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.
Enchanted Rock Cardigan, in its final version. Photo by Kennedy Berry.
Designing in a vacuum can be a little scary. Two years ago I started doing just that and there were so many choices and possibilities that I found it paralyzing. For the first few months I got almost nothing done. It wasn’t a conscious decision to start designing with stories as inspiration, but in the last year I’ve been thinking about my design process and the new understanding that I’ve been doing this all along has made a huge difference. Maybe the biggest surprise was realizing that I learned this approach a long time ago.
When I was in high school I worked at the National Park in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I had a wonderful boss and mentor who taught me about interpreting everyday objects to find the story underneath, a technique which goes by the fancy name Material Culture.
One of my favorite ways to do this was to repair clothing in the exhibits and talk about the amount of work it took to make clothes all by hand; in the days before Ready Made clothing was widely available, several friends might all go in on one of the new Singer sewing machines and share it round robin. It’s a small story, but the reality is that access to that kind of technology could completely change your life.
The point of Material Culture is to clarify a larger idea – to make a concept as big as the Industrial Revolution small enough to be relatable. We learned to do this with thousands of objects in the Park’s exhibits and I suppose at some point I started working backwards – instead of telling stories found in old objects, I wanted to start making new objects that told stories.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, from Maryland Heights. Photo by CB Cross.
For the Enchanted Rock Cardigan [pictured at top], I knew that I wanted something that would work with Hill Country Weavers’s theme for their new book, Prairie Bliss Book 1, but I didn’t know the story yet. I started building an inspiration board in Pinterest, using search terms like Prairie, Texas, Austin, Cowgirl, and Hill Country.
After I assembled the board I took a step back to let the photos all slip to the unconscious part of my mind. Mostly when I use Pinterest this way I’m trying to get the overall feeling right, to put myself in the mood I want to create.
Then I started swatching, and I swatched hard. My guiding principles with the Enchanted Rock Cardigan were: feminine but not girly, outdoorsy, vintage. I started thinking about walking through the Hill Country and seeing little streams running between the rocks; that led me to my lace pattern. I wanted something Cowgirlish too, and that brought me to my edging.
Swatch and Sketch of Enchanted Rock Cardigan – my working title at the time was “Follow the Creek”.
When I had a concept I took my swatch and sketch to the Hill Country Weavers and we had a small summit meeting over the matter of yarn. We eventually chose The Fibre Company’s Acadia; a yarn and a color combination we all thought fit in with the mood and guiding principles. The name came after I remembered a previous trip to Enchanted Rock – a park in the Hill Country with an enormous pink granite hill that gives it its name.
Designing based on stories
That project came from a story I made up – walking in the Hill Country. I often work the other way around; starting with the story and going toward images. This spring I reread one of my favorite books, The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, and I decided I was going to spend this summer designing three shawls based on it.
The Blue Castle takes place in the early 1920s, in and near Deerwood, Ontario, Canada, (the town is probably Bala, Ontario). It’s a romantic little story about Valancy Stirling, a very sad woman who lives a miserable, poor life with her controlling and unpleasant family. She gets a little brave and moves out to an island on Lake Mistawis (probably Lake Muskoka) and the more she lives with the woods and the water the more her world starts to come alive. Also, there’s a man.
I decided to do three shawls about very specific places in the book, and that their names would be Valancy’s Island, Up Back (that’s the rough-and-tumble area outside of Deerwood), and Mistawis – the last two will be coming out in a couple of weeks.
Swatch and Sketch of Valancy’s Island.
Valancy’s Island would be related to the woods and the water, with a certain springlike, flowery-lace quality. Again, I swatched prodigiously. I decided there would be a panel in the center that was flower or tree inspired, and that the edges should wave and scallop. I didn’t want to get too busy with the lace, so I added in some plain rows between the lace rows, to emphasize the waves. I ended with lace and really wanted to show the delicate nature of the edging so I added a picot bind off. In the end I do think the shawl captures the outdoorsy-romance I love so much in the book.
Valancy’s Island, in its final version.
I find that at its root designing is about making decisions. I like to work within the framework of a story, whether it’s a one-line story I tell myself, or a 300 page story told to many thousands of people because it gives those decisions some structure. And it’s an inexhaustible source – finding inspiration in stories is like being the only person fishing in the ocean with one pole – you’re never going to run out of fish. There are such an infinite variety of strange, beautiful, sad, and odd stories out there, and they mean such different things to each person who reads, or hears, or knits them. I’ll never be able to knit all of the stories I want to in my life. But I’m willing to try.