Friday, March 29, 2013

An Interview with...Jean Moss

Jean is wearing her Jools Beret, Thers is a KAL for it starting April 1, 2013. Register here.

Once a week I post interviews with interesting designers about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry. I’ve noticed that every designer makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world. Jean has a new book coming soon, Great Little Gifts to Knit, to be published by Taunton Press in September.
You can find Jean here and her blog is here

Where do you find inspiration?

I love street fashion. On holiday I like nothing better than to sit in the sun with a cup of coffee, people-watching - what they’re wearing is both inspiring and informing. What’s on the street today trickles down into next year’s hottest look on the catwalk. Successful designers have a talent for sniffing out the best trends, then reinventing them in their own house style. I believe fashion is people-led and that’s why I love it. Fashion illustration is another passion, both classic and modern - the designs of David Downton, Rene Gruau and Erte are hugely inspiring. I take a lot of photos of anything that takes my fancy and looking back over them often sows the seeds of new designs.

What is your favourite knitting technique?

I’m a self-confessed technique junkie, so this is an impossible question for me. I have an insatiable appetite for learning new techniques, and am constantly exploring ways of using them in my designs.  However, when it comes to personal knitting, I tend to favour no-brainers that I can curl up and relax with – good old garter is a favourite.

How did you determine your size range?

I recently reviewed a book which provided fourteen sizes for its sweaters.  As an indie designer, I have to consider the time involved in the creation of a pattern, set against the amount of money the pattern might generate. Bearing this in mind, my sweaters now come in six sizes, which seems to be the optimum range for me to offer.

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

There’s nothing new in the design world.  Everything has been done before or recycled.  I used to get upset when it was obvious that one of my designs had been ripped off, but now I’ve become resigned to the view that imitation is the best form of flattery.  If you watch the TED talk by Johanna Blakeley, you’ll soon realise that as far as fashion designers are concerned, there’s no such thing as intellectual property, which rules out copyright protection. This is totally different from other areas in the creative arts like music, writing, films and sculpture.

However, a more direct answer would be no more than I’m influenced by everything else in the world.  We’re constantly bombarded with inspiring images in nature, art, science and the media. I have a signature style which samples from many different sources, which I process and ultimately reassemble into new and original designs.

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

There’s nothing wrong with providing patterns for the absolute beginner, but this beginner can quickly become an improver so we also need more challenging patterns to keep them interested. Yarn companies have to sell yarn, so much effort is devoted to getting as many people as possible on board, with less consideration given to keeping them on board. We haven’t yet got the balance right between providing simple patterns for beginners and more ambitious ones for improvers and experienced knitters.

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

It would be impossible for me to knit every project I design, there simply isn’t enough time and also that’s not the way I approach sweater design. My design path is rough sketch, specification sheet, choose yarns, stitches and colourways, and finally a swatch.  When all these components are in place I then write the pattern and hand it over to one of my sample knitters who will give the heads up on any potential problems.

Did you do a formal business plan?

No. My aims have always been to inspire knitters to pick up their needles by delivering fashion-led, exciting designs that are fun to knit and wear.
Do you have a mentor?

Not really, but I did learn my trade on the job and a very steep learning curve it was too.  For many years I worked with Ralph Lauren and other US designers creating handknits for export out of the UK. If I had to pick one knit designer who has influenced my work it would be Marian Foale for her styling and attention to detail. However, I’m always amazed by the constant flow of new ideas in all areas of design.  I find it all both exciting and inspiring, from the fashion illustrations of Rene Gruau and Erte  to the contemporary classic designs of Philippe Starck. Successful designers have a talent for sniffing out the best trends, then reinventing them in their own style.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?

No, I’m not at all savvy in business matters.  Basically I’ve always followed my nose.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?

Huge impact.  I built my own website, so as well as designing sweaters there’s always web work to be done, emails to answer etc.  Knitters are better informed and demand a high level of support, so part of every day is spent answering emails. For the past ten years my partner and I have been running annual knitters’ tours in the UK and abroad.  The internet is a perfect platform for promotion and registration.

Do you use a tech editor?

My past two books have been published by Taunton Press, who have excellent tech editors. If I’m submitting to a magazine or publishing patterns on Ravelry, I have a core team of five or six knitters who test my patterns for me.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

With difficulty. Many skills are demanded of today’s designers and it’s virtually impossible to do it all, have a life and not burn out.  For the sake of sanity sometimes you just have to shut the office door.  We all need stillness in our lives and when I’m running on empty and feeling stressed, I always turn to either my guitar or my knitting. 

How do you deal with criticism?

If you are creative and put stuff in the public domain, criticism is a fact of life - you can’t please all of the people all of the time.  No-one likes to feel their work has been misunderstood or unjustly criticized, but there’s a lot to be learned from constructive criticism.

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

My knit career started completely by accident and was born out of necessity. I was living miles away from anywhere in a ramshackle old farmhouse with my husband, two toddlers and a menagerie of pets. My husband was commuting daily to teach, so we were racking our brains to find a way of making a living which involved less travelling.  So… we bought a knitting machine!  My designs sold so well that we quickly had to get more people to knit them.  At a London show an agent for Ralph Lauren asked me to do some handknits for him.  I jumped at the chance although at the time I had no production capacity and handknitting was definitely not my forte, but within six months we had 2000 knitters in the UK producing handknits for the Polo/Ralph Lauren label as well as selling my own collections to boutiques in the US and Europe.

Obviously, as I had no design training whatsoever, there’s a certain amount of luck involved, but this was the eighties when the ethos was go for it, anything can happen.

For images to support this answer, visit here. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Don’t get me started on this one, but as you asked… my first reaction would be Don’t! But then knitting has provided me with such a rich and varied life that it would be churlish of me not to recommend it to others who aspire to knit design as a means of making a living. However, I do so with several reservations.

It’s a tough old world and competition, rather than co-operation, is encouraged to get the best product for the cheapest price.  There’s no union, and one designer is played off against another, generating an inevitable climate of elbowing your way up the ladder.  Insult to injury is added by the fact that it all happens under the cosy umbrella of knitting, where everything is supposed to be in fine apple pie order.

From what I’m hearing it seems that many designers are wracked by insecurity and self-doubt, convinced they are being ignored, overlooked or dismissed. Yet rejection is common currency in a freelancer’s everyday life. You’re only as good as your last design and unfortunately there’s always another designer willing to work for a lower fee.

In my experience most knit designers are in the business because they love the craft rather than to line their pockets. Many will work for whatever they are told is the going rate, sometimes even just for the kudos of having their designs in print, which makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous companies who consistently undervalue their work.

I’ve always felt here’s something intrinsically wrong that design should come at the end of the line when the cash is being handed out.  In the 80s that’s why so much fantastic British talent went abroad, where there were companies that recognised good design and were willing to pay for it to set their products apart from the rest. 

We are in the business of innovation and creativity, but we’re expected to do the admin, promotion, marketing, web design, networking etc etc as well – it’s not possible to get help as the money just isn’t there to support it. Therefore it doesn’t matter how good a designer you are  - if you’re not media savvy you might just as well forget it.

As designers we need to toughen up, stick together and lead by example in establishing a decent rate for our work, so that the industry might eventually recognise the true value of creative design and be prepared to pay for it.

Look at Jean's Sweet Shawlettes projects here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Designer Secrets about Gauge

Click on image for more detail

Gauge is the gold standard in the knitting world. It's the way we communicate about the fabric we create. Very experienced knitters learn about the inconsistencies of gauge over many years and many knitting projects. Different fibres, needle materials, needle types, blocking, moods and other factors all have an impact on gauge. We create a swatch, we work towards the stitch gauge expressed as a number and yet even when we get the right number the project does not always turn out exactly the way we expect. 

What exactly is going on?

Since I get to work with sample knitters I see what happens when someone is trying to match my gauge. I've had the experience of being able to take their knitting and feel the drape and stretchiness of the fabric they created with the same yarn and in the same gauge as mine. Different knitters create different fabrics even with matching gauge numbers. It seems to be especially noticeable on rib based fabrics. Sample knitters usually produce a much bouncier ribbing than I do. I suspect that this has to do with how a knitter tensions their yarn as I have a relaxed knitting style and a light method of tensioning the yarn strand between two fingers

In the sewing world this difference in fabrics is addressed by the stretch gauge that appears in the photo above. The amount of stretch has a huge impact on the fit of a garment.  A stretchier fabric requires less ease, and will move with the body and be comfortable to wear. Less stretch and you need a larger garment to be comfortable. It's easy to compare this between stocking stitch, rib and cabled knitting. However have you ever compared the stretch while swatching when changing needle size to get gauge? Give it a try next time you are swatching to help advance your understanding of fabric and fit.

Monday, March 25, 2013

How to Mattress Stitch (Why Seams Don't Match Up)

I've had many knitters ask me why when they mattress stitch their seams there is never a perfect match. There are a several things going wrong when the seams don't match up.

The first reason has to do with the problem that instructions for seaming often don't mention the one row shift created by the seaming yarn. To compensate for that, seam in this way. With the right side  of the knitting facing you, use your threaded needle to pick up one bar between first two stitches on one garment section, then the corresponding bar plus the bar above it on the second garment section. After this you can cross back and forth picking up two bars on each side to align your pieces. If you want to get really good at this, practice on samples made with two row stripes. 

I like to use the yarn tails to join at the top and bottom edge. I use my needle and imitate the cast on and cast off stitch path across the two pieces to make that edge appear to be continuous.

Another discrepancy is created by casting off at the beginning of right side and wrong side rows. That means the right front (armhole cast off on wrong side) is seamed to the back (armhole cast off on right side). There will always be a one row difference here. I normally ease this in slightly at the top of the armhole, where it can be best hidden.

The third reason they don't match is because knitters use measurements to determine length. If you use rows or pattern repeats and keep notes on which row of a pattern repeat you worked the cast off on you are much more likely to be accurate. Measuring is notoriously inaccurate. As a test, on your next garment, try measuring on both sides of the back. Many knitters will find that the left side will measure a little longer as many of us loosen up a little on the purl side of stocking stitch.

Final tips. Knit your sleeves and garment fronts at the same time to be sure they end up the same length. Make notes on your pattern to detail which row of the stitch pattern you begin armhole and shoulder decreases when working visible patterns.

Friday, March 22, 2013

An Interview with...Helen Hamann

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

You can find Helen here on Ravelry. Her Ravelry group is here and her Peru tour group is here.

Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere I can. Sometimes, the inspiration may be found in a fashion magazine, but usually it may be a coat or woven jacket.  What attracts me may be the shape and cut of the coat and how it drapes, or maybe it could be an interesting collar or special detail.  Often times I had found inspiration for a color combination on a nature photograph or even with pottery, or works of art.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
For shaping a unique piece there is nothing better than short-rows and these can be used in so many different ways that the sky is the limit to what you can achieve with them.

How did you determine your size range? 

Size is a very difficult thing to determine and fortunately in this business we do not use S, M or L, but rather chest circumference.  At the beginning, when I first started to design specifically for patterns, my sizing was much smaller, but then I realized that I needed to add larger sizes.  In the issue of sizes, a designer also has to consider the fit she is looking to achieve with a given design.  Some pieces are meant to be much tighter than others, while a coat has to provide enough room for layering.

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I do not mind looking at old issues of knitting magazines or even flipping through a new issue that comes in the mail.  Very seldom do I find something that truly Wows me, but again, I am not looking at the piece unbiased.  Rather, I am looking at it as a whole package and at its interesting features, i.e. color, design, uniqueness, interesting features, techniques and how well are all these put together in the piece.  For instance, there are some designers that are great putting together color schemes that are fantastic, but when you look at the pieces they have designed along the years, you see that basically they all look the same in terms of shape, the only difference between one and another is the pattern/colorway/motif used.  I believe that I do not limit myself to just one aspect of designing. Rather, I want to create a masterpiece in its own right by the elements that I utilize in its creation and then the piece as a whole will achieve perfection.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters? 
I am not aware that there is a controversy about this issue.  What I do know though is that basically there are two types of knitters: the ones that need to have a pattern spelled out to the last detail in order to “grasp” what they need to do and the ones that just need general directions.  Obviously, this will depend on the complexity of the design.  I, as well as my native Peruvian knitters, do not need directions at all.  All we need is a photo and the dimensions and we can do the rest.  But I know that the bulk of the knitting population cannot do this.  And that is perfectly understandable.  That is why we need patterns and designers to write the instructions for them.  I know though, that European patterns are much more generic, while American patterns are extremely detailed to the point that, in some instances, row-by-row directions are given.  These are two philosophies of life that may never be reconciled, and that is okay.

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

I do it mostly all by myself because sometimes I start with an idea and may change direction half way through because I realize that there is a better way to achieve what I wanted.  Almost all the pieces in the calendar 2010, 2011 and 2012 were knitted by me with a few exceptions.  The ones that were not were knitted by my knitters in Peru, to whom all I need to do is explain over the phone what I want and they are able to understand my requirements.  In a couple of instances, they were not exactly what I wanted, but all was not lost, since I was able to fix the pieces.

Did you do a formal business plan?
I have done formal business plans many times, the last one being for my yarn business.  As a designer, I am not sure you need one, unless you are planning to make a massive production.

Do you have a mentor?
No, I don’t.  I wish I did, because that would have helped me avoid the myriad of mistakes I have made over the years.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?

Again, no.  For the most part, I had to be adapting to the change in circumstances, market demands and the spending habits of my customers.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?  

My patterns have seen a constant flow in sales thanks to venues such as Ravelry and Patternfish.  Before, I had to sell them directly at shows in hard copy format.  The internet has saved me a lot of money since I do not have to print the patterns in glossy format.

 Do you use a tech editor?  

Absolutely.  This is critical since you need a different pair of eyes to spot the errors and typos.  And sometimes even after publishing, customers called to point out issues we missed, be it a typo or an error in the math.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?  

Two years ago, I was doing this (designing that is) exclusively.  Now I have a full-time job because conditions have changed and I am not able to support myself just with my designing.  Maybe in the near future, things will change again and I can go back to designing full time.

How do you deal with criticism?  

I welcome any comments from my customers regarding the accuracy of my patterns and I also welcome any comments students may make to improve the quality of my teaching or the delivery of a given subject.  It hurts me though when people make derogatory comments to other people and it reaches my ears some way or another.  I would be extremely thankful if people were more open and came to me with their comments.  They will make me a better designer, a better teacher and certainly a better person.

Could you tell us a little about the tours you run to Peru?  

These are usually the highlights of my year.  As you may already know, I am a native of Peru and had a hand-knitting manufacturing company there back in the 80s with more than 400 knitters working with me.  In those days, I sold my designs to fashionable retail companies all over the world – that is how I started designing.  Then in the 2000s, I shifted to designing for yarn distributors and knitting magazines and later in 2007, I contacted my old friends in Peru to produce a yarn collection for sale in the US and overseas.  I mention all this so your readers understand that I know the industry very well and the country as a native.  The first tour to Peru was in 2006 and there have been several after that.  The main focus of the tours is the Peruvian textile industry past and present.  With slight differences, the places we have visited are a museum with a large collection of pre-Colombian textiles, an alpaca farm, a vicuna chaccu (where the vicunas are herded by hundreds of people into a pen to be sheared), the alpaca mills in Arequipa, the Inca capital city of Cusco, the Sacred Valley and the Center for Traditional Weaving, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.  A couple of times, we were very fortunate to pair the trip with the “Alpaca Fiesta” organized by the International Alpaca Association.  This not only included a fair and some very interesting events such as a very special fashion show, but also workshops related to alpacas and their breeding.  Most of the travelers have marveled at the quality and variety of the Peruvian cuisine which is rated as one of the most exquisite cuisines in the world.  And of course, I have to add that many were keen on buying everything in sight, including yarn, blankets, sweaters, and the myriad of fascinating crafts Peruvians are so good at creating.

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

I have given a partial answer to this question before.  From 2006 to 2009 I could live on what I was making selling yarn, patterns and finished garments, as well as teaching classes and designing for some knitting magazines.  But things started to go south for me after that.  I do not know if this was just happening to me, or it was a reflection of the whole industry.  It could also be that I lost my “touch” as a business woman and I made the wrong decisions at the wrong times.  I don’t know.  I am only hoping that in the not too far future I will be able to support myself exclusively on my designs and my knitting.

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

With everything else, you need to have something different to offer in an otherwise crowded environment and you need to stand out from the crowd.  Maybe it could be just fabulous designs, or it could be a proven and sound teaching technique.  Or even you may find a new niche within the industry that no one has explored before like the kids from Ravelry.  They came in at the right time with something that many people were willing and happy to embrace and they created a revolution within a stale industry.  But like everything else, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and a commitment to your dream.