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.
A Dutch knitter living Stateside, Linda Wilgus loves designing all things seamless. Many of her designs are vintage-inspired Linda shares a house in Chesapeake, VA, with her husband, two daughters, a sock-stealing golden retriever and heaps of yarn. See more of her designs at Woolly mammoth knits or find her on Ravelry as linw.
Watching my toddler and baby daughters build a tower out of Lego Duplo pieces recently, it occurred to me that designing knitting patterns is quite a lot like playing with blocks. You pick which blocks to use, it’s fun, sometimes challenging and the end result is a creation all your own. Oh, and sometimes it all comes crashing down and you get to start again.
It’s the creation-all-your-own bit that got me designing knitting patterns. I had first learned to knit when I was eight years old. My best friend’s mom taught us both; I’m still proud of the fact that my best friend at the time was a boy and his otherwise fairly conservative mother was happy to get us both going with a set of needles and some white worsted cotton. I don’t recall if my friend took to the craft, but I definitely didn’t, giving up on my “scarf for my doll” project after approximately four inches, by which time I had dubbed my finished object a rug for my doll’s house. Some eighteen years later I found myself living in Naples, Italy, about to be married to my US Navy boyfriend and with a lot of time on my hands. In a book shop on a US Naval base in the area I stumbled upon copy of Debbie Stoller’s Stitch and Bitch and after reconnecting with the knitting basics and completing a few projects I began designing my own patterns.
When coming up with a design, I make use of five basic “designing blocks”. Just like with the Duplo, I pick and choose. Not all blocks go into each design, but if you design enough patterns you’ll likely use each of these eventually. I love to play with these five:
The mother of all creation. Inspiration can be found anywhere. I wish I could say I usually find it in something wonderfully romantic such as the way the sunlight in the Fall hits the trees or the patterns raindrops make on the window but as often as not it’s as simple as the vaguely nagging feeling that I really, really want to knit something with cables. I enjoy finding inspiration in travel and in some of the different places I have lived while moving around Europe and the US. For garments, I often look to vintage fashion. I adore the New Look styles of the 1950s and early 60s, as well as the mod fashion that came into vogue the following decade. My fifties-inspired cardigan design, Peggy Sue, is a good example for this (you can get your free copy of the pattern on my website if you like it).
Sometimes this block happily links up, Duplo-style, with block number three, the yarn. Some types of yarn tell me exactly what type of project they want to become or what kind of stitch pattern they prefer to be knit into. An example of this is a neckscarf I designed about two years ago, Meanderlust. The thick and thin hand-dyed bulky yarn I used for this pattern formed the basis of the design. While we’re at it, if you were to want to try your hand at designing something yourself, a neckscarf is a wonderfully straight-forward project that you can easily make all your own using these designing blocks. What inspires you?
2. Stitch patterns galore
Usually my second stop on the design train, a stitch pattern is easy to find if you have one or more stitch dictionaries to peruse, but it can be hard to choose. There are so many pretty ones! The key is experimentation. What works with the yarn you have in mind? Do you want to keep things simple with straightforward knits and purls? Cables for something aran-esque or the delicate side of things with a serving of lace in a lightweight yarn? It’s fun to go for something unexpected sometimes, too, as I ended up doing with Meanderlust. I knew I wanted to knit the thick and thin bulky yarn into some serious cables, but it came as a bit of a surprise to me that a lace edging looked nice in this yarn as well. When you’ve picked your stitch pattern, it’s time to move on to number three.
3. The yummiest one: the yarn
This one I find most fun: pick your yarn. It’s a bit like the moebius cowl of knitting design: what yarn fits your stitch pattern? What stitch pattern fits your yarn? But whether it’s the chicken or the egg, it’s the ultimate excuse for having a big stash and better yet, also the ultimate excuse for another trip to the yarn store (not that you need an excuse).
4. Sketches and swatches
I’m not very good at drawing, but sometimes it does help to sketch a design idea. Swatching, however, is a must if you want to get a sense of whether your stitch pattern works with your yarn. Just work up a little square and see how you like it. This quickly brings us to design block number five…
5. Shape and sizes
Your swatch will tell you your gauge in your chosen stitch pattern and yarn. When working on a garment design this step will take some time as it involves crunching the numbers for all the different sizes. Not my favorite part of designing! It’s why I’m happy to work with a brilliant tech editor, who makes sure my math adds up. For a neck scarf this step is easy: take your stitch and row count per inch, decide how long and wide you’d like your scarf to be and work as many stitches accordingly. You’ll want to make sure the amount of stitches you cast on is a multiple of the stitches required to create your stitch pattern, and that’s it! Easy peasy knitting design, like playing with blocks.