You can find Michaela here.
Where do you find inspiration?
I've always had a strong interest in fashion, and pay very close attention to catwalk trends. Things that can seem extreme or impractical on the catwalk can be transformed into unusual garments or accessories with a little tweaking. My design process is very much silhouette based, so looking at garments with extra volume and unusual construction is a big influence. My partner is a patternmaker at a high end fashion label, and I take a lot of advice and inspiration from him. However, I generally consider myself to be more of an engineer than a designer. Once I have an idea it's the process of converting that shape or silhouette into a knitted form that excites me most of all.
What is your favourite knitting technique?
Alice Yu's Shadow Wraps short row technique pretty much changed my whole design perspective. Because I like to add volume to my knits, I use a lot of short rows, and this is almost always the best way to do it. Ropery is my homage to this great technique.
I'm also addicted to Techknitter's new TULIPS buttonhole. I discovered it when knitting Cucumber, a pattern which needs really strong buttonholes. Instead of reinforcing the buttonholes later, here you can make a sturdy buttonhole in just one row.
How did you determine your size range?
Of course, when working with magazines your size range is determined for you, I think magazines such as Knitty have the right idea in trying to be as inclusive as possible. The difficulty for designers in choosing a size range is complex, firstly, you want to maximize the potential audience for your pattern, which means lots of sizes from very small to very large. However, even if technical editors worked for free, there are downsides to having many many sizes. The more you have, the more difficult the pattern is to read, and the more intimidating it will appear to a less experienced knitter, so you can lose audience that way too. What some magazines do is have fewer sizes more widely dispersed, increments of 4 inches in the bust is common. However in doing this you lose accuracy for the majority of knitters who fall between sizes (I myself have a 34" bust, splat bang in the middle of the 32"-36" gap).
So for me, my size range tends to depend upon the pattern. Koho is in a smaller size range but given at 2" increments to allow knitters to find the best fit in a pattern with considerable negative ease. Ropery and Cucumber fit a wider range of sizes, but both are oversized in their own way. What I would like to see from other designers is an increase in the availability of patterns smaller than a 32" bust. Designers have happily upsized their patterns but the smaller knitter is so often left out.
Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I think it's really important to be aware of what other successful designers are doing, what kind of patterns magazines are publishing and what knitter's responses to those patterns are. It's basic business sense. You need to have an awareness of what kind of designs are going to interest knitters. Market research is important in any field, and an industry as overcrowded as hand knit design requires any designer without a large loyal fan base to be aware of the trends out there. That's not to say I approach my design work as an entirely soulless, trend driven exercise, I don't. But I know what I'm good at, and it's useful to see what I can do to integrate my own aesthetic with that of the wider industry.
How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters?
With my patterns, I like to presume that knitters know the basics of what I'm trying to do. I assume that someone knitting one of my sock patterns has knit a sock before unless I'm advertising it as a beginner sock pattern. If there's something unusual, I'll explain it as succinctly and accurately as I can, and also include a link to TechKnitter (who is, in my opinion, the best resource for techniques knitters today have) or Youtube, or both. I don't want to reinvent the wheel in my patterns and don't feel the need to spend large amounts of my time, my technical editors time, and knitter's printer ink, explaining techniques when someone else out there in the wider internet has almost certainly done a better job than I could.
How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I always knit my own samples, I don't have children and knit pretty fast so to date this hasn't caused any issues. I have run test knits in the past but generally find them less useful than a good technical editor, although in an ideal world I'd do both. Nowadays the vast majority of my patterns are for publications so have been "test knit" by readers before rights revert to me and I self publish.
Did you do a formal business plan?
I took a few business classes when I first started to design full time, but never wrote a formal plan per se. I knew it would take a couple of years to start being profitable, so I set myself a series of goals over the first year, all of which I met in plenty of time.
Do you have a mentor?
I wouldn't be where I am today without the help and support I've receive from Alice Yu (Socktopus). As well as giving me so much of her own advice she charged me with heading up the volunteer team at last summer's Knit Nation where I was able to meet and gain advice from so many of the people who's careers I respect the most, Cookie A, Anne Hanson, Ysolda Teague, Judith McKenzie to name but a few.
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
I can say without a trace of irony that Ravelry Changed My Life. Before Ravelry, I was a graduate student in biology knitting vintage patterns I found in charity shops and doing the odd spot of sample knitting for fashion designer friends. A year after joining Ravelry, having realized that there were other people in the world who loved knitting as much as I did, and that hey, perhaps I could make a living doing something I loved, I left my PhD with enough savings to last the year, and embarked on setting up MichaelaKnits. I have never, ever regretted it.
Do you use a tech editor?
Yes. Always. Tech editors are amazing.
How do you maintain your life/work balance?
I work very long hours, but so does my partner. As he works in fashion he's very busy in September and February with fashion week, and I'm very busy then with new patterns for Autumn/Spring. We try to take time off together in the summer and at Christmas. I try not to work when he's at home, but often samples need to be knit in front of a DVD together.
How do you deal with criticism?
It doesn't phase me. I'm of the "no publicity is bad publicity" mindset - at least when it comes to my designs. It seems for everyone who hates something there's someone else who loves it, and knitters can be very loyal. It would be awful if someone were to criticize me personally, especially as I pride myself on being as professional as possible, but we're all adults, and I think people can see both sides of a dispute.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
It took just over a year before, with 15 hours a week of part time work, I was able to support myself (and my cats) living in London. We've recently moved to Antwerp, Belgium, which has meant the loss of my part time job and reduced my UK based earnings slightly. However, I'm now in a position to be able to knit full time, so will be able to take on a larger amount of work than before and improve my marketing skills - plus, the cost of living here is considerably less!
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?Like any business, don't expect to turn a profit in the first year, or maybe even the second. Find a mentor, or even someone who'll meet you for a coffee and give you their advice - who's good to work with, who's a bit flakey, who should be avoided like the plague. Be professional from the start. Check your emails for spelling errors and always sign off correctly. Get a domain name, and nice business cards. Spend money on your haircut/glasses/coat - first impressions count, and if you're modelling your own knitwear your appearance needs to be memorable (Think Cookie's green hair, Anne Hanson's short crop). Read The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design, but read other business books too. Use a technical editor. There are a lot of inspirational blogs and podcasts out there - it's easy to get lazy when you've spent 3 days on the sofa deadline knitting in front of a DVD - use them. Robin's here is great, check out rockandpurl.com too (she always makes me feel SUPER inefficient!). Use twitter, it's a great way to network, but don't use it ALL the time, it's a major timesuck. Try to establish regular working relationships with the magazines you get on with best. It's great to be published somewhere once, it's better to be invited back.
The best advice I got was to figure out what makes YOU different. And exploit that difference. Unfortunately I'm still figuring that one out!