Knitting designer series: Processing

by contributor on September 20, 2012

in Guest series Knitting 2012

Knitting designer series: I invited a few of my favourite knitwear designers to discuss their design process and inspiration and to share some tips and ideas too.

Alison Brookbanks has been blogging for 8 years as sixandahalfstitches [6.5st] and sells knitwear patterns under the same name on Ravelry. She gets very preoccupied with the process of designing and documenting it photographically.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pattern writing, and how I come to be where I am. What are my philosophies, how do I write patterns, and how does that affect the final product? What do I expect of the person using the pattern?

I write patterns both for self publishing through Ravelry and wholesale through retail stores, and by commission for yarn companies who have approached me to design specifically for them. Both outlets for writing and designing have different constraints and expectations. I think it’s important to understand when you buy a pattern off someone, how they work, and why they’ve approached their pattern writing the way that they have – understanding the writers background and approach to design will help you immensely when using their patterns.

Ravelry has had a huge impact on the speed and accessibility of design, patterns, influence and inspiration. It has also made consumers demanding. Through Ravelry, any one can set up a store, upload a PDF, and make it available either for free or for a fee. Anyone can be a designer. It is fantastic that this is available to everyone – that there is an easy and accessible method of making information available, and that there can be a benefit for the person who has taken the time and effort to create the PDF and their followers. But not everyone is a designer. Not everyone has studied fashion, taken classes in pattern drafting, not everyone understands the human body, or the difference between size ranges. Not everyone has access to tech editors or test knitters, or the finances to employ them upfront before they know whether the pattern will work financially. And not everyone wants a book deal or a career out of the end product. And that should be OK. Not everyone can, or should, be a slick PR marketing dream, and nor should we scold them if they’re not. We have, as a community, become demanding of slick perfection.

I’m saying all that, because I am that person. I started writing patterns – like many knitters out there, because so many people wrote and asked for patterns of what I was making. And when people actively follow how I dress myself and my children, admire those choices, and want to replicate that for themselves, it’s natural for me to want to help them with instructions on how I modified something, or the pattern I created to make something. I’m not a ‘designer’ in a fashion sense. The patterns I sell bring in a small amount of money, but are few and far between because I do not have the time to devote to creating patterns. If I write a pattern, I want it to be worth while – something I’m incredibly proud of design and wear wise.

Over the years I’ve taught myself enough about pattern writing that I think I can explain my process clearly enough, but it often feels like a ‘fudging’ process. I’ve studied patterns I’ve liked and thought were a good fit, I’ve filed away techniques to be tried and used later, and I’ve researched where I’ve needed to research. But I’m not an expert. I don’t know 20 different ways to cast on, or the perfect increase. I have techniques I like to use, and, yes, there are probably better techniques out there. My tool box, compared to others, is quite basic.

What I expect out of a ‘fudging’ process is that working on any design or pattern, there is a degree of flexibility and intuition involved in reading and making something. I provide a template to make something with – but every single knitter out there has a different way of approaching things, a different interpretation of wording, a different set of techniques that they like to use, a different body form to the next person — even if they are the same size. There is no pattern I can write that will be perfect for every knitter’s own personal scenario, and it would be foolish to expect any designer to achieve that particularly given the size ranges we are asked to cater for. I provide a template that knitters can, and should, modify to suit their body, their preferences, and their style. I try to catch as many things as I can before I publish, but most of the time it’s just me and hours and hours [and hours] of proof reading and drafting on my part.

I design knitwear like I sew – and that confuses some people. I look at a piece of knitwear as a piece of fabric – it can be shaped, molded, folded, stretched and manipulated just like a piece of fabric can be. I like to do things that don’t normally fall into the realm of knitting patterns, and I expect that knitters follow, embrace, and trust that things have been done for a reason even if they don’t make sense right then and there. A number of my patterns have been based on sewn projects I’ve done, using the same templates and techniques to put it together. I expect a degree of recognition about what you are creating, and a degree of flexibility to manipulate what you have to make it work for you if that is required.

I will soon have a number of patterns published through a yarn company and that has been an incredible experience to work through as a designer. For the first time I’m using a tech editor, and the patterns are going through a much more rigorous testing process which is fantastic and humbling. That can be frustrating at times, as I realise different cultural backgrounds play a big part in pattern understanding. Not just nationality, but also design culture backgrounds. I come from a background where design is, and has to be, a fluid process, albeit an exact one. I work in collaboration with clients, builders and contractors who all massage a design in many ways before a final product is completed. It doesn’t mean the original drawings were wrong to begin with – it means we all entered into a design process. And that’s the way I approach my knitwear patterns as well – it’s a process. Patterns are not absolute, regardless of whether you’ve paid money for them or not. They help guide you through a process to an outcome. One which will be different for every person who makes the garment.

Believe in the process, trust the process, and don’t be afraid to manipulate, or alter for yourself. Similarly, understand the designer cannot design for every situation, every cultural interpretation, or each level of experience. We need to also stop and acknowledge that there is a lot of hard work behind the scenes with pattern writing, and sometimes we are working with the basic tools that we have available to us. Each pattern I release is a refinement on my process, my writing skills, and my acknowledgement that people interpret differently. Embrace the availability of writers, as a resource wealth, and support designers trying to make their creativity accessible.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suzanne September 20, 2012 at 9:43 am

Yes, Yes, Yes!!! I recognize Alison’s name and her work from Ravelry. I so appreciate learning about the angle by which she approaches her designs. For anyone not familiar with her projects on Ravelry, please do go take a look. Not only are her designs beautiful, her photography is breathtaking.

2 Seanna Lea September 20, 2012 at 11:42 am

It is interesting hearing people talk about things as a fudging process. This makes it feel much more accessible to people getting into design, especially with things like accessories.

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