Friday, March 13, 2015

An Interview with...Eileen Casey

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 Eileen here and here on Ravelry. 

Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere, really.  I’m especially prone to seeing a snippet of something interesting on a passer-by, or rewinding films to get a second look at some knitwear, lace patterning, the cut of a sweater, or a colour scheme.  My Devenish sweater (photo below) was influenced by the stone carvings on Devenish Island in Northern Ireland, while my Loie beaded sweater (photo below) was inspired from scroll-work seen on a wrought iron gate.  What stops me in my tracks and sparks an idea is very random, really.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
It has to be cabling – I am from Ireland, after all!  I cut my knitting teeth on traditional Arans, and they are my first love.

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I do make a concerted effort not to look at the work of other designers.  Although I now have a body of work that I feel shows enough individuality and creativity to defend myself if a question were to arise – a lot of sweaters, cardigans, shawls, etc. have similarities in shaping and stitch pattern.  I just don’t want to leave myself open to scrutiny or criticism. 
The down side of that is that you lose the spark of creativity that comes with community, and bouncing ideas around.  We’re not philosophers or poets sitting around in cafés sharing ideas and encouraging each other to new heights. 
Still, knitting and design are fairly solitary pursuits, and I think that is just the nature of the beast.  I do get some good ideas and feedback from my local knitting group, in which there is another published designer, and well-known hand-dyer, but there is camaraderie not competition.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters?
Considering my answer above, if you had asked me this question a few weeks ago, then I wouldn’t have been sure what you were talking about.  HOWEVER, one of my patterns was No. 4 in the Top 20 best seller on Craftsy last week, and upon seeing that I just had to go and look and saw the other 19…
Yes, there did appear to be some very basic hats, cowls and mitts there.  And none of them were offered for free *gasp*.
My take on it is this: they were in the Top 20 best seller list too.  Someone is buying these patterns, because someone needs these patterns.  Having an impressive set of knitting techniques in your repertoire doesn’t happen overnight.  There is a market for beginner patterns, for patterns that help you to hone your craft, and get comfortable with a m1 or k2tog.  These patterns took time to write, format, test, photograph, and publish.  Work is work – sometimes you have an easy day at the office and sometimes you are swamped, and I suppose this is the knitwear design version of an easy day at the office.  Perhaps the controversy should be about why, for so long, it was expected that beginner patterns should be offered for free.  Good, clear, well-written beginner patterns are crucial to keeping beginner knitters excited about, and interested in, knitting.
Also, there is the question of perception.  When we were aged 13 in high school, we were offered the chance to branch out and choose subjects to study that were off the main curriculum.  I chose Ancient Greek.  Yes, I was odd.  I was the only one in my class – other kids choosing more useful subjects like German and Japanese. 
I remember my first day, just me alone with the teacher, and how bizarre and incomprehensible those letters looked on the page.  I thought I would never be able to understand these strange symbols.  After a while, though, I learned the Greek alphabet and the sentence construction.  After a few months I went back to that first passage from that first day that had meant nothing to me, and I could read it.  More than that, I could not un-read it.  It would never again be gibberish to me.  I stuck with Greek – even as far as studying Classics at university.  And I’ve stuck with knitting – 33 years and counting. 
So it occurs to me that I am no longer a good judge of the merits of basic knitting patterns any more – I can’t un-read them.  I can look at a simple hat or scarf and replicate it.  But new knitters can’t.  New knitters want to be led by the hand step by step through this frustrating, fumbling process called knitting.  And if it’s worth $4.00, or $5.00, or $6.00 to them to be walked through it, what does it really have to do with what I think? 

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
It differs from pattern to pattern.  The more sizes that a design is offered in, the more sample knitters I’ll look to have.  For a sweater that has, say, 12 sizes, I usually end up with about 4-6 sample knitters – definitely not one for every size (which would be the ideal).  But I aim for a good sampling of the middle ground, which are the sizes that most knitters make.  I just have to trust the maths and Excel for the patterns that have not been sample knit previously – luckily I haven’t had anyone come forward with calculation errors.
I always have the first sample done myself in advance, though, before offering it out to sample knitters.  It’s not so much about being a control freak, as being worried I’ll look like an idiot with a design that looks fine on paper but ridiculous in real life.

Did you do a formal business plan?
No, I have a business dream, which is a different thing (LOL).  I like statistics, though – so I know which of my patterns sell well, and what time of year they sell – and I try to anticipate trends and extrapolate new design ideas going forward.  Doesn’t work too well for me though, I have to admit. 
I have a yearly outline, with the number of patterns I want to design and ideas of what they should be – and I do a more detailed quarterly plan, with specific goals and progressions for individual patterns, as well as things like website updates and sending newsletters out to people on the mailing list.
I do at least one extra thing each year from the year before to try to keep building momentum.  My business does a little better every year, and that’s good enough for me at this point.  My long term goal is to be able to make a living wage on designing alone.

Do you have a mentor?
My Mum!  And secondarily, my Granny.  Literally, I owe it all to them.  My Granny would just make up designs on the fly, for order, and sell them (for nowhere near enough).  I don’t really remember her knitting by hand (the canny lady went to machine knitting so she could crank stuff out faster), but my Mum said it was amazing.  She sold her knitting too – I have lots of memories of brushed mohair bat-wing sweaters leaving our house in the 80s.
My Mum taught me to knit when I was 5.  It was probably the greatest gift I was ever given – I can’t even conceive of the last 33 years without knitting in them.  I was helping to teach knitting classes in my elementary school (note, boys and girls all learned to knit) at age 7, and by age 8 was designing and making Barbie sweaters and selling them to my friends for 20p (30c).  She supplied my needles, yarn, and patterns. 
I can never begin to thank her for the gift and the legacy she gave me.  Now, she comes to me to learn new techniques or be shown new constructions.  But it all started with her – and she doesn’t think she’s a designer, but she is.  Love you, Mum!

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
Not exactly – BUT (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) I think Ysolda Teague has been instrumental in the way that a lot of us sell our patterns.  I think that before self-publishing was seen as a little bit sad and desperate – but now, it really is the most lucrative way to sell my patterns, and the best way for me to maintain control over them.  I think modern day designers owe her, and her contemporaries, a huge debt of gratitude. 

How are you using social media to grow your business?
I really should do better!  I have a FB page for my business, but it is sadly neglected.  I find myself posting about my knitting stuff on my personal FB page more, really.  It is perhaps a little messy, but I think that these days consumers like to “know” the person that they are buying from.  I am not this huge, removed, corporation – it’s just me.  People know it’s just me, and they appreciate the personal touch.
I have a twitter account – but I really don’t tweet a lot.  I’m not good at being succinct (see the length of some of these responses) and I don’t want to come across as always selling something.  Really, my own website and Ravelry are where the bulk of my sales come from.

Do you use a tech editor?
It depends.  I am a little anal and I like to have control over as pattern for as long as possible before going public.  For the most part the spreadsheet method I use for pattern writing has been very successful, and there are usually no errors that come to light.  I do use a tech editor when I can, though – cost permitting.  And in a perfect world I would use one every time –  it is always very useful to have a second set of eyes looking over things.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
I don’t know that I do.  At one point I was working as a knitwear designer for an outside agency and it was easily 60 hours a week.  For very little money.  With 2 toddlers in tow…
More recently, I was working 50 hours a week for an outside agency with nothing to do with knitting.  It left me with no time left to spend with my family and maintain the basics of household standards, never mind design work.  I didn’t lift a needle for about 6 months.
Now, I try to limit my design work (grading/writing/editing) to when my kids are in school and husband is at work, and just do the actual knitting in the evenings when we are all together.  Trying to keep the household running like a well-oiled machine often falls by the wayside when I am in full-on design mode or when there is a deadline looming – luckily my family is pretty low maintenance.

How do you deal with criticism?
I try to be stoical about it, but I’m very thin skinned.  I remember cutting different patterns to ribbons myself that I used to see in magazines – I guess we all do it to an extent.  I didn’t realise then that you are undermining an actual person, who might be very hurt if they ever heard what you had to say.
Saying that, I look at it as a positive when people change and amend my patterns to suit themselves, which is really how I started as a designer.  Yes, there can be the “the double rib was awkward and unnecessary so I improved it by doing x, y and z” comments, but I try to look at it from the perspective that they are not trying to be hurtful, but are offering information pertinent to them. 

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Ugh – this is a dispiriting question, as I think it must be for many designers.  The truth is that I might just about be self-supporting if I was alone – but I’m talking about poverty standards, living with parents, no car, etc.  My design career depends upon on my husband’s regular, counted-upon income.  As well as designing, I teach in my local Jo-Ann Fabrics and am looking for other teaching gigs and part time work.  Yes, we have expenses that are wants rather than needs – new cars, owning a home, private school – but I couldn’t afford any of that on what I make as a designer.  It is not a glittering career – knitwear designers do not make what fashion designers make (despite working harder, in my humble opinion), and it is a labour of love rather than the fast track to riches and success.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
It isn’t easy, you have to love it, and you are not going to make a lot of money overnight (if ever).  It can be tedious and time-consuming, and you had better be comfortable spending a lot of time alone, holed up with a spreadsheet or calculator.  Take classes, learn as much as you can, and read books – the more techniques you can master, the better.

What’s next for you?
I am very excited to be able to devote myself to knitwear designing again full time.  I have a lot of new designs in the mix, as well as a book idea that I think may bear fruit.  I still have to explore whether a publishing house or self-publishing will be the better option for this – but either way there will be a lot of new designs coming from me in 2015!

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