clip art.
We wanted to serve these embroiderers more fully, and created a new kind of embroidery design business. Rather than using clip art, we employed artists to create unique, original pieces. Rather than charging $40 - $50 per design, we set the prices at reasonable and inexpensive levels so that everyone who had an embroidery machine could have access to designs that inspired creativity, and resulted in something beautiful and personal.
Embroidery Library, Inc. was owned by a family of four. In 2000 the Embroidery Library formed an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), and we employees began to purchase stock from the original owners. It took a long time (almost seven years) but at the end of 2006 we became 100% employee owned.
We’re a small company of sixteen people, composed of artists, IT geeks, and an enthusiastic marketing team – the idea people. Every employee has ownership in the company. Niamh joined us in 2005 as an intern, and I was deeply impressed by her passion for art. When she graduated from college, I asked her to join us as a full time artist, and was delighted when she agreed.
At the end of 2007 she approached me with the idea of starting a new design line emphasizing alternative, contemporary art. Because we’re employee-owned, I foster an environment where all ideas and suggestions are valued and pursued. Niamh and I worked together to identify the type of art that would be appealing and useful to the creative and crafty world. We ran a test series of those designs at the Embroidery Library’s site to see if they could be sold to our current group of customers. The feedback was mixed, so we explored the idea of starting a new website to feature those types of designs.
Because the idea was Niamh’s, she drives the vision, and I provide her support with IT and administrative resources, as well as my experience in an Internet-based business. I handle the non-artistic details, mostly – the trademarking, website domain purchase, etc. Niamh creates the embroidery designs, develops the projects, and connects with other crafters and stitchers. She is the brains and the brawn behind the site, as well as its heart and soul. The site reflects her as a person, and as an artist; it does not reflect her as an employee of Embroidery Library, Inc.
Is Urban Threads “an ‘indie’ front for a bigger, machine/digitized embroidery stock art company,” as your letter states? No, it isn’t. We have an unusual and non-traditional relationship. Not many companies would provide these types of support and resources, but Embroidery Library doesn’t do business as usual. It’s my hope that the relationship between Embroidery Library and Urban Threads will become an inspiration for other relationships, and maybe even be a model for big businesses to regain a little heart, and a little conscience. Both have been missing for too long.
I appreciate your concerns about your business model and mission statement being copied, but I must respectfully disagree. Urban Threads has always been focused on machine embroidery. The hand embroidery and digital stock art offerings are smaller elements of the business. The overwhelming majority of people who visit Urban Threads are machine embroiderers; only a small percentage is composed of hand embroiderers. Urban Threads products are all downloadable, and its business model was copied directly from Embroidery Library (with my full permission).
There is similarity in art, and that’s driven by the community that you and Niamh are both supporting and serving. Today’s indie crafters have a wonderful sense of humor that’s spread through their work: a bit of tongue-in-cheek, a bit of “snarky.” Your tagline of “This ain’t your gramma’s embroidery!” is so clever and true. The art that you and Niamh offer to today’s savvy, stylish crafter has its roots in the same free, adventurous, and non-traditional spirit. That is where the similarities between the two businesses begin, and that’s where they end.
Regarding Embroidery Library operating under assumed names, I’ll be glad to clarify that. I mentioned earlier that Embroidery Library was incorporated in 1998. We were a division of Starbird, Inc., which was incorporated in 1987. Starbird served the commercial embroidery market with business logos for promotional items. In 2002 Embroidery Library sold Starbird, so the companies are no longer related. In 2003 Starbird launched their stock design website called www.starbirdstockdesigns.com. Our former parent company became our competitor. But we’re no longer affiliated with each other in any way.
EmbroideryIsland.com is a catalogue site for Embroidery Library. Most of the designs you’ll find at www.emblibrary.com can be found on EmbroideryIsland.com, without the supportive marketing element. There’s no copywriting, no affiliated projects, no prices, etc. For those customers of Embroidery Library who have their own businesses, the site offers their customers a great selection of designs to choose from, without the supportive marketing elements being a distraction.
Regarding the statement that multiple artists are contributing to the design catalog – yes, that’s true. Up until recently, Niamh drew about 95% of the designs for Urban Threads. The guest artists composed most of the remaining percentage, and another Embroidery Library artist drew a couple of skulls and cars, not a significant amount. In March, Urban Threads asked a former guest artist to draw 10 pieces per month, and he’s compensated for those pieces. The reason why Niamh isn’t drawing all of the designs is because she wants to offer a variety of subjects and styles to the community. The community has diverse desires and tastes, and the art at Urban Threads will reflect that.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to tell you that I’m signed up for your mailing list, and I’m your Facebook friend, too. My user id is xxxxxxxxx, which is my personal email address. Before you think that it’s suspicious that I didn’t use my business address – let me state that I wasn’t intending to hide my identity as the President of Embroidery Library. I used my personal address because I’m personally interested in your art and your business. I respect good businesses. I love how you nearly single-handedly revitalized and revolutionized the art of hand embroidery. You’ve not only done a fantastic job of providing the indie community with inspiration and excellent resources, but you’ve also emerged as a real, authentic, and respected leader in that community.
In your letter you write, “What I don’t understand, is why this company never asked to work with Sublime Stitching.” Three months ago my answer would have been that your business and Urban Threads are in different realms. Urban Threads focuses primarily on machine embroidery, and your history is with traditional hand embroidery.
However, earlier this year I read a recent poll that you conducted. I can’t remember all of the specifics, but it was the one where you asked about the usefulness of downloadable files for hand embroidery, and asked to see if machine embroidery designs would be popular. When I read those questions, I was really excited, because Urban Threads has always had downloadable hand embroidery designs, as well as machine embroidery designs. It seemed as though our different realms were going to come together and overlap, which looked like a great opportunity for a partnership.
I made a note to write to you and see if we could work together on the machine embroidery aspect – but I never did. My only excuse is that life, and business, got in the way of that communication. I do regret that I didn’t write to you. Had I contacted you sooner and told you our story, and introduced you to our incredible, amazing, talented team, you might be feeling a little better about Urban Threads right now. Please accept my sincere apology for that.
Did the Embroidery Library act deceptively? No, we did not. We filed the proper “DBA” notice with the Minnesota Secretary of State, and publicized similar notices in the newspaper, as is required. We set up the relationship as a “DBA” because it was more economical to do it that way. It’s our hope that when Urban Threads becomes financially self-sufficient, it can become its own legal entity.
After the site was launched, I sent an email to Embroidery Library customers, under my signature, asking them to visit UrbanThreads.com, to explore a great site that Niamh had started. I’ve never hidden the relationship, because hiding something implies that it’s wrong. Embroidery Library doesn’t do things that we’d be ashamed of.
Is Urban Threads disingenuous, pretending to be a small indie operation? No, it’s not. Niamh is the face, voice, and spirit of UrbanThreads.com, and she gets help from those with expertise and experience, the same as any other savvy business owner. And yes, she owns the business, along with 15 other employee-owners who are part of the Embroidery Library ESOP Trust.
And the DIY label? Is Niamh truly independent? Not in the concrete “indie” definition, no – she gets help from others. But no one ever does it alone. We all draw on the resources available to us to get things started. At the root of every indie business is a person trying to live their dreams. Embroidery Library helps Niamh to live hers.
I’ll be honest about the money, too. Urban Threads doesn’t make much – it makes enough to cover Niamh’s salary and the advertising. As Urban Threads is part of the Embroidery Library ESOP, anything left over is given to the employees through an annual stock allocation. We’re a pretty unique company. As I mentioned before, we don’t do business as usual.
But Niamh doesn’t do it for the money, and neither does anyone at the Embroidery Library. We all have a real passion for creating, for creativity, for art. That’s our focus, and those are our goals.
There are some concerns in your letter that I didn’t address, but I hope that I covered most of the main ones. I understand that you have some thoughts that different things were copied or re-purposed from your site. I’ve examined some of the examples that are posted on various blogs (I’m not sure who created those comparisons), and they’ve been manipulated to tell a story that doesn’t ring with truth. I’m not able to find any designs that are the same between the sites. I do believe that it’s a matter of inspiration being drawn from the same well.
I want to let you know – emphatically – that violating another person’s copyright is not tolerated at Embroidery Library, or at Urban Threads. We’ve been ripped off before, and we don’t like how it feels. Therefore we don’t do it to others. We respect others so that we can have respect for ourselves.
If you have specific examples of things that in your opinion are too similar for your comfort, please let me know. I won’t engage in a fruitless exercise of “she said – she said.” But I do take any allegations of infringement very seriously, and will work with you to resolve those concerns.
Thank you, Jenny, not only for reading this letter, but also for giving so much of your passion and heart to the embroidery community. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you and your company, and hope that we can work together some day to serve such an amazing group of creative, crafty folk.
Debra Mundinger, President
Embroidery Library, Inc.
Posted 4/28/2009 at http://www.flickr.com/photos/37909860@N00/3483332353/
You have been a long time friend and supporter of Sublime Stitching which is why I feel you would want to be aware of an upsetting and costly situation that we at Sublime Stitching, and by extension, others in the craft community are facing. I know you are busy, and this is a long email. I greatly appreciate your kind attention.
Not long ago I noticed the sudden appearance of a fully-formed and stocked website called “Urban Threads” ( www.urbanthreads.com ) with ads reading “Cool Embroidery Patterns for Hip Crafters” and "The Cure for Tame Embroidery". The site claims that Urban Threads is the creation of Niamh O’Connor whose “About Us” page shares photos of her and states:
"I noticed that the design industry lacked a certain type of art fitting today's savvy indie crafters. I wanted designs that fit a different kind of style. Since I couldn't find them, I decided I'd just have to make them myself. So I set about creating, and Urban Threads was born."
Hmm. Not happy that my model was being copied so boldly, my stated mission re-stated by someone else, or the suggestion that Sublime Stitching didn’t already exist, I nonetheless explored Niamh’s site to see how we might work together. Sublime Stitching supports, cross-promotes and works with many other independent contemporary needlework designers. We often seek collaboration rather than competition with other businesses, large and small.
As I kept up with Niamh’s work, I noticed increasingly blatant copying of Sublime Stitching designs, re-purposing of my instructional text, web content, blog topics, marketing advice for an indie business, creative ideas from my artwork (Niamh's French knots for a Braille message), even repeating quotes from interviews and well, adopting my personality! It was starting to get weirder and weirder and we didn't feel her actions were very DIY-friendly at all. Not to mention we were never linked or even acknowledged on her site. But, because the site claimed it was hers alone (with help from Karline!), I struggled with the right way to approach her about this.
It turns out, however, that Urban Threads is an “indie” front for a bigger, machine/digitized embroidery stock art company, Embroidery Library Inc. ( www.emblibrary.com/ ), that operates under numerous assumed names (Starbird Stock Designs Inc., Embroidery Island, and possibly others). “Urban Threads” appears to be their attempt to enter the “indie” market with hand embroidery, complete with a supposed “indie crafter” for a figurehead. The offices for each of these businesses are at a shared address, including “Niamh’s studio”, located in an industrial park outside Minneapolis (we Googlemapped it). We believe there are multiple artists contributing to the creation of the Urban Threads design catalog, apart from their "Artist Patterns", one of which is the work of a stock illustrator who designs for WalMart and Target.
Niamh claims on the Urban Threads website simply that “I used to intern for an embroidery design company” and that she later "started Urban Threads" while she is in fact currently employed by Embroidery Library Inc (since 2007) as an illustrator. We feel it’s clear the Urban Threads website is intended to look like a smaller, ‘homier’ operation to deceptively cater to those who specifically want to support independent businesses. But Embroidery Library Inc. owns the business name Urban Threads, has applied for a trademark for “Urban Threads” and owns the domain name urbanthreads.com (address and phone number are registered to their business), and they are apparently financing the marketing and operations from behind the scenes. As a true indie design company, we simply cannot compete with a larger, well-funded company that is targeting our business in an unfair way, while using resources that we, and others like us, do not have.
Niamh even wrote a blog entry on marketing and growing an indie business. I have offered advice to the DIY community on how to grow an independent business for years, with emails to those who ask, online forums, talks, workshops and my “Crafting a Business” column, based on my real, personal experience growing a non-funded, independent company. Niamh is active on Flickr, Twitter, and MySpace representing Urban Threads, directly targeting and building relationships with our customers, retailers and media contacts under the guise of an independent crafter and entrepreneur.
We feel these actions are willfully deceptive. Niamh O’Connor’s own website is here: www.artofembarr.com As far as I can tell, she doesn’t have any history as a crafter, or needleworker. She has significant errors on technique for hand embroidery in her instructions on Urban Threads, and she appears to rely heavily on my text and instructions, which are unique explanations of embroidery technique based on years of research and personal experience as a passionate embroiderer.
I am an independent entrepreneur only recently helped by four employees that work out of a converted garage (a nice one!). I founded and built Sublime Stitching in 2001 on a loan of $1,000 from my late father and made it what it is today. Sublime Stitching has never been backed or funded by another company. It has taken me eight years to produce Sublime Stitching’s current catalog of patterns. Urban Threads appeared virtually out of nowhere, fully stocked with themes identical to ours. I have a true passion for what I do. We still struggle to grow and meet the enormous demand for our unique designs. I am incredibly proud of my team, my work. I am so deeply proud to be a part of the DIY movement and enjoy its support, and nothing pleases me more than watching new, real, indie businesses thrive on the success of their own, unique offerings.
I have no problem with big companies (hey, I hope to be one someday), but I do have a problem with bigger companies pretending to be smaller than they are in order to deceive those who choose to purchase from real indie businesses. What I don’t understand, is why this company never asked to work with Sublime Stitching.
Credibility and authenticity are the cornerstones of DIY craft movement, both for independent business owners and the customers who support them. I feel strongly that the DIY community should be made aware of Embroidery Library Inc.'s deceptive actions.
I do believe Urban Threads' disingenuous positioning as a small “indie” operation will be discovered, and you are free to share this information. Facts are facts, and there is no penalty for sharing them if you choose to. Everyone has a right to voice their own opinion about this.
What are we doing about it? Sublime Stitching has some specific, brazen copyright and unfair competition issues that we feel obligated to pursue in order to protect my company. We are taking aggressive legal action, but we know that our greatest strength comes from the support we have earned over the last eight years in this active, vibrant and aware community.
Thank you for reading this. If you have any questions for me about this matter, I will glady try to answer them.
*GIANT BELEAGUERED SIGH*
x - x - x - x
owner / founder
This Ain't Your Gramma's Embroidery!