Knitting designer series: Everything I could ever want out of a job

by Admin on 16/10/2012

in Guest series Knitting 2012, knitting+crochet+yarn

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.

Kate Gagnon Osborn is co-owner of Kelbourne Woolens [Blog], distributor of the Fibre Company yarns. Along with a popular line of patterns published through Kelbourne Woolens and her books co-authored with business partner Courtney Kelley, Vintage Modern Knits (Interweave Press, 2012) and November Knits (Interweave Press, 2012), Kate’s designs have appeared in Vogue KnittingInterweave Knits and Knitscene, as well as in books such as Weekend Hats, Knit Local, New England Knits and The Best of Knitscene. Kate lives in Philadelphia with her husband, daughter and menagerie of rescued dogs and cats in an early 1900s brownstone they are painstakingly renovating from the ground up.

My role as the co-owner of a yarn distribution company and knitwear designer embodies everything I could ever want out of a job. Each day brings a new challenge, a new opportunity to be creative and apply logic to running a growing business. I am never bored, always busy, adding to and crossing off items on my lengthy to-do list.

As an undergrad studying fine art, I was encouraged to take a very cerebral approach to my work – lots of research, discussion and writing went into each piece. As a grad student studying textile design, first as a knitwear and then ultimately finishing the program with a weaving concentration, the focus was always on the industry – mood boards, color stories, design inspiration and marketability ruled the day. Although pursuing art during my educational studies was always what I wanted to do, I struggled with many of the aspects I faced of being an art student in the two vastly different programs.

It became very clear during the course of both experiences that the world of “fine art” was not one I was built for, yet the dishearteningly corporate focus of the industry most of my fellow students were moving towards was also not a good fit. Having a meaningful “reason” behind my art was difficult for me – so much of what I did was because I enjoyed the process of things. Working in a sketchbook was not my strong suit – I just wanted to make something.

While in grad school I was working at a yarn store and was given my first opportunity to design patterns for the hand knitter. From the beginning, the focus was always on the yarn; the colors I liked to knit with, what I most wanted to wear, which fibers appealed to me. I was able to find my niche, to do something that appealed to all facets of my personality and utilized what I loved most about art: the process of creating, the making of things, and creating something both practical and beautiful.

Since founding Kelbourne Woolens in 2008 with Courtney Kelley, as the distributors of Fibre Company yarns, we are responsible for color development, pattern support, branding, marketing, new yarn development, shipping, billing and everything else running a small company entails. We are constantly designing with both the hand-knitter and shop owner in mind: our method of approaching knitwear design is one that always asks the question How can we best showcase the yarn? Over the years, as we have designed and developed additional yarns to add to the line – Acadia in 2011 and Tundra this year – and the process of swatching, tweaking the fiber content by adding 5% here and removing 5% there, re-swatching, pouring over lab dips and creating designs for each new line takes time but that is ultimately what creates what we feel is a beautiful yarn that contributes something to the industry.

When working on our books Vintage Modern Knits and November Knits, we had to think broadly in chapters that evoked a certain time and place and design within an established color palette, but also with a macro lens on each individual project and which traditional technique we wanted to showcase. Our goal for the book was to create a collection of designs that paid homage to traditional knitting techniques while maintaining a more modern style and fit. This “thesis” has carried over in most of what I do when designing – although my inspiration, color palette, goals or desired featured technique may change, my goal is to always create a pattern that utilizes the best that knitting has to offer.

For each individual design, whether destined for a large compilation such as Vintage Modern Knits, or as a single pattern for Vogue Knitting, or one to be used in a collection of designs published under the Kelbourne Woolens line, it begins with a swatch. So many stitch patterns that seem perfect in my mind need adjustments – a color change here, additional stitch pattern there – before finding themselves in a new design.

While knitting an unsuccessful swatch, I sometimes get discouraged. Since my daughter was born in March, I find my knitting time more precious than ever, and I can easily fall into the trap of viewing a night of swatching as a night of knitting wasted, especially if the end result ends up being a dud. I recently went through a large box we keep in our office, humbly labeled “swatches”, and found a treasure trove of knitting. There were hats in progress I had completely forgotten about, cable patterns that didn’t work at the time (although now I have no idea why) and lace edgings meant for an as-yet-knit shawl. There were some swatches I still considered duds, but at least they are there to remind me not to try that particular color combination or stitch pattern again.

After swatching and I’ve determined gauge, the pattern writing begins. Or, more aptly, the knitting begins. Every single time I’ve knit a new design, I tell myself this is the time where I’m going to write – and if it is a garment, size it! – before I knit. This is never the case. I am not a designer who can write a pattern and send it off to a sample knitter, having the bare minimum of interaction with the finished piece. I need to be involved in the process from start to finish, making changes as I go, following my instincts to rip out inches of a sleeve or having the confidence to continue on, trusting the end result will materialize as planned. Inevitably, my designs evolve as I knit them, and decisions are made as the knitting happens. Once the project is complete, I go back to write the final draft of the pattern, referencing the notes I have made throughout the knitting process.

I consider myself ridiculously lucky to be where I am in life. Yes, I wish there were more hours in the day (or less sleep needed) so I could do all the things swirling in my head, but continually working to find the balance between business and a creative life, revelling in the process of it all, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suzanne October 16, 2012 at 9:17 am

I have knit with this yarn and boy, is it ever delicious. Thanks for reminding me that swatching is never wasted knitting. Sometimes those stitches just need to marinate so they can grow up and be something beautiful.


2 Lee October 28, 2012 at 11:25 am

I am just starting down the knitwear design path and that is exactly the way I approach it. I have to knit it first, work it out on the needles. I am getting better at keeping notes of what I did (learned the hard way). Thanks for letting me know I am not the only one who works this way.


3 Connie July 19, 2013 at 10:13 pm

What a lovely page. I also started out as a textile designer, loving fibers, colors and stitches. I also grew up in Philadelphia and taught in that Master of Textiles program, and found as you have, that knitting swatches is a decadent luxury. I still love it almost as much as chocolate and reading thick novels, though I get the chance so infrequently as I did when real quality sweaters were what I designed for stores that appreciated them, in mills that are long gone from the Philadelphia skyline. When I was living in Philly during the winter, knit design was my version of comfort food. Your page is refreshing in validating pure creativity and the pursuit of a true joy. Your words are inspiring. Thank you.


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