My Journey to Designing Knits

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I learned to knit when I was around 10 or 11 years old. Both my grandmothers knew how to crochet so I was already fascinated with the idea of taking a ball of yarn and making it into something. My mother wanted to learn how to knit and of course, I went along for the ride.

I remember going to the yarn store in Deerbrook Mall. It was actually outside the mall but it was a shop filled with basic wool and acrylic yarns for knitting, crochet and needlepoint. Back then there were no indie hand-dyers or spinners. Variety only pertained to fiber, color and thickness of yarn. I remember the first sweater my mother made – a peachy, sleeveless top with a ribbed type stitch. I came across it decades later on one of my Half Price Books visits and it gave me a little smile.

My first sweater, however, was a white worsted weight acrylic top with a shawl-like collar that I used a green ombre yarn for contrast (also on the cuffs too). I’m sure it took me forever and I’m not even sure how long I had been knitting before I tackled such a huge project. I think I got the yarn from my grandmother (who mostly crocheted afghans) and it was probably from K-mart. Directions were concise in those days, they told you what to do but not how to do it. There were some basic guides but for the most part, they assumed you knew how to do it or would go to your local yarn store to learn. This was before Ravelry or Youtube. There were barely even any books on the subject, I would have bought them if there were. I’m sure my finishing skills were lacking, piecing things together based on my sewing skills.

I didn’t understand gauge at the time and that sweater was actually too small for me. I gave it to my neighbor whose kids I babysat for, thinking it would fit one of the girls.

Let me tell you something about myself before I go on. I’m a rule follower. Oh how I wish I was a rebel but that is just not me. I like order, I like rules. But, I’ve also learned that just because I like rules, doesn’t mean I can’t be the person who makes up the rules! That was a HUGE game changer for me, but I’m getting off track. That can be a story for another day.

I mention this because I saw a knitting pattern as The Rules I’m Supposed to Follow. A pattern was a mysterious thing to me and though I would have loved to design my own stuff I didn’t think I was capable of it. I collected a lot of patterns (and yarn) but my output was scarce.

I don’t remember the chronological order but there were a couple of things that started my shift away from relying on patterns to making my own designs. One defining moment was a weekend trip I took to Pennsylvania for The Knitting Guild of America’s knitting conference. I signed up for a class on making mood boards taught by Susan Lazear. It was the first time I even heard of such a thing and I was enamoured with the idea. Of course, anything related to the creative process fascinates me. But it was actually the bus ride to the airport that got me thinking. I was talking to another participant and she showed me a kit she bought. She talked about how she was drawn to the colors but the pattern wasn’t exactly to her liking and she was going to change it. In my mind that wasn’t ever a possibility until the moment she said it. So a pattern isn’t written in stone. Huh.

Knitting was becoming a bigger business and more books were being published. There was the grand-daddy (or should I say grand-mammy?) of them all – June Hemmons Hiatt’s The Principles of Knitting – which is still in print. This encyclopedic volume tells you just about everything you want to know about knitting technique. But it isn’t the book that had the most impact on me. Carmen Michelson and Mary-Ann Davis’ book The Knitter’s Guide to Sweater Design holds that spot. I still refer to it today. It breaks down the process in such easy to understand terms, basically demystifying the process. I saw how it really is just a case of basic math with some geometry thrown in (if I had known you could chart a sleeve with the pythagorean theorem, I would have been way more interested in the subject).

The best money I’ve ever spend on a knitting book.

Another milestone in my development was getting into knitting machines. At one point I owned three. A Passap, which was an older model I bought off of a widower. HIs wife took great care of it but I never really warmed up to it. I also had a Brother with a ribber and a Big Phil, which you could use hand knitting yarns on. I sold all of them a long time ago as I prefer to hand knit.

Knitting machines have their own language and since most of the patterns (at least then) came from Japan, charts were always included (even if you didn’t understand Japanese, you could always knit one of their designs by following the chart). Pictures were part of the missing link to my design education. As a visual person, schematics opened the door to design. Even though they are standard for patterns today, look at any of the older knitting magazines and there are none. Words couldn’t bring a pattern to life, but a simple line drawing leapt off the page and into my imagination. It is also from knitting machine patterns that I developed my shorthand for writing a knitting pattern.

Having knitting machines also got me a job for a machine knitting magazine. I was the technical editor in charge of articles so I worked with a lot of talent. It was an amazing education on so many levels. It helped me leaps and bounds in my own design work. And while I did have some of my designs published in the magazine, the one that I am most proud of is a handknit design I submitted to Knitting Digest (now defunct, see picture above). I did it on a whim and it ended up on the cover. I also have a design in Not Your Mama’s Knitting by Heather Dixon.

Seeing my name in print and having one of my sweaters on a cover is intoxicating but being a commercial designer is not the path for me. Coming up with my own patterns is fun, but having to grade it for different sizes, find pattern checkers, write it up, etc, isn’t. I’d rather just stick to doing it for myself and writing about it.

I believe everyone should learn how to design their own patterns because of the freedom it gives you. Most commercial patterns are written by yarn companies for their yarn. My stash, however, is full of discontinued brands that I bought years (decades!?) ago, thrifted or were given to me. Also, I like to use repurposed yarn (from unravelled thrift store sweaters). Trying to find patterns for these yarns is hard if not impossible. It’s just easier to make up my own.

Another advantage to designing your own sweaters is you will get the fit you want (as long as you got the gauge right). I still use commercial patterns as last year’s knitting can attest to, but almost every single one of them I made some sort of adjustment to achieve the fit most flattering for my body. (There are no wrong bodies, only wrong clothes).

I’ve significantly culled my collection of reference materials over the years. I’ve let go of most of my pattern books. At this point I can pretty much make any sweater I want just by looking at a picture. I’m more interesed in books that talk about technique, knitting traditions and the design process. Lately I’ve been thinking it’s time to quit buying books and write one instead. Just goes to show the journey never ends, it just evolves.

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