After a further round of explaining what the heck is going on to my nearest and dearest (after this article was published in the Seattle Times), I figured it was time to record, once and for all, everything I know or have heard about the Alice Starmore Controversy.
If you are relatively new to knitting, or perhaps have lived under a rock, you may not have heard of this controversy. Perhaps you have never heard of Alice Starmore. Or perhaps you have heard of Alice Starmore, but are blissfully unaware of the alleged legalities of even uttering her name (yes, I’m being a little facetious here).
If you require an introduction to Alice Starmore’s designs, go to a library or your local knitting shop and look her up. You will find that some of her books (all are out of print at the time of writing, December 2002) are hard to come by at reasonable prices–check out eBay. Her current work is presently distributed in a different format at Virtual Yarns. We’ll be returning to eBay and Virtual Yarns later in this chronicle.
Starmore’s work is astounding and, standing alone, deserves a wide audience. However, as you read on, you will see that the issues in this controversy have become so personal that it is difficult for many people to discuss Alice Starmore’s designs without also reflecting on Alice Starmore’s actions. Who, if anyone, is to blame for this is for you to decide. The outcome of this controversy is yet to come.
Parts of this chronicle are based on personal knowledge; I was “there,” so to speak, or involved in some way. Other parts are based on hearsay; I have indicated where this is the case. Of course I can’t vouch for the accuracy of second-hand information. I can merely confirm that it was information provided to me, and I didn’t make it up. Where my own opinion slips in, I have stated so clearly. If you know better about any parts of the story and wish to share your knowledge, then add a comment.
Oh… and if you wish to threaten legal action as a result of any of the statements made here in good faith, please consider the ramifications carefully.
Once upon a time…
There was a Yahoo! Club called assupportgroup (Yahoo! has since converted its Clubs to Groups) set up in 1999 to discuss Alice Starmore and her fabulous designs. Members talked about their current projects and triumphantly announced their FOs. They helped each other collect the yarns needed to knit up the Starmore designs, which could take some doing because most of the original yarns used in her patterns were discontinued by August 10, 2000.
The issue about the discontinued yarns needs some explaining, because it gave rise to the present controversy.
You may be aware that the later of Alice Starmore’s books supported a yarn range (all 100% wool) branded ALICE STARMORE. There was Scottish Heather, a worsted weight yarn in blended shades; Scottish Fleet, a 5-ply guernsey yarn in a limited solid colour range; Bainin, an aran weight yarn in a broader solid colour range; Dunedin, a fingering-weight wool with a fine finish and soft touch; and most importantly (for this saga) Scottish Campion, the fine weight yarn used for Fair Isle knitting. The earlier Alice Starmore books, however, were published before this yarn range came into existence. Fisherman Knits and The Celtic Collection, for example, made use of Rowan yarns. Many of these yarns, however, were discontinued by Rowan after these books were published, which was especially problematic for knitters who wished to work up Starmore’s Fair Isle designs. Guernsey and aran style designs could of course be knitted with any suitable weight yarn still on the market–5-ply guernsey yarn in a similar colour range has always been available, as well as countless aran-weight yarns–but the colourways in Starmore’s Fair Isle designs could not be duplicated once supplies of yarn such as Rowan Silkstones or Edina Ronay silk/wool ran out.
I don’t have the particulars of when or why Rowan chose to discontinue these yarns. All I do know is that by the time I had discovered Alice Starmore (which was around 1998, I think), many of those yarns were already hard to come by. It can now take years–and hundreds of dollars–to collect the original yarns to knit some of these designs. Knitters who possess these yarns in their stashes will not part with them easily.
At some time, then, prior to 1998, Alice Starmore created her own yarn range. According to the trademark applications filed for the ALICE STARMORE mark, she claims use of the mark since 1994 in association with yarns and threads, so if this is correct the yarn range must date from that year. Scottish Campion, at least, was produced by Jamieseon & Smith, a Scottish mill which was already engaged in the production of Fair Isle yarns. Production was later switched to Jamieson Spinning, another Scottish mill. I have been told–and this is some of that hearsay I mentioned–that the supplier was switched because of a difference of opinion between Starmore and J&S. Starmore allegedly wanted J&S to carry her line of yarns exclusively. J&S allegedly refused, already having a healthy market for its own brand of yarn. At any event, by the time the ALICE STARMORE range was discontinued in 2000, Scottish Campion and Heather were being produced by Jamieson.
The ALICE STARMORE yarns were distributed in Europe by Jamieson, and in the United States by the Broad Bay Company. This latter company was the result of a partnership between Alice Starmore and a person in the United States. Broad Bay also distributed her later books, such as In The Hebrides, which supported the new yarn range. Business was apparently booming up to 1998, but around the time of publication of Tudor Roses, there was a falling out between Starmore and her business partner.
Alice Starmore’s version of these events was told in a letter addressed to yarn retailers. An electronic copy was distributed on assupportgroup in June 2000 (see messages 127, 128, 129, and 130). In her letter, Starmore suggested that there had been a conspiracy by her distributors to force her out of business and reap the rewards of the ALICE STARMORE name themselves. Apparently in August 1998 her partner had abruptly announced he wanted out; Broad Bay was therefore dissolved; and Starmore, desperate for a U.S. distributor, turned to Unicorn Books & Crafts, to whom she licensed the ALICE STARMORE trademark. About ten months later, according to Starmore, she discovered that her former partner was working for Unicorn. Around that time, she discovered that Unicorn, as licensee, had been using the ALICE STARMORE name in association with a design competition (it is possible that this use was permitted by the licence agreement; I haven’t seen it). Also, Starmore also learned that Jamieson was planning to launch its own competing line of yarns, which would duplicate colours from the ALICE STARMORE range.
Alice Starmore therefore decided to terminate her European distribution agreement with Jamieson in January 2000. According to the Starmore letter, Jamieson responded by threatening to suspend shipments of ALICE STARMORE yarn if she began using any yarn but theirs, and Unicorn demanded that its distribution agreement with her be amended to allow Unicorn to terminate distribution should Jamieson suspend shipment. Starmore’s response was to agree to a termination of the Unicorn distribution agreement, effective August 10, 2000. A new book in the works by Starmore and her daughter, Jade, was put on hiatus. Starmore also reminded retailers that she and her daughter were the exclusive owners of copyright in all her books. In her letter, she revoked any permission to reproduce images from most of the publications using the ALICE STARMORE yarn range (for example, a retailer previously might have reproduced a small image of a book cover on a website or in a catalogue), but did permit reproduction of the covers of Aran Knitting and The Children’s Collection (which were the most recent publications using ALICE STARMORE yarn), and the books which relied on Rowan yarns.
From the details I have learned from others, the ex-Broad Bay partner did not jump ship directly from Broad Bay to Unicorn. He had thought that he was leaving the yarn distribution business after Broad Bay; however, once Unicorn had acquired the distribution contract, it found itself in need of a person with his sort of experience (Unicorn had never distributed knitting yarn before). And so, months later, he began working for Unicorn. Furthermore, whatever reasons Unicorn had for desiring to terminate its association with Starmore, apparently Starmore was not happy with the sales of Unicorn-distributed A Collector’s Item, which consisted exclusively of Jade Starmore’s designs.
Having made the decision to terminate the Unicorn contract, Starmore put her words into action. For example, a knitting shop owner, disappointed with the new restrictions on the publication of book images and with a stock of ALICE STARMORE yarn yet to sell, announced that she would post pictures of customers with their completed Alice Starmore creations on her website. This announcement resulted in a cease-and-desist letter from Graham Starmore on behalf of Alice Starmore. (This letter used to be available to view at the Yarn Barn website; it’s not there any longer.)
Anyway, back to our Yahoo! Club. Now, the Club format was not very convenient to use; for example, while messages were delivered, mailing list-style, to all members, a member could not reply to the list without accessing the Yahoo! website. Participation, therefore, was minimal–there were all of 159 messages in its first full year (according to the group homepage in December 2002, the Club was started on January 17, 1999; the first full year was therefore 2000). So a club member started up the Yahoo! Group alicestarmore in April 2001, with the hope that there would be more discussion (the group is now called starmoreknitters). And indeed, in the first two months the Group’s traffic exceeded a year’s worth of the Club.
Of course, there was much discussion on the Group as to the acquisition and substitution of ALICE STARMORE yarns, just as there had been with the Club. And of course, there were those who did not know the background (as provided to members of assupportgroup), and so there was discussion about this as well, and the treatment by the Starmores of individual shop owners who had carried her products for years–topics on which it was difficult not to have a personal opinion. Finally, in February 2002, for whatever reason, the owner of the Group declared that rehashing the past was a prohibited topic, and that anyone who wrote about the distribution history of ALICE STARMORE yarns would be put on moderation. Even now, all posts are moderated, and membership is restricted pending the listowner’s approval.
However, there were many people who still wanted to know the story behind the discontinuation of the yarn range, and many who felt that the Group owner’s edict was an unwarranted incursion on their rights. Accordingly, a new Yahoo! Group was formed, called AliceStarmoreOpenForum, which invited discussion of all things Starmore–good or bad.
Don’t bother looking for AliceStarmoreOpenForum–it’s long since gone from Yahoo!. The reason why, and the fallout from its disappearance, is the subject of Part Two of The Alice Chronicles.