knitting designs

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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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.

Melissa is a knitting addict who lives in New York city. You can see more of her work at neoknits. I asked Melissa a few questions about her designs and background.

You studied fashion design and specialised in knitwear – can you tell us a little more about your course – sounds pretty exciting – how/why did you decide to specialise in knitwear?

I studied Fashion Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. FIT offers a 2 year AAS degree with an optional additional 2 years for a BFA. For the first two years, we concentrated mainly on draping, pattern making, and tailoring – very woven centric. In my fifth semester, we had the opportunity to take exploratory courses, one of these being knitwear. It was taught on old Brother knitting machines that sometimes felt as though elephants had trampled on the needles! Nevertheless, it was a fantastic class and I decided to specialize in knitwear for my final 2 years. It was refreshing to be able to not only design a garment, but develop the fabric it is to be made of as well.

And now you work as a knitwear designer – can you tell us a little about the process of designing for a large manufacturer vs designing for hand knitting patterns?

When designing for a large manufacturer, I’m definitely not as involved in the process as I am with hand knitting. I create a sketch and a spec (a set of measurements) and off it goes to a factory overseas. Once the garment comes back, unless corrections need to be made, that is the end of my involvement. Our sales and production team take it from there. Also, there are so many things to consider when designing a machine knit garment, most importantly, how much is it going to cost. There is a fine line between getting the look I want and the price the buyer wants to pay.

When designing hand knits, I have much more freedom. I can use more complicated stitches, more expensive yarns, and combine the two to my heart’s content! While I still may have a knitter in mind for my patterns, being less restricted is much more rewarding for me as a designer.

Can you tell us a little about your process of designing? Tell us about your thought processes as you design – how does fit and texture come in to your design process?

My design process doesn’t always follow the same straight line. Sometimes it’s a stitch that inspires me, sometimes a particular silhouette. It could even be a small little detail that I build an entire design around.

I suppose I try not to think about the process too much and let the ideas flow as naturally as possible. Sometimes I’ll sketch up 10 sweaters in one day and won’t sketch another for a few months. When I’m ready, I come back to my sketchbook, revisit the designs and choose one that speaks to me. From there, I polish it up a little bit, add a detail or two and decide on the fit, stitch, and yarn. My designs are typically a work in progress.

For example, here is the sketch and final version of Guinevere. My initial sketch looks a little different than the final sweater. While the general shape stayed the same, the stitch plan had changed once I started swatching in the actual yarn I was going to use.

You have just finished writing a book – can you tell us a little bit about it? The process of designing a whole collection, knitting them all in a short space of time and testing the patterns – it is just a little bit crazy? What is next?

My book is a collection of patterns inspired by New York City, mainly sweaters. It was a pretty intense process! Designing a whole collection came fairly easy due to my training and catalog of rough sketches. The hard part was not only selecting the perfect yarn for each project, but also making sure the colors I chose all worked together in each story. When you can’t dictate what color you need a particular yarn in, things become a little more complicated.

I had about a year to knit 20 projects and I managed to knit 18 out of the 20 projects myself. In fact, looking back, I don’t even know how I managed that! I had a printed calendar with a strict knitting schedule that I tried to follow. I think I ended up going over deadline by only two weeks. The key to keeping it all together was good organizational skills and maybe a little chocolate!

What’s next? At this point, I’m not really sure where my knitting will take me. I’m still winding down from the book, so I’m at the stage where having a deadline is just starting to sound reasonable again!

Your designs all have a little bit of a vintage / romantic flare to them. Can you tell us a little about your inspiration sources and how you incorporate these into your designs?

I design what I like to wear, but most importantly, things that can be worn season after season. I feel when choosing a sweater for knit, it’s important to think about the lifespan of the design. The more timeless the design, the more it will be worn. Between the cost of the yarn plus the time spent knitting the sweater, it’s always nice when your investment pays you back season after season.

I am definitely inspired by all things vintage, but reworked with a modern flare. My inspiration sources range from old vintage patterns, runway shows, museums, and the streets of New York.

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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.

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.

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Kate Davies – designer of the popular Paper Dolls sweater pattern and various other popular and fabulous knitted designs such as the super cute (get off my) cloud short sleeved hooded sweater with cloud shape pocket and the owls sweater which is also available in a kiddie version.

The marvelous thing about the Paper dolls yoke sweater is the way that knitters have been able to modify the design – Kate did a post here a while ago where she chats about all the mods and there are plenty more on Ravelry. Some fave mods are: Paper carrots :: Hedgehog parade :: Paper daleks :: Long sleeved paper owls :: Paper mushrooms :: Paper boys in a kids size :: Dolls with hair :: Regular paper dolls - love this colour :: And this colour too.

 

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