knitting design

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.

Michele Wang is a New York City based knitwear designer. Her work has been featured in Vogue Knitting and on Quince & Co.’s site. She is currently a member of the Design Team at Brooklyn Tweed.  You can find her designs on her Ravelry page and keep up with her on her blog.

People often ask me what my inspiration is when I design knitwear. I always know what I want to end up with, and that’s something wearable and flattering. I also know that I want the process to be interesting. As much as I love the way plain knitting looks, I’m not sure I could design a sweater or accessory with only one simple stitch. It would seem to me like I was setting it up for failure. One of my favorite designs is the Eternity Scarf. Knitters seemed to have really taken to it, and I think it’s because the stitches change throughout the rounds, but never is it complicated. I like the balance of simple and interest.

But, I do find it very difficult to put into words where I find inspiration. I’m very tactile, and I know I have to work with yarn before I can imagine what it could turn into. As part of the Brooklyn Tweed Design Team, I have the luxury of working with the same fiber, in two different yarns. Some would find that boring and mundane. But, I like knowing what I’m dealing with, and more often than not it still surprises me.

Often, I sit with a big bowl of water in front of me, and throw swatches in as I finish knitting them. I can do this for days. I pull out my stash of yarn with a pile of stitch dictionaries, turn on the TV and begin knitting. I try not to judge a swatch until it’s been blocked. It’s easy to stop a few rows in and decide a swatch isn’t working. But, you never know. Some swatches have turned into designs and they may have started out with my nose turned up at them.

Once I’m done swatching, and have blocked and dried them, I’ll flip through all my swatches like I’m going fabric shopping. I’ve created quite a library at this point, and much to my delight, I often find usable swatches in my old collection. I begin thinking about how a stitch pattern would lay on a garment, or if it would be better used on an accessory.

I suppose you could say my inspiration is the yarn itself. I love looking at the swatches, squishing them between my fingers, and holding them up to my dress form placing it over different areas. The swatch is usually the starting point for me. And the yarn determines whether or not a particular stitch pattern will work.

Yarn is an incredibly versatile and textural medium. It can never be flat, no matter the fiber or construction. And it usually wants to be full, especially wool. So I’m drawn to stitch patterns that really feed into this. You’ll see a lot of cabling in my designs, because I think it shows off wool the best. Once wool is wet-blocked, it really blooms and fills in any negative space you may have had while knitting. I love how it really fluffs up and makes cables pop. This inherent quality in yarn is why I’m more drawn to texture in knitting than I am to color. I love working with a blank slate, a neutral color, and working it up, with textures. While color can immediately attract someone visually, I like attracting the knitter with their sense of touch.

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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.

Kirsten Johnstone is an Architect based in Melbourne, Australia. She uses yarn, fabric and photography to explore her modern Architectural aesthetic on a smaller scale. She has an eye for flattering forms that are deceptively simple yet frequently transformable; designs with a distinctive urban edge yet elegantly wearable. Website :: Ravelry

Thank you to Kathreen for inviting me to share a little of my creative process. It has been interesting to consider my design process and I’ve also enjoyed reading about other knitting designer’s approaches.

My creative process is not a prescribed process. One design does not necessarily replicate the same gestational path as another. On occasion, it can prove a quite linear progression from sketched design concept with clearly envisioned yarn, swatching, pattern writing and prototyping. However, more frequently, it is not so logical!

Principally, I use a black leather Moleskin to document sketches and doodles, inspirational images, swatch results, miscellaneous information.

  • All jammed in at random.
  • Dating the entry (if I remember).
  • Updating To Make Lists.
  • My Bi-Annual Craft Camp Wish Lists (always longer than I could possibly achieve in a weekend of mad sewing!)
  • With the List-maker’s delight in faithfully striking through the notation upon completion.
  • Sometimes the beginnings of patterns are written in.
  • Crossed out.
  • Updated.
  • Tweaked.

Like others, I keep all my old sketch books and love looking back at them occasionally, remembering the scribbles and jottings of another time.

Where do my design ideas stem from? They can be the obvious inspirational image from a magazine or online. But more likely I’ve seen someone wearing something that triggers a design thought – it is usually something obscure like the hem or neckband of a sewn garment. Or an applied detail that I ponder in yarn. Or a complete outfit that somehow resonates with me; the attitude or angle of elements of the ensemble.

From a sketch I swatch with yarn. Sometimes the reverse happens: a design idea forms as I work the needles of a new yarn I’m itching to use or experience. That tactility of the knitted yarn prompts ideas that are then worked into a sketch, then reworked as a more fully developed concept. For example, my first design for Brooklyn Tweed’s Wool People developed literally from the swatch. I made an elongated stocking stitch swatch using 3 different needle sizes. Upon washing and drying the swatch, I wrapped it around my arm, then reverse wrapped it around my arm and voila! The “striped” or “banded” reverse stocking stitch concept drove the garment design.

My more minimalist aesthetic means I tend towards knitted stitches that result in a continuous textile: stocking stitch, garter stitch, twisted stocking stitch, float stitch, rib. I like the yarn itself to take the leading role in the design (often the driving force in the formation of the design in the first place as mentioned). My designs feature the yarn rather than an intricate stitch detail. I tend to use yarns that have exquisite qualities in fibre, texture, stitch definition, tactility.

I then draw my schematic design in Autocad, the Architectural drafting package I use in my other life. On occasion, I print it out at full scale and cut a fabric prototype to test the proportion, size and fit of my design (I learnt to sew from a very young age and is my first craft love). My body is my model: this especially works as my designs are usually pieces I envision for myself and I have only very recently acquired a dressmaker’s form.

When I’m satisfied with the swatch and overall design, I simply cannot wait to cast on! I am attempting to improve my discipline and write the pattern BEFORE I start knitting but I can admit I sometimes measure up the printed paper design and get going! Once I have put the draft pattern into written format, I print that out to keep with me; stapled with the draft garment schematic and any other information, kept together with my knitting prototype: marking it up as I go, writing in extra information, editing.

During the final stages of the knitted prototype, I invariably lose confidence. Kick myself for starting this particular piece. Wonder what on earth I was thinking. All the self talk you can imagine! Occasionally, I seek feedback from a couple of close knitting friends. Invariably, I press on and am always pleased with the finished product. And always laugh at myself at the end thinking how yet again I didn’t trust my initial instincts.

Top photo credit: Tamara Erbacher, all other photos are by Kirsten Johnstone.

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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.

Amy Christoffers is a knitwear designer who lives with Mister Christoffers, Small Boy and a Merle The Cat in a tiny house in the mountains of Vermont. She sells knitting patterns on Ravelry and publishes with Interweave Knits, Knitscene, Twist Collective, O-Wool and Brooklyn Tweed. To see what she’s been up most recently please visit Savory Knitting.

 

A new project begins with a fully formed idea, swatches and sketches, notes and schematics. There is a lot of intention and sometimes it really was a good idea to start with. But the details are all wrong, or the yarn is really just too… too something. It doesn’t want to be that idea. When things go well I figure this out pretty quickly hopefully a few inches into it. When things go less well I am staring at a finished sweater on a dress form when it dawns on me: this didn’t work out, I have to unravel it and start over.

Making clothes started by the time I was 4. I began making ball gowns for Barbie dolls using scraps of old sheets from my Grandmother’s rag drawer and scotch tape. When I got frustrated because the tape didn’t hold, my Gram took pity on me and taught me to sew. A year later I was proudly parading around the house in dresses I made myself from altered pillowcases and by 8 I had (finally) succeeded in my lobby for a sewing machine. It took several more years for my skill level to catch up with my enthusiasm but I never stopped. In college I switched to knitting when the cramped circumstances of shared apartments made sewing nearly impossible. There was a skein of lavender mohair, it was love at first sight and I have never looked back.

Today we are lucky if we had grandmothers, or mothers able to teach us how to knit or sew. The tradition of making your own clothes has largely been lost in just the last generation with the influx of inexpensive off the rack clothing. There is an increasing awareness of the pitfalls of cheap t-shirts. Without even getting (too) political about the ‘fast fashion’ issues of employment practices, environmental pollution and economic parity there is something alarming about the garment industry when a factory minimum order can start anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 identical t-shirts. Who really wants to be 1 of 50,000? Then there is the flip side, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States disposes of 12.7 tons of textiles (clothes) ever year. That is about 68 lbs per person, per year. For reference one adult women’s sweater typically weighs about a pound give or take.

The waste, the dissatisfaction of a closet full of mass-produced stuff that doesn’t quite fit, or isn’t quite right is bringing back the enthusiasm for making things ourselves. Since the Industrial Revolution, artists have turned to pre-industrial crafts like woodworking, pottery, weaving or needlework in resistance to mass production in day-to-day life. Arts and Crafts 1890’s architect, William Price, called this “The Art that is Life”, today, it is “Slow Design”. The message is the same — we need to create thoughtful, beautiful things that function and enrich our daily lives.

In the past making and using handmade things was a fact of life, today it’s a luxury. In an era where licensing deals have made reduced “luxury” to ubiquitous logos and “brand identities” making your own clothes is the ultimate: Taking the time to spend on the tactile act of making, paying attention to, and adding, all the details lost to mass production.

I am a product knitter. While I can admire the beauty of an elaborate lace shawl or the well-engineered wizardry of clever socks; novel construction and technical virtuosity do not particularly interest me. My goal is to make clothes. Real clothes: a sweater to wear to work, to dinner and to the grocery store. If it doesn’t work with nearly everything in my wardrobe then it didn’t work and I will usually unravel it and try again. What I love most about yarn is how forgiving it is. Make a mistake: fix it. Make an ugly project: unravel it. The ability to do-over is something else I learned from my Grandmother, if it isn’t right do it again (and again and again), until it is. Nothing is wasted if you learned from it.

There are so few places in life where we get the chance to have do-overs but knitting can be unraveled and re-knit, unraveled and re-knit, unraveled and re-knit… I find this liberating. My goal is to make things that are beautiful and above all useful. William Morris said “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life”. I knit because yarn is the medium that allows the freedom to figure that out as I go.

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