Friday, March 1, 2013

An Interview with....Carol Sunday

Once a week I post interviews with interesting people about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry.  I’ve noticed that every one of these individuals makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world.

You can find Carol here and here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?

I always have knitting on the brain, so anything I see could influence a pattern idea. We live in the woods and I like to spend time outside, so I see a lot of flora and fauna, which makes nature-inspired motifs a given.

Quite a few of my designs, though ... Kelmscott, Adam's Ribs, Milkweed, Acorns ... have been inspired by nothing more than yarn and needles. Rather than beginning with an idea for the garment and then swatching for it, these started with the swatch. I love playing with yarn, engineering my own stitch patterns ... what happens if I do this? and what will it look like if I try that? ... and so will spend many - some suggest too many -  blissful hours developing and tweaking, and retweaking a stitch pattern. My swatch may be several yards long before I'm completely pleased with it, and only then might I consider whether it will be used for the front panel of a sweater, or a yoke, or maybe mittens. I have a basketful of such swatches, still waiting to become ... something.

What is your favourite knitting technique?

Anything but stockinette stitch, which looks nice enough but working it kind of bores me. I prefer more engaging processes - texture, cables, lace, interesting construction.

I also adore stranded colorwork - designing it, working it, wearing it, and looking at it! And most of my yards-long swatches are of colorwork patterns. I haven't put out many stranded patterns ... yet ... though, because I'd always stranded on long straight needles, working back and forth. But as every other knitter knows - quite reasonably - in-the-round is the way to strand, and so having recently discovered this truth, I've taught myself to use circular needles and to knit continental style. Once I get my speed up and my tension even, I will be doing a lot more fair isle designs.

How did you determine your size range?

My sweaters usually range from chest sizes of 28-30" to 52-56". I expect that most adult women, which is who I like to design for, fall somewhere in this range. The jump from one size to the next one is mostly determined by the gauge of my stitch pattern. Sometimes the construction of a sweater will also limit the size range it can be successfully worked in. If it's not going to fit beautifully in a larger size or in a smaller one, then I won't try to force it.

Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?

When I'm considering the overall style, shape and fit of a sweater, I do look to the garment industry for influence. I try not to spend too much time on Ravelry looking at other handknit designers' work (more to guard against envy than plagiarism), but I will sometimes check out "hot right now" to get an idea of what types of things, in general, people are knitting ... Hmm, I wonder if I should design a geometrically striped shawl worked in two or three colors?

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?

I didn't know there was a controversy, although my husband has suggested that I consider designing some simpler patterns - ones that contain more stockinette stitch and that might appeal to a wider range of knitters than my, admittedly, complicated sweaters do.

But my complicated sweaters do just fine, thank you. And I know my customers, and they are experienced and competent, and they appreciate my designs. This is a broad marketplace we are in, and I don't think one needs to design for every knitter or for all skill levels in order to find a nice niche here.

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?

I love to knit! and also tend to make design decisions with needles in hand (expert advice notwithstanding), so will contract sample knitting out very reluctantly ... unless, of course, the design calls for a lot of stockinette.

Test knitters have been invaluable, but only occasionally and when I'm working on a pattern like my Eve's Ribs where the construction and fit are unusual and I want to make sure that my garments will actually fit women of the sizes they're intended for. Otherwise, my sample is my test.

Did you do a formal business plan?

No, not exactly. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to be doing, and then I started doing it. I'm 60 years old this year, and although it's taken a while, I have a pretty good idea of who I am and who I am not, how I want to spend my time and how I don't. When I consider my business, before it began and still today, decisions are based on how they might impact the quality of my life and how my time will spent, which I don't want to change much. I'd like my business to be successful and to continue to grow, but I don't want it to be so successful or to grow so fast that it eats me alive. So I try to bite off no more than I can chew, to move forward slowly, and to keep a low profile. That's my plan.

Do you have a mentor?

Not specifically in the knitting world, although everyone I've met here (mostly virtually) has been wonderful, helpful, generous and supportive. If I have a single mentor, someone whose guidance I seek out frequently, it would be my husband Robert. He has a very good eye, and I can also count on him for good advice ... most of the time.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?

I started designing professionally in 2008, and since my business has always been web-based, I can't imagine it any other way. I built my own website and like maintaining it, and I send out occasional newsletters to knitters on my email list. And while I don't have much time for, nor skill at blogging, tweeting or facebooking, I've found Ravelry to be invaluable. It fulfills my social media wants and needs, and is, in addition, such a very pleasant place to connect with other knitters. I can't tell you how much I love and appreciate Ravelry!

Do you use a tech editor?

Absolutely. If it were left to me, i's would go undotted, t's would go uncrossed, and many, many worse things would befall. Thank goodness for the eagle eyes and keen intellects of the TE's I am fortunate enough to work with. I couldn't do without them!

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

Talented designer Elinor Brown's directive to "excercise before knitting" ... and, for me, before spending all day at the computer ... has become my mantra. My bicycle stays out and ready when the weather is decent, so that I cannot walk from my house to my studio (just a few steps away) without seeing it and, hopefully, hopping on. And even when the weather's indecent, which it is right now, it's still a good idea to take a break, put on warm clothes and go out and get some fresh air and excercise.

When fitting in designing with everything else there is to do, it also helps to have a husband who does all the grocery shopping, cooking and yardwork, and a good share of the housework too. I'm lucky ... but that's not necessarily balanced, is it?

How do you deal with criticism?

I take it to heart. I'm still new at this and still learning how to be a good pattern writer. And some of what I've learned has been thanks to some very direct and sometimes critical feedback. 

When someone is following one of my patterns, I want them to enjoy the time they spend with it, after all, they're probably spending more time with this pattern than I did. So when I receive criticism, I think about how my pattern-writing could become more user friendly ... could I word this more clearly? should I add an explanation in the Notes section? would an additional chart be helpful? is this technique something I should illustrate with a tutorial?

If someone has taken the time to give me their feedback, even if they give it in a moment of frustration and with a lot of exclamation points, I accept it as an opportunity to improve ... and often to make a new friend in the process. I respond to their critical comments immediately and with a thank you and an apology - not necessarily for the pattern, but at least for their experience with it. I do whatever I can to help them through whatever the issue is, and then offer a free pattern.

You asked about mentors earlier ... my customers are my mentors.

Do I get a lot of criticism? ... not as much as I used to : )

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?

I was a fashion designer at age 6. That is, it was my very favorite thing to do. I liked to draw and created a cardboard doll, cut her out, and used her as a template for a huge wardrobe of paper outfits ... drawn, colored and cut. I was really into it and put a lot of thought into fabric patterns, sleeve styles, collars, pockets and trim for her little coats and dresses.

My mom taught me to knit when I was 7 or 8 and it was love at first stitch, so needles and yarn replaced pencil and crayons, and my Barbie, among others, acquired a wardrobe dominated by knitwear. By the time I was in high school, my own wardrobe, besides a lot of things that I had sewn, included nearly a dozen knit and crocheted designs of mine ... a color-block pullover, a cabled cardigan, a fitted henley, an argyle sweater dress (worn with a wide cinch belt and tall lace-up boots), a mini skirt inspired by elaborate Mexican hammock lace.

Knitting has always been my passion ... while I was in the restaurant business, in environmental engineering, and then medical school. Whatever job or career I wasn't particularly well suited for, knitting was always the thing. Most recently, before designing knitwear professionally, I had been self-employed as an artist, so had a studio and a routine and liked being my own boss. But after 18 years, my artwork seemed stale to me, art fairs weren't as lucrative as they used to be, and severe storms were making it sometimes downright scarey to be out on the street in a tent.

The best thing, though, about doing art fairs was the time I had to sit and knit. When customers would ask me about my artwork, I would do my best to engage in the conversation ... and tear myself away from my knitting. But if someone asked me what I was knitting ... well now THAT was something I could get excited about! I don't know why it took me so long to figure out that I was working at the wrong craft.

I kept that day job after starting to sell my knitwear design patterns and, at the same time, my line of Sunday Knits yarns in 2008. The yarn side of the business and the design side are symbiotic. But atypically, I don't design so that I can sell yarn, I sell yarn so that I can design!

I was given some very nice breaks early on - Clara Parkes (whom I'd admired for a long time and to whom I'm now forever grateful) sent out a Knitters' Review newsletter introducing her readership to Sunday Knits yarn, my first magazine submission (for my Holly and Poinsettia mittens) was accepted by Interweave Knits, Twist Collective featured designs of mine in 4 consecutive issues.

Each of these great opportunities gave my business a boost ... and then it would go back down. Every new release would bring a bump ... followed by a slump. I spent $$$ on print advertising - in Knits and in Vogue Knitting and did some online advertising as well. Each ad would result in a nice initial sales bump ... and then there would be the inevitable slide back down. For a couple of years it was like pushing a rock uphill.

But now, with nearly 70 patterns under my belt, there's some momentum, and things are rolling along rather nicely. I don't do art fairs any more. I still do plenty of knitting. And I love how I spend my time, which is divided pretty much 60/60: yarnie/designer.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?

Don't try to follow someone else's template for success. Design your own business model. Tailor it to fit your personal strengths and interests. Whoever you are and however you like to spend your time, this industry seems to have many - and probably not-even-yet-discovered - avenues down which you can pursue your passion for knitting.

If you enjoy reading my blog, I'd really appreciate it if you would tell your knitting friends or share links to your favourite posts online with Twitter, Ravelry or Facebook. Word of mouth is really helping to grow my business as knitters respect the views of other members of our community. Thanks!

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