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.

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: 

1. Inspiration

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.


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.


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.

Hilary Smith Callis lives in San Francisco with her husband and toddler son. You can find her line of knitting patterns at theyarniad and find her on Ravelry as theyarniad. 

After I’ve published a new pattern, I often talk about my inspiration for the design, but I only focus on what it looks like. Rarely, if ever, do I get down into the details of how the pattern itself comes about. In my fantasies, after I have an idea for a design and make a little sketch, I just sit down one day and knit the whole thing. But the truth is that there is a whole lot of planning and math that makes a design what it is. So I thought I’d tell the story of a pattern, my Indicum Pullover, from start to finish, and include all the gory details, whether glamorous or not (because seriously, math is not very glamorous). [Pictured above]

The Idea

The idea for Indicum came from something I spotted on The Sartorialist some months ago. You couldn’t see much of the woman’s sweater (and I didn’t even save the photo), but it looked like a big pink crewneck pullover with some orange peeking through the ribbing at the sleeve cuffs and hem – and that orange ribbing really caught my eye. I jotted down “simple stockinette pullover with corrugated ribbing at hems” in my planner then just couldn’t get it out of my head.

The Sketching

Armed with inspiration and the seed of an idea, I got to work figuring out the details of the design – what specifically did I want this thing to look like? Now, I am not exactly skilled in the area of drawing, so unless I’m making a fashion-y sketch for a design submission, I don’t spend much time on this part. My sketches for self-published designs are more like schematics: two-dimensional representations of the finished piece, with construction notes and some measurements thrown in as well.

During this part of the process, I also spend some time standing in front of the mirror with a tape measure and a top with a similar fit to what I’m going for in my new design. I tug and measure, then tug and measure some more, noting at what depth I like the neckline best, and how long I want the sleeve to be (and, no, I will not be sharing a picture of this).

The Swatching

With Indicum, I immediately knew what yarn I wanted to use for the majority of the sweater. I’d had some lovely indigo-colored Malabrigo Sock in my stash just waiting for the right idea for a couple of years. To decide on the contrast color for the corrugated ribbing, I started sketching again, but this time in yarn.

The neon green Koigu KPM had more contrast than I wanted, and the ribbing with two colors was just a little too much. But I fell in love with the purple yarn alone. It’s Plucky Knitter Primo Fingering and is just variegated/semi-solid enough that the purl bumps show up slightly differently in different rows. This was it.

The Math

Now, the math part of designing and pattern writing is something I always dread but end up having a great time doing. After the sketching and playing around with yarn, it’s like a little workout for the other side of my brain. It also feels like solving a puzzle and is so gratifying when all the pieces fall into place.

The first step is to do a nice big swatch, wash it, block it, and get a good, accurate gauge (remember this). Next, I plug my gauge and my target measurements into a spreadsheet and start calculating stitches and rows for all the different sizes I’ll offer. Excel does the multiplication and addition, but I have to pay close attention to make sure I haven’t entered any funny formulas or have any incorrect cell references. I also really have to pay attention to things like multiples of stitches (e.g. multiple of 3 for the ribbing, multiple of 2 for the bust, since I need to be able to divide it by 2) and that I don’t have more decrease repeats than rows in which to do them, etc. The spreadsheet I use is based on one I downloaded from Marnie Maclean’s fantastic tutorial on grading/sizing using Excel and I’ve adapted it over the past couple of years to suit my needs.

If my design has a feature (like Indicum’s scoop neck created with short rows done at the same time as circular yoke shaping) that can’t just be plugged into Excel, sketching can help me visualize how the math works out.

(Don’t ask me what any of this means – it ceases to make sense the minute I start thinking about something else.)

The Knitting

This is the part I really love. Unfortunately, this is also the part where I find out if my math is wrong, my sizing is funky, or, in the case of Indicum, that my gauge swatch totally lied to me. Now, occasionally the stars align and a sample turns out perfectly the first time and doesn’t require any math adjusting or tinking back. But Indicum… oh, Indicum… I knit almost the entire sweater before realizing my gauge was off by a stitch (Gauge swatch? 22sts per 4”. Reality? 21sts per 4”. Just enough to make the sweater totally too big. UGH). So, the math was re-done, Indicum was ripped out, and I started knitting it a second time. But the second one worked out just like I’d planned. Yes!

The pattern-writing process could easily take up a book of its own, so I’ll stop here. But, suffice it to say, quite a bit goes into taking a design from a little spark of inspiration in your head to an actual knitted garment, and there’s nothing quite like seeing it all come together. I encourage everyone who is so inclined to give it a try. Just be sure to double-check your gauge.


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.

Karen lives and knits in Canada – her day is not complete without knitting a few rows – you can follow her on her blog (in French only) and on her Pinterest.

robe tunique à feuilles

I asked Karen a few questions about her design process and her knitwear designs for children.

You love designing for children – and your designs are so wearable, but with delightful details, can you discuss a little about your designs for children?

I really love the garter stitch, especially on kids’ garment, it is stretchy and classic and never goes out of fashion, so I try to integrate this stitch in most of my patterns. And knowing that my two girls are wearing their sweaters at school, I don’t feel comfortable knitting them with an expensive yarn, that’s why Cascade 220 is by far my favourite choice (yardage and colour choice for the price are unbeatable), and I would stress less if they come home with a tear in the cardigan.

To be honest I would love to knit for myself, and most of the ideas of design that are in my sketchbook are for adults – the thing is, I gained a lot of weight and I don’t feel comfortable knitting what I have in mind for the silhouette I have. That’s why my two girls (6 and 10) are the ones who benefit from my ideas.

In 2011 I was very fortunate to be contacted by a French publisher to write a knitting book for beginners – one of the patterns is a baby tunic with flowers, and when my youngest daughter asked for the same I took the opportunity to use the same flower motif but put it on a cardigan, that’s how Little Buds was born.

When I have an idea for designing a children’s garment I often start with a few sketches on paper, then I knit a swatch and start knitting for one of my daughters – I take notes as I go – and it’s only if I have requests for a pattern that I do the maths for multiple sizes – I consider myself a beginner in designing knitting patterns and my way of doing it may evolve in the future…

Tell us more about your book and the designs within.

My book was published a year ago (only in French) tricot mes secrets de fabrication. It is about MY way of knitting – I love using top down technique, magic loop and simple designs – but because it is intended for the beginner knitter it was not an easy task to put myself in the place of a beginner who doesn’t know how to knit. The book starts with the basic skills all knitters need to know, with some drawings (cast on, knit and purl row, increases/decreases etc..), I knit all the projects and I had almost all the freedom for the designs (except that I had to keep in mind the beginner level i.e no cables or more specific techniques) – it took me 3 months to knit and design all 17 projects.

At the beginning of the book the projects are simple and easy with some accessories (cowl, hat, baby blanket) and gradually they grow into more advanced (but still easy level) patterns (socks, children and women’s cardigan, shawl). A favourite design for the book is “debardeur“, a baby vest, I wanted something unisex, easy and quick to knit – a little vest was my favourite item when my girls where babies – easy to slip over pyjamas to keep the baby warm, not too bulky so they can move. Of course I started with the top-down technique and I suggested my readers to transform it with different stitches, colours and why not a few increases to make it into a little dress. For each project I give a few tips, so that the knitter can add her personal touch – I often change a few things when I knit other designer’s patterns and I wanted other knitters to feel free to do the same – in 3 words: dare to try.


Your Bulle sweater dress has been a popular design – knitters are saying that they love the shape and the modern line of this design, you also have an adult version – will you be designing more in this style? Tell us about your design concept, process and inspiration.

I barely did anything on this one ;o) – it all started with a tiny tunic for a Blythe doll that I made few years ago (with garter stitch on the yoke and a balloon effect on the body and the sleeves) and my oldest daughter always asked for the same in her size. She explained to me what she wanted based on the doll’s dress, and I have just knitted as close to her ideas as possible. Basically she designed it, and I did it. I love the coloured pockets but I regret that you don’t really see the colour touch, so when people asked me to design the adult version I decided to change a bit the pockets to make them more visible.

Thanks so much Karen – can’t wait to see what you design next!


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.

Suvi Simola is a knitwear designer who lives in Finland. She blogs about her knitting at 50 villapeikkoa and about her photography at Dandelion In a Jar

Filtering daylight 

Thank you Kathreen, for inviting me to be a part of this series!

My designing process begins with finding an inspiration. Being inspired and excited about my idea is very important to me. I believe that when I love what I’m doing, it also shows in my designs. Sometimes it’s the yarn that inspires me, sometimes a combination of colors or a stitch pattern. My style is quite simple, I love uncluttered designs with little details to add interest to them. My favorites are plain stockinette, garter stitch and stripes.

Yarn choice:

When I have the idea, it’s time to find yarn for it. The weight, texture and material of the yarn determines how the stitch pattern will look. For example, Pomppu-sweater has leaf shaped pockets that need sturdy yarn so the leaf stem would hold up nicely and that the pocket would come out in a proper size. The perfect choice was Aran weight, very sturdy woollen yarn.

Sometimes when I’d like to have a very lightweight garment that drapes beautifully, I choose thin yarn and larger needles. 5200K is a good example, being made with sock yarn and US size 6 / 4 mm needles.

Also the color plays a huge role, I usually prefer lighter colors for the samples because they show off the stitch pattern better.


Next there’s swatching. I haven’t always loved swatching but I’ve learned to think of it as a part of the designing process. Some of my favorite designs are born when swatching. Baby Cables and Big Ones Too was one of them, I made a swatch in the round, combining cables and garter stitch and suddenly I realized it would make a perfect sleeve!

I always wash my swatches since some yarns tend to grow a lot when wet and the gauge can be very different between pre-washed garment and after washing it. That’s true especially with merino yarns. Pictured are my swatches for Roheline and Low Tide Ripples. It really helped to have large swatches for them.

Creating the pattern:

When I have my stitch pattern ready and I know the gauge, I open the spreadsheet and start the fun part – calculating the pattern. My sweaters usually have 5-12 sizes, depending on the ease of the garment. Some garments look better with no ease or even with a slight bit of negative ease. Some of them are at their best when worn with positive ease. It depends a lot on the personal preference too, so I always add a scematics with the actual measurements of the garment. This way knitters can choose the size that suits them the best. The ease also determines how many sizes the pattern will have. If the design is meant to be worn with positive ease, I write approx 5-6 sizes and if there’s no ease, I go up to 10-12 sizes.

When the calculations are done, I begin writing up the pattern. Also the sample knitting will take place at this point. After I’ve written a part of the pattern, for example the yoke, I will knit it to make sure the pattern makes sense. Then I’ll write the next part and knit it also. Knitting the pattern this way helps me to spot any possible errors but most importantly it helps me to add useful tips to where they are needed. After the garment is finished and the pattern is ready, I make a new spreadsheet for checking the numbers in the pattern. If there are mistakes, I correct them. Then I empty the spreadsheet and repeat the checking. I just like to be sure.