Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration is a funny thing for me, it tends to wander. Right now, I'm loving the period wardrobe in Bletchley Circle, a post WW2 mystery TV series. I don't know who designed the wardrobe, but the number of hand knits on the show is astounding. I think there's an old-fashioned part of me that likes sweaters to be a little vintage. The Arbois cardigan, for example, was partly inspired by an illustration by E H Shepard. There's something distinctly Christopher-Robinish about the collar.
And I love browsing the web for the latest couture; the fashion industry is fascinating to me. The pressure that fashion designers are under to produce hundreds of fresh designs every season is baffling. I love anything layered, tailored, vintage, or simplified.
Sometimes, I look for inspiration in geometric patterns; I like the idea of using a single visual element as simply as possible and turning it into a piece.
How did you determine your size range?
Knitting patterns tend to have a wide range, from, say, a 30 to a 60 inch bust. I have mixed feeling about this range. I like the idea of all-inclusive patterns, but I'm not sure it's always appropriate. Growing up, I sewed much more than I knit. With sewing, you learn to tailor to fit yourself. Commercial sewing patterns are designed to be altered, with instructions and markings ("lengthen or shorten here", "place darts here", etc) and the experienced seamstress (or seamster, if that's the masculine version of the word) is always perfecting their fit. On the other hand, we tend to treat knitting patterns more literally. There's so much to think about—gauge, stitch counts, dimensions, yarn—that it's easy to get to the end of a sweater after following it to the letter but without having tried it on, only to discover that it doesn't fit! Or maybe it fits, but doesn't flatter.
I size my sweater patterns following the American publishing convention, to fit about a 32 to 54 bust. But I think anyone knitting a sweater should customize their patterns to flatter your shape. Measure something you own that you love. Then use the written pattern as a foundation and work it to fit.
Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I love looking at what other designers are doing! We're all re-interpreting the same basic things: sweaters, scarves, shawls, hats. I enjoy seeing how other designers are coming up with new combinations. And when I have a sketch, I want to make sure that it hasn't already been done. When everyone is using the same ingredients, it's inevitable that coincidental repeats happen, but I avoid it if I can.
How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
Hmm, that's a tricky one.
Compare today's patterns to patterns of 20 (or 30 or 50) years ago. Now, they're written more plainly, with a lot more detail. Explanations are provided for everything but the basics. The technical skill required is often high, with short rows, provisional cast ons, complex lace and cables, steeks… And knitters are producing incredible works. These are no boxy hand knits; these are exquisitely crafted garments. I don't think this would be happening without designers' putting a lot of work into instruction and pattern support (whether through blogs, or KALs, or discussion groups).
On the other hand, this demand for instruction puts a lot of pressure on the independent designer. A lot more time has to go into the pattern before and after publishing, and testing gets more complex. And most designers are working on tight budgets with small revenues. 20 years ago, if I didn't understand something in a Rowan pattern for example, I didn't have the option to email the designer for help.
Ideally, I would like to see the technical and design aspects separated. Technical instruction could go in blogs, books, workshops. And the design could be left in the pattern. Remember what a revolution the Kaffe Fassett designs were, and how successfully they attracted knitters? That was all about visually exciting design; the technical aspects were very simple.
I try to manage the issue by putting tutorials in my blog. Then I can include a link to the tutorial within the pattern. For example, I have a hat pattern in the works that uses stranded colour knitting. Some of the testers felt that the pattern should include information about colour dominance. But I prefer to make this optional (I don't think colour dominance matters unless you're very particular about the finished product) so I wrote an article about it on my site.
How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I often turn to Ravelry for test knitters, and have worked with many very helpful volunteers. They don't just test the pattern, they get involved with the finer points and usability of the pattern, like a focus group. It's great.
Did you do a formal business plan?
The first year was really about finding out more about the audience. Finding out what people are looking for (or not) and where the potential revenue is. Now that the site is up and running, I have a loose plan and projections for the different parts of the business. The business runs on individual pattern sales, royalties, freelance commissions, ad revenue, and notebook sales. And of course, it's hard to plan for unexpected work, like being asked to write the Idiot's Guide! That was a real bonus for me!
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
And I've been a web developer/designer for about 15 years, so am very aware of changes that have happened in the last decade. The idea of selling virtual, digital goods, wouldn't be possible without the Internet. My mom ran a small home business pre-internet, so I grew up with cottage industry. The "cottage" in small crafts business probably doesn't exist so much anymore, but a lot of other aspects are the same. And the Internet allows the crafts person to reach a much bigger market than they could through crafts fairs or traditional retail.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
(I still augment my knitting design business with graphic design, you can see some of my work here: www.megangoodacre.com)
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Career in knitting? I won't sugarcoat it: there is little career to be made from making things by hand, especially with something as time-consuming as knitting. It's a cold truth that is better to face before starting. There are exceptions of course, and there is some livelihood to be made, but it's getting harder.
Career in design? That's where the potential is. But if you're doing this for a living, or a partial living, be prepared to be business-minded. Creativity and craft are only part of the picture.
Face the hard truths before, not after. It's such a drag, I know, but ask yourself, how much do I want to get paid an hour. Ask yourself, do I want (someday) to do this for a living? Then, take those numbers, and do the math. How many patterns would you have to sell every month to meet your goals? How many designs would you have to sell to magazines every year?
Then, if you've done the math and girded your loins, figure out what your niche will be. Or as I like to say, figure out what your racket is. And then investigate. You might think your niche will be classic knits for men. But you'll find that there's not a big enough market there. Or, you might want to write nothing but cardigan patterns. There's a big market there, but lots of competition.
Once you've figured out what you want to do, start building your aesthetic and your personal brand. It's helpful to sit and write a 100 word description of the designer you are (or want to be). It helps you to focus on what you're all about.
And finally, don't go it alone if you don't have to! Reach out to other people in the industry for advice, yarn support, and freelance work! I couldn't have done the Idiot's Guide without Knit Picks; they generously provided all the yarn for the book.